Aparna Nancherla’s bios speak for themselves. She describes herself as:
- “a comedian and general silly billy. Her sense of humor is dry, existential, and absurd, with notes of uncalled-for whimsy. Think a wine you didn’t order.”
- “a scrunched up napkin with recyclable dreams.”
- “a unicorn in a field full of basic ass horses.”
Nancherla is weird, she’s hilarious, and she’s on the rise. Since breaking into the comedy scene in 2013 by winning the New Face award at the prestigious Just for Laughs Comedy Festival in Montreal, she’s garnered a massive following. Her universal appeal hits the experience of living with anxiety and depression on the nose. She invites her audience to see lightness in their struggles without downplaying the pain of mental-health disorders—which Nancherla knows well, having struggled with depression her whole life.
Her comedy crushes mental health stigmas by facing them head on. She has a depression-themed podcast, Blue Woman Group; a Refinery29 video series, Womanhood, which presents menopause as a step toward “witchhood”; a gut-busting Twitter account; and she even released an album, Just Putting It Out There, on fellow comedian Tig Notaro’s label, Bentzen Ball Records.
This year, Nancherla is going to be a regular on the Comedy Central series Corporate, appear in the upcoming Paul Feig mystery thriller, A Simple Favor, and get her own half-hour Netflix special in series two of The Standups. Her recent stature on countless “funniest people” lists is well-deserved, not just because of her jokes, but because unlike so many public figures, she’s shamelessly empowered by her weaknesses.
In an interview with Quartz, Nancherla talks about prioritizing relationships over milestones, trusting her own potential, and why the personality trait that’s helped her most is the one she’s striving to change.
1. What’s your big idea that other people aren’t thinking about or wouldn’t agree with? Why is it so important?
My big idea—and believe me, I rotate through them constantly—is that relationships are more invaluable than career goals. This may sound counter to anyone trying to make it in any industry, especially if you are prioritizing ambition ahead of family or personal life, but what I mean is that no one gets to where they are going alone.
There are mentors, allies, friends, family, and loved ones who help along the way, and they are invaluable support systems, even if it’s not always readily apparent to an outsider. Humans are, for the most part, inherently social creatures. We thrive on connection and mutual understanding. Why else do rappers roll with such large crews? (Ahem, that was rhetorical.)
And I might also note I don’t just mean relationships in the hollow, “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine” sense. There is definitely deeper meaning to be found with finding connections, especially in the professional sphere.
For all the steps I’ve made in my comedy career, so much of it was due in part to the words of encouragement or generosity of a respected peer, such as Tig Notaro releasing my first album under her new label, or a fun collaboration like the Refinery29 web series Womanhood, which I did with my friend and brilliant comedian Jo Firestone.
I think the idea of the “self-made” person sounds sexier, but I am truly always excited when I find people whose sensibilities strike a chord with my own, or whose philosophy or ethos is one I strive to emulate. There is nothing like shared success, and a solid foundation of support transcends any rejection you might experience along the way.
2. What behavior or personality trait do you most attribute to your success?
I would actually say the personality trait that has helped me the most up to this point is the one I have been striving to change going forward: going with the flow and being open to trying different things, and not having a set career path in mind.
I started standup comedy on somewhat of a random whim, having no idea how far I’d go with it, let alone that I would make it a career. Fittingly, my first goal a few years into comedy was merely being able to make it a full-time job. Now that I’ve been at that point for a few years, I’m working on making more concrete goals for myself in terms of projects I’d like to pursue and my areas of focus going forward. But when you’re starting out, it’s definitely helpful to be open to new opportunities that may come in unexpected ways or at unpredictable times. It’s definitely a quality I’d like to always keep in some measure with me, because like most industries, arts and entertainment is an erratic and ever-changing one.
3. If you could make one change to help women at work—at your company, industry-wise, or on a policy level—what would it be?
I would encourage women to mentor and support other women right away, in whatever way, big or small. Mentoring doesn’t have to look like a full-time commitment. It can just be answering a newer performer’s questions or encouraging someone at a different level or whose work you find exciting and inspiring. When I was starting out in comedy, there was this idea that women should be competitive with each other, though it wasn’t always explicitly stated. There was a false implication that because there were fewer of us, there was less room for us at the table overall. This could translate into women being less trusting of each other at first, which was an attitude perpetuated by men’s judgments of female comics rather than women’s own understanding of each other. Once I lived in LA and then later New York, I saw how many women were performers, and how there was endless space for everyone.
