Aparna Nancherla is Not Completely Depressing

How The Stand-Up Comedian Can Still Joke in America in 2017

  • Interview: Julia cooper
  • Photography: Brianna Capozzi

“I just want the confidence of one of DJ Khaled's shirts,” Aparna Nancherla tweeted wistfully. Online or off, she’s funny as hell. Nancherla’s comedy burrows into the idiosyncrasies of being a living, breathing, anxious human in America in 2017.

Nancherla doesn’t look like a stand-up comic. Even by her own estimate. She doesn’t fit “the typical norm of the straight white male” that has been the bread and butter of American comedy since Lenny Bruce. She’s little, she’s brown, she’s a woman. She’s also on the frontlines of a new wave of comedy brought to you by the internet where new and weird is good.

Nancherla’s sense of humor runs dark and playful, from jokes about her depression, to PowerPoint slides decoding the layered meanings of emojis. Julia Cooper spoke with Nancherla about feeling like a fake, breaking into television, and the reasons why her darker material has been landing especially well since November.

Julia Cooper

Aparna Nancherla

You wrote a piece for the Village Voice in December about doing stand-up comedy since the election. People have been relating more to your darker material?

Yeah, a lot of people felt very lost and dejected after the election. I think many artists were figuring out what they wanted to say after that, and what they wanted to do with their time on stage. It feels like it’s hard to not talk about it—it’s hard to ignore—but a lot of people are going to comedy shows right now to escape the news a little bit. So it does feel like a balance of addressing what’s going on without getting too entrenched in the horror of it. Also trying to have a little distance from it, and to have somewhat of a take on it that’s not completely depressing.

Does it ever feel wrong to be cracking jokes when the world is going to hell? Or do you just have faith in the art of comedy?

I definitely go back and forth. Sometimes things are just terrible and it’s really hard to find a way to make light of it. But I think it also feels like it’s more important to talk about stuff than to not talk about it. There has to be a way to address it even if it’s going to be really tricky and delicate.

How has the game changed in the 11 years since you started doing stand-up? It seems like some of the terms have shifted pretty dramatically in the last decade.

One of the biggest things is that the digital landscape has really blown up. YouTube was just hitting its stride when I started, and then Facebook came in, and then Twitter and Snapchat. I feel like those opened up the playing field for more people to create content, and for more people to try and be funny for strangers. A lot of comedy writing has been opened up. In terms of stand-up itself, there’s more of a demand for artists that are more outside the typical norm of the straight white male. I think people are eager to see other types of people represented.

So where are you putting your creative energy then these days? I wasn’t expecting to see you on season two of Love on Netflix. Was that your first foray into scripted television?

I had a few parts on the last season of Inside Amy Schumer earlier that year, but yeah, that was my first scripted series. Since then, I’ve done Crashing that just came out on HBO and a guest part on Season 2 of Master of None. I also got a part on Corporate on Comedy Central. It’s about this giant evil corporation and the employees in it, and I play the HR girl.

What do you think about Netflix giving Adam Sandler an eight picture deal? Does the world need it?

It is a little disheartening that only a select few types of people get carte blanche in Hollywood to keep making stuff forever, but the good thing is that a lot of them have production companies. I feel like they are good about looking for newer voices, and for things that people haven’t seen before. So, that’s the positive side to it, I hope.

So who do you think is flying under the radar right now?

There’s a whole bunch of people in New York that I always love to watch. A lot of them started in Brooklyn and put on independent shows there. Like Julio Torres has an amazing, ethereal POV and he writes for SNL now, so he’s definitely onto big things. Anna Fabrega is another great experimental comic, and so is Jo Firestone, who is someone I also love to collaborate with. There are lots of young, exciting new voices out there right now.

Who has Tig Notaro been for you in your career?

I feel very fortunate that she sort of took me under her wing. I first met her when I was living in DC and she started a comedy festival called Bentzen Ball there. And then a few years later, she asked me if I wanted to record an album on her new label—that was very surreal.

How so?

I hadn’t even thought of recording an album up until that point, I just thought I wasn’t really ready. But when she came to me with that offer I was sort of like, "well, I can’t not do it," so, I did. Then she let me open for her at her HBO taping, and Carnegie Hall this past fall. I just feel like she’s a very kind and good person, she’s very encouraging to me but not in a showy way. In a very quiet and cool way.

Why didn’t you think you were ready? Do you suffer from imposter syndrome?

I think that is very much a part of my sense of self. Feeling like a fraud a lot of the time. I know that’s common in creative people, and I think it’s common in women too. I’m not abnormal in that sense, but it is nice that people give you a reality check every so often, and are like, "no, you can do this," and then you’ll be like, "well, I guess I’ve got to do this then."

Since you’re someone who speaks openly about your anxiety and depression, I wanted to know what it’s like to physically stand up on stage and joke about it?

I guess I started talking about it as a way to deal with my own inner demons. I was having trouble creating anything in general. I was going through a depressive patch. So I just started writing about it because I was at a loss to write about anything else. Then I did some of that material on stage and I found that people really responded to it. It made me want to delve into it further.

And it worked?

With stage fright you don’t want the audience to know that you’re not sure of what you’re doing, but if you talk about your anxiety it takes some of the charge away from it. So in that sense it’s been helpful.

It’s like the one place where your imposter syndrome doesn’t kick in.

Right, right, yeah.

When Larry David or Louis C.K. joke about depression they still make it sound sort of fun. Your own struggle sounds pretty different.

There is that model of a curmudgeonly comedian who has all these neuroses and is constantly battling with the world. To tackle those subjects as a woman of color is kind of a new thing for people to see. It’s rare to see women of color at all in comedy—even though there’s plenty of us there, we’re just not represented as much in bigger media. Also I think because Larry David and Louis C.K. are more the “everyman,” everything they say is translated as universal experience. Whereas, sometimes if you’re more outside the box people have to take another step to meet you where you’re at.

  • Interview: Julia cooper
  • Photography: Brianna Capozzi
  • Styling: Delphine Danhier
  • Hair and Makeup: Tej Tajimal