Master of None

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Image Source: Netflix.com via Screencrush.com

Aziz Ansari made his name as the stereotype-smashing Tom Haverford from the incomparable Parks and Recreation, as well as a successful stand-up career. Ansari has gone on good number of tours and has recorded a bunch of comedy specials that are currently available for your perusal on Netflix. All of his previous work indicated Ansari had a special knack for pop culture-laden comedy, and his snappy wit showed his intelligent and insightful observations of modern society. So it was only a matter of time before Ansari got his big break to write and star in his own comedy show, which launched in November of 2015 on Netflix, titled: Master of None.

Master of None has received a lot of critical acclaim and significant attention for its commentary on minority representations in Hollywood. Written by Ansari and Alan Yang, the show has a notably more diverse writing team and cast than most cable comedies. The show taps into some issues that are rarely discussed in pop culture, such as the competing factors that come from being first-generation Americans born of immigrant parents. It accomplishes these themes in a very friendly and non-preachy way, making them very accessible to even those without first-hand experiences that relate.

In my opinion, the true brilliance of the show is how genuinely in captured modern, urban, young adult culture. [Editorial disclaimer: it is important to distinguish the “modern, urban young adult” from the broader term “Millenial,” as the latter is a generational divide and should be inclusive of those living in smaller cities or in rural communities. Unfortunately, this distinction is rarely made in media portrayals of our generation, which sells short the diversity of opinion and upbringing among Millenials.] Master of None is spot on from its use of social media apps to drive plot points (the brilliant episode with Yelp! decision paralysis), to Rachel’s (Noel Wells) job as a music promoter, the show really captures a lot of the nuances of a changing social environment. The show is really in touch with the present day and is heavily steeped in the much more diverse and cosmopolitan interests of a new generation of urban young people. Ansari and Yang seem to have a real talent for blending humor with serious topics of identity and a general sense of listlessness that is so often associated with the modern job market. In a world where “career tracks” aren’t as clear and new high-tech or entertainment-focused industries are emerging, Master of None strikes a unique tone that really resonates with the overwhelming indecisiveness of youth.

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Source: Netflix.com

Though nowhere near as wildly popular, it is along the same vein as Friends and How I Met Your Mother, but for a new generation. Friends showed how young people dealt with dating, friendship, and life in NYC during the 1990s, and HIMYM was really the same thing a decade later. Now, ten years (wow) after HIMYM premiered, a Millenial audience has its own version of the classic “life in the big city” comedy in Master of None. In the show, we see a lot of those similar themes, but also highlighted by some deeper more existential and artistic questions than those previous campy sitcoms ever delved into. Dev (Ansari) and the rest of the talented cast spend a lot of the show just talking, which is actually similar in format to Friends and HIMYM, but this is the first show really set in the Information Age. The questions of texting rules and etiquette, the changing dynamics of dating apps, and the moral quandaries of chasing the perfect taco on Yelp! are all new concepts to the TV comedy and really relate to audiences.

I do have a couple of quick criticisms of the show, however, most of which revolve around finances. There is an assumption in all of these types of shows that the main characters have a lot of disposable income. Sure, there are plenty of people living in these big cities that can relate to that, but Dev eats at some fancy restaurants and has a super implausibly nice apartment in New York. Sure, it makes for prettier sets and is probably more in line with how a successful comedic actor and writer like Ansari actually lives, but it cuts into the illusion that this show is about “normal” people. The lack of financial concerns makes for a relatively tone-deaf interpretation of the Millenial experience. It also tended to seem a little too over-scripted at times, as Dev and Rachel’s relationship was so pithy and full of quips that it felt kind of empty at times. Later developments in the characters did show a surprising willingness to veer from comedy and deal with real issues, which is definitely a plus for the show, but the cracks would have been more meaningful if the foundation seemed stronger earlier.

