Aparna Nancherla made her start in the comedy world since 2006 in Washington, D.C. Geared with whimsical humor, she delivers her jokes with just the right balance of smirking wit and observational honesty.
Aparna’s latest ventures include writing and (sometimes) performing credits on FX’s Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell and stand-up gigs in N.Y.C., L.A., and everywhere in between!
As Videshi Magazine’s first interviewee, we are very excited that it’s Aparna Nancherla. Check it out!
How long have you been doing comedy? Where are you performing now?
I have been doing stand up comedy regularly for 8 years, with some training and background in improv and sketch as well. Nowadays, I perform on the road more frequently at festivals, clubs, and other performance spaces, but primarily I split my time between New York and Los Angeles. In case you haven’t heard of them before, they are both small, quiet country towns with cornfields as far as the eye can see.
What moment made you realized you wanted to be a comedian?
There wasn’t really ONE “aha” moment, but my mom made me take a public speaking class when I was 11 because she was worried I was too shy. And because of that, I ended up entering a speech contest a year or so later. Watch out, here comes bragging. I ended up winning, in large part because I was the only one who did a funny speech. The feeling of making people laugh felt surprisingly powerful to me, considering that I had always felt rather invisible around others. It was the first time I really felt seen by others and I immediately was bloodthirsty for that feeling.
Do people have trouble saying your name (even though it’s pretty phonetic)? Have you ever felt pressured in changing it?
Oh yes, I have had so many name woes that I’ve considered not having a name at all, but rather a short squeak or wink instead. However, building some material around having my name mispronounced or me being misunderstood actually helps feed into my slightly bemused world-weary aura. So, I’m sticking with it. Somehow, I don’t think being an Annemarie Peters or even a Rebecca Butler would work for me as well, but I’m not ruling it out. I may branch out into penning romance thrillers any day now.
You don’t use your Indian heritage as your act, but you also don’t avoid talking about it. How did you learn to balance both, even if your audience is expecting one or the other?
What first drew me to comedy was more my introverted view of the world and my wild imagination than my outward appearance or experience. So that’s where most of the inspiration for my writing comes from. Over time, I’ve learned you to have to address (even if it is minimally) people’s preconceived expectations or assumptions of you based on appearance or demeanor just so they know that you know. I think there is some human psychology principle at work there, but I am too lazy to Google it. I wonder what that says about me. Maybe I should Google that later too.
Where is your family from in India? What was their initial experience in coming to the U.S.?
My family is from Hyderabad in India. Both my parents are doctors, and my father moved here first for work. Then he married my mother and she moved here shortly thereafter. I have an older sister as well who was also born in India before moving here when she was two years old. My parents’ initial experience here was like many immigrants in that they were friends with a lot of other immigrants, but there was some culture shock in acclimating to Western culture and values. For example, my mother would order hamburgers with no meat, so just the bread basically. This was a bleak time before veggie burgers thrived! Growing up, my sister and I weren’t necessarily allowed to date or go to slumber parties, but I think my parents did a good job of slowly mellowing over time, like a fine 7-Up. In a lot of ways, because I was homebody, I relied a lot on my imagination and books and that has contributed in large part to my comedic POV. I sometimes refer to it as “loner slumber party”.
What do you think of the media representation of South Asians in America right now? (Whether it’s movies, books, TV, politics, etc.)
I think there have been huge strides in South Asians in terms of media representation with Mindy Kaling, Aziz Ansari, Kal Penn, Russell Peters, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, just to name a few. I think the tricky thing is being the first person to do something. For instance, Mindy Kaling is the first South Asian woman to be the lead of a network sitcom, but along with that groundbreaking role, she faces criticism on things such as the lack of diversity on her show. It feels like you can’t always win as the first person to do something, because people expect you to check off every box when I think sometimes your role is just to show up and do the best job that is authentic to you. I hope over time as with any minority group, South Asians can be integrated into more roles in media and the community without race being the primary focus around which the discussion is based. I don’t think we’re quite there yet though.
What was your experience like on Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell, as both a writer and performer?
I found working on Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell to be a very transformative experience in that it was my first writing job and my first writers’ room that I was a part of. The staff was very diverse, welcoming, and superbly talented. It is also rare to be a part of a show where the host lets his writers do on-air segments so that was an awesome part of the experience. Not to mention it felt like the show had a lot of heart in trying to represent the comedic role of the underdog by skewering entities with more power. When we made the jump from a weekly show on FX to a daily show on FXX (a new network), it was a huge shift in both pace of production and hours, so I think that made it much more challenging.
