Warning: This article contains spoilers from Season 2 of Master of None.
Write what you know.
It’s a common piece of advice in English-professor, author, and scriptwriter circles, and after binge-watching the brilliant second season of Master of None and doing a little digging, we can see that it is clearly a nugget of wisdom that creators Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang heed often. From hiring Ansari’s mom and dad to play his screen parents and crafting storylines around growing up Muslim or learning how to make pasta in Italy, where Ansari lived for months, to shooting in restaurants you can book on OpenTable and parodying actual TV shows, Master of None is clearly (albeit loosely) steeped in truth and personal experience.
Here are all the times when real life — be it that of Ansari, Yang, Eric “Arnold” Wareheim, or one of the other writers or actors from the Netflix series — was mined for material for Season 2.
La Dolce Vita
FICTION: Season 1 ended with Dev on a plane headed to Italy to go to pasta-making school. The first couple of episodes of the second round take place in the boot, where our main man is working as an apprentice pasta maker, eating his weight in carbs and cheese, and beginning to fall for a spoken-for local named Francesca.
FACT: Knowing he would need a big break after spending a year making Season 1, Ansari came up with the Italy plot because he had always wanted to live in the foodie paradise. He spent a couple of months living in the same quaint town of Modena while he learned how to make (and eat) pasta in many of the same restaurants featured, including Boutique del Tortellino and Hosteria Giusti, but claims there was no crushing on an already-coupled cutie. To prepare for the move, he spent three hours a day for two weeks on Italian lessons. Like his character, he learned the language with mixed results, according to Alessandra Mastronardi, who plays the love interest. “He sounds like a Russian baby when he speaks Italian,” she told Vanity Fair.
La Dolce Vita, Part II
FICTION: In “The Thief” (which is shot in black-and-white and mostly in Italian), Dev’s phone is stolen right after he gets the number of a pretty girl with a British accent on his birthday. He and his kid sidekick wander the town trying to track down the thief and the mobile, to no avail. His friends make him a tart with his name written in the crust to celebrate.
FACT: Ansari’s extracurricular activities included photographing the city in black-and-white and bingeing on Italian cinema classics from Michelangelo Antonioni and Vittorio De Sica as a crash course in film school. The premiere, which was one of five episodes that Ansari helmed, was inspired by Bicycle Thieves. He told Vulture, “We knew it was going to be an homage to these De Sica movies. I’d shot some film photos of Modena, and the rolls that were black-and-white looked really cool. Even on my phone when I adjusted to black-and-white, it looked like the city would photograph well, so me and Alan talked to our DP [director of photography] and decided to do it. Netflix was into it.”
As for the subtitles, allora, er, well, that too was based on personal experience and the limitations of a child actor. “That kid could only speak Italian! It would seem fake to me, living there, to have all those people know perfect English,” he told Vulture. “All the restaurants I worked at, none of those people speak English. So I was speaking a lot of Italian while I was there and writing to the real experience I had.”
De Sica used a lot of nonactors in his movies, and casting took its cue from him. The woman who makes fun of Dev’s poor Italian really works at Giusti and teased Ansari about the same thing. The thief’s mother was his landlord. The guy who kisses the phone lived in his building and is the former mayor of Modena.
Oh, and the birthday pie? Also the real deal, as evidenced by the following Instagram post:
La Dolce Vita, Part III
FICTION: Arnold pops across the pond for a visit and an ex’s wedding. Big Bud and Lil Bud talk at great length about dating apps and all the ladies he is seeing and sending “Hi Cutie” texts and GIFs to. The vertically diverse duo also scored a hard-to-get reservation at Osteria Francescana, which had been named the world’s best restaurant.
FACT: Eric Wareheim, who plays Arnold, is a supervising producer on Master of None and has been friends with Ansari for around six years and toured Sicily with his pocket-sized pal the summer before they started shooting the comedy in 2016. “We would talk about girls and life, and a lot of that seeped into the show,” he told EW.
The Osteria had in fact earned that prestigious title earlier that year, and Ansari picked up a few tips and tricks from friends who work there.
Ansari also admitted to Jimmy Fallon during a Tonight Show appearance in May that they did have car trouble during that trip. The scene where they watch a truck barrel through a small alley and then decide that their sedan can make it, only to get wedged between the walls, 100 percent happened to them. Photographic evidence of this can be found on Ansari’s Instagram, as can pics from their more recent jaunt to Spain, where they preferred to motor around on scooters similar to the ones used in the episode.
FICTION: Just days before heading to his ex-girlfriend’s very picturesque wedding, Arnold starts to regret their breakup and his RSVP. After having ended it by saying he wasn’t her type physically, he arrives to meet a groom who is a carbon copy of, albeit shorter than, Big Cap. He almost ruins her big day by professing his undead love and asking her to run away with him and by throwing shade at his littler lookalike.
