Comedian, writer, and actress Aparna Nancherla finds stability and builds community—onstage and off.
“Listen, I’d love to stop and chat,
but I have crippling social anxiety.”
“Wherever my depression is right
now, I hope it’s happy.”
“Isn’t therapy just a podcast off
One-liners like these are precisely why comedian Aparna Nancherla’s sense of humor is so instantly relatable and beloved. Her distinctive blend of dry, slightly absurd, and thoroughly honest humor taps into our society’s collective well of anxiety and depression. What Nancherla is able to do that so many of us struggle with is to give a voice (and some lightness) to our shared struggles with mental health.
And while the cliché of the slightly neurotic, overthinking comedian is nothing new, there is something different about these conversations and stories in the hands of Nancherla. She has an awareness of their power to bring people together and their risk of limiting people to a one-dimensional representation. And she’s working to move beyond those one-note ideas of comedians toward a more evolved and three-dimensional representation of not just herself, but of others in her community.
Open Mic Night in Northern Virginia
Nancherla grew up in the suburbs of Washington, DC, in McLean, Virginia, where her parents, both doctors, emigrated from India in the late 1970s. She had what she described as a “pretty typical upper-middle-class upbringing,” and she and her older sister were, at the urging of their parents, highly school-oriented and excelled at extracurricular activities like piano lessons and dance classes.
While Nancherla admits that comedy was, “sort of a curveball career move” for her, there were early signs that comedy held a power she would find useful later in life.
Every week Nancherla and her sister attended what she calls “Hinduism Sunday School.” It was there that she took a public speaking class and realized the power of humor. “I entered a speech competition. I remember I made my speech funny, and everyone else’s was a bit more serious and political. I think I tried to take down Bollywood movies or something. I was like, “So . . . this is my problem with Bollywood movies.” I think because it was funny, it stood out from the other ones and I ended up winning. That was probably the first time where I realized: I like making people laugh in front of a big group. That felt more comfortable to me than a lot of things that were more mundane, like talking to people at a party. I felt like I had a sense of control. I think that planted the seed.”
After this realization, Nancherla would try to work jokes into her school presentations or write them in a humorous way. But it wasn’t until college, when a friend suggested they check out an open mic night at a comedy club in Tyson’s Corner, Virgnia, that she tried her hand at comedy onstage. “[My friend] was like, ‘I’m going to try this open mic,’ so I thought, I guess I could try that too. I think it went well enough that I thought maybe I could put this on the back burner for the future, because I didn’t try it again until after I graduated from college and moved back home. But that definitely was my first real dip into the water.”
After graduating from Amherst with a degree in psychology, Nancherla got her first real set onstage and spent the summer preparing for it. “There was a lot of overthinking involved in it. I tried to write ideas for material the whole summer. I wrote about living with my parents and summer jobs. But it was pretty basic and I truly did not know what I was doing. I put off the set until the very end of the summer. I think my first set was actually on my birthday, so I definitely mentioned that during the set. ‘Please be nice. It’s my birthday and my first time onstage.’”
Nancherla continued doing stand-up sets on a regular basis while living at home with her family. She continued to build her act—and confidence—onstage while working temporary jobs around town. In 2012 she moved to New York City, where she was offered a full-time job writing for the television show Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell in New York City. It was in writer’s rooms like this that Nancherla discovered one of the best parts of working in comedy and comedy writing. “My favorite part of my job is being creative and getting to meet people who see the world in an offbeat way. With TV writing you’re essentially telling a story and finding an interesting or a funny way to tell it. That has been really cool and so exciting to get to do with a group of people.”
After her time on Totally Biased, Nancherla wrote for NBC’s Late Night with Seth Meyers. Soon after, comedian Tig Notaro (whom Nancherla had met while performing at a comedy festival Notaro started in Washington, DC) encouraged her to create a comedy album. And in 2016, Nancherla’s debut album, Just Putting It Out There, was released on Notaro’s label, Bentzen Ball Records.
Full-Time Funny Business
Going on her seventh year of full-time comedy work, Nancherla understands that part of any successful career is trying different avenues and forms of comedy. In addition to stand-up and writing for television series, Nancherla has created a podcast (Blue Woman Group, about depression, with Jacqueline Novak) and a web series (Womanhood, with Jo Firestone for Refinery29) and has done voice work for shows like BoJack Horseman and Steven Universe. She’s also appeared on television shows such as Master of None and films like A Simple Favor, and is a regular on the Comedy Central show Corporate.
