“Relaxing” is not something I do particularly well, which is one of a few reasons “Netflix and chill,” the modern hook-up code, is not for me. The bigger problem is that I’m a married man with a young daughter, so it’s hard to find time for Netflix or chilling, and I often fail at whichever option I choose. Not so with the first few episodes of “Master of None,” Aziz Ansari’s new Netflix series, which I like, largely because he’s fictionalized his own life in a way that’s pretty cool.
The show is about a very Ansari-like character in an identifiable, living New York, doing things that the real Ansari would have been doing five years ago or even five years from now, in another, less successful lifetime. The show looks like truth but it’s fiction, but it’s seamless and beautiful fiction. (I don’t mean this just figuratively — it looks wonderful, with the East Village and Lower East Sides appearing to exist in perpetual, hopeful, colorful dusk.)
I watched Ansari be interviewed by fellow comedian Paul F. Tompkins a few years ago, and what Ansari said about his creative process has stuck in my brain ever since. Tompkins asked Ansari if he recorded his shows and listened back to them, to which Ansari said yes, he did, to which Tompkins replied that he didn’t. What I remember about the interview is how Ansari knows why Tompkins doesn’t want to listen to his own set — he hates listening to himself, as many journalist do, too, respect — but Ansari clearly doesn’t feel the same way: his instincts for the process, and his self-confidence, don’t allow for it. (He doesn’t say as much, and it doesn’t come across as dickish, but it comes across.) Here’s that clip, which runs about aminute:
I think of that bit every time I hear Ansari doing standup, and I always end up, strangely, with the sense that he’s lying about something: that what he’s saying isn’t a true story, and that I’m laughing (and I often am) at fiction. A lot of this is his comedy, which involves a lot of sex jokes I don’t find plausible, only to crack up just the same, and I feel duped… until I realize that this is the way it’s always been, and that a slick sausage salesman is still just a sausage salesman. Not that I think this is Ansari’s true calling. In that same interview, he says he prefers standup to acting, but I think his work on “Parks and Recreation” and now “Masters of None,” have exposed his unique skill as an actor and writer.
“Masters” has been compared to “Louie,” not unreasonably, for its pacing, setting and, well, everything else, but the dynamic of the show definitely crosses a generational and cultural line that’s becoming easier and easier to delineate. “Louie” thrives on the collected experiences of Louis C.K., which occur in the darkness, and succeeds despite an occasionally sordid personal life that might not square with the openness demanded or at least requested of our new stars. If he’s made it work, it’s through complete control over the final product an an uncommon willingness and ability to plumb his depths for tragedies he can gild into comedy bits. He’s put in the time, after all.
Ansari’s show is lighter, with tragedy (like establishment anti-Indian racism in casting calls) playing more like a death by a thousand cuts than a knife-blow to the gut, which is more or less the story of every episode of “Louie.” It’s a more connected show, though, with the impact of small, perpetual tragedies playing themselves horizontally among several characters instead of corkscrewing away at the protagonist as we gawk: it’s tragic plus ‘Real Time.’ Ansari’s gift is that he doesn’t let the shit get to him, and if “Masters” too light to be called a masterpiece, it presents something new for the formerly tortured artist unwilling to subject herself to “Louie’s” unbearable self-destructive process, but wants to build her work just the same: a master key.