Aparna Nancherla’s petite size and subdued stage presence suggest a different style of comedy than the gregarious personalities who often grace Netflix, Comedy Central and HBO’s featured specials. She may seem quieter, but if anything that only underscores her deadpan wit by hitting audiences with the classic one-two punch of the unexpected. She doesn’t shy away from discussing the mental tightrope walk that is life, and does so in a way that’s fiercely original in its presentation.
Humor has given Nancherla a structure and a language to translate the at times crippling experience of being a person in the world who doesn’t constantly beam sunshine, self-esteem, and happy thoughts like, say, Taylor Swift and her ever expanding #Squad. She understands those who approach existence with a bit more intimidation or reservation—people Nancherla cheekily refers to as “Stressheads”—because she lives it every day. Thanks to her work, she’s become secure in her insecurity, a contradictory place that allows her to express herself even while what she’s expressing are stories wrought with embarrassment, self-doubt, and at times suffocating social anxiety. “It’s weird because it sounds counterintuitive, but I guess if you’re a nervous or anxious person at some point it starts to become a coping mechanism where you’re more comfortable with it than without it,” Nancherla says over the phone, her trademark articulation landing upon the beats of heavier consonants to provide additional nuance.
Her penchant for embracing being uncomfortable in the world (as opposed to resisting it and using that resistance for comedic purposes) gives her a decided advantage in a profession where observations form the building blocks of punchlines. Her new stand-up album Just Putting It Out There and her upcoming Comedy Central special on The Half Hour offer an original perspective reported from the margins. If social tact has gone out the window, at least she’s paying attention. “I’ve always gravitated towards performers who when you see them you’re like, ‘Oh this is going to be completely their world and not necessarily the traditional set-up punch line structure,’” she shares. What she appreciates in others also happens to be her M.O. Take the time her Los Angeles acting class compared one another to celebrities and decided Nancherla looked like first Mindy Kaling then Aziz Ansari and finally science. Science? “I tried to put a positive spin on it. I was like, ‘You know that actually opens up a lot of roles for me.’ Cuz now I could play the dead body in the Law and Order morgue but I could also play the test tube next to the body,” she says on her album.
Besides these moments, Nancherla most often opens up about living with anxiety, depression and other issues that impede functioning on a daily basis. While comedy and such confessions have long gone hand-in-hand (think Richard Lewis, Marc Maron, etc.), Maria Bamford’s openness about living with bipolar II disorder has forged new pathways about how comics discuss these matters. Once again, humor steps in where other dialogues fall short. It serves as a lens through which to examine a topic many people deal with but which even the government doesn’t want to acknowledge fully. “Comedy in general, the purpose of it is to turn things on their head and sort of look at things in a different way,” she says. “I think mental illness is so often looked at as not always shameful but definitely this thing that people aren’t comfortable bringing to light. It’s not at the forefront of dinner party conversations.”
Comics like to go where others don’t. Just look at Tig Notaro’s groundbreaking set at Largo after learning she had cancer, or Bamford’s Netflix series Lady Dynamite. Anxiety and depression may not be at the forefront of the latest soiree talk, but like these other comics, Nancherla’s set creates a space where listeners can reflect on a heavier topic from a more lighthearted vantage point. On her album, she discusses anxiety, saying, “What it feels like is there’s an edgy improv group in your brain that just needs a one-word suggestion to spin countless scenarios that no one’s comfortable with. You’re just like, ‘When will this show be over? I just came to be supportive.’” Her ability to articulate the isolating nature of anxiety offers listeners that outstretched hand so critical to feeling included. “It’s definitely gratifying when someone hears a joke about depression or anxiety and they’re like ‘Oh, it really helped me to hear this. I feel less alone,” she explains. “I don’t know that I have an overt agenda beyond that.”
Social media has been one space where the introverted Nancherla can find a way to be more outgoing. “I would say as someone who is less outgoing in an actual social situation, I do credit the internet a lot with connecting me with more people than I would probably otherwise connect with in real life,” she says. But she’s not naïve about how those interactions change the nature of face time. “Maybe you’re connecting with someone all the way across the world, but then you’re ignoring the person right across from you.”
If hearing or watching her perform makes it seem like she’s overcome her anxiety (how else can she get on a stage night after night in front of strangers and speak so openly?), she hasn’t. Nancherla doesn’t really expect to live without a bit of crippling self-doubt in the back of her mind. “I still deal with anxiety, I still get stage fright, I still get nerves pretty consistently, but the longer you’ve been doing something you just have a more assuredness of ‘Oh, I’ve done this before. I have the skills to cope with it.’ But I’ll definitely still go into things with full dread,” she says honestly. But daring creative endeavors always require a bit of fear, a bit of uncertainty. As long as she keeps sharing—putting forth a voice that speaks to an important, if overlooked, aspect of the human condition—listeners will continue to benefit from her bravery all while laughing with her struggle.
Amanda Wicks is a freelance journalist specializing in comedy and music. Follow her on Twitter @aawicks.