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Bill Brownstein: Aziz Ansari's hue and cry

Bill Brownstein: Aziz Ansari's hue and cry

Montreal regular plays the hapless neurotic card for his standup routines, but colours it with racism in his new Netflix series Master of None

In this image released by Netflix, Aziz Ansari appears in a scene from the Netflix original series "Master of None." The comedy series premieres on Friday. (K.C. Bailey/Netflix via AP)

In the third episode of his hysterical new Netflix sitcom series, Master of None, Aziz Ansari finds that he has at least one thing in common with his date: Montreal. He concedes that this city is a favourite travel destination. She, in turn, rhapsodizes about our restos and brings up that wonderful cliché about how Montreal “feels just like Europe.”

Alas, a shared love for Montreal can’t save this relationship from going quickly down the dumper. But the shout-out to our city is not accidental. The city has served as a springboard to his career.

Ansari is a frequent visitor: He has made numerous official visits to the Just for Laughs fest, and numerous unofficial visits, popping up to test new material at clubs before taking it out on the road. And he does relish our eateries — notably Joe Beef.

Montreal is the city where Ansari’s act really caught fire. When he first showed up at Just for Laughs more than six years ago, only those who had caught him on MTV’s Human Giant were aware of his comedy smarts — although he was starting to make a bit of a name for himself as a support player on the NBC sitcom Parks and Recreation.

Ansari blew audiences away at his one-man show at Théâtre Ste. Catherine in the summer of 2009, and it quickly became apparent that a standup star was born. He returned to Just for Laughs the next three years, playing to increasingly larger and always sold-out houses — from the 100-seater Ste. Catherine to the 2,300-seater Metropolis.

Then came three solo comedy specials on Netflix, and Ansari’s name was being included in the same hallowed sphere as such superstars as Louis C.K., Kevin Hart and Amy Schumer — all of whom, not so coincidentally, began spewing at the city laff-fest before they became household names.

Like the aforementioned, Ansari, 32, is an over-achiever. Not content to bring his solo act to clubs and theatres across the land, he somehow found the time to create, with writing partner Alan Yang, the 10-part series Master of None — which surfaced on Netflix last Friday. And it is the funniest sitcom this cynic has seen since … mmm … Louis C.K.’s Louie.

Ansari mines the foibles of his quirky yet insecure life in New York City. Think of his character Dev as a postmodern almost-as-neurotic Woody Allen. But unlike Allen — or Louis C.K. who mines his own neuroses on Louie — Ansari carries some extra baggage: racism.

It’s an issue Ansari explored in his recently released book Modern Romance.

Ansari was born in Columbia, S.C., the son of first-generation immigrants from India. In his standup routine, Ansari’s act has very little to do with the immigrant experience and resulting culture shock. He sees life through his own unique and twisted American lens, focusing on everything from sheet thread-counts to Facebook brawls. But in Master of None, Ansari’s Dev can’t avoid the race card.

Dev is a struggling actor who never intended on becoming a thespian. While strolling aimlessly through New York City, he had been approached by a scout on the lookout for an ethnic character to take a role in a TV commercial. This led to other TV spots and a bit part in a B-zombie flick, wherein Dev plays Dr. Vincent, a hapless scientist trying to thwart a virus that has destroyed Kentucky.

Despite the roles he accepts, Dev has standards. He refuses to play parts that require him to put on a fake Indian accent. He understands why TV programmers are so intent on perpetuating stereotypes — like the animated convenience-store-owner Apu on The Simpsons — but he really wishes he could play an architect with his genuine American accent. He bristles at the fact that when there is a major Indian role, producers tend to “brown up” white guys — be it in Gandhi or The Social Network.

In one episode, in which he and another Indian-American actor are up for the same role, Dev intercepts a note sent from one producer to another about the situation. The writer of the note jokes how the two actors wish to “curry our favour.”

Dev seeks to exploit the situation, and make it public in order to embarrass the producers. But he could also use some of what his agent calls “Friends money.” Which is to say that his moral indignation can occasionally be offset for a price.

In another episode, Dev and his Chinese-American buddy (Kelvin Yu) try to show empathy for their immigrant parents, who made sacrifices to bring their families to America. Still, the parents take a back seat to their search for merriment. Besides, the guys concur that nothing they can do will make their emotionally detached fathers proud: “If I went to the moon, they would ask when I was going to Mars.”

Make no mistake: the angst-riddled Dev is set on survival at all costs. And therein lies the frankness of this series. And the hilarity.

It’s not just on the job and parental fronts where he has issues. Dev is also a befuddled and selfish bachelor. Part of him says yes to settling down and having kids, but part of him says he doesn’t want to be burdened with offspring, in case he want to go out for “some late-night pasta.”

Occasionally, Dev gets lucky. More often, he gets into trouble. Like when he is propositioned by a major food critic (hello Claire Danes!), only to discover that she is unhappily married to some hunk. Caught in the act by her massive husband, Dev escapes, without his pants and within a whisker of being obliterated.

Fear not, however, Dev/Ansari will live to not fight another day. It’s his show. He may even get to play an architect, but don’t bet on it. Suffering — on a small scale — suits him well.

Can barely wait for a second season — which is sure to come.

AT A GLANCE

Master of None, a 10-part sitcom series starring Aziz Ansari, is available on Netflix.

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