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Comedian Aparna Nancherla Makes Light Of The Heavy Stuff

Nov 7, 2016

Up-and-coming comedian Aparna Nancherla is having a great year, riding high on a TV comedy special, tour and a new album, Just Putting It Out There — all this while wrestling with some pretty tough personal issues, like depression, on stage.

Nancherla's very dry sense of humor comes alive through her very expressive face, her dancing eyebrows and wide smile. She tells NPR's Audie Cornish that early in her career, someone told her she did standup like someone who'd never seen standup before. "But they meant it as a compliment in that I sort of do it in my own way of what I think standup is for myself."


Interview Highlights

On playing with people's expectations

Very much the audience's initial impression of you is in the first few seconds that you take the stage — either what you look like, like what you sound like, there's an immediate judgement. And so I feel like for me, a lot of times I had to address that, sort of people being like, "Oh, this isn't what we expected," and sort of being like, "I know. I don't look like what you're used to seeing, but let's acknowledge that and move on."

On dealing with the spotlight

It's interesting, because I have a lot of anxiety and I still get, like, stage fright and stuff. So I think I'm ... too aware of my body, so it feels like my words and my body sometimes separate and they don't mesh together.

On anxiety and depression

I think I first started talking about anxiety and depression in my work as sort of a way to write myself out of my own head. Like, it was at a time when I was sort of in a rut and struggling with them in a real way, so I was feeling creatively blocked, and I was like, "Well, if this is all that's going on with you right now, maybe just try writing about that."

Sadness and laughter to me feel linked in a weird way, in that it almost feels like once you get to the end of one, you sort of start entering the other one. And I think for me it's like, with depression I'm constantly questioning things, but without sort of that element of hope. And I feel like comedy is sort of questioning things, with adding a little dose of hope in that you're taking the air out of it a little bit, and you're not just being like, "Well, I guess that's just how things are."

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Up-and-coming comedian Aparna Nancherla is having a great year, riding high on a TV comedy special, tour and an album titled "Just Putting It Out There." All this while wrestling with some pretty tough personal issues on stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CONAN")

APARNA NANCHERLA: I am on a healthy diet of pills. They are prescribed for the most part.

(LAUGHTER)

NANCHERLA: One of the things I take them for is depression. It's always great to start off a set talking about depression because people are like, I guess you can have it all, you know.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: Nancherla's very dry sense of humor comes alive through her very expressive face, dancing eyebrows and wide smile. I asked her how she developed her style.

NANCHERLA: It's interesting. When I first started stand-up and did it for maybe a few months, like, someone was, like, oh, you kind of do stand up like someone who's never seen stand-up before. And - but they meant it as a compliment in that I sort of, like, do it in my own way of what I think stand-up is for myself.

CORNISH: 'Cause we think of stand-up as someone who's sort of prowling the stage - right? - like very physical, the pacing...

NANCHERLA: Yes.

CORNISH: ...Walking back and forth and the presentation of the jokes. There's like this big expectation face....

NANCHERLA: Right.

CORNISH: ...Like I have told a joke (laughter).

NANCHERLA: Right. And you sort of - it's like you set them up, you knock them down. And I think I go on little tangents and make little discoveries as I go. And I think the audience sort of is just along for the ride, the stroll.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CONAN")

NANCHERLA: I realize I have kind of an innocent vibe. And sometimes I'll come up here and I'll spout my opinions. And someone in the audience will inevitably be like, boy, she sure has a lot to say considering what she looks like. And that's fine, I own a mirror. I'm on your side.

(LAUGHTER)

NANCHERLA: But I just want to assure you, I've experienced my share of real life. Like, I've had orange juice after brushing my teeth. I get it.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: There's lots of, like, playing with assumptions...

NANCHERLA: Yeah.

CORNISH: ...Which I've made this joke myself when I meet people. I'm like, you don't look like what I expected.

NANCHERLA: Right.

CORNISH: And I heard you make a sort of similar joke once. And I was like, I recognize this.

NANCHERLA: Yeah. I think a lot of it is that stand-up, like, you - very much the audience's initial impression of you is in the first, you know, few seconds that you take the stage, either what you look like, like, what you sound like, like, there's an immediate judgment.

And so I feel like for me a lot of times I had to address that sort of people being like, oh, this isn't what we expected, and sort of being, like, I know, like, I don't look like what you're used to seeing but, like, let's just acknowledge that and move on.

CORNISH: What's your background like? Just for our radio audience who can't see you. What is so - what's the juxtaposition you're talking about in terms of what they expect versus what they're seeing?

