Master of None didn’t invent auteur comedy but has perfected the form.
Larry David is the father of auteur TV comedy, bringing a then-new and uningratiating kind of naturalism to the small screen with HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm. Louis C.K. is its prodigal son, lifting the form to darker, more cringe-worthy heights with his canonical series Louie. Both series, the products of autobiographical comics, planted the seeds from which a post-aughts succession of millennial TV auteurs bloomed: Lena Dunham became the genre’s defiant lightning rod and Donald Glover its multi-talented savant. Of course, none of this would have been possible without Garry Shandling’s seminal The Larry Sanders Show or Woody Allen’s self-examining comedies of the 1970s and 80s. But nobody can deny that auteurist comedy is having a moment.
Now, Aziz Ansari has perhaps leaped them all with the impeccable second season of Netflix series Master of None, which debuted Friday, May 12th.
Master of None’s excellent second season starts in the small Italian town where Dev, an aspiring actor played by Ansari, has taken respite from Manhattan to enroll in pasta-making classes. The episode’s shot entirely in black and white, Ansari in a paperboy hat and chest-baring polo, a stylistic callback to Vittorio de Sica’s neorealist film The Bicycle Thief, which appears on Dev’s bedside table amongst a stack of Italian films. Dev’s post-breakup sojourn quickly devolves into a desultory bike chase to recover his stolen phone, which contains a photograph of his kid companion with an Italian soccer star. Oh, and the phone number of a girl Dev likes. Of course, Dev hasn’t saved the photo in the cloud; his international phone plan is too costly.
From the lush, tortellini-twisting visuals of the premiere to episode three’s affecting exploration of religious customs (in which Ansari’s parents return to play themselves), the show’s comedy remains more incidental than the machine gun patter of 30 Rock. The show also steers clear of the biting cynicism that made Louie the genre’s resident existentialist. Instead, Ansari mines the complexities of modern romance, sexuality and Islam. All this while Dev, his optimism and charm intact, eats his way through Manhattan and Modena.
Of course, we should note that there’s still comedy aplenty. But the laughs are sourced from a different place than a traditional three-camera sitcom’s, as Ansari frequently revisits the theme of humiliation that preoccupied so many of his comic forebears. One of my favorite moments of season one finds Dev disturbing the peace in a coffee shop as he auditions for a movie role via Skype, one that requires him, for a part in the disaster movie The Sickening, to react to the spread of a foreign contagion. The gag is Ansari at his goofiest–Dev shouts and gesticulates in full view of fellow patrons–creating comedy out of his protagonist’s boundless, directionless drive. Rather than twisting the knife of failure, Master of None allows its main character to grow, although not in the way he thinks he will. Dev is stuck hosting a competitive cupcake baking show, a gig that’s dissatisfying precisely because he has no idea what it is he really wants.
What sets ‘Master of None’ apart is the way that it borrows its episodic structure from technology.
Other auteur comedies, too, have used their character’s ambition as a rich source of cringe humor. Louie, for one, works out bits in comedy clubs but can be seen berating chatty audience members at the Comedy Cellar. Hannah Horvath tries to write her book while battling the effects of OCD, all before her agent’s death. The entire fourth season of Curb leads up to Larry’s appearance on stage as Max Bialystock in The Producers, only to see him forget his lines on opening night. And 30 Rock’s Liz Lemon spends the show’s seven seasons balancing work and life in her attempt to “have it all,” makes a habit of self-immolation.
For the auteur, having it all—creative possession of themselves, their shows, and their television alter egos—has lead to the projection of their characters onto themselves. You can see echoes of this in the standup-centric sitcoms of the 1980s and 90s. Notable examples include Seinfeld and Roseanne. But none of those shows were as focused on pushing an overall narrative as are the modern incarnations. The best example of this a creative pickle is Woody Allen’s early work, blending comedy and serious filmmaking.
“I thought maybe I should have another actor play the role,” he told the New York Times in 1986 of his decision to cast himself in Stardust Memories, “but I really didn’t care how it was perceived. I wanted to do what I wanted to do.”
Writers like Louis, David, Dunham, Glover, and Ansari wield unprecedented control over their shows thanks to networks and streaming services like HBO, FX, Amazon, and Netflix. In a genre formerly defined by focus on the lowest common denominator, these impulses practically dare us to blur the lines between them and their characters. Ansari’s decision to cast his own parents in the first season brilliant second episode (co-written by Alan Yang) spoke less to a desire for strict autobiography than for an accurate portrayal of the lives of immigrants and people of color. The episode sees second-generationers Dev and Brian learn about their parents’ immigrant journeys for a richly observed half hour of a topic infrequently mined within the confines of network television. (Fresh off the Boat and Blackish being recent counter-examples.)
