Aparna Nancherla: When Comedy and Mental Health Collide

Aparna Nancherla is incredibly busy. Wonderfully so. Our email correspondence halts for a couple weeks, and in that time one of her sketches has been featured on Seth Myer’s Late Night, she’s released a podcast with fellow comedian Jacqueline Novak, and has performed numerous stand up shows across the US. When she finds the time to breathe, she starts at the beginning,

‘think I was aware of race at a young age but had no negative associations with it.’

she says when asked what her first memories of race where.

Nancherla describes her upbringing in Northern Virginia as diverse. Growing up near DC allowed her to be exposed to the city’s mix of people, along with a traditional Indian upbringing delivered by her parents, both doctors. Whilst her childhood was fairly typical for an immigrant family; extracurricular activities, a strong sense of discipline delivered by her parents, she says that the contrast between home and the outside world was, at times, confusing, 

‘I think I grew up feeling as though I had two different identities, that of my own Westernised one and that of my more traditional Indian upbringing. They always felt pretty separate in my mind, like I lived two different lives, which I think is often typical of immigrant kids.’

After studying psychology she moved home, though she already had a taste of her future as a comic. 

‘My mother made me take public speaking classes when I was little to work on presentations in front of groups and because she was worried I was too shy.’

After being entered into a local community event and won with a humorous speech. On her 20th birthday, she did her first stand-up performance. 
She tried humour writing and open mic nights in college, before moving to LA full-time and trying comedy as a career. She’s been working a comic full time for four years now, and hasn’t really taken time to breathe.

In 2013 she became the first South Indian woman to perform stand up on late night TV. She regularly appears and writes for Late Night with Seth Meyer’s, has her own podcast about depression with fellow comic Jacqueline Novak, as well as managing the hectic gig schedule that comes with being a working comedian. Her family have been supportive throughout. 

‘I think when I first started they saw it as more of a hobby or a phase but then when I told them I wanted to move to Los Angeles to pursue it and they realised I wasn't going to change my mind, they came around to how they could be supportive for me.’

This has continued in recent months through Nancherla’s work surrounding mental health. Her podcast ‘The Blue Woman Group’ is episodic musings on panic inducing topics, such as getting out of bed and crying in the office. Nancherla and Novak ask the big questions like ‘Why is there no emoji for sustained weeping over a lifetime?’ If you follow her on Twitter (@aparnapkin), it’s a similar vibe to the open yet hilarious tone she takes on there.

Image credit:  Robyn Von Swank

Image credit: Robyn Von Swank

When asked about her parents reaction to this subject, which can be a taboo among the Asian community, she is grateful for her family’s openness,

‘anxiety and depression runs in my family. I think my family is pretty open about our issues with these topics, which is nice to have that as a safe space.’

I ask whether she considers comedy a safe space for BME performers. 

‘I’ve gotten heckled if people don't like what I'm doing or gotten a tepid reaction but I think every comedian has to deal with their share of that. It's just part of the job. I feel lucky in that I haven't had any particularly damaging or hostile incidents, but anytime you are heckled, you do feel naturally defensive and caught somewhat unaware.’

Despite her safety within her profession she seems aware of how others might view her as an outsider – for a while she opened all sets with the line ‘Yes I am actually a comic’, a method she said immediately tackled any audience doubt and surprise that ‘someone like me’ was on stage, so she could move on to the topics she wished to discuss. She credits this removal from the politics surrounding her identity and generally as to why she hasn’t become a target of abuse, 

Then again Nancherla doesn’t court controversy. Her act is shy, awkward, hinging more on creating an empathetic bond with her audience than raging on the state of the world. She self depricates, she observes life, just this sometimes is tinged by her upbringing. 

On the back of her wave of success Nancherla has big plans for the future; she’ll continue touring this year, plus plans to possibly start on a book. Her album will come out in July. Though this is small fish for her, 

‘I would love to develop a show, possibly animated, demonstrating my voice and sensibility. I think making work I am proud of and being surrounded by peers that inspire me is one continuous overarching goal I have for myself.’