As a lot of conversations among comedians start, I was on the train with my friend Mark. I asked him if he’d seen Master of None (MoN) on Netflix yet. He said, “Yeah! I thought it was awful – I couldn’t watch past the first episode.” And of course I was like, “What?! That’s crazy! I think it’s awesome!”
I lied: his real name isn’t Mark. Way to lose the reader’s trust 15 seconds in.
It seems like there should be some consensus on what “good comedy” is, at least that’s what you would think about anything: good is good and bad is bad. But the more I comedy I see and hear, the less that seems to be the case. People have their own very customized view of what “funny” is, and people tend to think that their view is the only correct one.
Sound familiar? Well duh, yeah! People have strong, stupid opinions about everything! But comedy is a special case, I think. It’s one of those things where people are particularly passionate about their perspective. People say “that isn’t funny;” they don’t say “I don’t think that’s funny.” If someone tells you a joke and you don’t laugh, your immediate thought is “this person isn’t funny,” not “I have a bad sense of humor.” Everyone inherently thinks that they have the best sense of humor, and it’s really hard to separate yourself from that. Your natural instinct is to view yourself as the authority on all things funny, when in reality, humor is totally subjective.
In college, before I began refusing to tell my jokes anywhere but on stage, I remember writing one of my stupid jokes in an application to get into a linguistics seminar. It got me into the class, but the professor loved it so much that she forced me to tell it on the first day of class. Here’s the joke:
Sometimes, when I’m driving in my car, I’ll drive pass a field and think, “hay…”
This is a joke that is way funnier aloud; in fact, it pretty much always kills on stage. But, for whatever reason, in that small classroom of nerdy kids, it barely mustered a chuckle. To the class I was pretty much the least funny guy in the entire world. In that awkward silence filled with judge-y stares, I could feel them all thinking, “This guy thinks he’s funny?!” It was hard not to be like “You don’t understand! This isn’t a stage! It’s not the same!” But what use would that be?
After the class, one girl was nice enough to come up to me and tell me that the rest of the students were assholes and it was an awesome joke. Then she was like, “I’m gonna drop this class – it’s stupid,” and I was like, “Me too.” And that’s how I met my wife! Just kidding, but that would have been a fun end to the story.
One day when I have time and friends, I want to shoot a sketch with a character called The Comedy Authority (TCA), a man (or woman) who is the authority on what’s funny or not. Someone will make a joke and then everybody will wait to see what TCA will do. After a dramatic pause, either the TCA will start laughing, and everyone will join in hysterically, because they know TCA knows what’s really funny. Or, TCA might wave off a joke with a flick of the wrist and choruses of boos and “that wasn’t funny”s will rain down around him (…or her). Maybe that would show people how ridiculous of an idea it is that one person can decide what is funny or what isn’t.
So when it comes to MoN, what’s the big debate about? When it first came out, I noticed that the comedians I’m friends with on Facebook had very polarized opinions on the show. Either they thought it was awesome (like me) or they thought it was bad news bears (like Mark). In fact, several comics had taken it upon themselves to inform all other people that MoN was one of the worst comedies that had ever been created and that no one should ever watch it, despite all the good press it has gotten.
Let’s rewind for a second. I forgot to mention that the reason why I sat down and watched MoN was because several of my non-comedy friends recommended it to me. One of these friends, who knew I wasn’t the biggest fan of Aziz’s stand up material (and felt the same way I did), told me that the show was way better than he expected.
Wait a second – did Stu just imply that he doesn’t like Aziz’s stand up?! I thought he said he liked MoN! How can he like MoN if he doesn’t like Aziz’s stand up?!
BECAUSE I’M A NUANCED MAN!
To be honest, I haven’t seen much of Aziz’s stand up, and the last time I saw some of it was a while ago. So, my opinion isn’t really fair to him at all. That being said, everything I can remember from his sets is either about him talking about hanging out with celebrities or his cousin. He’s definitely funny and I respect the hell out of anyone who can play Madison Square Garden, but I wouldn’t exactly say that type of material is innovative. If you ask any comic, they’d probably agree that, before now, he hasn’t really done much to change the game, except for being Indian American. I always saw him as more of an actor. I guess that he hasn’t been much of a comic’s comic – if I can put it that way. (By the way, I watched his MSG special after writing this so that I can comment on it more accurately, and I did like it. He gets way more vulnerable and even brings his parents up on stage at the end, which I liked.)
