Sasha: Welcome back, everybody! This is MMH interviews. I’m your host Sasha Klare-Ayvazian. Stoked for this conversation. With me today is Arun Narayanan. Arun is an LA-based writer, filmmaker, and creator of the award-winning web series Arun Considers. How are you, man?
Arun: I’m good, man. How are you?
I’m doing great. I’ve had a lot of fun getting to know your work. It’s very funny and very thoughtful, which is exactly what we’re looking for. So we’re thrilled to have you today. I want to start here. What is the funniest film you’ve ever seen? What’s your favorite comedy?
I mean, it’s such a hard question. And actually, I think it’s two different answers between funniest movie and best comedy. Because I think a great comedy, a great movie that is a comedy, isn’t necessarily the one that makes people laugh the most, you know?
I’m gonna go with Borat. I just remember going with a bunch of college friends, and the theater was just in an uproar, laughing the entire time. It’s also a movie that is doing this kind of brilliant satire on top of being just consistently hilarious.
That’s fantastic. Super funny film. Love Borat. So my name is Sasha. And before Sacha Baron Cohen, people always thought I had a girl’s name—also a lot of horses named Sasha. So I feel a huge connection to him because after Sacha Baron Cohen, it really changed how people perceive my name.
Oh, that’s so interesting. I’m waiting for a famous Arun to fix it for me.
I feel like you’re next up.
I wonder if you can help me. I love movies. Sometimes I get confused. I see these movies. And I’m like, “Why isn’t this funnier?” I’m a musician. I know we make mistakes live. So I understand in stand up you might make mistakes. But very much like an album, should a movie be perfect? You have lots of takes. I just saw Free Guy.
So I think Ryan Reynolds is very funny. I actually think he’s talented.
Yeah, they certainly were letting him riff.
Yeah, he had as much time and money, as they wanted, and yet it’s not that funny. What’s up with that?
All right, I’ll try. So I think one factor that just doesn’t get taken into account, usually, in these conversations is taste. I mean, I was just saying earlier, like how my sense of humor has kind of shifted over my life. Like, I remember when I was at USC film school, getting notes from like, professors and other students on my work at supposedly the greatest film school in the world. And just realizing, oh, wow, a lot of these people have really terrible taste.
Like, the movies that win Best Picture, half the people are gonna immediately think are terrible because they won Best Picture. I think comedy is no different. It’s like, you know, you think something is funny, other people might not think that’s funny, and vice versa. Now, I think one way that’s also become even more of a problem in the last like, 10-20 years every big movie is trying to please everyone in the world.
They have to create comedy that is sort of as flat as possible, you know, to reach the most audiences. True great comedy is really specific and personal. And so that means it’s going to alienate some people. And so if you’re trying to make a comedy like Free Guy, that’s like a big-budget Disney property, they’re less interested in being extremely funny. For the Ryan Reynolds fans, and more interested in being at least a little bit funny and generally entertaining to the entire world. You know?
Yeah. I was just talking about the state of comedy. So we’re in this kind of ‘woke’ time, right?
Which I’m super for; our whole platform is about representation, equity, and pushing those conversations. So we’re here for it. You watch Wedding Crashers, Knocked Up, and there’s cringe-worthy stuff from a 2022 standpoint.
Absolutely. Comedy, kind of its bread and butter is making fun of things and poking fun at groups.
Where do you see comedy going in the next 10 years?
Man, it’s a good question. It feels like the direction that the sort of mainstream, corporation kind of moviemakers are going is this sort of big, broad, flat, let’s try to make something that’s funny for the entire world.
And I think that always means there’s an equal thing happening in the other direction, which is small filmmakers, small comedians, people who like have a very specific alt, kind of taste even, they’re gonna get really small. And we’ll have all these streaming services that allow content to be made for only a smaller number of people. Does that make sense?
Yes, yes. What are some of those small groups? What niches will develop?
I’d say the funniest movie I’ve seen in the last couple of years was Bad Trip. The Eric Andre movie on Netflix. I really like Eric Andre, a lot of people find him, I don’t know, abrasive or something. He’s like, kind of a prankster and it’s very sort of stoner comedy. But it’s like a niche. It’s a niche market of people who like absurdist surrealism that is somewhat mean-spirited.
