"My act isn't overtly political so I think I'm trying to find where those lines are that people get sensitive around. But it's a good challenge. It feels like with standup you're never really done learning; there's always so much more to tackle."
– Aparna Nancherla
Guy MacPherson: Hello, Aparna.
Aparna Nancherla: Hi!
GM: Where are you?
AN: I am in Los Angeles right now.
GM: You don't live there, do you?
AN: No, I'm just here for, let's see, I guess I've been here for about two months just for a job. I'm going back to New York in like two weeks.
GM: What was the job, if I can ask?
AN: Oh, I'm shooting something for a friend's show but I'm technically not allowed to announce the show yet, so I have to stay mum about it.
GM: You're coming to Vancouver soon. You should just stay in L.A. It's a closer flight.
AN: I know. But I think I've got a bunch of shows around there before I get to Vancouver so I'm trying to make the most of being in that part of the country.
GM: Have you ever played here? Or been here, for that matter?
AN: I think I was there once very briefly. I went on an Alaskan cruise with my parents when I was in college and I believe we left from Vancouver.
GM: Yes, you would have. So that doesn't really count.
AN: No. I was just passing through so I haven't officially been there. Or played there.
GM: Were you doing comedy when you were in college?
AN: I tried it for the first time during college, in between my sophomore and junior years. I didn't really start doing it regularly till after I graduated but I would say that standup time was during college.
GM: Where did you go? Was it in DC?
AN: Yeah, I think I was home for the summer and I went up at this sort of divey bar show near my house. It was in, like, a Best Western hotel and it was in their bar area.
GM: Yeah, they always have the best comedy shows at Best Westerns.
AN: (laughs) They do. They're known for it.
GM: Where did you go to college?
AN: I went to college in western Massachusetts at a liberal arts place called Amherst College.
GM: A lot of comedians went there.
AN: No, a lot of comedians went to Emerson, which is also in Massachusetts but it's in Boston. Amherst... Matt Besser went there, from UCB, but I don't know who else did.
GM: Right, I heard Emerson when you said Amherst. What did you study? You tried comedy, so you were always kind of a funny kid, but that wasn't your goal, was it?
AN: Well, I majored in psychology. I didn't know I wanted to be a comedian when I was a kid. I was pretty shy. My mom signed my sister and I up for public speaking classes when we were little because she thought it was an important skill to have. So I think that's when I first sort of figured out that I was more comfortable talking in front of a group of people in a more prepared way than talking to strangers at a party, or something. So that what I think first put the idea in my head. I think I started to gravitate towards comedy in high school. I would do presentations for class and I feel like I would always make mine funny or try to make it funny just because I thought it would be better to present stuff when you had those laugh moments. So I think it was sort of a gradual putting pieces together to eventually lead to standup.
GM: It's a way to deflect a bit, too.
AN: Totally. It's totally a coping mechanism.
GM: At what age, if you can remember, did you take the public speaking class?
AN: I think I was like maybe eleven or twelve. I would say it was a good experience to have. I think it helped me. I don't know if I'd be here if I hadn't taken it.
GM: Maybe you'd be a psychologist or something.
AN: That's true. There would be other options.
GM: It seemed like you appeared on the scene all of a sudden a few years ago, but it must have been a slow build for you.
AN: I'm always curious how it might seem to other people because I feel like for me it's been sort of a steady climb. Sometimes you're not really sure how you're doing; you just keep doing the things you think you're supposed to be doing and hope they lead somewhere fruitful. I'm just coming up on my eleventh year doing standup so it does feel like it's sort of been a slow build. But then I think it is that thing of, like, once you gain some momentum, a lot of things start happening at once.
GM: You've got a lot of credits.
AN: Yeah, I've had a good past few years for sure.
GM: What's your favourite credit?
AN: Hmm... I always really enjoy working with people I've looked up to for a long time. Tig Notaro is one of my favourite comedians and people who have really been encouraging and championed my stuff. This past fall I got to open for her at Carnegie Hall so I think that was definitely a high point for me.
GM: Was that intimidating?
AN: It was, but in some ways I think what helps when you're sort of gaining experience and doing it over the years is just building up your confidence so that when you do get those breaks, the real opportunities, you feel like you're capable of doing them and you're there for a reason, and it's not like you just somehow randomly landed there.
GM: Is that when you felt like you've made it?
AN: I don't know. It's strange. It almost feels like when you start – at least my goal was to do it full-time and be able to support myself, and once you start checking off goals, it feels like making it becomes like a more, I guess, ambiguous term. It's weird, I never think of myself as making it because I guess there's always something else you can work toward but I do feel like I'm at a place that I'm very content with and happy to see where things go. But I never in my head see it as, oh, now I've made it! I guess it just always feels like you're outside the system a little bit.
