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.
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.
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 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.