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Aparna Nancherla Resisted Writing About Mental Illness Until It Was the Only Thing in Her Joke Book

Aparna Nancherla. Photo: Photo: Getty Images

Appropriately, considering Aparna Nancherla’s status as one of the last few good tweeters, it started with a tweet. With her joke book filled with depressive circular thought, Nancherla decided to send out the only sentiment that resembled comedy: “Sometimes I feel sad for no reason but then I remember: a few reasons.” People liked it enough that it inspired her to bring her history of mental illness onstage, eventually building to a string of jokes about her anxiety that would act as both a creative and professional breakthrough.

Though, as Nancherla will tell you, her comedy is much less about mental illness than it’s often described to be, her jokes about anxiety offer a useful frame for the rest of her comedy. Not all her comedy is about being anxious person, but it’s all the comedy of an anxious person.

Nancherla’s “Blessed to Be Stressed” bit about anxiety is the subject of this week’s episode of Good One, Vulture Comedy’s podcast about jokes and the people who write them. Listen to the episode and read a short excerpt of the discussion below. Tune in to Good One every Monday on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

What did you think of your act before you talked about anxiety and depression onstage?
Early on, I think I had trouble. I would write jokes and they would be distinct things. I always had trouble connecting everything together and having bigger chunks thematically. I hadn’t done an album yet. I don’t even think I had done a late-night set yet. I really wasn’t thinking in terms of structure very much. So everything felt like these distinct different parts, and I wasn’t even sure what the overall takeaway was for the audience. I was like, I don’t even know what kind of person I’m really coming across as. So when I started talking about mental health, that at least helped me be like, Okay, these are like different aspects of your life or personality that you can kind of bring up in more ways that connect together.

Do you remember anything of what that material was like the first time you ever started doing it?
Even in my joke book it just looks very much like a journal where it’s just like the same circular thought over and over again: “What’s the point?” “Why are we all here?” And I was like, This is not even funny. And I think maybe I pulled out one line that I may be tweeted later where it was like “Sometimes I feel sad for no reason, but then I’ll remember the reasons.” And it did well as a tweet so I was like, Oh, maybe that’s something I can flesh out onstage.

The turn of the phrasing is in your first anxiety joke as well. Do you remember how that section started?
It was the first time I really started struggling with performing onstage. My anxiety was so bad that I was like, Maybe I’ll just talk about being anxious, and even if it won’t be in the exact context of being that uncomfortable onstage, at least maybe as a broader theme maybe people will relate to it.

What did this joke mean for your stand-up?
It was a breakthrough in me for a way to be more personal onstage, and more vulnerable. Though I think I still do keep a level of distance … Nanette recently came out and I feel like it has gotten a lot of people talking about the difference between being vulnerable and being the butt of your own joke. I do think I still have this level of distance between my material and my rawest emotions, but this joke did breach the topic of, Oh, there’s a lot of dark stuff in my head, and maybe it’s okay to talk about that.

It’s funny you brought up Nanette. I wanted to ask you about it, because the night I went to see it, Jo Firestone, Maeve Higgins — with whom you host your weekly stand-up show, Butterboy — and Marianne Ways, who books Butterboy, were all there.
Oh, yeah. Because as soon as I saw it, I sent out this email that was like, “Guys, I never recommend stuff, but you all have to go see this show,” and then they listened to me.

Why? As a person who is a comedian, who sees comedy all the time, what is it that you felt you wanted to pass on?
I love deconstructionism in general, and it just deconstructs what is comedy in a really compelling way. It looks at if an audience member is uncomfortable at a joke, where does that come from? What is in the structure that makes jokes sometimes dissatisfying in terms of addressing issues? And I feel like I’ve been getting the question a lot, as a lot of comedians have since the political climate has gotten so charged, of “Do you think comedy can solve social issues?” “Do you think comedians are vital in this environment?” And it’s like, yes, I think we’re important, in that we can speak truth to power, but it’s gotten sometimes a little too extreme, where it’s almost like comedians are the new policy-makers. I don’t think that was ever our role. So, it’s like, what are the limitations of comedy in that sense?

This joke sort of has a sequel.
Oh, yeah! I would sort of agree with that.

“I am someone who has a lot of anxiety and it’s weird that anxiety is finally on message. If you’re an anxious person, this is what we trained for.”
Yeah, because I did feel like right after the election it almost felt like everyone was suddenly depressed and anxious. I was like, Okay! I heard some other comedians who deal with it also talking about a version of this premise, but it was that thing where a bunch of people moved into our neighborhood after the election. It was like mental illness had become gentrified. It was just so odd, and it did feel like that joke really struck a chord with people.

Have you felt a shift in terms of how the audience responds to you? And how have you changed your comedy to adjust for that fact?
I have noticed that sometimes if I start to talk about mental health, people will be more receptive, because maybe it’s something to expect from me. They heard me on something where they were like, “Oh, this is someone who might talk about these things.” But in the broader sense, it has made me a little bit more self-conscious about making sure I’m doing a great job. I also get a little bit worried, like, Don’t talk about these things just because people are like “Oh, she’s the person who talks about these things.” Make sure it’s still what you want to be talking about.

Because it could be, Yes, I still have these issues, but I’m bored by them creatively.
Right, because it feels like I started talking about them as a way to give them air, and if they’ve sucked all the air out of the room, that’s the other extreme.

You recently had to cancel a tour because of an exciting opportunity that you said you’re not allowed to talk about. That said, listening to your interviews over the years, you always, for a comedian, underplayed a certain desire of I want a thing and it’s gonna be all mine. Can you talk about not what this project is, but what is exciting for you about it?It’s so funny. I’ve never made a big announcement and withheld information before. It’s just been fascinating to me, people’s reactions to it. Whatever people are projecting onto it is so much more exciting than it could ever be. But the thing that’s exciting to me about it is, weirdly, that it does actually give me an opportunity to talk about mental health and tell the stories of those kinds of experiences. It’s one of the things that drew me to the project.

You used to start sets by going, “I know — I’m surprised that I’m a comedian, too.” Are you still surprised you’re a comedian?
I don’t think so. I think I’m more generally, in the broader sense, surprised that I am a person at all. [Laughs.]

Aparna Nancherla Is Blessed to Be Stressed