FACT: Whether Wareheim ever tried to rekindle a relationship with a former lover at her union is unknown, but Ansari spilled the beans at a ShortList TV Club event in London that the doppelganger detail was cribbed from Wareheim’s past. “He told me about this relationship that was pretty similar to the one we talk about in the episode, where it was a long relationship, he thought he was going to get married, and then they broke up and the woman said a similar thing about, like, him not being as physically attractive to [her], and [ended] up marrying a guy who looked similar to him.” When Mastronardi taunted him about adopting that painful detail, Ansari joked: “I put my own s**t in there too!”
FICTION: Dev’s parents are back to get the iPad “fixed,” feud over his lack of faith and his inability to live by the letter of Islamic tenets, and show off a bizarre collection at his doctor’s office.
FACT: Ramesh is played by Ansari’s bio dad, Shoukath, and Nisha is brought to life by the woman who gave him life, Fatima Ansari. Before acting, his father worked as a gastroenterologist and his mother worked in a medical office. Ansari did not grow up in New York, though. The man who would become Tom Haverford was raised in South Carolina. He did not go to Manhattan until it was time to major in marketing at NYU, which also happens to be Dev’s alma mater.
The nepotism does not end there. His younger brother, Aniz, is on the writing staff, and Season 2 introduces his cousin Navid, who is played by his actual cousin Harris Gani. Gani comes up in Ansari’s standup routines regularly. Ansari told EW, “We’re making this thing I’m really proud of, and I’m getting to do it with the immediate members of my family. It’s a really special thing.”
The Other White Meat
FICTION: During meals with his relatives, Dev pretends to be way more devout than he really is to please his parents, which means he has to forgo the pork special. But everyone knows that Dev digs on swine. (See the “Nashville” episode from Season 1 and basically any installments where he discusses tacos.) There is also a flashback to a childhood sleepover at a white household where he discovers how delicious bacon is. At a lunch free from parents, he admits to his cousin that he isn’t as perfect as his parents believe and tempts him with a bite of his Cubano. His cousin persuades him to skip the mosque and attend a barbecue festival at Smorgasburg in Williamsburg. At another dinner, emboldened by Denise’s living out loud and proud as a lesbian with her family, he orders the pork, and his mom is mad at him for weeks.
FACT: Ansari has been hog-wild for the breakfast staple since he was a kid growing up in the bacon belt, and he regularly treats himself to pig parts because, as he told Conan O’Brien, “I eat pork because I’m not religious and it tastes very tasty.” But he usually abstains in front of his parents, as in the show. “If I’m around my parents, I don’t [eat it] because it feels disrespectful.” But when they were in town for more than two weeks to film the first season, Ansari could not resist the craving when his girlfriend ordered a pork noodle dish. “They were visibly upset, but we didn’t talk about it because we are Asian people and we don’t discuss our emotions,” he continued. They accidentally ran into his parents on the street while eating bacon-egg-and-cheeses, and his girlfriend later reported that his parents accused her of peer-pressuring him into eating against his religion. At their last meal together, he seemed to put on his big-boy pants and stood up to his mom. Of course, he took his girlfriend’s bathroom break as an opportunity to blame her, and all was forgiven.
It was important to Ansari to have an episode that discussed religion. “I’ve never seen Islamic humor in the way you’ve seen Jewish humor. There’s so many things that I laugh about with my family that have to do with religion, and I’ve never seen it shown.”
And also, the Smorgasburg food gathering is a weekly event in New York and downtown L.A.
Addicted to Drugstores
FICTION: During a visit to New York, Francesca begs Dev to duck into a Duane Reade, where she waxes poetic about the wonders of American pharmacies, especially chocolate-flavored diarrhea medicine and the enormous selection of toothpaste. She proceeds to do some considerable damage in the store.
FACT: Mastronardi told Vanity Fair that she had relayed the story of her first Duane Reade shopping spree to Ansari, and next thing she knew, it was incorporated into the script. She admitted, “I know this sounds stupid, but that was actually something that happened to me. One day I was talking to Aziz, and I said that the first time that I arrived in New York, I went to Duane Reade and I went crazy. I have never seen something like this before in my life. He was so shocked that he put it in. I feel a little bit embarrassed. Many of the things that happen in the show, they’re real. This is Aziz. He puts all your life into a script.”
FICTION: One of the most heartfelt, standout episodes of the season is “Thanksgiving.” From childhood to this year’s holiday (whoa, the future!), Dev has been a permanent addition to Denise’s family feast. While on break from college, Denise comes out to her mom (Angela Bassett) at a diner and later starts to invite her girlfriends to the gatherings. Things, of course, get awkward.
FACT: Lena Waithe’s role was reduced a bit this year to accommodate her very full professional dance card, but when she met with the writers to bat around ideas for Denise, Yang asked how she had told her family that she was a lesbian. “I was like, ‘Look, I come from a family of women, it was just me and my mom,’” she recalled in an A.V. Club interview. “It was very unique experience. We were in a diner. I was really just being very specific about the experience.”
Before she got back to her hotel room, Ansari had called to ask her to co-write an autobiographically inspired episode. The “Thanksgiving” concept was dreamed up in the writers’ room, but tidbits were lifted straight out of her memory, such as how she once mistook an Indian family as black and her aunt’s and grandma’s thoughts on O.J.’s innocence. “I learned a lot about race through that trial because of the conversations that were happening in my house,” Waithe said. “I can’t tell you how many times I heard my grandmother or my mom or my aunt say, ‘Oh, if he never married that white woman, this wouldn’t be happening.’ And I’m a 12-year-old girl hearing that. Even though we were having fun with it and playing with it, it really does show how, when you’re a kid, those conversations can really have an effect on you and how it helps you view the world.”
