Aparna Nancherla: 'I'm Still Shy,' Even As A Stand-Up Star

Aug 30, 2019
Originally published on August 31, 2019 1:56 am

When it comes to comedy, Aparna Nancherla's brand is anxiety. She turns the insecurities and questions inside her mind into a brand of commentary on modern life. Her style is light and gentle, but it's rooted in a place of pain and struggle.

"After the election, I started talking about the gentrification of mental health a little bit, where a lot of new people started moving into the neighborhood of anxiety and depression," Nancherla says. "You're like, 'Welcome! But I've always lived here.'"

Nancherla is an unusual star of the modern comedy world. She was born to Indian immigrant parents outside Washington, D.C., considered joining the military and arrived at comedy against anyone's wildest expectations. She appears on the Comedy Central show Corporate, voices Hollyhock on BoJack Horseman, has written for late-night talk shows and has performed stand-up specials for Comedy Central and Netflix.

As part of a series of conversations with the rule-breaking women of comedy, I sat down with Aparna Nancherla recently after she performed a set at the Outside Lands Festival in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park. Here are some highlights from our public conversation.


Interview Highlights

On being a shy kid

A lot of people do say they were shy kids, but it's always framed as a story of triumph. And they're like, "Look at me now!" And I feel like I'm still shy, and I think my thing is: I don't think it's something you have to overcome necessarily. ... And I think I maybe came from a shyer place. I was definitely heavily introverted. I lived in books. My parents made me practice being more assertive by ordering pizzas over the phone. ... [I was] maybe 8 [years old]? Such a high stakes — just like, "OK, I'm gonna need two mediums."

On what prompted her first attempt at stand-up comedy

Like a lot of people, I had gone to college with a lot of expectations. I was like, "This is where I'm going to figure myself out; this is where I'm going to get all my answers of what my path is in life." And then after my first year, I felt like there was maybe another door to life that was going to open — and it didn't, necessarily. So I think that manifested in an eating disorder, because I was also running cross-country and track at the time, and I think there were already some eating issues on our team. And once I started working on addressing that problem, it uncovered an underlying depression and an existentialism that has run throughout my life.

Audie Cornish and Aparna Nancherla speak onstage during the 2019 Outside Lands Music And Arts Festival in San Francisco, Calif.
FilmMagic / Courtesy of Outside Lands

I went on anti-depressants, and I think a lot of people who, when they go on medication for the first time, it elevates your worldview in a way of almost literally like putting on rose-colored glasses. I'm like, I didn't know you could experience the world in this frequency. ... And because of that, I started trying a lot of things I wouldn't have otherwise. And I think that's the only way I landed on "I'm going to do an open mic in a Best Western!"

On being a woman in a writers' room of TV shows

Just to use a specific example, I remember at Kamau's show [Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell], there were three women writers at the time, but we pitched a segment on a yogurt that was targeted toward men. We were like: We think that's funny — like, maybe we should do like other products that are typically marketed toward women that they're trying to do male [versions of]. And then the men were like, "Wait, is yogurt a women thing?" They had never paid attention ... or their minds had just changed to a gentle hum whenever women's marketing turned on. ...

And they're not trying to not be on your side, but it's like — they're just coming from a completely different base of experience. And by virtue of the fact that there are more of them in the room, it gets shouted down, or, you know, sidelined.

On success in the social media age

I don't understand how people make their livelihood off of the Web where just you're continually putting yourself up for judgment by just hordes of people who usually are not doing anything more than engaging in a mob mentality. ... So I think I've just been aware of the amount of space Twitter and Instagram take up in my brain, and the reality that you're operating off of that isn't necessarily the actual world. I think that sort of stuff makes me step back and be like, 'Whoa, this feels no longer safe.'

On what she would tell her 8-year-old self

It's just the simple self-care thing that you hear thrown around a lot, but I think is actually true in a deep way, which is that "you're enough." You're enough regardless of how many followers you have, what you've done in your work, or how well your relationship is going. You could literally just sit on the ground and not do anything, and you're a worthy human being.

Bilal Qureshi, Joanna Pawlowska, Art Silverman and Sarah Handel produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

We've been talking about the comedy business and some of the women breaking the rules of what comedy can be in 2019. For instance, social media is the new calling card, where you can build your audience, maybe be discovered and booked for shows. The comedian Aparna Nancherla has made her struggles with the social media side of the job part of her stand-up routine. Here she is on "The Late Show With Stephen Colbert."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LATE SHOW WITH STEPHEN COLBERT")

APARNA NANCHERLA: I think social media is my main vice, though I did have a big development with Instagram. I discovered the mute button and just went wild with power. Like, I turned into someone I didn't know, but I'm glad I met her. I tried to start out conservative. I picked out a few people, and I was just like, I'll just work back up to not being threatened by her level of success, you know?

(LAUGHTER)

NANCHERLA: But then before I knew it, even puppies were being silenced. I was just, like, ugh. They're just getting younger and younger, you know?

(APPLAUSE)

CORNISH: Now, this brand of comedy made Aparna Nancherla a star. Recently she did back-to-back sets at the Outside Lands Music and Arts Festival in San Francisco.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Everyone please welcome to the stage Aparna Nancherla.

(APPLAUSE)

CORNISH: And that's where we sat down to talk before a sold-out crowd. I last interviewed her in 2016 the day before the presidential election, and she told me then her little online community was called sad girl Twitter. She has more company now.

NANCHERLA: Yeah, it's interesting. After the election, I think I started talking about almost the gentrification of mental health a little bit, where a lot of new people started moving into the neighborhood...