GM: I guess when you're in the middle of it, making it is always what someone else is doing.
GM: There's always somebody above you, I guess.
AN: I think a lot of fields are like that, but entertainment definitely is an environment of scarcity so I think you never quite feel stable, necessarily.
GM: It used to be in show business that a person starting out named, for example, Aperna Nancherla, might be persuaded to change their name. No one's going to remember that name.
AN: Oh yeah, sure. I got that feedback early on. I think just because people have trouble with my last name and a lot of times people will bring me up by just saying my first name or they'll mess up my last name. It doesn't bother me as much anymore, but I've come this far with keeping it so I'm like there's no reason to change it now and I don't feel any pressure to do so.
GM: It seems pretty phonetic. I don't see where somebody could get mixed up with it.
AN: I think people just get overwhelmed when they see something unfamiliar. They sort of go into panic mode. I don't think it's ever intentional that people butcher your name.
GM: Is it an Indian name? I don't know your background.
AN: It is. My parents are both East Indian.
GM: We don't say that in Canada anymore.
AN: Oh, okay.
GM: Now we say Southeast Asian. Did they move to the States or were they born there?
AN: No, they both are immigrants. They came over in the late '70s and they're both doctors. They came at a time when there was sort of a need for doctors here.
GM: Are they proud of the career path you took or did they want you to go into academics or medicine?
AN: I think at first they sort of thought I would go to grad school after college. And when I seemed pretty resolute that I wasn't, they were a little bit hesitant. I was kind of on a journalism track before I started doing standup full-time so I think they thought I was going that direction, but once I was able to support myself in standup and got a writing job, I think they were like, Oh, this is actually something you can make into a career. But I think they were a little touch and go at the beginning but now they're fully on board.
GM: You've diversified so it's not just standup. You write on shows, you do journalism, you do TV.
AN: Right, right, right. Yeah, comedy is sort of this broad umbrella term now for so many things.
GM: You describe your act as 'whimsical.' Was it always that way? Starting out, did you do more racial material? Or did you just stay away from that?
AN: I think I never really felt inclined to talk about racial stuff just because I feel like growing up, I grew up in a pretty diverse area right outside DC, and I feel like I grew up being used to knowing a diverse range of people with different backgrounds, international and nationally born. For that reason, I feel like I was sheltered from a lot of racial issues so I didn't really talk about it when I started. And now I talk about it a little bit more but I would say it wasn't something I gravitated toward from the beginning.
GM: You do it subtly, which I think may be more effective. Do other Indians put pressure on you to represent yourself more that way, to talk about issues?
AN: Not really. I feel like I had some more of that when I started but now that I've sort of established what my voice is and what I talk about, I think people are less likely to pigeonhole me just based on external appearances or what they assume I would talk about. I feel like it happens less and less.
GM: You represent your community by being who you are.You don't need to be didactic.
AN: Right. It's something I don't lead with in my day-to-day life so I think that crosses over into how I present myself in standup.
GM: I read your piece in The Village Voice about Trump. Are you going to get more political? You're kind of forced into it, aren't you? It's the elephant in the room.
AN: Most comedians I know now feel pressure to address it in some way or at least acknowledge what's going on in the world. But I think it goes either way. Some people prefer not to talk about it at all but I don't know, it almost feels disingenuous to me to not talk about something that feels like it's impacting such a wide range of people on many levels. I've been trying to find ways to talk about it for myself but a lot of that is usually tying it to something in my day-to-day life that I experience and then sort of rolling it out to a bigger level. That's usually the way I write things.
GM: Is it a harder job now because you're forced to talk about things that you maybe wouldn't otherwise? Or is it just coming naturally?
AN: I think it's definitely tricky. My act isn't overtly political so I think I'm trying to find where those lines are that people get sensitive around. But it's a good challenge. It feels like with standup you're never really done learning; there's always so much more to tackle and I feel like it's a good direction to work on right now.
GM: Did you write for the Voice after you got known, or were you doing stuff for them before when you were on your journalism track?
AN: When I started, I was sort of on a journalism track; just journalism in general. I worked for a trade association; I wasn't comedy-oriented or arts-oriented at all. And then it's kind of come back around full circle that now publications will approach me if I want to write a piece on things. It's kind of come back in a different form.
GM: You're lucky. That's a great paper.
AN: Yeah, I know! It's amazing.
GM: There are so many great female comics these days. You mentioned Tig as a big role model. Were there others you looked up to?
AN: I think Maria Bamford I've looked up to for a long time. Who else?... Kristen Schaal... Definitely people whose voices are more unique and outside the box. I used to watch these videos by I think Chelsea Peretti was in this group of all women who used to make these videos called Variety Shack, and I used to love watching those. So I think a lot of women, honestly, have inspired me to be like, Oh, I wanna do what they're doing in my own way.
