Here’s a list of some things that make Aparna Nancherla anxious: open-plan office spaces, the possibility of falling down the stairs while rushing to catch the G train, coffee (she drinks it anyway), photo shoots, and social interactions, including the one happening right now between us at Books Are Magic, her neighborhood bookstore in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn. Any forced interaction is awkward, so of course this publicist-mediated blind date, which started off at a brunch spot nearby, has its stops and starts.
“Fame is so weird. Any small inkling that I’ve gotten, I’m like, This is a nightmare,” Nancherla says to me as we linger in front of a wall of nonfiction. “Because you’re still just that person that made me stand in a bookstore quietly.” She wryly notes how an audience member once accosted her to ask why she tends to look away when speaking to people — an anecdote she tells me while looking off slightly to the right. While she’s unassuming in person, when Nancherla speaks her voice is distinct and unforgettable: light and a little nasal with a droll edge, as though she’s in a state of casual amusement. She takes a long pause to look at Peter Hayes’s Why? Explaining the Holocaust. “Hmm, that seems like a lot to take on.”
If you’re the kind of person who lies awake at night mulling your existence under late capitalism, Nancherla is the comedian for you. In her stand-up, which she describes as “how an introvert would talk to a group of extroverts,” she jokes about her anxiety and depression as mundane rather than sensational things. Recently, after the deaths of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade by suicide, Nancherla, a prolific joke writer on Twitter, posted a message screenshotted from her phone. “No matter how far or wide you go or how many lives you touch or how much money you make or success you achieve, your brain can tell you different. It is a constant companion and you cannot take a break from it,” she wrote. “The truth of depression is it is often quiet and it is boring and it is insidious in its lack of spectacle.”
It’s these very qualities of her comedic persona — perceptive and kind, with snatches of the observational acuity of Tig Notaro and weirdness of Maria Bamford — that have become increasingly resonant as sea levels and political discord reach all-time highs. “I am someone who has a lot of anxiety, and it’s weird that anxiety is finally on message,” she jokes during her recent half-hour episode on Netflix’s The Standups. “If you’re an anxious person, this is what we trained for. This is our Olympics. It’s like all those nights awake: It’s showtime! All the scenarios at once.”
Nancherla, 35, grew up in the Northern Virginia suburbs, and was first diagnosed with depression and anxiety midway through college at Amherst University. “I took some time off from school; I was having issues around restricted eating, and that was actually later revealed to be a mask of having depression,” she says. “Once I was able to name it and started going to therapy, the eating stuff fell away, and it was just trying to cope with this other thing.” She started taking antidepressants, which, in a way, pushed her to try stand-up comedy. “When I first went on meds, I got this initial burst of euphoria,” Nancherla recalls. “I was full of like, I can do anything. I can be anything, and that’s probably what first gave me the confidence to try stand-up.”
She performed her first set in the summer of 2002, during college. It was an open mic at the now-defunct comedy club Wiseacre’s, which was located in a Best Western hotel off the freeway in Fairfax. “I was like, what do I have to say to these people?” she says. “[But] because they laughed and listened to me, it really did open up a door I didn’t even know was possible: to be understood by a group of people that I don’t know I would be able to talk to if we were in an elevator together.” Even in those early days, Nancherla’s comedic sensibility comes through. One of her very first jokes that night: “Have you ever walked into a public restroom stall and looked inside, and been like, There’s a story there.”
Her career shifted into another gear when she moved to New York from Los Angeles in 2012, where she worked as a writer on W. Kamau Bell’s Totally Biased. In contrast to L.A., where she felt the pressure to present cheerfully, she found the frenzied, neurotic pace of New York comforting — finally, an environment that matched her insides. She moved on to Late Night With Seth Meyers, and started projects including a short-lived podcast about depression, Blue Woman Group, and an absurdist web show, Womanhood, with the comedian Jo Firestone. They would give advice on topics like what to expect when you’re going through puberty (“Your feelings will develop their own web presence”) and how to handle drunk men who sexually harass you at parties (bite off the tips of their fingers).