In the end, though, Master of None is well worth your time. It’s got some laughs, some depth, and likable characters that will usher in a new generation of TV comedies. Rating: 8 of 10

Yes, Please! – The Amy Poehler Memoir

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Source: Amazon.com

Amy Poehler’s entry into the world of comedic memoirs came out in 2014 during the peak of her critical and popular appeal. Six months before the finale of her iconic role as Lesley Knope on the incomparable Parks and Recreation and a couple of years into hosting the Golden Globes, Poehler was riding high, making a comedic memoir a good business decision for one of the biggest powerhouses in comedy. Following in the footsteps of her often costar and friend, Tina Fey, whose own memoir, Bossypants, was met with critical acclaim, Poehler offered up a fun and heartfelt reflection on her life and career. This could have easily become a carbon copy of Fey’s earlier work, as their paths to fame so often intersected in Chicago improv troupes, Saturday Night Live, and even co-hosting the Golden Globes. But instead, readers were treated to a truly honest insight into Amy Poehler’s life, written in a clear voice that really felt like she was reading it aloud in your head. Poehler fearlessly showed her heart on her sleeve, sharing as many mistakes, shortcomings, and insecurities as she did strengths and triumphs. She seems to take seriously her role as a voice for aspiring women in comedy and writing, reflecting often upon the difficulties of breaking into a male-dominated industry. The chapter written by Seth Myers, another wonderfully talented SNL alum, was a great addition to the book. It gave another insider perspective to the world behind the cameras and gave an honest look at who Amy Poehler really is. Poehler also frequently highlights that her life is more than her career, a revelation that is often expected in memoirs, but not always delivered. Her two young sons are regular features throughout the book, showing that she takes her role as a mother just as seriously as her career aspirations. This book is a wonderful adventure for her fans, those of us that have laughed as she made her name on SNL then delivered one of the best characters on one of the best TV shows of all time (Parks and Rec, duh).

Though I thoroughly enjoyed the book and certainly recommend it highly, there were a few small criticisms I had of the style choices and approach at times. First, it got kind of name-droppy at times. Poehler seemed pretty cognizant of this and did poke fun at herself for it, but it still could be a bit much, especially when a who’s who didn’t really add to the plot of the story. The chapter on Haiti was also a little uncomfortable. Poehler clearly meant well and is intelligent and self-aware enough to know this was a difficult message to convey, but it still came close to some Rudyard Kipling-esque “White Savior” themes at times. In her defense though, Poehler was embarrassed that this trip was her first time going to a developing country and admitted to some of the selfish thoughts and motives that often plague even those of us with the best intentions. Lastly, and probably most importantly, her insistence upon labeling her upbringing as “lower middle class” was bit tired. It seemed almost like pandering to relate to her readers and to counteract some of the inherent elitism of being a wealthy famous TV star now. “Middle class” would have been sufficient, especially when considering some of the finer details like the “large wooden bar in the finished basement” and the “lower middle class family with all the latest gadgets,” which seem to disqualify her from some of the struggles to make ends meet which trouble those family who actually come from lower economic classes. I believe that Poehler wasn’t born with a silver spoon and that was really the intent, but let’s also be honest that living in a Boston suburb with two cars and white collar parents isn’t exactly disadvantaged.

Even these negative points have their silver lining though, as they highlight the fact that our favorite stars are real people with real flaws just like the rest of us. And the beauty of this book is that I think Poehler would have expected that and been ok with it, she seems like the kind of person who would rather be honest than right, a trait which I really admire. Even more than her peers, Amy Poehler feels like a genuine and honest person who just happens to be famous, after some serious hard work of course (don’t worry I read that part too). Overall, if you (1) know who Amy Poehler is; (2) like funny people/books; (3) have ever seen Parks and Recreation, which should really be everyone; or (4) are looking for an amusing and entertaining book to read, then go read the book. Even if you said no to all of those questions, why not give this a try? You’ll like it. Rating: 9 of 10

Bossypants – More than a Memoir

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Source: Wikipedia Commons

The brilliant Tina Fey, famous for her writing of the cult classic, Mean Girls, writing and starring in the Emmy award-winning comedy, 30 Rock, and her years on Saturday Night Live! as head writer, host of Weekend Update, and professional Sarah Palin impersonator, has written her first book. For someone whose fame stemmed from her extraordinary talents as a comedy writer, it is no surprise that this book was an instant bestseller for its laughs and its deep reflections on the rise of a woman in comedy.