But like, I work at Netflix. So I actually can see the numbers of how many people are watching any given thing. I know that there are a lot of comedies that I think are great, that don’t get seen by a lot of people or even comedies that critics think are great, or like Twitter thinks are great. But actually, if you look at the numbers overall, not that many people are watching.
So I think already there’s a little bit of this happening, where there are these niche comedies on Netflix that are getting a lot of love from target demographics and we’re just waiting for one of those kinds of things to turn into the next Squid Game.
So Arun, who are we going to make fun of man? So like, Wedding Crashers has a lot of like gay jokes. I feel like that’s canceled. And thank god, I’m the first in line to say so!
I’m gonna push back a little bit.
I think the gay jokes aren’t out. It’s just that only gay people can tell them now. I think the era we’re in right now is that we don’t like it when people are punching down. Right, when it feels like a majority group is making fun of a minority group. Suppressed group. I think that’s the good thing, right, but sometimes it gets taken a little too far. And I think that can hurt some comedic instincts.
But I think that’s just the challenge of comedy is like, navigating that and still finding a way to be funny without doing that punching down. You know, what are we gonna make fun of? We’re gonna make fun of ourselves. We’re gonna make fun of each other, we’re gonna make fun of the world, we’re gonna make fun of the society that we’re all in, in a way that’s like, true to our perspective of the person who’s telling the joke.
We can’t be telling jokes about an experience that we don’t truly understand. But I think there’s plenty that we do truly understand that we can make jokes about. I think we’re just getting a better sense of what things we didn’t understand as well as what we thought we did.
I love that totally with you. Our last interview was with a New York actor named Andrew Duff, and he’s autistic, and we had a compelling conversation about whether non-autistic people should play autistic people? And who should have the ability to do that? And should I can autistic people play non-autistic people? And I wonder if it pertains to comedy, where it’s kind of like, if you’re gonna make fun of a group, you got to be in the group?
Yes. I think you can get away with it, if you are not part of that group at all, but can prove that you’re very much connected to that group, in a way that feels real. That you’re coming at the joke from this real place that the people who are in the group are with you.
This is a person that’s coming to mind. Neal Brennan, the comedian who was a Dave Chappelle writing partner, he’s a white guy, but he and Chappelle are the masterminds behind Chappelle Show. And a lot of Brennan’s new comedy, he talks about how a lot of his friends are Black. He ends up making some jokes that are outside of his personal frame of reference, but the way that he talks about these things—granted, I’m not Black, I’m not the official judge on whether this is working or not—but it seems to me that he is coming from a place of being close enough to this community that he can make some jokes about it.
So I’m from Western Mass Western Massachusetts. I live in Austin. So I’ve seen kind of different cultures, different parts of the country. In Western, MA there’s a lot of really liberal people. They have Black Lives Matter signs—white people in their yards. They don’t know any Black people.
Then you get down here to Texas. And there are people that are more conservative, maybe they have some bigotry beliefs. They also work with people of color, their neighbors are Black. There’s a lot of Latinx people. They exist in a diverse community.
And it just kind of makes me think, which group is actually more connected? These Southerners, they may hold some generational beliefs, but they also have exposure to different kinds of people.
Absolutely. I grew up in Connecticut. And I went to college in Massachusetts at Brandeis University.
Okay, great. Awesome.
And so yeah, I know the vibe you’re talking about overall, right? It’s here in LA too. LA is a very diverse city overall, but it’s also fairly segregated. Growing up in a small town in Connecticut, I was just surrounded by white people.
I think we make assumptions about liberals, conservatives, when it comes to this kind of stuff. And it what it comes down to, are you in a society where you’re interacting with people who aren’t like you? You know, and I think you can imagine what that’s like all you want. And I think some people imagine what that’s like, and come out with a rosy liberal perspective. And some people imagine what it’s like and come out in a fear-mongering, problematic perspective.
But you’re not going to develop a perspective that means anything unless you’re actually like in it and hanging out with people that are unlike you.
Yeah. Yeah. I think just being around other people, speaks more volumes than anything you can do. If you want to open your mind, just talk to other folks. Any other folks.