Her casually ironic delivery has made Nancherla a favorite with other comedians, and recently, she’s been popping up in more mainstream settings, commanding bigger stages both for her stand-up — on The Meltdown With Jonah and Kumail, Conan, Seth Meyers, and Two Dope Queens — and on television. She was the scene-stealer in the Master of None episode “First Dates” as the ramen-reviewing pro-wrestling fan who’s just here to make friends; she voiced BoJack’s long-lost daughter Hollyhock on the most recent season of BoJack Horseman; and she’s in the midst of shooting the second season of Comedy Central’s Corporate. “Aparna has a special talent for somehow sounding simultaneously bright-eyed and world-weary,” BoJack creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg wrote me in an email. “What I love about her stand-up is that it’s a beautifully cathartic articulation of how a lot of us get through every day — part-smirk, part-cringe, part-deer-caught-in-headlights. It feels like a survival manual for shouldering through these exhausting times we live in, or at the very least a handy field guide to the delightful low-broil terror and fury of being a person in this world.” Here she is on picking up spilled pills, pizza, and walking behind white finance bros on the sidewalk:
When talking with Nancherla, it’s easy to slip into thornier philosophical questions about the role of art in the age of branding and constant monetization. She doesn’t know if capitalism really justifies itself, but she’s gimlet-eyed about the fact that it is the system we live in, and she’s trying to make the best choices she can under it. She has been a vegetarian ever since she did a report on factory farming when she was an adolescent, and as an adult, she tries to do work that feels good to her. “The art I like the most is not as mainstream and not as marketable,” she said. “I constantly feel like, Who is art responsible to at the end of the day? Do you need to play the game just so you can get to a place where you can reach enough people with what you do? It feels like the market shouldn’t be the answer, but that’s what drives what art is made.”
Donald Glover is someone who she sees has having cracked the code. “[Glover’s] gotten to a place now where he is making some of the art he wants to make. But I think early on he came up through the system,” she says. “So it feels like, Do you need to play the game, to a degree, just so you can get to a place where you can reach enough people with what you do?”
One of those gray areas is Corporate, Comedy Central’s grim workplace satire in which she plays Grace, an HR manager grinding away at a soulless conglomerate called Hampton Deville, which manufactures everything from tablets to war crimes. It’s a critique of capitalism while also being a product of it. “I understand I’m also a part of this system and have to acknowledge that Corporate is on Viacom, which is what it’s making fun of, so in essence we’re still helping them by making it,” Nancherla says. “[Capitalism] is truly an alien monster that is like, Oh I can use your weakness and make myself more powerful! In that sense, also dealing with mental health stuff, sometimes showing up at the table at all is the feat. So, it’s like, okay, one battle at a time. Today you’re dealing with depression, tomorrow you can do capitalism.”
And that’s the relatable part about playing a character like Grace, who, like all of us, is just trying to get through the day. “As someone who goes existential very quickly in my head, I like that the show doesn’t dance around the bleakness of modern life, especially working in a corporation,” she says. “I’ve always been really bad at office jobs because I have trouble not seeing the pretense of it all. My brain can’t buy into whatever we’re supposed to believe to get through the day.”
For herself, Nancherla is content with steady work that stays true to her sensibility. While she’s shooting Corporate in L.A., she’s writing material for a 29-city tour that begins in August for a new stand-up hour, It’s Me Again; she’s developing a scripted buddy-comedy show with Jo Firestone for Hulu through Amy Poehler’s company Paper Kite; and she’ll make her film debut in Paul Feig’s A Simple Favor as a snarky neighbor. It’s enough. “I do feel like I’m at a good place right now where if I can just do more of this stuff I get to do now, I think I’ll be happy getting to work on a project with people whose company I enjoy,” she says. “It’s kind of the dream. I don’t feel like I need another thing beyond just different versions of this.”
We’ve spent an hour or so dawdling in the bookstore, and pleasantly, no one has interrupted us. “I like bookstores because no one ever bothers you in a bookstore. You can just look, but no one’s like, ‘Do you need help?’ the way they do in other stores,” she says. We don’t know exactly how to say good-bye, since neither of us is actually buying anything (or rather, going through the motions to buy anything); she doesn’t have anything else on her schedule until her therapy appointment later in the evening. But she should head home, she says, because she’s procrastinating on doing her taxes. She’s dreading it, but she knows she’ll get it done.
Production credits: Styling by Indya Brown. FRAME blazer (top image), $499 at frame-store.com. Protagonist silk camisole, for similar styles at protagonist.com.