When you open this book, you are met with seven full pages of roaring praise for this memoir. There isn’t much more I can say in this review that hasn’t been captured a hundred times by all of its fans, but I wanted to just reflect on a few of my thoughts while reading. From the first page of the book, Tina Fey captivates readers with a heart-felt and hilariously self-effacing account of growing up as a delightfully weird kid and struggling to find her way in the big world of comedy. The great appeal of this book is how it straddles the line of being funny and still recounting the very real and sometimes upsetting travails of a hard-working, talented person’s rise to fame. Fey is honest and humble, treating readers to see behind the veil of the world of comedy and the amount of work that goes in behind the scenes.

Fans of Saturday Night Live! and 30 Rock are invited to relive these shows through Fey’s eyes, reading about the creative process behind famous political sketches and the team of writers that delivered hit jokes on both shows. Fey’s relationships with other SNL heavyweights Lorne Michaels, Amy Poehler, Jimmy Fallon, and Seth Myers are also fleshed out in a way that all fans of the show will love. There is an insight into the creative process and writing timelines that gives readers a whole new appreciation for these shows and the genius of writers like Fey who make them possible.

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This brilliant moment is a collaboration of Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and Seth Myers. No wonder it’s so iconic. Source: virginiachance.tumblr.com

More than just a comedic memoir, Fey also recounts how difficult it can be for a woman to break into comedy, even one as brilliant as herself. Fey humbly recounts how she witnessed the transition of SNL from an “old boy’s club,” where the female comedians were often relegated to roles as props, girlfriends, or wives, into a show dominated by some of the best female comics of the century: Amy Poehler, Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, and Kate McKinnon (not to mention Fey, herself). The systemic biases in these shows, and all of the previous steps on Fey’s journey, including Second City improv culture frowning upon a stage of only women, citing that at least one man was needed to keep the comedy going. These and other stories, only added some extra punch to Fey’s charismatic storytelling, making its message all the more important for everyone, not just women, to read and appreciate.

The sole flaw I found in this book is that, at times, Fey seems to expect that the entirety of her readership is female. This may just be that the style of some jokes felt like an “am I right, ladies?!?” sort of feel, but her “advice” segments in the memoir were largely focused on women: breastfeeding, skin care, and a few other topics. She even had an offhanded joke, where the punchline thanked men for reading. These moments were relatively brief, but as a man reading these few sections, I felt like I was eavesdropping on a conversation I wasn’t necessarily invited to. Is it because Fey just didn’t expect men to find her funny due to the same sexist social pressures she mentions over and over in this book? Or was it because, as a male reader, I am just unaccustomed to some of these topics and jokes? Either way, these slightly awkward moments are brief, and usually interrupted by some joke or reference that brings you right back into the story.

I also wonder if some of the self-effacing humor goes a little far. Fey is a bright, super talented, attractive woman, but she is so down on herself that it seems kind of sad. The jokes are all funny, but did she really think she was fat? Or that her troubles are so meaningless just because there are people out there with more physical dangers? I would like to believe that it is all a show, but does this insecurity, whether real or feigned, lessen her message about a strong woman breaking into a male-dominated world? Probably not, Fey seems confident in her awkwardness, making some of the self-deprecation seem almost like an act to further our amusement. After all, she is a professional entertainer. And a good one at that. Her strength of character is on display, and moments of weakness should really be welcomed and be viewed courageously for being so honest.

Overall: don’t let those comments dissuade you in the slightest. This book is a must-read for all fans of Fey, TV comedy, or autobiographies. I tore through it in a matter of days. The tone and style of the writing grabs you from the first page. Fey graciously invites readers into her hilarious and interesting life and leaves us wanting more. She lays laugh-out-loud humor into a heart-felt story with more ease than anything else I’ve read. Though I don’t normally read memoirs, this one is an instant classic and almost flawless.

Rating: 9 out of 10