So we’re touching on this idea of diversity. In one of your videos, you said it’s a word you don’t really connect with. I really want to hear more about that.
I have an episode of my web series called “Arun Considers Diversity.” And the first line of it is “I hate the word diversity.” I just think it’s a dehumanizing word. I think it’s become that way. In that episode, I was mostly thinking about it in the context of hiring and how I hate the fact that depending on the job I’m applying to my race might be given more weight than my ability to do the job. You know?
That sort of general sort of diversity hiring concept just like feels icky to me as the person who’s going through it. But that said, diversity is a good thing. I was just talking about how talking to other people who are unlike you, opens your mind. So yes, I think like, every group of people can benefit from being more diverse.
But it’s a word meant to describe a group not meant to describe a single person, there’s no such thing as a ‘diverse person.’ As soon as I started hearing, “we’re looking for a diverse candidate” that’s when I started to hate that word. Because like, that’s when they’re just using it as a code for minority—and usually racial minority.
I think something similar happened to the word ‘woke’ in the last few years. Like, being woke is supposed to be a good thing. It’s supposed to be someone who’s awake and alert, and aware of these issues that they weren’t aware of before. But then the word got corrupted by politicians and giant corporations because it came to represent this enemy, and I think diversity is the same thing. These companies, these politicians, were being told that they had built themselves up on these exclusive racist bias systems, and then use the word to describe the issue. And that issue became diversity or wokeness.
I do think the word diversity is being used now a little bit better than it was a few years ago when I made that video. A lot of people have evolved on realizing that diversity is only part of the issue. I feel like I hear diversity and inclusion, more now. I think that’s a good thing.
Diversity is being invited to the party and inclusion is being asked to dance.
Just addressing diversity by hiring some token person of color you need for your white company, is not solving anything. But, bringing in people in an inclusive manner, actually having conversations with people—and not just one person of color—I feel like we’re heading in that direction, more and more.
That was very clear and I really appreciate it. I want to press a little bit on the first thing you said because I want to understand it better.
So I’m a white dude. But if you’re not a white man, until the last few years, that has hurt your chances of getting anything. So for the first time in literally the history of America, it now might help you. So what I would think is that would feel exciting, or that maybe there is a feeling of like for my parents, I should take advantage of that. I’m hearing you say that you want to be hired on your merit. You don’t want to feel like a diversity hire.
I think both things are true. It’s like anything, unfortunately, t’s not like I have a solution for this. When I was in high school when affirmative action was a big topic. I took a statistics class and for one of our projects that we did my friend Ryan and I were partners. He was a white guy. We decided to investigate bias among our fellow students as a statistics project.
We asked our classmates if they supported affirmative action? And we chose a random sampling of students at the school. Ryan asked his set of students that question and I asked a set of students that question. There was a statistically significant difference between the responses that we got. I got a lot more people saying that they were in support of affirmative action, and he got a lot more people saying that they were not in favor.
So, therefore, people change their responses, depending on who they’re talking to. People are basically telling me something that is not true. It sort of illuminated to me that I’m being treated differently.
Then as I was applying to colleges and stuff, I was thinking I’m doing really well in school, I have a great GPA, and I’m doing all these great extracurriculars. Does all that shit matter? Am I ultimately going to be chosen because I’m a minority? That’s the one aspect of myself that I can’t control. I can’t control that I’m Indian American. I can control my education and my skills, so I’d like to be judged on those things.
In my mind, the issue has always been more about nepotism rather than racism. If you’re somebody who gets to hire people then you have that power. And you’re going to hire your friends. That’s how the world works.
That’s how the world works.
So if you’re living in Western Mass, and all of your friends are white people, then yeah, you’re gonna be more likely to hire white people.
I think getting a variety of people in positions of power, it will trickle down. If there are different kinds of people making decisions, those decisions will have a variety of perspectives.
Absolutely. I think a problem with a lot of this sort of diversity hiring initiatives are that they’re not at the leadership level. And they’re not promoting them. We need to get more diversity in leadership.
You gotta tell us about your work, man. What are you doing at Netflix?
How I got it was, after graduating from USC, I was trying to make it as a screenwriter. And I needed a day job. And so one of the things I was doing was working as a freelance video editor, and I was doing some post-production stuff.
