The Emmy Awards 2017 will be remembered for being one of the most diverse awards ceremonies ever. From people of colour and the LGBTQ community to women who wrote, directed and acted in stories centred on female lives, the night’s biggest winners continued to strengthen the argument often made that television is more inclusive than the silver screen.
One of the biggest moments of the memorable night was when Lena Waithe and Aziz Ansari won an Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series for the Master of None episode ‘Thanksgiving’.
While it was the second consecutive Emmy for Ansari, it was a historic first for Waithe who became the first African American woman ever to win an award for comedy writing. As the duo took the stage, they received a standing ovation from the audience before a smiling Ansari stood aside to let Waithe give the acceptance speech.
“The things that make us different, those are our superpowers…For everybody out there that showed us so much love for this episode, thank you for embracing a little Indian boy from South Carolina and a queer Black girl from the South Side of Chicago,” said Waithe in her moving acceptance speech.
Seeing his partner-in-crime shine under the lights of global recognition must have been an especially sweet moment for Ansari, a ‘brown boy’ who busted several stereotypes during his meteoric rise in the world of showbiz. Here’s the story of this talented comedian, writer, director, and actor whose brand of personal storytelling is winning millions of fans across the world.
Born into a Muslim family from Tamil Nadu, Aziz Ismail Ansari grew up in Bennettsville in South Carolina. His parents immigrated from India in the early ’80s and worked in the field of medicine.
His father, Dr Shoukath Ansari, is a practising gastroenterologist who earned his medical degree from Tirunelveli Medical College in India. His mother, Fatima, works with his father at a medical clinic they run together (Sandhills Endoscopy Centre).
From an early age, Ansari was interested in performing arts and even took dance classes as a young boy.
At the same time, he ensured that his grades remained above the benchmark required for attending the South Carolina Governor’s School for Science and Mathematics, a state-run boarding school for gifted students.
“To meet so many kids from different backgrounds with different ideas and interests, it really influenced me,” he later told Charleston City Paper , recalling his years at the Governor’s School.
After completing his schooling, Ansari graduated from the prestigious Stern School of Business (under New York University) with a major in marketing. It was during these years in college that he found himself drawn towards the impromptu comedy sessions organised by a fun-loving bunch of classmates.
Ansari attended his first stand-up show at the Comedy Cellar in Greenwich Village. Inspired by what he experienced, he started doing open mics at local clubs while still a student. He often spent his weekends at Times Square, distributing flyers about his shows to tourists.
In 2005, 22-year-old Ansari got his first major gig — hosting Crash Test (a late-night live show featuring rising alternative comedians) on Monday nights at the Upright Citizen’s Brigade (UCB) Theatre. All this while, he continued working at a day job in an internet marketing company to manage his living expenses.
Ansari’s efforts paid off when his quirkily titled experiments with stand-up comedy at the UCB Theatre (Aziz Ansari Punched a Wall, Aziz Ansari Hates Driving etc.) caught the attention of people in the right places.
Soon, the young comedian was featuring in roles — both big and small — in movies (like 30 Minutes or Less) and popular sitcoms like Cheap Seats and Flight of the Conchords. Ansari also teamed up with fellow comedians Rob Huebel, Paul Scheer, and filmmaker Jason Woliner to produce comedy shorts (or internet videos) and a uniquely unpredictable sketch show called Human Giant that guaranteed giggles galore for the audience.
In 2006, Ansari won the Jury Award for Best Stand-Up at HBO’s U.S. Comedy Arts Festival. This proved to be a turning in his life as his show, Human Giant, was picked up by MTV next year. Soon after, the quartet of Ansari, Huebel, Scheer and Woliner got their first big viral hit in “Shutterbugs“, an episode that revolved around a talent agency for children.
For Ansari, there was no looking back after that. His role as Tom Haverford (a fashion-focused, status-conscious underling) on the show, Parks and Recreation, became an instant favourite with the audience, with websites being devoted solely to his spectacular catchphrases on the show.
Over the next few years, he continued to do stand-up while focusing on subjects that were less trivial and more nuanced (e.g. immigration, racism and dating in the modern world). This was also the time when he co-authored a book with sociologist Eric Klinenberg, Modern Romance: An Investigation, that debuted on the New York Times’ best-seller list.
Thanks to the book’s enormous success, in 2015, Ansari made his debut (at No. 6) on Forbes’s list of the highest-paid comedians in the world. The same year, his new series (co-created with writer Alan Yang), Master of None, debuted on Netflix. The ‘dramedy’ series followed the story of an Indian actor Dev Shah(played by Ansari) attempting to make it in NYC.
Interestingly, Dev’s goofy parents on the show were played endearingly by Ansari’s birth parents, Shoukath and Fatima!
The series — which the New York Times called “the year’s best comedy straight out of the gate” — was hilarious yet grounded, philosophical yet relatable. Modeled on Ansari’s own life and experiences, the show’s story highlighted issues such as the subtle forms of racial prejudice in everyday life, the lack of opportunities for minority actors and the annoyingly exaggerated ‘Indianised’ accent expected from Indian actors.
While Master of None’s first season depicted the immigrant take on city life, its much-anticipated second season featured more cultural touchstones for first-generation Americans raised by immigrant families.
The sitcom’s unique worldview was never more apparent than in the episode ‘Religion’ that was inspired by Ansari’s real-life childhood memory of eating bacon at a friend’s house and receiving a scolding from devoutly Muslim parents.
Having successfully transitioned from a stand-up comedian into a serious power player in showbiz, Aziz Ansari has recast the idea of what a leading man should be.
His passion for using well-tailored, side-splitting references to highlight social issues is also why the impact of his work extends well beyond his television persona.
Just how much can be seen from the fact that Ansari made pop culture history with his powerful monologue as the host of Saturday Night Live (one of the world’s most popular shows) in January 2017. A Muslim American of Indian origin and the first South Asian to host the iconic show, Ansari used the platform to speak out against casual racism just a day after a man who wanted to ban Muslims from entering the country became the President of USA. In the history of comedy, there are very few performances that have left as distinctive an impact as this one.