4. At the start of your career, what do you wish you had known? What, if anything, do you wish you had not believed?
When I started comedy, I wish I had known that achieving milestones doesn’t necessarily solve anything. It’s human nature, but a lot of times we think if I get “x,” then problems “y” and “z” will be resolved for me. However, with new achievements come new stressors and new expectations. Especially with comedy, which is a field that relies so much on external validation, it is easy to be tossed and turned by the shifting tides of the industry. But it’s important to remember you are always more than the sum of your resumé. Of course, certain things lend themselves to more ease and viability for living comfortably, such as higher income or social status, but if you think you are an impostor before any success, no amount of success will change that. It has to be an internal choice.
5. When in your career did you feel most despondent, and what did you do to turn it around?
One of my lower points in comedy was when I was living in Los Angeles. I was temping and feeling very stuck in my budding comedy journey. I felt like I was showing up and putting in the time, but getting passed over for opportunities that seemed ever more elusive to me. I think being prone to a depressive and anxious mindset didn’t help my case, but there were many times I thought about perhaps giving it one more year and then throwing in the towel, or brainstorming other career paths. While I didn’t necessarily want to give up, I also didn’t want to spin my wheels endlessly. I felt myself depending on my boyfriend at the time to an unhealthy degree in terms of validation and self-worth.
This point was ironically actually when I got my first big break. I got hired to write for Totally Biased, a new late-night news show on FX with a social-justice bent. While getting a totally new job and moving across the country came with its own set of adjustments, this was the first significant time I learned to trust more in my own potential and myself. Showing up is a huge part of success, I’ve found.
6. A key part of success is building strong professional relationships. What practice do you use to cultivate them with your colleagues?
I don’t consider myself a natural networker, and I can more often be found heading home than hanging out late into the night to talk shop. But one guideline I’ve often kept in mind when it comes to work relationships is “treat everyone like they might be having a bad day.” In other words, we all have bad days, and you never know when someone else is having one. So it feels best to err on the side of being a generally kind and decent person, rather than being a jerk for no conceivable reason. We all might have off days or have a harder time keeping it upbeat, but you can still be civil and generous when you can be. I think the entertainment industry is hard enough with its constant rejection, so there’s no need to take that out further on your colleagues. Plus, there’s the old showbiz maxim of “you never know who’s bringing you coffee today—they could be your boss tomorrow.” I try not to chiefly be motivated out of fear, but hey, a little bit now and then keeps you on your toes.
7. What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
It’s not been from one person, but from a couple friends: They’ve reminded me time and again that it’s OK to say “no” to things. When you are starting in comedy, it’s easy to want to do everything and show up everywhere. Now I’m at a very fortunate point where if I said “yes” to everything, I’d have to be able to clone myself to do it all, so it becomes more a matter of knowing your limits in terms of time and energy. It’s sometimes less considerate to say “yes” to something that you end up having to back out of last minute due to exhaustion rather than saying “no” at the time you are asked. I think for a people-pleaser like me, it’s an important reminder to know your limits and be all right with setting clear boundaries for how available you make yourself to people.
8. If there’s one thing men can do to improve women’s life at work, it would be…
Actually listen when they’re trying to explain their side or are citing an issue that alienated them. It’s so easy to roll your eyes and brush it off, especially in a comedy writers’ room, rather than to actually engage with what they’re saying. If you can’t do it in a full room of people, then try to talk to them one on one—it makes a huge difference both to the individual and to the tone of the environment going forward.
The mountain I’m willing to die on… is that loud people are praised for talking even if it’s just meaningless statements, whereas quiet people become scapegoat projections of other people’s own discomfort with themselves.
I wish people would stop telling me… I don’t seem like I’m a comedian just because I am not cracking jokes going through customs.
Everyone should own… a bucket they can stick their heads into for alone time, wherever they happen to be.
This interview is part of How We’ll Win, a project exploring the fight for gender equality at work. Read more interviews with industry-leading women here.