*This interview was originally posted May 1st, 2013.
It’s hard for me to even try and write an introduction to comedian Aparna Nancherla. She set the bar so high with this interview I feel like I should just get out of the way as quickly as possible so you can start reading it. What do you need to know? She is truly one of our favorite comedians IN THE WORLD and makes us laugh out loud more than anyone else. She writes for FX’s “Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell.” She will make you smile on the constant, this interview will make your ribs hurt from laughing so hard, she is the tops, crazy smart, beautiful, insanely funny Twitter feed, I mean, I could go on all day. JUST READ ON AND GET OBSSESSED WITH HER LIKE WE ARE. Maybe one of the best interviews ever IN THE WORLD!
Serial Optimist: Do you normally remember your dreams? Are they vivid or just fade away quickly after you wake up?
Aparna Nancherla: First of all, hello so much! And thank you for having me. (Even though “thank you for having me” is really just something you should say to your biological parents, and even then, only if you’re in the mood.)
Wow, I hit a tangent right out of the gate. I guess that’s why they call me “Tangent Terry.” And by they, I mean my future godchildren.
Let’s stick with the question, shall we, chief? That was my impression of an interrogator trying to stay on track, but not be a total buzzkill.
In conclusion, I abnormally remember my dreams. Like I dream a lot, but I’ll especially remember the pedestrian ones where I’m folding socks or reorganizing my phone contacts. It’s sometimes confusing remembering what I dreamed versus what I actually did. However, I looked up “folding socks” in the dream dictionary, and it means I will be imminently arrested for extortion. So, it’s anybody’s game at this point, you know?
SO: What do you think about all this North Korea stuff that’s going on? I mean, I’m scared. This could be the last interview I ever write. Any parting words before shit gets real? (REAL SCARY!)
Aparna: I guess historically, it feels like we, as a country, have been in this boat before. That is to say, a lot of people hate us and some people hate us enough that they would like to point rockets at us. Speaking of which, the only thing ruder than finger pointing is rocket pointing.
Not that the U.S. is alone in that regard. I’m betting not everyone was a Belieber about the Roman Empire.
Little background on me though. I’m generally always scared of everything on a daily basis including this question right now, so the fact that I have something to actually be scared about that is not purely why someone didn’t smile at me at a party makes me feel less alone. Does that make sense? If it doesn’t make sense, there’s no time to explain! Carpe dayummm, and all that.
Plus, there’s nothing as tranquilizing as ultimate peril. I would even recommend it over herbal tea. The cost difference alone!
SO: Okay down to bittness, or business, whichever you prefer. I honestly have to say you are one of my very favorite comedians. I truly read your Twitter feed like a “I can’t put down this book” book…feed. It’s so dry, sarcastic and just straight up funny. When did you really find your voice and develop this tone?
Aparna: First off, I prefer “down to bittness” just because I feel like the letter T needs a career push right now.
Sloppy secondly, thank you for your honesty and ridiculously nice compliment. Please trust that it will all go in your file.
I’m not sure I found my voice as much as my voice found me. I have always been a shy weirdo in the corner muttering things under my breath, until finally someone half-heard one of those things, and sort of giggled/coughed a little. Which quickly spiraled into the massive ego underlying the microbrew of a comedic point-of-view that I’ve developed today. Though I must say I am constantly inspired by other brilliant joke writers on Twitter and comedic minds inventing new realms onstage though.
I’ve also always been a big scribbler downer, and over time, I’ve learned how to Rosetta Stone the random squiggles in my brain into coherent thoughts that other people can follow.
SO: You’re from the hard knock city of D.C., which is where so many comedians started. It’s the secret comedy city of the U.S. What was your upbringing like?
Aparna: Is it secret? Should we even be talking about it?
I actually grew up in the Northern Virginia suburbs right OUTSIDE DC, though I was born in DC proper, so who are you gonna believe these days?
My upbringing was…drumroll with a glowstick please…grotesquely normal. Two immigrant Indian parents still together (sorry, divorce statistics), both doctors (you’re welcome, stereotypes), and an older sister, and various pets at various times ranging from a socially anxious Sheltie to a transgender guinea pig to one of those mail-order frog brides.
But yes, growing up, we lived on a street with a cul-de-sac, and I went through the usual cycle of extracurriculars—which included delusional figure skating, piano secrets, diction, dance patterns, weather patterns, cross country and tracking device, plants, Spanish Honor Society, tax evasion, you know, the usual stuff to keep one’s resume in tip-top college application form. One of my hobbies that I didn’t learn I was good at until later in life was whimpering, but hey, you lose some, you lose some.
SO: What did you want to be, or did you have any “life” plans or goals at 18?