CORNISH: Right.

NANCHERLA: ...Of anxiety and depression.

CORNISH: Acted like they invented it...

NANCHERLA: Yeah. You're like, welcome, but I've always lived here.

CORNISH: That's because she's struggled with anxiety her whole life.

OK. Some people say they were a shy kid, but according to your parents, you were very, very shy. What did that look like?

NANCHERLA: Well, the interesting thing is a lot of people do say they were shy kids, but it's always framed as a story of triumph. And they're like, look at me now, you know? Like, I've got seven shows, and I'm never not telling it like it is. And I feel like I'm still shy, and I think my thing is kind of, like, I don't think it's something you have to overcome necessarily because I think it's something we often, as a society, look at as something that is a flaw or a weakness. And I think I maybe came from a shyer place. Like, I was definitely heavily introverted. I lived in books. My parents made me practice being more assertive by, like, ordering pizzas over the phone. Like, that was one of the many...

CORNISH: That's high pressure.

NANCHERLA: It's very high pressure.

CORNISH: How old were you when this is happening?

NANCHERLA: I think maybe 8.

CORNISH: That's like...

NANCHERLA: Such a high-stakes - like an action movie just like - OK, I'm going to need two mediums.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: So nobody in her family in Virginia outside Washington, D.C., where she grew up imagined she'd do comedy for a living. She told us that one summer, when she was home from college - on a mental health break, actually - she went to an open mic stand-up show and took a turn on stage. She loved it. So I asked her about when she started to pursue comedy for real because it sounds like it was another story.

Your father has said that, you know, you would come home from those early attempts at stand-up and sometimes be in tears.

NANCHERLA: Yeah.

CORNISH: And again, it's that moment of - like, what pushes you?

NANCHERLA: I think there was a part of me that was sort of stubbornly like, no. I'm going to make them listen to what I have to say, and if I - if it doesn't work tonight, I'm going to figure out, like, a halfway point because I think I've often lived enough of my life in my head that a lot of times, I just want to, like, translate what I'm seeing to the rest of the world.

CORNISH: Now that she's a pro and in the public eye and on social media, there are a lot more people listening.

NANCHERLA: There is a lot more people yelling at me, like, all the time, and I think that's made me a little bit more wary of it. If it's a political tweet or something, it'll be trolls. Sometimes, it'll be someone who saw some of my work, and they'll be like, you know, you're terrible. I don't think you should be allowed on - you know, to have a career or whatever it is. But it's just enough noise that I think, as someone who absorbs everything at face value, I'm kind of like, I don't know why I care so much about, like, a faceless entity, but the fact that I do is maybe making me second-guess this whole thing. Yeah.

CORNISH: You were talking, I think, in your set last night about - you'd made a passing comment about Taylor Swift and felt the backlash was almost immediate.

NANCHERLA: Yeah. So I said she has a new single out called "ME!," which is also ironically what she called all her relationships, which...

(LAUGHTER)

NANCHERLA: I know.

(APPLAUSE)

NANCHERLA: Oh, wow.

CORNISH: Whoa.

NANCHERLA: Wow.

CORNISH: Hit the mute button for the rest of the afternoon.

NANCHERLA: I was like - I was ready to be dragged.

(LAUGHTER)

NANCHERLA: But yeah, all of her fans, they came for me.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: Thoughts and prayers...

NANCHERLA: Yeah. Thank you, Audie. Thank you.

CORNISH: But it's not just about jokes. Aparna Nancherla's whole brand of humor lives at the intersection of laughter and sadness, and I asked Nancherla about the pitfalls of offering up one's vulnerabilities for laughs.

NANCHERLA: I think I started talking about mental health on stage as a way to essentially cope with it. I was struggling with depression at the time, and I wasn't able to write about anything else, so I'd just start writing - trying to write some jokes around the depressive thoughts that were filling my mind. And then I tried that on stage and received more of a reception for it than I expected.

But the more I've talked about and the more I've almost been branded that way where it's like, oh, she's a woman of color who talks about mental health, I have worried a little bit about the real estate I've given it in my brain in terms of, like - are you now making this a part of your identity? Or are you giving it room to be like, no, this is all you're about, which I think in a way has - I almost think it's been, like, fuel for my anxiety where it's like, oh, you think you can make money off of me? Well, I'll show you what I can do - where it's, like, gotten worse in a sense, and depression, too, around, like, factors like success or, like, career has gotten louder in a lot of ways.

CORNISH: And yet, in the last few years, she's toured the country and done shows for Netflix and Comedy Central, and frankly, it feels like the tale of triumph she first told me this interview would not be.

Is there something you feel like you could tell 8-year-old Aparna - right? - who's, like, trying to make that pizza order and is terrified?

NANCHERLA: Yeah. I think it's just you - I mean, it's just the simple kind of self-care, I think, thing that you hear thrown around a lot but I think is actually true in a deep way, which is that, like, you're enough. And, like, you're enough regardless of, you know, how many followers you have, what you've done in your work or how many - how well your relationship is going. Like, you could literally just sit on the ground and not do anything and you're, like, a worthy human being.

CORNISH: Well, I want to thank you. Aparna Nancherla, thank you...

NANCHERLA: Thank you.

CORNISH: ...So much for speaking with us here at Outside Lands.

(APPLAUSE)

CORNISH: Comedian Aparna Nanacherla. We spoke to her before a live audience in San Francisco for our series on the rule-breaking women of comedy. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.