Alan Yang and Matt Hubbard don’t want viewers to know almost anything about their new Amazon series, Forever (premiering Friday). In an unusual letter to critics, the co-showrunners asked that reviews be “spoiler-free,” as their Maya Rudolph and Fred Armisen–starring half-hour dramedy was “designed … to take some big twists and turns.” This is a vast understatement. But they are entirely correct about the show’s pleasures largely being dependent on surprises—gentle yet radical subversions of Hollywood tropes that gesture toward real-life complexities.
Partly a product of Rudolph and Armisen’s desire to work together, Forever both builds on and detours from Yang’s earlier work. Its romantic melancholy is redolent of Master of None, which he co-created with Aziz Ansari, but its existential preoccupations bear little resemblance to his more lighthearted work on Parks and Recreation (where he met Hubbard). While leaving the door open for another season of Master of None—“Aziz and I are talking all the time,” he says—Yang has built a mini-empire based on his interest in immigrant and Asian American stories. He’s an executive producer on Apple’s upcoming Little America series, described as a “collective portrait of America’s immigrants—and thereby a portrait of America itself.” (Disclosure: I was contracted to edit some interviews in the very earliest stages of the text project that became Little America.) While promoting Forever, Yang’s also shooting his feature directorial debut, a multigenerational Taiwanese-American family saga called Tigertail, starring John Cho.
Slate talked to Yang about Forever’s “risky” storyline, which goes against everything he was taught about TV writing, and how to write a believable romance. And as his show debuts just a couple of weeks after #AsianAugust, the writer-director talked about his now-famous 2016 Emmy speech, as well as which animal enjoys far greater representation in Hollywood than Asian Americans.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Inkoo Kang: In 2016, when you were accepting the Outstanding Writing Emmy for Master of None, you asked Asian parents (“just a couple of you”) to get their kids cameras instead of violins. What kind of reaction have you had to that speech?
Alan Yang: It’s been really positive. I’ve heard from a lot of people in the Asian American community who are trying to pursue creative fields, and one of the things that’s happened is—yes, there has been a lack of roles, a lack of representation, a lack of opportunity—but there’s also the element that a lot of Asian American immigrants don’t necessarily prioritize the arts. And that’s totally understandable, because sometimes, when you’re an immigrant from an Asian country, it’s so much safer to push your kids to do something in an objective field.
If you’re an English major and you’re writing an essay, the grade on that is subjective.
Someone is judging you based on subjective criteria, and you may not share the same life experience or the same perspective [as your evaluator]. So it’s understandable that an Asian parent might be like, “Well, why don’t you do math? The answer’s either right or wrong, and you can get it right.” So I think that’s been the instinct for a lot of Asian immigrant parents—not all of them, obviously.
Were your parents encouraging of your aspirations to work in TV?
They begrudgingly were, and they became a lot more open-minded after I got a job. But yeah, it’s scary. I graduated from college and moved out to L.A. and was essentially broke and unemployed. So in the grand scheme of things, I can’t believe how supportive my parents were.
Do they watch your shows?
They do watch my shows, and they love them. My mom’s really funny—she’s a high school teacher—and she’s always giving me reports on whether her students like my shows. I don’t know why. This is no shame on this show, but Season 1 of Parks and Rec, she was like, “The kids don’t like the show, Alan. They think it’s boring.” Later, she was like, “Now the kids are liking it.” Then, when Master of None came out, she was like, “The kids love Master of None. Season 2, I said I was mad at them: They came in tired because they watched the whole show the night before.”
How are you feeling about #AsianAugust?
I couldn’t be more excited. I’m really happy for all the success: Everyone on Crazy Rich Asians, and then John [Cho]’s movie Searching. I’m friends with Constance [Wu] and Jon Chu and a lot of those people, and it’s staggering, it’s unbelievable. I’m excited for all the opportunities it’s gonna open up for Asian Americans all over the industry.
I’m happy that we got Crazy Rich Asians, but that’s one movie over 25 years. [Loud noise.]
Whoa, what was that?
That was my dog.