Which do you prefer: writing the jokes or actually performing?
Stand up spoils you in that you have full creative control over both your writing and your performance. So you kind of get addicted to both because that’s rare in a lot of industry jobs. Either you have to write for someone else’s voice or vision, or you are performing someone else’s lines. Because stand up lets you do both, you become an insatiable megalomanic who cannot choose and demands things like boiling cold tea on your rider.
How would you describe your comedy? How did you develop your style and voice?
I recently read someone describe my comedy as “thoughtful goofiness” which I thought was perfect. I believe it was Miss Megan Angelo in a Glamor magazine blog (credit where credit is due!) I didn’t really try to actively find a style or voice. I tried to just talk about things that I found funny or interesting, and I think my mind has somewhat of an offbeat sensibility anyway. While I can be a neurotic overthinker, I often find abstract nonsense the funniest of all.
How do you usually prepare for a performance?
I still deal with a lot of anxiety both onstage and off, so I have had to work on things like my breathing, and using meditation to calm myself down. That being said, I usually think about what jokes I’d like to cover based on the general material I’ve been working through and anything new I want to add to that particular night. It’s good to find new ways to challenge yourself and for me, a lot of that is in being more physical onstage and not sticking exactly to what I planned.
Despite the many years it’s been on-air, SNL has never had an Asian cast member. Why do you think that is and would you consider joining the cast?
I don’t think I can fairly speculate as to why SNL hasn’t had an Asian cast member, since I don’t work there. Clearly, there are enough Asian people in the worlds of politics and entertainment and the general who’s who now that an Asian cast member would have enough to do if they were hired on the show. After all, Bobby Lee was on MADtv for many years. Also, Nasim Pedrad, who is Iranian-American, has been on SNL for the past few years, which is definitely progress. I think sometimes the shift as an institution of becoming more diverse can be clunky because the person hired is always the subject of more scrutiny than someone would be otherwise, especially if a big deal is made about the issue of the lack of representation. There is a difficult balance to be struck between hiring people who will work best in the ensemble and the dynamic of the show and appeasing every group that feels underrepresented. But obviously, that is not an excuse not to take risks and broaden the scope of what has worked before. It’s not a perfect equation but breaking down those walls is valuable, in and of itself.
I think the majority of comedians still see SNL as a dream job. It’s been around so long, which is usually seen as a mark of relevance in the ever changing fickle entertainment industry. But at the same time with the huge amount of cable networks and programming on Amazon, Netflix, and the Internet, there are so many other opportunities out there now. And while I would be honored to be on a show like that, doing characters and sketch aren’t necessarily my wheelhouse as much as stand up, writing, and playing voices closer to myself, so I think a job like that should go to someone who excels in those areas. Though if Lorne Michaels said “Please show up on Monday”, of course I’d shimmy there in a second.
What are some of your major plans for 2014?
As glamorous as it sounds, I am doing more stand up on the road (racking up those motel soaps) and trying to polish an hour of material, finishing writing some scripted material, and working on some independent video projects. My next big stop is the Melbourne International Comedy Festival in April. I’ve never performed stand up outside of North America, and I’ve never been to Australia, so I’m really honored and thrilled to go. Also, if I see a baby koala, I will never stop talking about it.
If you weren’t a comedian, what would you be doing right now?
Procrastinating. That is actually my main passion.
My job before I got into comedy was journalism so hopefully I would also be polishing up a jarring investigative report on the 100 Best Places to Secretly Nap in an Office.
Other serious questions:
Favorite movie: Tie between Home Alone and Jurassic Park (the 90s was an impressionable time for me)
Favorite book: The Phantom Tollbooth
Favorite Knock-Knock joke: “Knock knock!” “Why are you saying it? Instead of just knocking?” “Don’t you want to know who I am?” “Not after that weird opening.” “Fair enough.” “Well, bye.”
East Coast or West Coast? Oof, this is tough. Lifestyle-wise, West Coast is unreal. But if you really want to question your existence on a deep level, stare into the eyes of a New York subway rat.
What’s your go-to song at the moment? Hungarian folk music remixed with dubstep.
Favorite desi cuisine: Betraying my Southern Hyderabadi roots, I have to go for the Northern fare. I eat one Malai Kofta croquette and sleep satisfied for five years.
What’s your fascination with puppets (e.g. your website!)?! They are the cogs that keep my mind whirring. I am a puppet of puppets. There’s something so captivating to me about how the monster-like ones can boil down emotions and reactions to their basics in such an accessible way. I still haven’t mastered that as a human being.