Aparna: Honestly, I was all over the map in high school, and it wasn’t even a map of my high school. It was a map of the local mall. So I was way confused most of the time.
And here’s a doozy reveal. I almost went to West Point, AKA the U.S. Military Academy. I was big into leadership and wanting to find my path in life, and it seemed like a school that really knocked you into shape. I even had to write a letter to my Congressman to get them to sponsor my application.
I kind of ignored the whole joining the army after you graduate, shooting guns part, and focused on the confidence and leadership and “believing in yourself” part. I even ignored the fact that when I visited the school, I did not feel like it was a good fit at all.
Anyway, at the last minute, I freaked out, and decided to go to my other choice of school, a little ditty of a New England liberal arts college by the name of Amherst, which ended up being a way better decision in the short term. For example, you could have a waffle for breakfast there everyday if you so chose. EVERY DAY. If that’s not self-actualization, I don’t know what is.
SO: At what point did you decide the scary path of comedy was the path you wanted to take? What was your first stand up experience like?
Aparna: I first tried stand up when I was home from college for the summer. I know that’s a dry answer, but wait! It gets even less exciting.
My friends and I started going to this open mic at a Best Western near my house, as kind of a free entertainment/we have no standards sorta thing. My friend Dave and I noticed not everyone going up was HBO special level, so we were like “Hey, let’s give this a roll. We deserve a chance to fail too. It’s the American Dream.”
So I ended up going up for the first time on my 20th birthday, which I definitely mentioned onstage give or take 1000 times. I invited a family friend and my sister, and I was so scared I felt like I was going to pass out the whole time. But somehow, it went pretty good. How good? Well, let’s just say, nobody in the audience killed themselves. Though the comic right after me ridiculed me for saying it was my birthday. Thereby, my first heckle was an inside job. (Take note, gubbermint.)
SO: I find it really interesting the process comedians use in writing material. From: Idea, where that idea came from, writing it, trying it out, putting it in your bit. Can you explain how that works for you? Or is there even a process at all? You have that rare talent of making it all look so easy!
Aparna: Sooooo I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but I actually get all my jokes from Crackerjack boxes. And then I rewrite them a little so it’s not plagiarism. And then I rewrite this answer so I don’t get arrested by THE THOUGHT POLICE with backup vocals by Sting.
MIND ERASER so you don’t remember any of that.
Normally, I conceive of an idea by retiring to my solar pod for 5 to 10 fortnights, and then once I have come out of my funk haze, my robot maid on a Segway makes me a sensible shake consisting of kale and about a dozen Cadbury eggs. Then I go on a simple peyote-infused walk around the block, and that generates about one one-liner for me. Repeat as needed.
Here’s the translation: I jot down thoughts in my notebook all the time based on things I see and Gchats with friends, try them out onstage, and then reshape and rework as needed. Truly it takes about a year, sometimes, more than a year, to get some jokes where I want them. Sometimes I will try tweets onstage and then judge myself for doing that. Does that sound like a creative prison? Good, because it is.
SO: Worst moment on stage?
Aparna: One time, I had a meltdown onstage. Usually, I play my meltdowns close to the vest.
It all started after I was born. No, I was doing standup at this fratty bar that was shutting down, and I always hated performing there. So for my last appearance there, I yelled at the audience the whole time. To be clear, I shrieked at them, somewhat incoherently. I don’t even remember if any jokes were attempted. It was a pure rage fest. I definitely knocked down the stool. I made sure I put it back up though. It was Occupy meets Gathering of the Juggalos, but with more free drink tickets and less community.
SO: You were recently on Nerdist’s podcast and are always a stand out in any podcast you appear on. What are some of your personal favorite podcasts?
Aparna: I like how you segued from my podcast appearances to podcasts I like, as though we all haven’t seen that trick seven times before, David Blaine!!! JK I actually have no idea how you did that.
I tend to go through phases with podcasts, where I binge on one for a day, and then I totally forget it ever existed. I hate to say it, but I’m kind of like the Pick Up Artist of podcasts. Sometimes, I’ll leave one on for a few weeks just because I can, and then show up at the movies with a different one in my ear. What I’m trying to say is that listening is a tough hustle, and I didn’t get into it to make friends.
With no further ado, ladies and blokes, the answer to this question. Here are a few podcasts I’ve listened to recently and enjoyed: The Mental Pod with Paul Gilmartin, You Had to Be There with Sara Schaefer and Nikki Glaser, You Made It Weird with Pete Holmes, the WTF Podcast with Marc Maron, the Pod F. Tompkast, This American Life, and RadioLab.
