"Do you think you could do it sassier?"
That's the question a casting director asks in an episode of MTV's Loosely Exactly Nicole. As a black actress, the main character has heard that one before, but she plays it coy. "Sassier?" she responds. The casting director struggles for another adjective - urban? - before saying what she really means.
"Blacker," the woman explains. "I want it blacker."
And so Nicole, played by Nicole Byer, reads and rereads the line for a commercial advertising pills for restless leg syndrome. She does "church-lady black," then "Oprah black," as the casting director requests, but she leaves the room knowing it was all for nothing. She didn't book the part.
"Commercial auditions can be pretty humiliating," Byer said during a phone call earlier this month. But it feels good to air all her pent-up frustrations now that those days are behind her.
Maybe that's why Byer isn't the only one pulling back the curtain on a demoralizing part of Hollywood life. Like Loosely Exactly Nicole, Better Things and Master of None turn a withering gaze on the way casting directors pigeonhole actors and feed stereotypes. Industry navel-gazing can feel pretty self-indulgent at times, but these glimpses of the hiring process are perfect fodder for funny, incisive commentary on the entertainment business's often-outdated attitudes.
It's probably no coincidence that these shows were made by the stars - the very people who suffered through terrible auditions before landing their own series. Pamela Adlon is the writer-director-lead behind Better Things on FX, and Aziz Ansari just won an Emmy with Alan Yang for writing Master of None, a Netflix show in which he stars.
The audition scene in Loosely Exactly Nicole echoes one in Master of None, when Ansari's character, Dev - like Ansari, the son of Indian immigrants - is trying out for a bit part as a cab driver on a procedural. The casting director tells him to read his lines with an Indian accent, but he refuses, even though he knows he'll lose the part.
Later, he rationalizes his decision to his friend Ravi (Ravi Patel), who also auditioned but was happy to do the accent.
"Isn't it frustrating so much of the stuff we go out for is just stereotypes?" Dev asks. "Cab driver, scientist, IT guy."
Of course, part of the joke is the meta nature of the conversation. In Master of None, Dev and Ravi are just regular guys: American-born actors trying to make it in New York. As the episode goes on, they lament the sad reality that a sitcom they're both finalists for can have only one Indian character; any more, and it would look like "an Indian show."
While throwing shade at the industry, Master of None simultaneously proves how wrong that assumption is. On the show, Dev's closest friends are an array of ethnicities, but that didn't shrink the audience. Master of None was a conversation-starter that won a Peabody Award.
Adlon, from Better Things, shows a different kind of plight, that of the middle-aged actress. Like the others, Adlon plays a version of herself. Sam Fox was a child actor who still has a career - albeit playing bit parts - while raising three daughters on her own.
In one of the series's strongest episodes so far, Woman Is the Something of the Something, we see a team of people trying to cast their sitcom. The showrunners are stymied, but the director has an idea.
"I have someone," he says before lifting a photo of Sam. "She was in a pilot I directed about 10 years ago and was hilarious. Network fired her because she had no tits."
The showrunners, played by Danny Pudi and Zach Woods, are immediately on board. So their skeptical producer reaches out to Sam's equally dubious agent to check the actress's availability.
"Danny and Zach love her," the producer tells the agent over the phone. "They haven't checked the network yet."
"Ah," the agent responds. "Got it."
We realize only later how much is said without actually being said. Both the agent and the producer know that Sam won't get the part, no matter how excited the show's creators are to cast her. And they're right. The network president feigns interest before hijacking the process and hiring Rachel McAdams instead.
Though the sequence of events is outrageous, it doesn't come across as a great injustice so much as an eyeroll-inducing reality that is starting to change thanks to shows like Better Things.
Adlon isn't entirely cynical about casting. Ahead of her show's debut, she said that the toughest part of auditioning is the waste of time that results when directors cast a wide net even though they're looking for something extremely specific.
But, increasingly, casting directors are being more open-minded.
"The good news now, for everyone, is that I feel like (television is) far more inclusive and far more creative," Adlon said. "I think that the pressure has been put on, certainly in network television, to do something different and something more people can relate to."
Maybe that will mean less pigeonholing, especially for actors of color. Last year, America Ferrera told the New York Times about an early audition when the casting director asked her to sound "more Latino."
"I genuinely didn't realize until later that she was asking me to speak English with a broken accent," she said in the interview. "It confused me, because I thought, I am Latino, so isn't this what a Latino sounds like?"
But the stereotypical accents aren't even the worst of it. During one nightmarish commercial audition, the casting director asked Byer to take off her shirt. The gimmick of the spot was that one woman would transform into another each time she removed her dress, and the casting director wasn't content with Byer miming it.
"I was like, 'You know I'm fat, right?' And they were like, 'Yep!' " she recalled. "Then they put me in heels, because they were like, 'You don't walk like a lady.' I was like, 'I feel like this is a trick.' "
She suffered through and got called back - and had to do it all again with even more men in the room - but didn't book the part.
"Usually, it's men making the choices," she said. But she doesn't have to worry about that now. "Now, I'm f---ing in charge," she said with a laugh.
Television has received accolades recently for its inclusivity, and shows with diverse casts (think "Empire" and "Black-ish") do well for the networks. For many years, decision-makers were operating under the assumption that any show not dominated by white characters would have limited appeal.
In a subplot of the Indians on TV episode of Master of None, Ravi tells Dev about a business he's investing in. It's a chickpea-based protein powder called Mumbai Muscle. Dev is leery.
"Seems a little niche," he says.
"If you call a billion Indians niche," Ravi responds.