They used photos of her childhood wardrobe to dress little Denise and plastered her bedroom walls with posters of celebrities she loved back in the day. Then it came time to reenact the coffee shop confession. “I thought it was hard coming out to my mother. It was actually harder coming out to Angela Bassett. [I’m] being silly. The truth is, it was sort of cathartic and validating to be reenacting a scary moment that every gay person has to go through, to redo it and relive it.”
New York Minutes
FICTION: “New York, I Love You” spends most of its 26 minutes following the interconnected lives of everyday city dwellers like doormen, cabbies, and a deaf corner-market cashier instead of the regular cast members, before everyone winds up in the same theater watching a buzzy/fake Nic Cage vehicle called Death Castle.
FACT: In an interview with Thrillist, Yang, who directed that episode, said the concept had been brewing since before Season 1 and was sparked by a walk down St. Marks Place. Yang explains, “We passed this guy selling sunglasses, and we wondered, ‘Well, what if there’s an episode just about that guy?’ We see enough shows about urban thirtysomethings like us. How about the idea that everyone in the world is the protagonist of their own story? Everyone has romantic problems, career problems, family problems, going-out problems. Everyone has comedy and tragedy in their lives.” To get these stories of the “people we interact with every day [but] take for granted” right, they interviewed several folks who hold those positions in the city and cherry-picked the best bits from their true tales. “It was our priority to make every one of those characters’ stories as funny and interesting and full of conflict as any other Master of None story,” Yang said.
For the part of cab driver Samuel, they hired Enock Ntekereze, a refugee from Rwanda whose family is from Burundi. To curate the soundtrack to his night-shift montage, Yang asked the first-time actor to send songs that he was a fan of. Some of it was from his homeland, and Yang fell for a particular artist and song from Burundi, which made it into the show.
FICTION: Once Dev returns home from Italy, he dives into the world of online dating, and the swiping sessions lead to some fantastically weird and hilarious romantic interludes.
FACT: Tinder, Match.com, Grinder, Bumble, Hinge, Happn, OkCupid, and others are basically part of a single city dweller’s daily routine these days. Yang told Business Insider, “It used to be if you were on the apps, you kind of had to explain why you were on them. And now, it’s so much the norm that you have to explain why you’re not on them, why you’re opting out.”
It made perfect sense that someone Dev’s age would be on them. And everyone who has ever used one or had a friend who used one knows that the first message to a match is key. Again, Ansari and Yang turned to the hive mind to figure out what Dev’s would be. “We took one of our friends out to lunch because we knew he had been dating on apps a lot,” Yang said. “He told us his opening line when he texts [is] ‘I’m going to Whole Foods. Need me to pick you up anything?’ And we were like, man, that’s an amazing first line. It’s funny, but not too funny. It’s interesting, but not trying too hard, kind of playful.” When they could not come up with a funnier alternative, they asked if they could use his. “He was like, ‘Yeah, I retired that line, so you can use it.’”
FICTION: Dev gets a gig hosting Clash of the Cupcakes and at one point gets asked to sign up for seven seasons. This is also where he meets Chef Jeff, his boss and foodie soulmate. Dev eventually pitches him another show based on their hangs, called BFFs (Best Food Friends), and they get the green light to record a few episodes.
FACT: This is clearly a riff on Cupcake Wars, and they even created a website to go with it, clashofthecupcakes.com. Ansari, who is as big a food fan as Dev, hasn’t hosted any dessert-offs, as far as we know, but he did make a YouTube series called “Food Club” with Wareheim and actor/friend Jason Woliner. In it, the three amigos visited restaurants such as an underground L.A. supper club and a banh mi joint while wearing suits and sea-captain hats (hence the MON nicknames is our guess). They’d present special plaques with their photos on them to those that they found worthy. “They’re still hanging at six restaurants in Los Angeles,” Wareheim has said. We’re guessing that neither the fictional nor the online show used the term foodie in its title because, as Ansari told Vogue, he greatly dislikes that word, believing that it sounds too fetish-y.
The fact that Chef Jeff turns out to be a serial harasser of women sadly was inspired by the constant stream of examples in the real world of powerful men taking advantage of their position, including some high-profile chefs. “That was so relevant at the time we were writing, and some of the writers were afraid, ‘Well, will this feel dated?’” Yang recounted in a Vox article. “The sad conclusion we came to is: No, it won’t feel dated, because it’s gonna happen again. It keeps happening.”
Side note: The guest judges from one episode of COTC are the JabbaWockeeZ, who are of course a real hip-hop dance crew who won the first season of America’s Best Dance Crew. As a general rule, they do not take off their masks while performing, and they often appear on reality shows, such as The Bachelorette, So You Think You Can Dance, and America’s Next Top Model.
Master of None is currently streaming on Netflix.
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