SO: You’re a writer (and sometimes appear) on “Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell.” Is this your first writing job for a show? What’s the writers’ room like? How has the experience been?
Aparna: IT IS MY FIRST WRITING JOB, thank you for noticing! The writers’ room is a real WHO’S WHO of comedy, just because none of us are good with names or faces, so we’re constantly re-introducing ourselves. It’s made up of stand ups and writers of varying experience levels, and I hate to toot everyone’s horn, but it’s probably the most diverse writers’ room of a show anywhere today, shy of Zoobilee Zoo (RIP), since that bridged the whole human-animal-what-the-hell-is-that-thing gap.
The writers’ room has a cool dialogue flow in it, where everyone is supportive of each other, in a razzy way. I feel like I’ve been learning a whole lot, both from observing the more experienced folk to trying out things with likeminded noodles.
One big thing about writing for TV is you can’t be too precious about your work. A lot of stuff gets thrown out, and you just have to make sure to throw out your bad attitude with it, or everyone will ask “Who invited Stinkface to the party?” And then you will have to answer “Me. I am Stinkface.”
SO: You need to update your YouTube page; you have like 3 videos and a link to MySpace. WHAT’S YOUR PROBLEM?
Aparna: One problem I have is fear of confrontation, so this is literally a nightmare right now.
I did recently start a Vine account. Does that mean anything to you?
I’ll be honest. My YouTube account is actually a rescue. I found it abandoned on the side of the road when I was returning from a gratitude stroll, and I’ve been trying to nurse it back to health ever since.
You should have seen what it looked like when I found it. It was like a link to Ancestry.com and 1 video that was all security camera footage from a Curves gym juice bar. So we’ve come a long way.
SO: When touring do you stick to your material or do you change it based on what part of the county you’re in? Have you ever had any heckler incidents?
Aparna: I think you meant country, not county, but I love the idea that I vastly shift my act depending on even slight geographical differences, for example, the right or left side of the stage.
I will say that if I’m on the Upper East Side, I am a Carrie. And if I’m in Brooklyn, I’m a Miranda. And if I’m in Weehawken, something’s gone awry. Heyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy, sticking it to Weehawken for no reason! High-fives myself too many times.
I have been heckled here and there; nothing too brutal, probably since I look like a lost child, and not everybody can handle that on their conscience. Though I did have adult braces for a long time, and I once had a guy make fun of my braces in the audience. And it was like, hahah, who are you? The schoolyard bully? He did steal my lunch money after the show, so yes, it was definitely him.
SO: I MEANT COUNTY! What’s your most favorite part of the day?
Aparna: My favorite part of the day is, get ready, nighttime, when your only company is roving DJs and the ghosts of stockbrokers. It’s like after 2 a.m., when everything feels rife with possibilities and you feel like a mad pseudoscientist exploring the bowels of the Internet and the backs of your kneecaps. It’s when I should be asleep, but instead I’m reading about “50 ways to interrogate a pretzel” and I feel great about it.
SO: I’ll be living in NYC this month for the first time, what do you consider the best NY comedy clubs? Will you take me with you one night when you perform? I mean we don’t have to call it a date; I don’t want to label anything…
Aparna: Fine, I’ll help you move, but at least buy me a pizza parlor.
Tough query, Jeeves. I don’t have a favorite club, because this town is run by mob bosses, and frankly, I don’t have time for a hit on me right now.
I will tell you that I have enjoyed performing at the following venues: UCB in Chelsea and Littlefield in Brooklyn. I have very much enjoyed seeing shows at Ars Nova on the West Side. These are all considered alternative venues, so please factor that in your calculations, doctor.
And yes, I’d be happy to bring you around. We don’t have to label it, but we could call it an opportunity, a vision quest, or even Al. Yes, let’s call it Al.
SO: An ALpportunity? I just blew it didn’t I. Are you an optimist, pessimist or realist and why?
Aparna: I am someone who struggles with anxiety and depression (pessimist), but find constant delight (optimist) in the mundane (realist).
Ugh, I feel like I just told you I like “all music.” But I do have Josh Groban and Dr. Dre on the same playlist, so there you have it. I consider myself a minor thought experiment in exploring the struggle between darkness and light. This probably is part chemical imbalance and part watching a lot of psychological thrillers starring baby sloths.
SO: Love it. In 140 characters, please describe your overall thoughts on this interview.
Aparna: WAIT WAS THIS WHOLE THING A SETUP FOR THIS QUESTION WHO HOW WHY BUT MOSTLY THIS CAN’T BE HAPPENING AGAIN AND WHAT HAVE YOU DONE WITH MY FAM?
SO: YOU’RE THE TOPS, thanks Aparna!