With all of the avenues she’s pursuing as her work evolves, Nancherla is aware that she needs to be careful not to overdo it. “I think for me personally the hardest part of what I do is balancing self-care with feeling like I’m doing enough in terms of making my career happen. I have a big fear of letting people down. I think once you become responsible for other people’s incomes, whether it’s through them representing you or not feeling your best and wanting to cancel [an appearance], you have to learn how to prioritize what you show up to and how and when you’re saying yes to things.”
Nancherla is aware that no one can do all of these projects alone. She has a supportive team around her, including friends like comedy writer Joe Zimmerman and comedians such as Sarah Silverman and Tig Notaro, and is careful to acknowledge that all of the brightest moments we see from the outside are the result of a team effort. “You may be the face of a project as the artist, but depending on what it is, there are so many different pieces of a puzzle that all come together. In the end, it may seem like it’s your thing because your face is on it and you’re the one promoting it heavily, but everything is because you’re part of a team of people who are helping to create that thing. You’re always a piece of a bigger thing and someone is helping you engineer your vision.”
Mental Health and Comedy
Anxiety, depression, and mental health are a big part of Nancherla’s comedy, but she’s aware of how easy it is to get trapped in those concepts as identities. “I’ve sort of wrestled with whether it helps or hurts [to be known for those topics], because once it becomes your full-time career and your livelihood, your relationship to them changes. I don’t want it to become a one-note thing or like, this is my whole deal, because we’re all three-dimensional people, and we want to be more than just our demons.”
“The reason I started talking about this in the first place was I was kind of in a rut creatively. It felt like depression and anxiety were kind of exacerbating that or maybe even the cause of that rut. I think talking about them became a way to take some of the power out of it or work through what I was dealing with at the time. I think now I’m trying to find a balance between talking about it and not letting it dominate everything.”
Nancherla mentioned the impact comedian Hannah Gadsby’s special, Nanette, had on her work and perception of mental health and comedy. In Nannette, Gadsby questions how comedy and punch lines can trap comedians in negative relationships with their identities and stories. “I think it made me think about what is the goal of comedy a lot of times,” she explained. “Who are you really trying to lighten the mood for? Is it for other people, or is it for yourself? I think it is a very fine line between making light of stuff that a lot of times can be very painful or dark, and trying to figure out what exactly you are trying to say at the end of the day.”
We’re all three-dimensional people, and we want to be more than just our demons.
Working toward a more three-dimensional representation of herself and her comedy, Nancherla has tested a lot of platforms for her work, especially social media. And while it can be a powerful incubator, she’s aware of the risks.
“I think social media has exacerbated the idea that you’re freely inspired at all times, especially with Twitter, where you’re writing jokes. Sometimes people will be like, I didn’t like this tweet, or This wasn’t your best tweet, or something. You’re like, Okay, but this is free content and I’m not really trying to [present this as] a finished, fully polished joke. But people are like, I get to be the arbiter of whether I like this or not.” And that feedback can be complicated when the issues of identity are involved.
“Right now in the comedy community, there is this idea that if you’re not a straight white male, it’s like, Oh, lucky you. Like if you’re a woman of color that’s all people want right now. But, no. I think it’s just correcting an imbalance that has existed forever, and it might seem that way because we’re not used to paying attention to people who have traditionally been on the margins. People think I must be rolling in opportunities right now. But with that comes that thing of, well, everyone also has their own agenda they’re projecting onto you. And at the end of the day, you can really only follow your own intuition as to what projects you want to do. You have to navigate your humanity within all the politics of what’s marketable or what’s trending at the moment.”
Nancherla’s keen observation of feedback on social media and trends in comedy has given her a sharply honed barometer of who and what she can trust as her career evolves. “I think I’m more sensitive to this now, because it feels like there’s more opportunity for people based on their identity right now. But at the same time, you don’t want to be pigeonholed. I think the good thing about it is that [the industry] is asking for those voices, but as three-dimensional people, not just as whatever that one identity is.”
As Nancherla moves forward she has her eyes on a more holistic and realistic view of her work and the industry as a whole. “There’s one saying that I always turn to: ‘Don’t compare your behind-the-scenes to someone else’s highlight reel.’ I love that quote, because I do exactly that. I always see people’s high points, and I’m like, why can’t I just do that? But I’m not seeing any of the stuff going on right in the background.”
In a world where we’re all just doing our best to be seen and heard as full people, Nancherla’s open-eyed and openhearted view of comedy (and creative life) serves us all well. Understanding that everyone is struggling behind the scenes, doing their best, and hoping to do something that makes people smile is a great reminder for life and work.
And at the end of the day, Nancherla is just hoping to make people laugh. When I asked her who she would most want to enjoy a set of hers, she said, “Grover from Sesame Street. I would love to have a conversation with a Muppet to begin with, but I think if I then got to imagine Grover sitting in the audience and listening to the whole show, I think I could subsist off of that for a long time.”