NANCHERLA: Well, I think it's like - I'm, like, South Indian and I'm a small, sort of soft-spoken woman. And they think it - like you said, it sort of doesn't fit with the image of, like, this strong, sort of prowler of the stage. Like, it's very much coming from the opposite direction. I think it takes people a second to be like, oh, this is still stand-up.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: What do you - when you get on stage, I think, how do you deal with the spotlight?

NANCHERLA: I think it's interesting 'cause I have a lot of anxiety. And I still get, like, stage fright and stuff. So I think I'm very, like, sometimes too aware of my body. So it feels like my words and my body sometimes separate and they don't, like, mesh together.

CORNISH: You know, there's like nervousness and anxiety. And then there's anxiety and depression. And that's something you talk a lot about, like, on your comedy album "Just Putting It Out There." And I want to play a sample of a clip I think which gets at something you do, which is not just to talk about these things, but to try and help to find them for people.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALBUM, "JUST PUTTING IT OUT THERE")

NANCHERLA: And, like, if you don't have anxiety, the way I would describe it is, like, there's an edgy improv group in your brain.

(LAUGHTER)

NANCHERLA: And it just needs, like, a one-word suggestion...

(LAUGHTER)

NANCHERLA: ...To spin, like, countless scenarios that no one's comfortable with.

(LAUGHTER)

NANCHERLA: Like, the whole time you're just like, when will this show be over? I just came to be supportive.

(LAUGHTER)

NANCHERLA: None of these thoughts have a future.

CORNISH: Which is like the toss-away line at the end, but is like the nugget of having anxiety - right? - like spinning out scenarios that aren't true...

NANCHERLA: Right.

CORNISH: ...But that freak you out nonetheless (laughter).

NANCHERLA: Yeah. I think I first started talking about anxiety and depression in my work as sort of a way to write myself out of my own head. Like, it was at a time when I was sort of in a rut and struggling with them in a real way. So I was, like, feeling creatively blocked. And I was, like, well, if this is all that's going on with you right now, maybe just try writing about that.

So I think that's what sort of first brought it out for me, 'cause I had definitely always appreciated comics who were are open about that kind of stuff. I think it really came about just by virtue of, like, me experiencing it in a real way.

CORNISH: It's not an uncommon theme when it comes to comedy.

NANCHERLA: Right.

CORNISH: Even if people weren't always calling it depression, I feel like we've been hearing about it going...

NANCHERLA: Oh, sure.

CORNISH: ...Back to Richard Pryor, right?

NANCHERLA: Yes, yes.

CORNISH: Why is that? (Laughter).

NANCHERLA: I - like, sadness and laughter to me feel linked in a weird way in that it almost feels like once you get to the logical end of one, you sort of start entering the other one. And I think for me it's like with depression I'm constantly questioning things, but without sort of that element of hope.

And I feel like comedy is sort of questioning things with adding, like, a little dose of hope in that you're taking the air out of it a little bit and you're not just being like, well, I guess that's just how things are. Like, you're sort of, like, this is ridiculous, like, let's laugh about it. So it adds that sort of levity to take some of the burden off.

CORNISH: It's interesting because I think even for people who don't clinically suffer from this kind of condition, I think your jokes feel relatable. My favorite being any pizza can be a personal one if you cry when you eat it.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: It's like - that one takes you a while. I always feel like there's a pause...

NANCHERLA: Right.

CORNISH: ...In the audience as they work that full sentence out in their mind.

NANCHERLA: Yeah. It's funny 'cause I almost think there has been a boom in sort of depression comedy or, like, the idea of, like, a sad person. Especially like there's this whole contingent on Twitter that's sort of like - it's called sad girl Twitter. And it's just like...

CORNISH: Wait, what? Are you serious?

NANCHERLA: Yeah.

CORNISH: Is that real?

NANCHERLA: Yeah.

CORNISH: (Laughter) Who are the luminaries of sad girl Twitter?

NANCHERLA: Well, I mainly know the people who are, like, sort of comedians, like, in stand-ups. Like, I know there's another woman, Charlene de Guzman (ph), who writes a lot about, like, anxiety and depression in her tweets. So in a way, like, I think some people feel like a little bit burned out on it.

So definitely sometimes you'll get reactions where people are like, I can't laugh at these jokes. They just feel bad for you. And I'm like, well, that sounds like you don't experience depression if you're like I don't - I can't relate to, you know, having a day where you don't want to come out from under your covers.

CORNISH: That's comedian Aparna Nancherla. Thank you so much for talking with us.

NANCHERLA: Oh, thank you for having me.

CORNISH: Comedian Aparna Nancherla. Her new album is called "Just Putting It Out There." She's on tour now. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.