Aziz Ansari

Supported by Greenhaven Road Capital, finding value off the beaten path.

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Aziz Ansari joined Bill Simmons to talk about creating Master of None, his show on Netflix. Aziz was on my favorite show – Parks and Recreation. This interview had many ideas about making comedy that applies to making anything.


1/ Distraction free writing.  “I write the best on airplanes.” – Simmons

“I get so much done on airplanes, especially if there’s no wifi.” – Aziz

Going overseas “was really good for the writing.” – Aziz

“What happens when I’m writing is I’ll hit a point where I don’t know where to go. In those moments I’ll check my email or New York Times, and then I’ll go back to it. But when I don’t have my phone or I don’t have the internet I’ll hit that moment and I’m forced to come up with an idea but that idea is gone when you take that break.” – Aziz

“When I was running Grantland I had like five jobs and when I wrote I called it going to the bunker. I’d say, ‘I’m going to the bunker to the bunker for five hours, email me when I’m out.’ When I’d get out of it I’d always be scared something terrible had happened and nothing happens.” – Simmons

When Aziz or Simmons duck out of the feed they begin Deep Work. According to Cal Newport’s book this features:

  1. An environment conducive to the work.
  2. Embracing boredom.
  3. Quitting social media
  4. Draining the shallows.

BUT YOU MIGHT MISS SOMETHING! Aziz said when his book, Modern Romance, was being finalized there was a question about the cover. He was filming that day and couldn’t take a break to weigh in on the problem. But by the end of the day when he checked his email, he found that the situation worked itself out.

2/ Teaming up. “We were both young single guys, but Alan and I were both about the same age and we started hanging out. I remember thinking, often when people are on these shows (from Ansari’s time on Parks and Rec) they find a writer they get along with and they end up creating their own show together. I could do that with this guy. We both get along really well. He’s very fun. He’s really the best partner you could have because he’s so disciplined, he’s really hard on stuff, we really complement each other.”

Good people partners – likeBuffett and Munger – complement each other. People can also team up with machines. Tyler Cowen thinks that the future of work will depend on working well with software.

3/ Gordian knot, Chesterton fence? “There’s no reason for twenty-two episodes of anything.” Aziz and Simmons both say that shows are too long. With the switch to the infinite internet, we see this.

Blogs don’t have the page constraints of a newspaper. Posts can go on forever, always updating. Master of None ranges from 21 to 31 minutes in length. ‘We’ve always done it this way’ should be a nudge to get curious.

Chesterton fences – 13/22 episode seasons – can be studied. ‘Why was this put here, what role does it serve, is it still needed?’ Sometimes the answer will be ‘this still serves’. Rory Sutherland said doormen serve more roles than just opening doors and London’s black cab drivers do more than just drive.

Other times we can cut it out like a Gordian knot. Tipping and pre-game shootarounds for example.

4/ Experiments.  “In the first season, the very first scene a condom breaks and we have to decide if we’re going to get a pill. We wrote one version and I went to Noel and said, ‘let’s also improvise this and treat this as if it’s real,’ and she made choices that were interesting – more interesting than what we’d just written. So I used that to rewrite the script.”

Just as Aziz experiments within the show, Netflix experiments with shows. Reed Hastings said, “Every year is an experiment.” Intelligent Fanatics  had a tinkerer’s mindset. Brent Beshore said the secret in business is to experiment and do more of what works and less of what doesn’t.

5/ Reps, reps, reps. “I would just do as many as I could. I would do eight, ten, a night. Just running back in forth. I was in L.A. and would just go boom-boom-boom-boom, one after another. At the comedy store someone would just grab me and go quick-quick-quick-quick and I would do all the rooms. The key to any standup that you’re trying to get really good is repetitions.”

Mastery (#10,000hours) requires feedback, do more of this and less of that. As a standup comedian, Aziz got instant feedback; did people laugh or not. In addition to writing jokes, he got practice directing episodes for his show. Louis C.K. said that once you do enough of something you get psychic “merit badge” and you can do that thing.

In their conversation, Simmons said the same thing happened to Jimmy Kimmel. “This is why Kimmel was good at the Oscars, he’s hosted a kajillion shows, he was hosting roasts and all this stuff.”

It’s Arnold Schwarzenegger’s advice too:

but those reps have a cost.

“Sometimes when I’m living my life I wonder, ‘What if I had a kid right now. Oh shit!’ I would be such a bad dad. I’m never around, god I’d be bad.” – Aziz

#10,000hours has a high opportunity cost. Typically we are terrible accountants for this metric. Dan Ariely went to a Toyota dealership and asked people, “what are you giving up if you buy this car?” This question stumped most people and when prodded for an answer they said, “if I buy a Toyota I can’t buy a Honda.”  No one said, ‘I could pay down my high-interest loans.’

There’s a tradeoff to have a family and a career. Aziz has no kids (“I would such a bad dad”) and can spend time getting better at comedy.

6/ Detachment. “When we do Masters of None we screen the episodes for people as we’re editing because it helps. You’re the craziest person to watch and judge this thing because you’ve been living in it, you’re in too deep.”

Richard Thaler pointed out that Humans and Econs are different decision-making species. As Humans we need help getting a different perspective. Sometimes this means physically changing your point of view. Jocko Willink was leading a training exercise for soldiers and one guy couldn’t participate because he was injured. Instead, he observed the situation from where Jocko sat – only a few feet away – and commented how easy everything looked from that vantage.

We all approach the world with a perspective that influences how we see things (“you’re too deep”) and detaching yourself or getting someone who is detached can help see things for what they are.

Thanks for reading,

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