There’s way more movies starring dogs than there are starring Asian Americans. They got Air Bud, Beethoven, Cats and Dogs, Marley and Me, Homeward Bound. Don’t even get me started on the animated ones. We have one movie in the last 25 years, so we’ve got to at least catch up to dogs.
So: Forever, your new show, is a little weird.
It’s very weird. One of the weirdest things I’ve ever worked on.
It’s not until the third episode that you get a sense of what the show is actually about. What led you and your co-creator Matt Hubbard to structure it in this way? And were you guys afraid the audience might not follow you all the way?
That was one of the most exciting things about the show to us: the irregular, superweird, strange pacing. A lot of times when you’re doing television, the lesson they tell you is: You gotta let the audience know what’s going on in Minute 1. That’s why you get teens who are like, “How are you today, sis?” “I’m doing good, bro!”; you need to [telegraph] all the relationships immediately. There’s a place for that, but that’s not what we wanted to do.
One of the freedoms and luxuries Amazon gave us was to pace the show in this unusual way. Maybe this is just us writers being excited about doing something different, but we loved the idea that someone could watch the first episode, get thrown a huge curveball at the last shot, watch Episode 2, think it’s an entirely different show for an episode, then get thrown another curveball, and then start Episode 3 not knowing what the hell is going on. That was really exciting for us.
In fact, the show keeps changing gears later in the season. There are other episodes that are complete digressions and tonal shifts. All of that was very scary, very risky. And also, by the same token, is what excited us.
Let’s talk about the departure from the departure from the departure. There’s a later episode with Hong Chau and Jason Mitchell, where we see the slow progression of their characters’ relationship. A lot of the projects that you have worked on are really romantic: Parks and Rec, which features one of the best couples in all of sitcom history, and, of course, Master of None. As a writer and director, what are the choices you make in order to convey how a couple is truly in love or destined for each other?
There’s generally an essential optimism or warmth in a lot of what I’ve worked on. That’s just my tendency as a human being; I like depicting real moments of human connection. There’re a few inspirations for that episode: Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise trilogy, Éric Rohmer’s The Green Ray and some of his other work, [Billy Wilder’s] Love in the Afternoon. But you want to show the specificities of the characters. And the more specific you get between these two human beings, the more affecting the connection can become. So, to me, it really is about naturalism and some semblance of realism. As much as possible, we try to draw on the personal experience [of the writers].
I really like the detail that Andre, Jason Mitchell’s character, is from Monterey Park, which is a very, very Asian suburb in Los Angeles. That was inspired by our location manager, Manny Padilla, who is of Mexican descent and grew up in Monterey Park. He would tell me, “All my friends were Asian.” It was a very specific, interesting fact about him, so I put that in the show.
Since the show stars Maya Rudolph and Fred Armisen, who are multiracial actors, do you think of Forever as a show about people of color? Where do you feel like race plays a role in this show, if any?
It’s so funny, we didn’t even really think about. I always thought about them as two really funny people. I’m glad that they’re two people of color, but in this show, [race isn’t] really mentioned as much, [except] in the [Mitchell and Chau] episode. It may come up in future seasons, if we get to do them. But it was kind of nice to not put a finger on it after having done a show [Master of None] where we did talk about it a little bit.
Can you talk a little bit about the unique montage that opens the show?
That was an idea we had early on. We wanted something that was able to convey both the ups and downs and the length of their relationship. We wanted to put you inside both of their heads, and then especially Maya’s head at the end. I’m really happy with what we ended up with. To me, it conveys the tone of the show in a specific way.
And I really loved the music. It’s the song “It Never Entered My Mind” by Miles Davis that our music supervisor Zach Cowie found long before we shot. So when we were shooting it, I would play it in every setup.
We shot maybe 50 or 60 setups for that one montage. One of my favorite things about the montage is how delightful Fred and Maya’s performances are, because you’re starting this [show] with four minutes of essentially silent theater. And it really is about the small looks on their faces. It’s about Fred’s look when he’s surprised at his surprise birthday party, and then when Maya spits in the sink. And it’s about Maya’s ennui at the end of the montage and [the camera] pushing in on her face. It’s amazing how much can come across when you are asked as an audience member to pay attention and just focus and pick up on those small details.