People have very one-track minds in some respects, so it’s hard to hear: “Stu doesn’t like Aziz’s older stand up, but he thinks his Netflix show is amazing!” Similarly, because people have such ingrained ideas of what is funny and what isn’t, I think it’s hard for people to separate respect for someone as a comedian and “being funny.” Like I said, I personally never found Aziz’s stand up laugh out loud funny, but that just means his stand up just doesn’t make me laugh very much. That doesn’t mean that I don’t think Aziz is funny; of course he is – thousands of people crowded into an arena to see him perform live!
There’s a subtle difference between a person being funny and someone finding that person funny. I don’t find Aziz’s old stand up funny, but I think he is funny. John Mulaney is another example: I don’t find him that funny because, for whatever reason, he doesn’t make me laugh out loud. But he’s an absolutely hilarious guy for whom I have a profound respect. I can separate myself from my personal, subjective opinion and understand why people do find him funny. Not finding someone funny is not an insult. But labeling someone not funny definitely is. In that linguistics class I could feel the other students thinking I wasn’t funny, but in reality they really just weren’t finding me funny. At least, that’s how I see it!
I’ve been on multiple shows where the host, who I’d never met before, brought me up on stage and said, “Up next is a very funny guy…Stu Melton!” I always thought that was a funny thing to say…how does he know I’m a funny guy if he’s never met me before? Well, he might not actually find me funny, but maybe he’s hoping that I am to other people.
The distinction I see between “being” and “finding” funny is the reason why I’m against actively putting any other comic or any work produced by another comic down. I try not to call anything or anyone “bad,” because I’m not The Comedy Authority. Yeah, I might not find someone funny, or someone might not have a good set, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t a really funny person. That’s why I have a problem with those comedians on Facebook saying MoN is horrible and no one should watch it. I don’t have a problem with it because I disagree with them. I have a problem with them because they’re acting like comedy know-it-alls! People love the show! Let them love it.
So, what’s happening in MoN that causes comedians to totally disagree on whether they find it funny? Yes, the way it attacks subjects like race and sexuality are new and that’s what most of the media pays attention to. But, what really sticks out to me is the different style writing in the show. Here’s a crappy YouTube video of the first episode. Just watch the opening scene up through to the credits (through 4:35) to get a sense of what I mean: (the original video I shared here has been removed, but this gives you a little idea…better yet, watch the opening on Netflix!)
Did you watch it? No? Okay, well basically what happens is that the main character, Dev (Aziz) and the girl he’s having sex with, Rachel (Noel Wells), have a pregnancy scare and then buy a plan b at the store. That’s it. Over the span of almost five minutes. FIVE MINUTES.
To anyone who has done any sort of screenwriting, this should stand out as a huge amount of time. Right on cue, my comedian friend Mark’s first critique of the show was, “The very first scene was awful…it went on forever!”
And, contrary to what most people who know better than me would say, I went, “I know! That’s what makes it so good!”
See, screenwriters are usually trying to be as efficient as possible and it’s something I find actually pretty annoying. There’s actually a formula for what makes a good TV pilot or a movie script, and pretty much every successful show or movie follows it.
In a pilot, you want to establish the characters as quickly as possible. You want the audience to know who the main character is so that they can assume that character’s point of view. And, you should introduce that main character’s world as efficiently as possible. So, you want to show who the main character is, what his life is like, and all of the supporting characters and how they interact with the main character as effectively as possible, so that you can finally get to the actual “what is happening” in the pilot episode.
MoN pretty much does none of that: it skips right to the “what is happening.” The first episode isn’t called “Pilot,” like most TV shows, it’s called “Plan B.” It gets to the point. And that breaks a lot of the conventions of how a “good” TV show starts. And that’s a big part of why Mark thought the show had awful writing. It starts out with a five-minute sex scene that seems to drag on forever and only has two people in it. The audience has no idea what Dev does or who he is. You don’t know the characters’ names (I’m pretty sure). And, even worse, you might not even be sure whether Dev or Rachel is the main character until after the opening credits.
But, what you do get, I think, is realness. What happens on the screen is something I can see happening in real life. Yes, the scene drags on, but that’s how people actually talk. And how people actually talk is funny! Real people don’t constantly spew punch lines like you normally hear in The Office, 30 Rock, or Parks and Recreation (by the way, that’s the show both Aziz and Alan Yang, the co-creator, came from). Real people don’t address each other by first name just so that an imaginary audience can identify them. But, real people do have awkward conversations about whether sperm can be in precum.
I just had to add “precum” to my wordpress dictionary because it wanted to correct it to “precut.” Ironically, I also had to add the word “wordpress.”
