Emmys: ‘Master of None’ Co-Star Lena Waithe On Crafting Her Coming Out Episode, ‘Thanksgiving’

Ethan Alter
Senior Writer, Yahoo Entertainment

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As the co-creator, star, executive producer, and a writer/director of Master of None, Aziz Ansari is the face of the acclaimed Netflix series, which earned him an Emmy for Outstanding Writing last year. But Ansari and his alter ego, struggling actor and foodie Dev Shah, take a backseat in two of Season 2’s standout episodes. For example, the sixth installment, “New York, I Love You,” offers up a triptych of stories following New Yorkers who exist outside of Dev’s day-to-day life.

And while Dev is very much present in the eighth episode, “Thanksgiving,” it’s not his story that’s being told. Instead, this moving, hilarious half-hour puts his friend Denise, played by Lena Waithe, front and center for an autobiographical account based on her own experience coming out to her mother, portrayed onscreen by Angela Bassett. “What’s so cool about Aziz is that he’s the sort of dude that wants to surround himself with really interesting people,” the actress tells Yahoo TV about creating an episode where the ostensible star plays second fiddle. “He really wants to be able to pass the ball, and that’s how I want to work as well.”‘

It’s worth noting that life doesn’t completely imitate art in “Thanksgiving,” which takes place over the course of multiple Turkey Days, starting in the early ’90s and ending in the present day. Writing her first Master of None script in collaboration with Ansari, Waithe says that certain liberties were taken in terms of characterization and incident. But she hopes her own experience can inspire similar stories from other artists. “We’re ready for more stories like this,” she says emphatically. “There could be a show all about a queer person of color and her friends, and people would show up for it. I think they’re hungry for it!”

We spoke with Waithe about the writing process that resulted in “Thanksgiving,” and how her mom reacted when she learned she’d be played by Angela Bassett.

“Thanksgiving” obviously came from a very personal place, as most of the Master of None episodes do. How did you translate your own life into this episode?
A lot of it came out of a conversation I had with the writers about my life. They asked the question, “How did you come out? What was it like?” and I started to tell them. I was very honest, and that conversation was very animated. Afterwards, they were like, “Yes, that’s the story we have to tell, because we haven’t seen it before.” I actually didn’t think my story was that special! But Aziz and Alan [Yang, Master of None‘s co-creator] said that there was something really cool about it. The writers are the ones who came up with the way to frame it, so that we could get all of the information into one episode.

So the idea of structuring the episode around multiple Thanksgivings emerged from the writers’ room? Or was that also based on your life?
It was definitely in the writers’ room, but the Thanksgiving idea was based on stories I told them about women talking around the table, and the conversations we would have. I thought it was so smart to play with those different timeframes; once they told me that I was like, “Oh, that’s brilliant.” Aziz and I were able to hit the ground running once we got that framework.

Dev has elements of Aziz in him, but also has his own distinct personality. How different is Denise from you?
I think the biggest difference is that she’s a lot more laid back; I’m more animated, a little bit more high strung, and a little louder. But I’m just as blunt, we have a similar fashion sense, and I go hard for my friends. This was the first time I’d ever written anything for myself, and I stretched myself a little bit in writing it. I’m familiar with the tone of the show, and I definitely know the guidelines in which we color in. To me, it was more fun writing for the mother, for Catherine. It’s harder to write for Dev, so I would always tell Aziz, “You handle that,” because it was so specific to his voice. There was no weirdness between Aziz and I as we were writing it; we were literally passing the laptop between us like a basketball.

Speaking of Catherine, what elements are there to her character that you based directly on your own mother?
The big thing was that I wanted to make sure she felt human, and that she wasn’t the villain. She was just a person that had this thing thrust upon her that she wasn’t very well equipped to handle. That happened in real life, so I really wanted to make sure that came across, and the fact that even though she doesn’t always know the right things to say, a lot of her [actions] come out of love and protection for her kids. A lot of people have said to me that they love that she’s not damning her daughter to hell, and she’s not disowning her. It’s more a case of, “I can’t wrap my brain around this, so excuse me while we go on this bumpy road to comfort level.”

She’s different than my mom, because my mom’s not a television character, so there was a lot more to lean on. Angela really created the character; she understood what we were doing, and brought her own flair to it. The cool thing about it is that nobody is pointing a finger at the mom and saying, “She’s awful.” Everybody’s saying, “This is just a really refreshing look at what it’s like to come out within a black family.” And I think, to me, that’s a huge triumph, and I take a lot of pride in that.

Are the other two women in the episode, the aunt and the grandmother, also based on people in your own life?
Absolutely. The grandmother is loosely based on my grandmother, my mother’s mom, who passed away, so it’s definitely very much a tribute to her. She’s the one smoking cigarettes with plastic on the couches, and saying crazy stuff. That was her all day long! I do have a biological aunt, my mom’s sister, so Aunt Joyce is a combination of her and a lot of my mom’s friends who were very much my “play aunts” growing up. In the episode, we never specify if Joyce is Catherine’s sister or friend, and I love that the lines are blurred. My mom has a lot of close female friends, and they all had different ways of gossiping, different ways of talking about what was going on in the world, and different ways of talking s**t. So Kym Whitley [who plays Joyce] is really, I think, the unsung hero of the episode. She embodies all of these black women that you’ve ever met, and that you know have your back.

