After rising through the ranks of the flourishing Washington, D.C. comedy scene, Aparna Nancherla headed to “the biggest apple in the gosh darn world” to not only become one of the city’s most unique comedic voices, but also a writer for Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell and Late Night with Seth Meyers, as well as an actor on shows like Inside Amy Schumer and the upcoming seasons of Netflix’s Love. This summer she released her debut album Just Putting It Out There on Tig Notaro’s Bentzen Ball records and backed up the release with a headlining tour. As if she wasn’t racking up enough credits, this weekend marks the premiere of Nancherla’s Comedy Central Half Hour. I sat down with the comedian before her Half Hour taping to discuss the special, her writing process, and why for her there is such a thing as being onstage too much.
When your name was announced as part of this year’s Half Hour lineup I noticed a lot of people saying, “It’s about time.” You’ve been doing stand up for ten years. Does the timing feel right to you?
I’m not someone who feels that they are necessarily owed something. But I do think it’s nice to have milestones that you hit as you do standup longer and longer. This feels like a nice solid benchmark to hit at ten years.
What personal significance does recording the Half Hour have for you?
I feel like anytime you record something it’s always a snapshot of where you were at that point in both your standup and your life. I think it will be nice to look back like, “Oh, that’s what year ten looked like.”
You recently recorded a full-length album. At the time that this article is published it will have already come out. How does it feel to put out your first album?
It’s exciting. It’s also weird because I guess sometimes with albums, depending on who you release it with, they have a certain scheduling for when they want it to come out. I actually recorded it a year ago. I forgot about it a little bit and then I was like, “Oh yeah, I did record that.” Now it’s officially coming out.
How much material from the album will be a part of the Half Hour?
I think about a third. I have two chunks that are newer and then a little bit from the album.
You’ve written for Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell and Late Night with Seth Meyers. What other projects have you contributed to?
The last thing I worked on was this show for Seeso called Debate Wars. It’s sort of an adapted game show based off of a live show they do in New York. I also had a web series I did with Jo Firestone for Refinery29. It’s like a fake advice series geared toward women at different stages in their lives.
You blew up on Twitter. Do you use Twitter as a writing tool to test premises, punch lines, and tags?
I think so. I use it as a sort of free-form incubator. It’s not that often that the joke stays in the exact form that it’s in on Twitter. Sometimes there’s a one-liner I can get from there, but a lot of times it’s just the seed of an idea to write around and the Twitter joke will come in later as a tag or something.
Are you a structured writer? Do you take a certain amount of time out of each day to sit down and write?
I’ve tried to, but I feel like I have varying degrees of success with that. I try to carve out time, but I feel like it ends up being a little erratic depending on what’s on my schedule that week and how much traveling I’m doing. But I try to sit down and work through ideas at least on a semi-regular basis.
How much time do you spend onstage every week?
It varies. It can be anywhere from three to four spots on a light week to 11 or 12. I’m definitely not in that workhorse mentality where I’m going up six times a night. I don’t think I’m built for that.
I talk to a lot of comics, especially from New York, who say that they get up 15 or more times a week. Their argument would be that the more time you’re onstage the better you will become. But do you feel like there is a point where your return on investment starts to diminish the more you’re onstage in a given week?
Every standup deals with the thing of not getting sick of your own material. I feel like if I had to run the same material twice as much as I’m doing now I would become so disengaged from it. I can see how it can help you fine tune the jokes more, but I don’t have the patience to run them a thousand more times.
You have a lot of quotable jokes.
That’s nice. Thank you.
When you’re writing, are you fine tuning to get each phrase down perfectly, or do you leave room to play in the empty space more?
I’ve become more comfortable playing with the empty space the longer that I’ve done standup, but sometimes the exact wording of the original idea is the funny part to me. I’ll keep that and build around it.
What do you think is the best thing about doing comedy right now?
I think there are wider and more diverse platforms for comedy right now. Networks and online outlets seem much more willing to take risks on more interesting, outside-of-the-box stuff. It’s exciting to not have to pitch everything within the structure of a mainstream demographic if that’s not what you’re really going for.