Depression and Comedy with Aparna Nancherla

The link between depression and comedy is well known; Woody Allen shot to fame joking about low self-esteem, while currently, Maria Bamford and Louis CK turn depression into comic gold – even if, in Bamford’s case at least, the off-stage struggle with it was painful and scary. The British Journal of Psychiatry found in a 2014 study of 523 comedians that they scored “significantly higher” than the norms for depression in four areas, noting, “Most striking was the comedians’ high score on both introverted anhedonia and extroverted impulsiveness.”

“Introverted anhedonia” is a good way to describe the humor of talented standup comedian Aparna Nancherla, whose pithy expression of the depressive mindset is gaining her an impassioned following on Twitter, where she contributes one-liners that rival Allen’s in their self-deprecating moroseness. Some samples:

Nancherla, who recently started a podcast with fellow comedian Jacqueline Novak called Blue Woman Group, suffers from depression, which is the subject of the podcast. The two women giggle softly at each other’s jokes as they riff on the absurdities of self-help lingo for hopelessness. In one episode titled “Social Media Spiral,” they go through a 10-minute guided meditation based on opening your Facebook page and confronting the jolts to your self-esteem always encountered there. “See your ex… having a great time… and always remember to breathe,” purrs Nancherla. And at the end, “When you are ready… log out.” This treatment of the disturbingly inclusion/exclusion-focused website, which leaves us striving for recognition and popularity in a way not felt since eighth grade, is both trenchant and funny. The Blue Woman Group podcast is also a welcome instance of women using the format to schtick with each other, laugh at each other’s jokes and have fun, in a sphere that often seems depressingly dominated by men.

Nancherla performs regularly both in her New York City home and around the country and in August 2015, she became a writer on Late Night with Seth Meyers. So she is clearly not sidelined by depression. But following someone on Twitter can make you feel you know them. This woman’s downbeat tweets – expressing social anxiety, lack of confidence, and persistent malaise – made me feel she was my twin, and also got me wondering how she functioned as someone committed to regularly producing funny material, in the sometimes raucous world of comedy clubs. I know from dragging my depressed self to comedy shows that glumness is not a welcome affect (though Stephen Wright makes it work). I talked to Aparna about depression’s role in the life of a comic – whether it’s more fuel or foe.

Would you say your depression is more of an impediment or an inspiration for your comedy?

I would say depression is one of those things that sublets space in your head, so no matter how far away you get away from it, it exists as a somewhat permanent houseguest. So while it can significantly impede my productivity and mood, it also very much contributes to my point-of-view and sense of humor. I am not of the mind that you have to be fully “in it” to create great art, but I certainly think it has indelibly influenced how I see the world.

Does having depression affect how often you can write comedy? What about performing?

Yes, it can make it hard to go about my day without getting bogged down sometimes, but you learn to manage it and work within its confines. Of course, there are worse times and better times. One of the unexpected positives of depression for a lifelong perfectionist is you worry less about failure, in that showing up or engaging, regardless of quality, can be an accomplishment in and of itself.

You also joke about introversion and social anxiety. In a comedy club, it seems like those would be hard conditions to have. How hard is it to be in the live-comedy world, for you?

Yes, introversion and social anxiety are two things that very much are tenterhooks on which my personality is suspended. I used to think being shy was a malfunction that needed to be cured, as my mother was often worried I wasn’t assertive enough. And while I do believe being more outgoing and reaching out to others has broadened my world in immeasurable ways, I still take a lot of solace and comfort in my inner life.

Regardless of how much confidence I have gained as a performer and human, I have an overactive self-awareness that sometimes makes it hard to be around other people without feeling emotionally hypersensitive. You learn to have a personality for being around strangers and even family and friends, but I definitely find time to myself where I feel most at ease, even if my mind is ruffled that day. The Internet and digital communication has provided a salve in that I can engage with others in a more distilled and customized way, though that can be dangerous if you entirely replace all face-to-face interaction.

Do you find many fellow comedians share your shyness, or your lack of self-confidence (at least as you express it publicly)?

I think many comedians deal with social anxiety and pressure to fit in. Everyone copes with it in different ways and I think it’s easy to mistake others’ constant joking around or riffing as social comfort, when in fact it’s sort of an emotional tap-dance or sleight of hand to keep others’ eyes focused on everything but the person’s inner workings. I tend to go inward with my anxiety, but many people go outward with it. Social anxiety comes in all types, funnily enough. It’s not always the person in the corner who’s the most nervous. Sometimes I find standing in the corner eye-opening, but it seems to make other people the most uncomfortable. I guess if we all stood in the corner, it might make for a strange scene, so I get it.

