comics talk to comics

Tig Notaro Talks to Aparna Nancherla About Comedy, Babies, and Being More Direct

Photo-Illustration: Kelly Chiello and Photos by Getty Images

Whether it arrives through tweets, in a live setting, or during TV appearances on shows such as Totally Biased or Conan, Aparna Nancherla’s comedic voice is as charming as it is memorable. She serves pithy, absurdist zingers (“Any pizza is a personal one if you cry while you eat it.”) and unpredictable evaluations of anxiety, work, and dating, with a delivery as jocular as it is dry. Given her stylistic signature, it was only a matter of time before Nancherla and fellow stand-up Tig Notaro found a way to connect, professionally. Notaro — as famous for her airy deadpan as she is for bold and risk-taking shows in the face of personal adversity — recently started comedy label Bentzen Ball Records and convinced Nancherla to record an hour title as the label’s first release.

With the release of Just Putting It Out There last Friday, Vulture got Notaro, whose memoir, I’m Just a Person, is out now and special, Boyish Girl Interrupted, is out on August 19, to interview Nancherla. Ten days before their conversation, Notaro’s wife Stephanie gave birth to twins, and this was one of her “first and only contacts with the outside world.” While the new babies squeaked in the background, Nancherla and Notaro chatted about bad gigs, the power of a New York walk, and advice for new parents.

Tig Notaro: Since I have new babies, do you have any parenting advice based on your upbringing and looking at your life around you?
Aparna Nancherla: Honestly, if you have two babies, the most important thing is to just make sure you mirror whatever you’re doing with one with the other one, or they might come out lopsided.

Even-Steven stuff.
Yeah. Pretty much across the board. Amount of food, amount of eye contact, all that stuff.

Well, one we haven’t made any eye contact with. The other one we’re overfeeding. There’s weird experiments going on. So you’d say we’re doing this wrong?
Well, you’re still in the grace period, so it’s not the point of no return, but I think start feeding the other one and start looking at the other one.

Alright, this all seems fair. You seem like a really levelheaded person. Do you want to be a parent?
I don’t know. I am very ambivalent about most things in life and that one always overtaxes my brain when I try to think about it.

Do you like that being ambivalent, or do you wish you leaned in a different direction? I guess that’s going to be hard for you to answer — you don’t know.
[Laughs] Yeah, I don’t know. I wish I had more of a firm vision.

You have firm visions, but just on both sides. You support Hillary and Trump.
Maybe I just need a two-baby system.

[Laughs.] That’s probably all you need: two babies. Do you think you could keep these two little people alive for the night if I dropped them off at your hotel room tonight?
No, that is so terrifying. I don’t know what the thought process is when you first bring your babies home, but I imagine it’s a huge range of emotions.

Well, that’s a lot easier than when they come out and they clip the umbilical cord and hand them to you. “Wait a minute. I thought they were going to be monitored by doctors and nurses for a while.” But it’s just, “Well, there you go. There are your kids. You wanted them, you have them.”
I had no idea. I feel like from TV and movies, there’s a period where they’re in one big room altogether.

That’s what I thought! We did not read anything or Google anything. So we know nothing.
Wow! Was that a conscious decision or have you just been too busy?

I’ve been too busy. And I thought, Crackheads raise babies. And that’s what I measure things on.
It’s like an experiment.

It’s 100 percent an experiment, because you have to feed their little beaks every two hours and clean their bottoms and give them kisses and put them down for naps. And apparently you wake up one day and they’re 18. Now, when you were a child, did you listen to comedy albums? Or were you one of those weird comedians that just stumbled into it. “I never followed comedy and now I’m a great comedian.”
I feel like you don’t want me to say that one, but I am that one.

No, it doesn’t bother me at all! To me, those are the most fascinating people: They didn’t mean to get into stand-up. How did you fumble into it, for the millionth time you’ve been asked?
The actual first time isn’t that exciting: I went to an open mic when I was home from college for the summer. I had always been interested in acting but I had never had positive experiences in theater, so it felt like a halfway point between those two things.

What are you good at, aside from stand-up? When are you like, “This is my strength and I will challenge you to this?”
Oh, man, that’s a good question.

That’s why I was hired for this job. And I would prefer it if, after every question, you could say, “That’s a good question.”
Allow me to retroactively apply that to every question.

[Laughs.] It’s too late. What are you good at?
I would say I’m a creative person and I have a wild imagination. That is my strength, but I have a hard time harnessing it into concrete material. I daydream a lot. Is that a strength?