What was your reaction when you found out you’d be acting opposite Angela Bassett as your mom?
Honestly, I thought she was a little out of our league. You can ask Melina [Matsoukas, who directed “Thanksgiving”] and Aziz; I literally told them, “Y’all are crazy. This is not going to happen.” But Aziz was like, “We’ve got to reach for the stars. Let’s see what happens.” I was in London at the time, and he emailed me saying, “It’s looking good.” And then two days later, he was like, “She’s doing it.” It made me go, “We’re making something really important now! We can’t bulls**t; Angela Bassett is gonna be on set!” [Laughs] We had the episode written, and were making changes and tweaks to it, so I think we all realized we had to step it up.

What was it like telling your mom that she’d be played by Angela Bassett?
Here’s the funny thing: she actually found out before I could tell her! We were trying to keep it under wraps, and Angela went to the Emmys and was on the red carpet when someone asked her, “What do you have coming up?” She blew the lid off by saying, “I’m going to go play Denise’s mom on Master of None.” People ran with the story, and that’s how my mom found out. She was really excited and happy.

What was your favorite scene to write in “Thanksgiving,” and which was your favorite to perform?
The one that I enjoyed writing the most was the scene between Catherine and Joyce after Denise has just come out to her. I like writing for black women period, and there’s nothing more amazing or hilarious than two older black women who are single as hell, talking about a young woman being gay and what that means. It was like they were playing tennis — it was awesome. People expect Denise’s coming out scene to be the one I liked performing the most, and I loved doing it. But I really liked the scene at the table with Nikki [the second girlfriend that Denise brings home, played by Erica Mena]. It legit felt like a family, and Erica did a phenomenal job poking fun at herself. We found our groove in those scenes at the table, and it was really fun to shoot.

One of the things that Master of None does really well is illustrating how specific cultural stories can also be universal. We’ve seen coming out stories told before, but “Thanksgiving” tells it from the perspective of a black woman coming out to her mom. How did you find the universality in what was a very specific experience for Denise?
When I write, I don’t necessarily think about making something universal. Whenever a thing is very specific to someone’s experience, it can’t help but be universal. The thing I hate the most is when people write up the middle, because when you do that no one can really relate to it. It feels like you’re actively trying to appeal to everybody, and it goes to that saying about “if you try to please everyone, you’ll please no one.” This might make me some enemies out here in the world, but I don’t have a desire to please everybody. I just don’t. I’m an artist, and I want to make things that are specific, honest, and fresh that appeal to me and my senses. It’s my job as an artist to keep my finger on the pulse; that way if things that only appeal to me stop appealing to the world, it means I have to get out in the world and touch people. Writing something that is specific and makes me laugh is how comedians work. If they tell a joke that doesn’t make them laugh, how can they expect to make somebody else laugh?

Are there any specific prejudices within the black community about gay rights and coming out that you wanted to make sure you hit through writing this — not as a lesson, but something for families to watch and come to some sort of understanding?
I think there are prejudices in every group. That’s made very clear in the scene with teenage Denise when she comes out to Dev. She says, “Some black people think being gay is a choice.” But no group is a monolith; I’ve seen images on the Today show of black parents who have trans kids and they’re super-embracive. I think it’s more generational than it is cultural. Now, remind you, there are elements of the culture that speak to some of these elements of homophobia. As each generation passes, the easier being out and being yourself will become. It’s the old ways of thinking that we have to rid ourselves of. My mother and aunts are of a different generation, and came to this belief system that we, as a minority, have to do everything we can to assimilate into our society. That means being married, getting a house, having a good job, and being a contributing member of society. For my generation, it’s about, “I may not wanna have kids” or “I may not wanna buy a house with a white picket fence.” It’s about changing up the status quo.

In terms of deciding the personalities of the two women Denise brings home to meet her family — the level-headed Michelle, and the wacky Nikki — how many variations on those characters did you explore?
Michelle [played by Ebony Obsidian] is loosely based on my actual girlfriend, Alana, this very professional, awesome girl who’s very much my equal and we just vibe. No shade to the Nikkis in this world, but there are phases you go through when you date people like that. You want somebody to have fun with; they may not be your level intellectually, but you’re just like, “This is fun, we’re vibing, I like looking at you, and we have more sexual chemistry than we do an emotional one.” Aziz and I liked the idea of Denise bringing home a chick that’s not as popular with her family, but they didn’t love the first girl either because she was a girl. I’ve only brought home one girl, and that girl is the girl I’m currently with, because I know how significant that is. Even when you’re straight, bringing home people is weird. When you’re gay, it’s even more heightened, and I think we kinda wanted to show that gay people go through those weird dating phases, too.

Assuming the show doesn’t return, as Aziz has suggested, do you have an idea in your mind as to where Denise goes next in her life?
Sure. I think that’s just the writer in me. I hope she eventually gets engaged. Maybe have a kid, and be a cool radio personality. She’s very blunt, and I think she has a great voice. I want her out there giving her opinions about things that are going on in the world. She’s sort of like a black Judge Judy, and I would love for her to have a job where she gets to give her blunt advice to not just Dev, but to everybody. That’ll be my dream for her.

Since Dev’s culinary series, BFFs, is defunct, maybe he and Denise could team up for an advice show.
I’d love that! Advice from Denise & Dev. We’ve already got the title! [Laughs]

Master of None is currently streaming on Netflix.

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