Photo of Aparna Nancherla from the Washington Post.
Totally Biased writer Aparna Nancherla is hilarious. Having recently been named the first Indian-American female comic to perform on late-night television, Nancherla graciously chatted with me in the midst of prepping for her multiple sets for Portland’s all-female All Jane No Dick comedy festival and sampling as many culinary treats she could squeeze in during her latest 48-hour stint in Portland, Oregon.
EMILLY PRADO: First, how has your time been in Portland and how is the All Jane No Dick festival?
APARNA NANCHERLA: It’s been awesome. Portland is one of my favorite cities and I’m always sad to come because I know I have to eventually leave. The festival was awesome! I did a panel yesterday and two shows and the crowds have just been so great and supportive. It’s part of why I love coming here.
So, I recently saw you on Conan.
Oh, thanks for watching!
How did that opportunity come about and what was it like preparing?
The booking process is the same for most late night shows. Bookers’ jobs are to be aware of who’s on the scene and go around to shows, so I think the Conan book knew of me and had seen me a couple times. Then I ran into him at SXSW, which I performed at this year. So we started working together to put together a set since March. It’s a process where he kind of helps you craft something that he thinks will play best for their audience. The rest is kind of just that surreal thing of you having your date and then having to pick out your outfit and just showing up and doing it. It was my first late-night spot so it was exciting!
Were you nervous?
I was nervous but I was really lucky in that doing some on-camera stuff for Totally Biased helped make it less scary.
I noticed that Jezebel said that you were the first Indian-American woman to perform on late night. What are your thoughts on that?
It’s really funny that you mention that because my coworker, Hari Kondabolu, who’s another comic and performed on Conan a year ago, tweeted about it and was like “Can I say that you’re the first Indian-American lady to do it?” We both tried to think of who else has done it and we couldn’t think of anyone. We were like “Well hopefully if we’re wrong someone will tell us who came before me’ and then no one really did. Someone brought up Mindy Kaling but I guess she hasn’t done stand up on TV—she’s more of a writer and actress. We were like, “Okay, well we aren’t really the authorities on this but hopefully someone will come forward and say that we’re wrong.” But so far no one has so I’m like, “Maybe I am and it’s really surreal.” There are also plenty of other talented, versatile South Asian-American female comics to know of and love and see on your TVs soon: Sabrina Jalees, Monrok, Subhah Agarwal, Dhaya Lakshminarayan, Vijai Nathan, Judy Vincent, Kiran Deol, and there are even more, I am sure.
You made history then… maybe, probably.
Yeah, which was in the back of my head but was so strange. I don’t talk about my race as a big part of my act so it’s not something that I’m always pushing so it’s weird to be like, “Oh my god, that’s strange that I’m also this person.”
Right. I was going to ask you about that too because a lot of people will say that you’re an Indian-American comedian and a Female comedian—kind of as a qualifier. How do you feel about it when people will introduce you as that. Is it something that is offensive to you or are you okay with it?
It’s not offensive in that, well, yes, I am objectively those two things. I think there are connotations that come with those things that people put on you and if you listen to my act you’ll realize that I’m not really specifically just delving into those areas. I have other things to talk about just as a human being. But I’m okay with carrying those things because they are a part of who I am so I’m not gonna be like, “No, don’t point that out all the time.” I think it’s more when people use it to push you into some kind of box where it’s limiting you so it’s frustrating.
In a few of your stand-ups you talk about imperialism and your white friends. When you do make jokes about race, how do you figure out what the right formulas are or do you not take that into account?
I’ve talked a little bit more about race since starting to work at Totally Biased because it’s something that comes up a lot in our writer’s room and I never really thought as much about white privilege and how it pervades everything. I was raised in a pretty diverse school system so it didn’t really occur to me at a young age that that power imbalance exists but then hearing other people’s experiences I was like, “Yeah, I guess I just take a lot of this stuff for granted.” Then I thought, “Well I should work some of this into my act because it’s something that we’re aware of that should be brought to light that not everyone is.” It seems likes something where, again, I do it in a very sort of absurdist way so if people are offended it’s sort of like, “Well, I was already operating on a kind of ridiculous premise so I don’t know what exactly you’re offended about.”
What is it like coming up with new content and what’s your process for that? I know some novelists write little notes in a book all the time.
Yeah! I think a lot of stand-ups have a similar process to that. You just carry around a little notebook, jot down different thoughts. Twitter is a good idea incubator. I live in New York City right now so you are basically being bombarded with human experiences all the time and it’s kind of easy to just be like, “Okay, I’ll remember that happened.” It’s a lot of writing down ideas and the discipline part is fleshing it out later in a coffee shop or on your own time when the inspiration hits.
How is it different coming up with material for your stand-up versus as a writer on Totally Biased?
As a writer you have a morning pitch meeting; you’re basically just going off news stories of the day or social justice issues. And then you have to find something that fits within framework of the show that our audience would respond to. So it’s a little bit more structure and limited to the host’s voice or one of the correspondents on the show.
How is it working with people and bouncing ideas off of them versus when you’re doing things on your own?
I really like working with other people. It’s kind of a dream job because you basically just get to hang out with other comedians all day and joke around and it’s for work, so that’s pretty amazing. I tend to like working with other people because you just generate more ideas by virtue of more brains being there.
So how does standup on TV feel different that stand-up in front of a bar?
You’re still in front of a live audience so there’s still that back-and-forth engagement, but it’s just a lot more structured when there’s a camera there. There are very specific time constraints you have to feed into. It’s a more sterile environment because everything is controlled heavily. In that sense you can’t be as loose as you could be at a bar show and your wording is a lot more planned and you can’t go way off the cuff. It’s serious and more like a job interview type set than an untucked-shirt set.
Did you always know that you wanted to be a comedian?
No, I got into it pretty randomly. I did an open mic once when I was home during college. I had hit a sort of a rut in terms of not knowing what I wanted to do with my life and I thought I would figure it all out [in college] but didn’t so I had hit this rock bottom. I knew that I really liked writing and people would often tell me that I said funny things so I tried to marry the two and tried stand-up. The first time I did it, it didn’t go as bad as I thought it would and I think if it hadn’t gone well I probably wouldn’t have kept doing it. After college I started going to open mics and got into it that way but came to stand-up with very little comedy history. I didn’t really grow up watching SNL [and my parents didn’t let [us] have cable so I had a very limited understanding of what it was. When I started a friend of mine was like, “You do stand-up like someone who has never seen stand up before,” which sounds like an insult but he was like, “No I mean that in a good way. You have your own unique thing that you’re doing.” I was like, “Okay that’s cool. If it’s going to work than I’m going to keep doing it.”
Watch Aparna Nancherla on Conan!