As the old trope goes, if you are looking for a woman with a sense of humor, you are really looking for a woman who laughs at your jokes. Women aren’t expected to be funny. But today, a whole slew of desi women have made a profession out of being hilarious. Aparna Nancherla is one of them.

With one difference. For most desi comics, or comics from any subculture, their act consists of making jokes about the subculture. Instead, Nancherla jokes about something that is heavily stigmatized in our society – mental health. She makes jokes about her own depression and anxiety.  And now, her new memoir Unreliable Narrator, explores the subject in painfully honest detail., 

Aparna talks to S.Char about her memoir, the secrets behind making it as a South Asian comic, and what helps her get up there even in the middle of extreme anxiety. 

Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

From Bollywood jokes to standup

SC: Let me start by saying that I’m a big admirer of your work. So I’m very excited to be doing this.

Aparna Nancherla: Thank you. Yeah, I’m excited to do the interview.

SC: I really enjoyed reading Unreliable Narrator.  In the book you talk about how when you did a comedy at a very young age, it opened up a new world for you. What happened next? How did you get from there from there to being a professional standup comic?

Aparna Nancherla: I think the example you’re talking about is when I did this speech contest. I was a shy introverted kid. My mom was always looking for ways to push me out of my shell. And one idea she landed on was putting my sibling and me in public speaking classes. And then I remember I entered a speech contest that was run by our local temple. The prompt was: what is an issue facing Indian Americans today that needs addressing? Everyone else went in a serious direction, but I decided to do a send-up of Bollywood movies. And the reaction was really positive. Getting that first taste of making people laugh gave me the inkling that that was something that I could maybe pursue. 

Then there was a long gap because I didn’t even know stand-up was really like a career option–this was pre-YouTube, pre-social media. One summer, a friend and I were home from college and we went to an open mic near my house.  And I realized that anyone could get up and perform at the open mic. So the first time I went up was on my 20th birthday and I definitely leaned into that to get audience sympathy. When it went better than I expected, it planted the dream. If it had gone badly, who knows? I probably wouldn’t be here talking to you right now.

Life as a South Asian comic

SC: How did your parents react to this? Because, you know, the joke is that most desi parents want their kids to be doctors or engineers? 

Aparna Nancherla: My parents were maybe not like other South Asian parents in that they were never discouraging. I feel lucky in that way.  I think they were a little bit surprised and not sure how long it would last.  Like, are you going to be financially secure? But they also know I’m kind of stubborn. Once I started being able to pay my bills and stuff with it, then they were like, oh, okay. Even now my mom will come to shows and not always understand everything. But she’ll look at other audience members and be like, everyone else was having a great time. 

SC: Were there times that you struggled as a South Asian woman in comedy, or felt that you were treated differently?

Aparna Nancherla: Writing and doing comedy is very internal for me. It’s a way to translate my brain to the rest of the world. In that sense, it helped me because I was more interested in translating my brain to the world and not as worried that I don’t look like the person next to me or have the same experience as them. But inevitably there were things that stung. I remember shortly after I started performing in DC, there was another South Asian woman who started a few months after I did. And my peers would call her ‘Aparna 2.0’, which was a joke, but it was also clearly a  mentality of ‘you guys both stick out and there can only be one of you’. And at the time I tried to laugh it off. But now I think: yeah, that didn’t feel great. 

Unreliable narrator

SC:  Oof, that can’t have been fun. Switching topics a little bit, what made you decide to write your memoir Unreliable Narrator?

Aparna Nancherla: I was interested in writing about impostor syndrome because it has been something I have been feeling more and more. As you know, impostor syndrome is the feeling when you think you’re a fraud, and people are going to find out that you don’t really know what you’re doing. I had gotten to a point where I was doing comedy full-time, and I had writing and acting opportunities and was filming specials. And I was under the illusion that maybe a lot of people are under once I check off these things, I’m going to be satisfied.

And then I had the crisis that a lot of people have: where you have the success, but then you realize that this didn’t really fix the doubts that you’ve had all along. So I felt that if I have so much to say to myself, why don’t I just write a book? I’ve talked about mental health in my act, but some topics don’t have a clean resolution–that’s life–and you can’t get from setup to punch line. So I wanted to be in a medium where I could be a little messier and a book felt like the right format.

SC: The book talks about anxiety and depression which are heavily stigmatized in the South Asian community. Have you experienced that stigma? And how do you deal with it?