We could see how it could be and how it maybe isn’t. But that’s a strength you have, seeing both sides. I guess “ambivalence” sounds like a negative.
It has a negative connotation. A positive way of saying it would be “diplomatic.”

Maybe you should take ambivalent out of your vocabulary and say that.
Yeah, that’s one concrete change I can make going forward. I don’t even remember the last time I was asked to name a strength. What would you say?

That’s a good question.
Thank you so much.

Gosh, I don’t know. Not 100 percent of the time, but I feel like I’m good at being direct. I know what I want, and I feel like I can tell people, I want this, I don’t want this, I want you, I don’t want you, I hope for this, and this is right, and this is wrong for me.
That’s what I want in myself.

So why not get into it? Maybe almost 20 years ago, I was like, God, I need to be more direct. And I found times that I could practice it when it was maybe not my family or friends or co-workers. It’s a quality that’s rarely disliked.
Yeah, I undercut everything. I’m always afraid the other person won’t like me or will think I’m deciding badly, so I make a decision and then I go, “Oh, you know, either way is fine.”

Well, this is going to ease us from this more in-depth conversation into more comedy as well: When have you felt most powerful in your life?
When I’ve created something that I’m proud of, either a joke that I really like or a set that I felt went really well. I don’t know if I would say I ever feel powerful, though.

Aparna, come on.
Oh, living in New York has made me feel powerful because when I walk around, I walk really fast and it feels like I have direction and focus, whether that is true or not.

See, you got back to whether that’s true or not.
I know! Why did I do that?

You have to tell me it’s true! You’re drunk with power, storming around the streets of New York. That’s how I believe you to be, and you should be.
I agree. That is when I feel powerful.

Hold on, he’s squeaking. I have two sons. This is a new thing for me to say, “My son.” My son sounds like a seagull.
Does it mean anything? Is it related to hunger?

That’s the one child I do feed, and he still makes seagull noises. It’s not something I want to change.
Your other son, not as much with the seagull noises?

A lot of times it’s just checking to make sure you’re able to keep them alive.
That feels like a huge step in the parenting process. This isn’t in the same world at all, but the only point of reference I have is when my family got a puppy when we were little. When we first brought him home, I kept running into the room to look at him to make sure he was still there.

I’m certain they’re still here. Their legs are like little frog legs. They’re preemies, tiny little things. We’ve just been in this hilarious baby cave. I drove to the bank the other day, and I really felt like I was driving on a different planet. I was in my pajamas and I was looking around like I’d just never seen life before. Are you getting excited for your CD to be released? Are you nervous, proud, neutral?
I’m a little bit nervous but mostly excited. It helps that I had a little distance between when I recorded it and when it’s coming out. I almost put in on the back shelf and then, suddenly, it was time to get excited again. 

I bet people are going to love it. I was there.
That’s so nice.

Any particular bad gig you’d like to share?
I had a recent bad gig, but it felt like a milestone in that I knew it was going to be bad, it was bad, and then I just went home. Usually I get very panicked when I feel like I’m walking into a bad gig. It was a college. They had a music festival but they wanted to put comedy in it. The scheduling was maybe not thought out very well. There were like, eight punk bands and they were like, “Let’s stick Aparna in the middle of that.”

Punk-rock Aparna.
The band before me threw chairs and stuff. And I thought, Oh, there’s going to be a shift.

[Laughs.] A shift, to put it mildly. “Alright, guys, are you ready for your shiiift?” How often are you getting up onstage?
When I’m in New York, I try to go up at least five or six times a week. If I’m out on the road [doing] gigs for weeks and weeks, it’ll be two or three times a month, which is the right amount for me.

I haven’t gotten onstage in a month and a half.
You have plenty of reasons that you haven’t had time.

I forget that I’m anything, really. Any last minute questions or concerns?
I want to ask you a question but I don’t want to make it a hard one.

You can make it a hard one.
Have you given your children nicknames yet?

Do you know what swaddling is, when you wrap them in the blanket real tight so they can’t get their arms out?

Whenever I’m swaddling one, I call them “Mr. Swaddles.” Anything else you suggest? [Baby cooing.] Oh, Mr. Swaddles!
Mr. Swaddles, I can’t top that.

Can you believe this is the noise in the background of my home?
This is great.

Well, thank you, Aparna. Mr. Swaddles wants food, and a clean bottom.
Thank you, Tig! Good luck returning to your cave!

Tig Notaro Talks to Aparna Nancherla