GM: When you talk about their unique voices, do you mean their perspective or the way they sound?
AN: Oh, no, no, I mean in the figurative sense; their perspective and point of view.
GM: It's interesting because your actual voice isn't that dissimilar to Maria or Kristen.
AN: Sure, yeah. It's all in the same ballpark, I would say.
GM: There's such a variety, too, of women and the kind of performers there are. Twenty years ago people say, Women comics are all... this. Now there's such a wide range.
AN: No, it's true. It really feels like we're kind of in a boom and there's such a wide range of options of how you can do comedy and be seen by people. That can sometimes feel daunting, maybe, for people starting out but I would say ultimately it's a good thing.
GM: What would be daunting?
AN: That there is so much content being made right now, on the internet and just shows.
GM: But the cream rises to the top.There's always going to be bad comics starting out or a glut. It's like music. Everyone's going to put out their own CD and some will hit and some won't.
AN: Right, right, right. It's true.
GM: Did you have male role models in comedy, or guys you just really admired or thought about their process or the way they express themselves?
AN: Yeah. Some of the first albums I listened to were Paul F. Tompkins and Mitch Hedberg. And Jim Gaffigan was maybe one of the first people I saw live. And I think they have a very relatable comedy that's like observational that also has an absurdist take. I really appreciated that early on.
GM: You talk about your mental health, too. Is that all good?
AN: Yeah. I mean, I'm in a good place with it. I think I first started talking about it on stage as sort of a way to cope with where I was with it at the time. I found it resonated with people more than I thought it might so I've continued exploring it. At first I thought there are people that already do it really well. Like Maria Bamford talks about mental health a lot, and Marc Maron. I don't know if I have anything interesting to add so I was a little gun shy at first. But it's been cool to get to write about it. I guess when you verbalize things that are maybe more difficult or harder to explain, it's a good way to process it.
GM: Are people coming up concerned for you?
AN: No, usually I get more of people being like, Oh, you put that really well, like the way I feel in my head, like that captured it really well. So that's very gratifying to know that other people deal with the same thing. But I definitely want to go further with it and see what else is there to be explored.
GM: So talking one-on-one gives you anxiety. What else?
AN: I still get a lot of social anxiety. I'll still get anxious before shows. I definitely might get very antsy. And I guess in general I'm very lucky to be pretty busy right now with a lot of different stuff. I think there's just that general stress of so many things to do, so little time. A lot of it is around good problems, which is a good place to be in.
GM: Do you know what you'll be talking about in Vancouver?
AN: Yeah. I just recorded a half-hour for Comedy Central so some of it might be a little bit of that and then some newer stuff I've been working on. And I sometimes do a multimedia element where I do a PowerPoint. I haven't decided for sure if I might work that in, too.
GM: I like that. I've seen some independent shows where it's not straight standup and they incorporate something like that. I like when someone's put in the effort.
AN: It's just a medium I think is funny; the seriousness with which it takes itself is funny to me. The more anxiety-ridden side of that is that it's a nice way to break up talking to people for an hour or something. I feel like I tend to hit a wall around 40 minutes where I'm tired of hearing my own voice, let me do something a little different for a while.
GM: And you can direct the attention up to a screen and away from your face.
AN: Yeah, a diversion.
GM: You think of PowerPoints being in boring business meetings or Ted Talks.
AN: Right, right, right. I think it's that pseudo-intellectualism that is endlessly mockable.
GM: What's the rest of your day look like?
AN: I don't have to shoot today so I have sort of a catch-up day for emails and deadlines that I've either missed or coming up for some freelance writing projects. I had some auditions in the morning but I think my afternoon is a lot of self-starting.
GM: Are you still on Seth Meyers?
AN: No, no. I actually haven't been there for a while. I left at the beginning of last year. I would say roughly a year ago I left.
GM: What were you writing?
AN: I was writing monologue jokes. Everyone there is really great and Seth is so nice and accessible as a host. I think, though, even going into that job, I sort of had an idea that ultimately I would like to write something for myself and not necessarily be on the staff of a talk show. I think scripted and narrative stuff is a little bit more compelling to me, so I didn't think I would stay a super long time but I enjoyed the time that I was there.
GM: You didn't like giving away jokes that you might use yourself?
AN: Yeah, and also I just learned that I do write in a pretty specific voice that doesn't necessarily cover, like, a middle-aged white male's perspective, which is, you know, not a good or bad thing; it just is what it is.
GM: Well, Aparna, thanks so much for taking the call.
AN: Oh no, thank you for the interview. I appreciate it.