Aparna Nancherla: I think I have been lucky. I was first diagnosed with depression when I was 19. And for me, it was really helpful to finally have a name for something I had been feeling for a long time. Because nobody talked about it. Giving it a name gave me comfort, gave me an answer. It explained why I have these down periods. And the same thing with anxiety. So I figured that maybe that would be the case for other people, too. I don’t think I was ever discouraged from talking about it. In terms of the South Asian community, if anything, I think I was praised for it. Because maybe those conversations weren’t being had. But once it was named,I was almost proud to be like, oh, I have these things and everyone should know that. It will explain why I behave the way I do.

Mental health

SC: There’s quite a lot of depression and anxiety and self-doubt among a lot of South Asians. And some part of it is probably due to the achievement-oriented culture and the focus on family respectability. 

Aparna Nancherla: I really relate to that, because my parents are both doctors, they’re immigrants. There was a very big emphasis on working hard and not getting too wrapped up in your own personal demons. You suck it up and you keep going. For me, it’s been a lifelong thing of just contending with my own perfectionism and what a productive or useful day should be. About being okay with rest and doing things just for yourself and not for some sort of concrete result.

But I also feel that in the culture at large, there is a very American mindset of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. So it feels sometimes like you’re swimming against the current if you challenge those beliefs. Not everyone’s going to get it if you want to spend more time with the people you love vs. doing 5 more comedy specials. But I’ve gotten to a place in my life where I’ve had a taste of some success. And I realize it’s not the be-all-end-all that you’ve been promised.

SC:  You’ve talked about experiencing stage fright on an ongoing basis. I think it’s really admirable that you still go out there and perform. In your book you talk about how you listen to old recordings of your performances before you go up. I thought that was a great tip. Everyone’s anxious about some things and revisiting times when you’ve done those things successfully is really helpful. Are there other things that have helped you? 

Unreliable Narrator Book Cover
Credit: Penguin Random House
Unreliable Narrator Book Cover Credit: Penguin Random House Credit: Penguin Random House

Aparna Nancherla: Meditation. Going for walks really helps me. I’ve also been doing this somatic practice called tapping. You tap these nine different points on your body while you say your anxious thoughts and then as you start to calm down, you replace them with more positive thoughts. So you might start the tapping with ‘I’m really nervous, I think I’m gonna let people down, I’m not going to remember what to say’.  And as you keep going, you replace it with words like: ‘I’m going to have fun, I’m going to be comfortable’. Sometimes it works better than other times, but I have found it really helpful to ground me before I perform.

On finding the one on Tinder

SC: My favorite part is the chapter you write about your dating life and your partner. I really love the line where you said ‘You found someone that you could be quiet with’. Would you like to share anything about your partner? How did you meet?

Aparna Nancherla: We actually met online. We met on Tinder. I knew it was like the hookup app. So my expectations were very low. And he ended up being the first date I went on off the app. And what do you know, it worked out. He just complements me really well. I’m kind of quiet and in my head. But he lives more out in the world where he’ll engage more with people and all of his emotions will come out. He’s not someone who bottles things up. So I think that’s a good balance for me. And a reminder that you don’t have to live every drama alone.

Insider jokes

SC: That’s a great way to put it. On a different note, tell us some secrets of the stand-up world. What is something every comic knows, but the audience doesn’t?

Aparna Nancherla: Oh, that’s a juicy question. Maybe everyone knows this now, but I would say crowdwork. I think audiences love crowd work because it feels so organic and natural, and like it’s happening in the moment, but comedians have certain crowd work bits that they know will land. So, even though it feels more spontaneous because you didn’t know what the audience members were going to say, you’ve done it so many times that you know if the audience member reacts one way, you’ll be able to go this way, and if they react differently, you’ll be able to go another way. 

SC: Ooh, I didn’t realize that. My last question: what’s the funniest joke you’ve ever heard?

Aparna Nancherla: Oh my gosh. That’s a high bar.  There’s so many of them that make me laugh. One of the funniest comedians I was introduced to was Mitch Hedberg, and he has the most perfect one-liners. He does have this joke that always makes me laugh. I am going to butcher it (laughs) but here goes: If you are eating junk food, say a piece of cake, and you eat with something healthy, like a carrot, there should be a club in your stomach. So when the cake gets down there, the carrot can be like: ‘It’s cool, he’s with me’.

Sandhya Char has been contributing to India Currents since 2002. Her work has appeared in several publications including in India West, India Post, Rediff/India abroad, ComputerEdge magazine and Shadowed...