My friend Avi was working at Disney. And they were starting this project—which is way before Disney+, but this work would eventually fuel Disney+—tagging content. They needed a bunch of contractors to watch a bunch of Disney shows and movies and tag a bunch of things in them. And that was like things as simple as tag every time this character appears on screen, in Grey’s Anatomy. So I’m watching episodes of Grey’s Anatomy and then tagging every time every character comes on screen. And we’re training these algorithms and models that can then automatically detect those faces.
I did that for long enough. This was a small enough and new enough group that I kind of rose up the ranks to some extent. And it also gave me this sort of experience in a new field that not a lot of people have. So basically, this friend of mine, saw this job posting at Netflix that looked kind of similar to what I was doing at Disney, part-time. And she said, “oh, you should apply to this.”
So I did and it basically is like a grownup version of what I was doing at Disney. Technically, it’s a research and development role. We’re trying to improve the way that Netflix does this categorization classification, which ultimately helps with their personalization algorithms and stuff. So we, the team that I’m on, like to call ourselves the humans behind the algorithm.
So like, you’re behind the Netflix algorithm?
I mean, I’m one of many people.
I’m seeing inside the machine right now.
Yeah. I’d say it’s cool, it’s a cool place to be. But I mean, I’m not an engineer. I’m not a data scientist. So there are a lot of smarter people than me who are doing the actual kind of programming and stuff of those algorithms. But the way I describe it is that Netflix has tech people, engineers, data scientists, whatever. And then it has content people like creative people, content executives, and all that. And my team kind of sits in between.
The tech people don’t always understand the content and the content people don’t always understand the tech. And we kind of bridge that gap. But I remember when I got hired, them telling me, you’re the first person that we ever hired that actually had prior experience in this field. That’s how new this stuff had been out. But now I’m sure every streaming service or every media company has some equivalent to this team.
Wait, is your job to watch TVs and movies all day? And take notes on them?
How much shit can you watch in a day? And then what do you do at night?
I still watch stuff at night, too. I’m just obsessed with TV and movies.
Can you give us any inside scoop? Can you tell us anything?
I can’t say too much. I mean, it’s proprietary. But I guess I’ll say this, I think a lot of people assume that there’s like this computer at Netflix, that’s just like making decisions. That’s what people assume?
That’s very much not true. There are people making those decisions always. It’s the same as any other studio to some extent, it’s up to the whims of the content executives. The people who are greenlighting things are people. Now, the difference is that they have access to a lot of data, a lot more data than most other companies would have. But some executives don’t work off of that at all and they’re purely on instinct.
Okay, so what I would assume is that The Kissing Booth does really well. And the executives get in the meeting and say, “Okay, we got to make three more Kissing Booths and five other movies that follow this blueprint. But what you’re saying is that there’s room for somebody who comes up with a totally original idea? Maybe a creator, director, or showrunner that people have belief in or have a resume?
It’s so funny because I can’t even believe I’m comparing MMH to Netflix, but this is what we’re dealing with too. We’re very committed to social justice, substantive conversations, and exploring systems. And at the same time, we’re also trying to build a business and there’s a push and pull between what we want to do and what is working.
That’s a thing that I think every company is dealing with. On some level, I think one thing that I like about the way Netflix operates is that they are not driven by advertising. So like, those decisions about what to greenlight or not, are not based on random corporate interests, which is the case for most news media.
Every news organization is trying to find the right balance between the content that people are actually going to click on and the content that is going to make the public more sort of enlightened. And those two things are rarely the same. We need people to click because we need the advertisers to get us money. Netflix, fortunately, doesn’t have to deal with that at all. All of their money comes from subscriptions. So all they have to do is please their members. So when you say, do we need some kind of analytic data, to greenlight something? The data only has to pertain to the member base.
I feel like we could honestly talk for another two hours.
Oh yeah, sure. I love this.
I’ll let you go, but real quick, because you said you’re such a cinephile, what’s your favorite film of 2021?
I felt like last year’s set of Oscar nominees was not reflective of the best movies of the year. I really liked the French Dispatch. I also loved Pig, the Nicolas Cage movie.
Alright Arun, thank you so much. It was a pleasure having you.
Oh, it’s great. It’s great to be here. Thank you.