Comedian Aparna Nancherla Turned Her Awkwardness Into A Thriving Career
The rising comic star talks about her strict upbringing, anxiety, and why put-downs are no longer funny.
Aparna Nancherla is part of Oxygen’s digital series In Progress 52. In 2016, Oxygen's Very Real digital hub is featuring 52 of these outstanding women: that's one woman a week, for 52 weeks. Check out the series here!
Aparna Nancherla started doing comedy in Washington, D.C. after being raised in a "pretty typical suburban upper middle class upbringing" in a northern Virginian suburb. But when asked whether she was funny or not as a kid, she describes a fairly atypical experience, one that fostered her unique sense of the absurd. She says, “Both my parents are immigrants so we were a little sheltered from a lot. We weren’t allowed to go to sleepovers. We were a little more tied to the house than others kids. So you find other ways to fulfill yourself.
“I definitely think I was very shy, very introverted. I read a lot," she continues. "My head was always stuck in a book. My sensibility, my point of view was very much that of someone stuck in their own head. So I think when I came to comedy when I was a little older and starting to come out of my shell more, people were like 'oh you see the world in the funny way.' And I realized my thoughts were received as funny.”
She’s been working as a comedy writer since 2012, starting at Totally Biased with Kamau Bell, going on to work at Late Night with Seth Myers. She also appeared on Inside Amy Schumer and recently recorded a half-hour comedy special that aired on Comedy Central in early September. Nancherla’s comedy album Just Putting It Out There was released in July on Tig Notaro’s label imprint, Bentzen Ball Records.
It’s obvious that the internal oddities of her introverted childhood have turned into something with wide appeal. To celebrate her album, Nancherla went on a mini-tour, her first time time by herself, which was exciting -- if anxiety-producing.
“Whenever I go to a different city I think ‘Will they understand these references?,” but it's pretty broad stuff so that’s sort of a silly fear.”
Since most people can’t picture doing stand-up without soul-clenching terror, I asked her if there were still times when she feels that. She says, “I think I still am naturally more anxious, so I still get stage fright. I still get nerves for stuff. Sometimes it feels out of proportion to whatever the thing is, but I think now I’ve gotten to a place where at least I’ve had enough experience where even if I feel like it’s not growing great I can say okay, you’ve been here before, you know how to work through it."
When asked if she had any particular examples, she laughs.
“I think just a few months ago I did a college gig where it was a music festival. It was basically eight bands, and then they for some reason thought it would be a good idea to put a comedian. I think the band before me was a punk band and I just thought, ‘This is not gonna go well for anyone.’ It was a half and hour set so I couldn’t really [leave]. Sometimes when it's a gig where you’re like, ‘This is terrible, no one is enjoying this,’ you kind of go to another space in your head, like your happy place....I think there was a moment around minute 20 where I looked and there was a girl just spinning around in circles. I thought, ‘This is the dream!’”
There have also been triumphs, of course (or why else would you do it?!), like appearing on Conan and a night opening for one of her heroes Tig Notaro. Nancherla also recently worked on a web series for Refinery 29 with fellow comedy queen Jo Firestone, with whom she shares mutual admiration. When asked if she’d like to see her career lead her towards having a show of her own, she replies, “I definitely would like to create something specifically around my sensibility, but I love collaborating with people so I’d want to do it with a group of people or ensemble. I don’t think I’d want ‘The Aparna Show.’”
When asked what kinds of jokes make her laugh (besides the ones she tweets her to 100k followers), Nancherla says she’s been doing comedy for so long and absorbing so much content at shows that she is rarely surprised by jokes anymore. “The ones I really like are way out of left field and crazy because that’s what still surprises me," she says. “The stuff I don’t like, if it feels like it’s punching down....It just feels easy. And a lot of times audiences will still laugh at those jokes. They’re not explicitly offensive, like a rape joke. But you’re still kind of towing that line of these old tropes. Like the naggy wife. Or whatever it is, to me that’s just not exciting.”
Comedy tends to be a place where people’s ideas of what’s funny intersects with what other people find offensive. In terms of what a comedian owes audiences from a moral perspective, Nancherla says she tends to tweet stuff in regards to her politics, but doesn’t engage in arguments online. She doesn’t judge comedians who keep their public persona focused on goofs either.
“I try not assume everyone’s internet presence is who they are a 100 percent across the board... At the end of the day you can only answer to yourself."
Within her act, one of the difficult issues Nancherla addresses frequently is depression. One of her favorites comedians is Maria Bamford, another comedian who talks openly about her struggles with her mental health. Nancherla says when she first took her comedy to New York, she felt somewhat isolated by her anxiety. She says, “The thing about entertainment is that even if you’re a well-adjusted person it’s a pretty erratic industry, so if you’re already prone to spiraling naturally you have to be pretty cognizant of those pitfalls.”
With lots of self-care and therapy, Nancherla has adjusted to the pace, but she thinks what really helped her was being open about what she was going through and discovering she wasn’t alone.
“I have found a really rewarding thing is to talk to peers about it. When I first started comedy, I didn’t think anyone was dealing with these things, or I just thought they were handling it better. Everyone seemed to have more of a grip on their issues. And the more I talked about it, I realized that no, it seems like a lot of us deal with the same things, and that’s been one of the more rewarding things about being in comedy for so long is finding so many likeminded people with brains that follow similar paths as yours, even if they seem kind of irrational to another person.”
When asked what she might have told that younger version of herself first coming to the big city, or what she tell any person getting started on their comedy career, Nancherla laughs and says, “This seems so cliche because I think it’s repeated a lot. But, everything that you’re working towards, nothing you get is going to fix all your problems. You really have to enjoy wherever you’re at. Not that it's always fun, having a day job, then going to do spots, and you’re tired—but just enjoy the steps along the way because it’s an ongoing process.”
[Photos: Shaughn & John]