Do you think the world is just depressing, these days? On Broad City, Ilana Glazer’s character mentions “reducing my dosage of antidepressants” when the women were listing achievements, on one episode. I would have thought of all people, she would not suffer from depression. But you can’t tell, and many people, or maybe even most people these days are depressed. What do you think?

I think both anxiety and depression have heightened with the advent of industrialization, and I won’t get more specific than that for fear of botching my facts. But I do think with more disposable income and leisure time, the human mind is apt to circle itself a bit, at a loss for purpose. The very fact of less toil creating more stress kind of sums up the human condition in my mind. There are people living below what we would call the poverty line in some parts of the world that report the highest happiness levels. Of course, there are plenty of people living below the poverty line who are not happy. But what I mean to say is, your mood and outlook on life can be relative, and if you are dealing with just getting enough food to eat, you might not have time to worry about how your mood is from day to day. So in that sense I think both biological and environmental factors have maybe led to an increase in mood disorders, but you could say the same thing about diabetes or another disease. Once a medical condition [in depression] is present, it needs to be addressed and not treated like something you can just snap out of. Yes, some of us are overmedicated, but for others, it is a matter of life or death, so I don’t think you can heavily generalize when it comes to everyone’s health.

Do you think talent is related to depression almost intrinsically? Terry Gilliam said something about Robin Williams, after his suicide: “When the gods gift you with the kind of talent Robin had, there’s a price to pay. It comes from deep problems inside. A concern, all sorts of fears. Yet he could always channel those things and turn them into gold.”

I don’t think so. I agree that some of the greatest comedic minds have been prone toward mental anguish, but I don’t think one necessitates the other. I think it’s dangerous to glamorize mental health issues as some kind of romantic alter ego. Often there is a tradeoff, either in that person’s personal life or some aspect we may not see as clearly. I think, for me at least, depression creates a kind of obsessive need to introspect and weigh every life event, no matter how trivial, under a greater scope, and that can sometimes lead to unexpected insights. But there are plenty of brilliant artists who don’t necessarily deal with these issues, so I wouldn’t say it’s cause and effect.

You wrote a very funny tweet about “FOMI” – the fear of missing in. Do you have to force yourself to go out? If so, how do you do it?

I think because I do standup I have a reason I have to go out and show up. And my life has improved in dramatic ways by reaching out more to other people and connecting more with the world around me. However, I very much need time to recharge after a long night out or a loud party. In that sense, I’m a textbook introvert. Even a brunch with a few people I don’t know can feel exhausting or disconnecting.

How long have you had depression? Did it start in childhood? Was humor always your way of dealing?

Anxiety and depression run in my family so I think I dealt with depression long before I had a name for it. But I wouldn’t say it became a life impediment until I first went to college. That was when I was able to put a name to it. It’s always strange because sometimes you think maybe if I had just continued “not knowing” about what it was, I’d be better off today. But honestly, I think that’s the depression talking.

I think I always had an offbeat way of looking at the world, but I didn’t realize it until I started talking more to other people and interacting more with the outside world. I found humor just my default way of seeing things. Or as my college Intro to Psych class diagnosed me, I use it as a defensive coping mechanism.

What are other ways you deal with it? Do you have favorite funny movies that cheer you up? Who/what makes you laugh?

I think when you are really, truly depressed, it’s kind of past actual emotions of feeling sad and more just a constant detached numbness, so nothing really cheers you up. It’s more about quieting the mind at that point or detaching from it. In those cases, I will most often read (sometimes I still tend toward the grim, just to feel something) or watch. Music I find transformative as well as exercise or dance. I’ve also recently really gotten into coloring. In terms of people who really make me laugh but also just grateful, especially in understanding mental health, I wouldn’t be the first to say that Maria Bamford is such a gift to the world.

Your podcast with Jacqueline Novak, Blue Woman Group, is hysterically funny. Has there been a good reaction to it?

Yes, people have really been lovely about giving us feedback. One of the only negative reactions to it (because of course that’s what my mind fixates on) was a radio program where the interviewers kept asking me if “mocking depression is appropriate” and whether it makes it seem like it’s not real or to be taken seriously. To them I say, I wish it were that easy. But that’s like arguing if there was a podcast by people with eczema joking about it, would it make it seem like eczema isn’t real? No, I don’t think it would. I firmly believe that making fun of things doesn’t always automatically mean you are disrespecting them. Sometimes it’s merely a way to see something from a different angle.

Photo by Mindy Tucker.

Kristy Eldredge writes the humor blog The Laffs Institute and publishes on McSweeney’s, The Rumpus, and other sites. She makes comedy films when time and mood disorders allow.

Depression and Comedy with Aparna Nancherla