Master of None, Glover’s Atlanta and Dunham’s Girls (and to an extent other semi-autobiographical works like Broad City, Fleabag, Insecure, One Mississippi, The Carmichael Show, and Better Things) don’t play just for your laughs, or even work that hard for them. Rather, they operate in that Allen-esque terrain between comedy and seriousness. Laughs come out in whimpers, not bangs. These comedies are subtle and atmospheric, personality-driven and off-kilter; to sitcom audiences a half-century ago, it might not be understood as comedy at all. But comedies they are, at least by Awards season metrics, and deservedly so. In Atlanta’s first season, some of the best laughs come from the stoner interplay between Earn and Darius; they discuss, among other things, whether or not “AIDS was invented to keep Wilt Chamberlain from beating Steve McQueen’s sex record,” or how society might function with rats for phones. Master of None, too, finds humor in the bizarre hypotheticals exchanged between Dev and his friends, who wonder about the possibilities for a phone app that tells you what cuisine you’re in the mood for and spitball endlessly about the travails of dating in the Tinderverse. Millennials would recognize this badinage from their own day-to-day, having grown up in a world in which the absurd possibilities of technology and its effect on modern romance yield endless opportunities for satire.
Rather than mining the patriarch’s inability to maintain the status quo, 'Master of None’ finds humor in Dev’s boundless and directionless drive.
These conversations aren’t unique to the auteur model of comedy; great comedians have always mined modernity for humor. What sets Master of None apart is the way that it borrows its episodic structure from technology. In the fourth episode of Master’s new season, Ansari provides a perfect example. “First Date,” opens at a funeral before panning to a woman saying “fuck it, why not?” as she peruses a dating app and swipes right on Dev’s profile.
This episode, a succession of first dates, displays Ansari’s greatest gift, which remains his commitment to the form of a single episode, a finite unit that’s lost ground to the increasingly serialized construction of contemporary TV drama. In Master, individual episodes work almost like short films, the “dramatis personae” in each appearing in the show’s opening credits. The decision to frame each installment as a sort of teleplay encourages us to seek meaning outside continuity. In that way, the show echoes the way in which a single episode of Louie could feature three disparate five-minute scenes or one protracted encounter with his Hungarian neighbors. The best episodes of Atlanta and Girls, too, have been risky departures from television orthodoxy. The former’s seventh episode, in which Glover shows an uninterrupted broadcast of the fictional Black American Network’s Charlie Rose-like talk show Montague, was a ballsy parody of P.C. culture, while Girls’ many bottle episodes, which follow a character or two exclusively, have been its most successful flights of filmmaking fancy. Like those shows Master fits its one-off experimentations neatly into the show’s larger thematic and narrative tapestry.
Still, any conversation about 21st century auteur comedy invariably circles back to Larry David, who inhabited his television alter ego so seamlessly that his attempt in the show’s Seinfeld reunion episode to play George Costanza, a character written by and based on Larry David himself, plays like phony caricature. To recap, Larry casts his ex-wife Cheryl in the reunion special to win her back, only to set off inadvertent sparks between she and Jason Alexander. Unnerved by their camaraderie, he rewrites the entire reunion to make sure Cheryl and Jason have less screen time together. Naturally, Jason quits, storming off set in a Costanzan rage. “You’re intimidating him,” Cheryl tells Larry, explaining that Jason’s sensitive and neurotic. “That’s George!” Larry fumes. “That’s not Jason, that’s me! I wrote that stuff! You’re not attracted to him, you’re attracted to me!”
Larry’s George is unnatural and exaggerated, everything Larry David as himself is not. And while he feels territorial over the character he created, Larry knows its Alexander who embodies the real George Costanza. It’s a sly commentary on the auteur’s quest for control and discomfort in relinquishing it, but it reinforces what makes autobiographical comedy the caustic meta-spectacle that it is, from its earliest practitioners, David, Jerry Seinfeld, and Garry Shandling, to its contemporary ones, Dunham, Glover, and Ansari. These auteurs are jacks-of-all-trades, but they’re masters of one.
For Ansari, that’s being himself.