Writers are supposed to assume that the audience is a bunch of stupid idiots who can’t fill any blanks in as the episode or series goes along. And that’s generally true, so that’s generally what writers do. But, I thought the show was especially good because it did the format differently. People experience long, awkward scenes in real life that they have to make sense of later, just like the opening scene in MoN. And, because people are usually binge-watching Netflix, it allows for blanks to be filled in later on in an episode, or even later on in the season. It’s not such a big deal.
And that’s what I told Mark! But he wasn’t having it. Whereas I thought the strength of the scene was its realness, Mark thought that was anther weakness: “The scene isn’t real at all! What adults have a conversation about getting pregnant from precum? They already know everything about plan b. They’re adults. That would never happen.”
Okay, but don’t get hung up on their age! The point is that this could totally happen to any two people: it doesn’t really matter who they are. It felt to me like this was something that actually happened to Aziz in his lifetime and he was literally reenacting what happened to him. And that may or may not be true, but that’s way “real-er” to me than having a ten-second flashback to two teens going “whoops!” as you’d probably have in any other sitcom today.
Mark also thought that the acting in the show was terrible. And that it was really hard to get past. I, on the other hand, actually thought that Aziz was most himself and in his element here. More so than I’ve seen him in Parks and Rec. After all, he’s writing for himself, so he knows the types of things that he actually says. But I see the point. Some of the acting, especially from Aziz and Yang’s parents (who are their real parents) isn’t that awesome. But I think that’s almost intentional. I think they were going for authenticity not an illusion and, for me at least, it doesn’t matter how bad the acting is, it feels like a real situation.
So, having got the main criticisms out of the way, in closing I just want to take a moment to talk about some of the other new and cool things that the show does.
A lot of people compare MoN to Louie, which I can totally see. Maybe that’s part of the reason why I like it so much. MoN is kind of sketch-y, where back-to-back scenes don’t outwardly have to “go together” with each other. Yet, there’s more organization than what you see in Louie a lot of the time. In MoN, there’s a giant over-arching story for the season and each episode has a title theme that brings the scenes together. Within an episode there might be flashbacks or jumps in space with several different stories going on, but they all kind of add more to the schema that is the theme.
In “Parents,” we follow two very similar stories about Aziz’s parents and Yang’s parents that say similar, although slightly different things about parenthood. The stories come together in the end of the episode, but not every episode is like that. The episodes end very different ways and the formats change, which keeps you interested. The last episode ends with a dramatic twist that seemed totally unrealistic and insane to me, but somehow fit because of how “different” of a TV move it was.
The show also feels like a really long movie to me. It’s shot and edited really nicely. Just look at the shots from the show that I’ve put in this post…pretty! The show also has a large range of fantastic music that seemed to fit perfectly. And great B reel. If nothing else, you should check out the sixth episode, “Nashville.” It’s an awesome, weird, up and down ride of a relationship and it’s done in a super realistic way I haven’t seen before.
I also think that Netflix is a format that allows writers and performers’ personalities to shine through because it allows a lot of freedom. Aziz is no exception. The show is funny, but more importantly than that, I think it really showcased Aziz. I felt that Aziz was totally in his element, making jokes that he makes in real life, and sharing stories that he and Yang wanted to share.A few of the jokes were groaners at times, but they seemed like jokes that Aziz would actually make in real life and that, in a way, made them much better. Aziz’s chemistry with Wells is also really great. In a WTF podcast, Aziz shares that he went through tons of readings with actresses just to find someone who felt really right, rather than just offering the part. You can tell. And, there are tons of really funny people in the show, like H. Jon Benjamin (Archer), Eric Wareheim, and Todd Barry.
Overall, the episodes are really ruminations on a theme, filled with realistic stories that I found relatable. Yeah, the show is cool because it has so much diversity, but I’d rather on details about the show that are more artistic. For instance, the choice for Aziz to name his character “Dev” instead of “Aziz,” even though the stories are often probably very true to his own experiences. That puts the viewer in his shoes, rather than making the show about him. That’s cool.
Oh, AND Aziz covers a lot of great NYC food in the show. A handful of the places in the show are restaurants/food trucks/neighborhoods that I 100% approve of, and those I haven’t heard of I am definitely going to check out. He has good taste. Literally.
So that’s why I find MoN to be a really awesome show. It does things in a way that other shows do not, and I think it does it more realistically. I can see why some people think it’s bad, but that doesn’t mean it is! At the very least, this might serve as an explanation to why so many people who don’t care about the political statements the show makes love it so much!