Talking to Aparna Nancherla About Twitter, Chris Rock, and Writing for ‘Totally Biased’
Aparna Nancherla is a name we keep seeing on lists of the best up-and-coming comedians. And if you’ve seen her do standup, you know why.
Nancherla is a welcomed change of pace in an art form that is predominantly manic. Her jokes have an existential bent and are delivered at a slower, steadier pace, which allows audiences to pick up on the subtleties. The industry has taken notice as last year she was hired to write and perform on FX’s Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell, which moves from weekly to nightly on the FXX channel next month, so we’ll be seeing even more of her.
Nancherla is also coming off a run of stand-out performances at the Just for Laughs Festival in Montreal, where she was one of the fest’s New Faces. I had the opportunity to sit down with Nancherla in Montreal and talk about her start in comedy, working for Chris Rock, and getting work through Twitter.
Is this is your first time at Just for Laughs?
Do you feel the pressure up there, knowing who’s in the audience?
I felt it the most for the first show, I think. Just to get that first one out of the way. And after that there were still nerves, but it’s that first one that feels like, “Ughhhh.” But I don’t know, I tend to have nerves for everything, so this is just like a different set of them.
What are your goals from “New Faces?” Obviously you’ve got a full-time job in TV. Do you hope this is maybe going to parlay into more touring work doing standup?
Yeah, I didn’t realize just the sheer amount of bookers and club owners that come here. It seems like everyone in comedy is here. So that would be great. And then I’d love to do more on-camera stuff… There’s some casting people here, so it’d be good for them to learn your face.
Absolutely. Are you auditioning more now?
Well, the main thing is, like you said with that job, I just haven’t had time. But I guess it just opens up the opportunities for what I want to do in, like, five years.
When does the nightly show begin?
The first week of September.
And you’ve done some on-camera stuff there?
Yeah! That’s the great thing about that show. Kamau’s such a champion of other people being on camera, other people’s points of view. It’s very rare and very gratifying.
How’s that been going for you? Since you came into it more as a writer, how is the process of learning how to be a presence on TV?
I think standup has helped a lot with that because you are playing to an audience still, so you’re going off of those reactions. So I feel like that probably prepared me the most, more than anything else would have for doing that kind of a gig. And this is also my first writer’s room, so a lot of it is learning and absorbing. There’s kind of a range of newer people to TV writing for the show and then some old pros, so it’s good to learn from them, but also be like, “I’m young and I have ideas!”
Tell me about your start in comedy. You started in D.C.?
Yes, I started in D.C. That’s where I’m from; I grew up in the suburbs. I tried standup when I was in college like, once. When I was home for the summer, I did an open mic and then I was like, “Oh, this is something I never even thought about before.” So suddenly it was something that was on my radar, but then I didn’t start pursuing it seriously until after I graduated. Even though I had done it once I was still kind of scared to do it again. But then after college I was like, “Well, you either have to do it or you have to check it off because it was just this thing that was, like, hovering. So then I started going to open mics and it sort of built up that momentum of one after the other and then you’re like, “Yeah, I guess I’m doing this regularly.”
Were you a comedy nerd growing up? Were you into standup?
Not at all. I think I came to it just through chance. I was always a quiet person and an observer and I would write down everything. But I think I didn’t really know I was funny. Usually, you need someone else to be like, “You’re funny.” It’s hard to be like, on your own, “I’m a really funny person!” [Laughs.] Maybe once in high school, someone was like, “Oh, you say these little funny things.” And I was like, “Oh, that’s interesting.” I just thought I was a writer, but then people were like, “You know, you have kind of a funny point of view.” So I think those little things steered me in that direction. But I didn’t have a big knowledge of comedy or standup. When I first did it, I remember someone said to me, and they meant it in a nice way, “It’s weird. You do comedy like someone who’s never seen standup before.” Like, “You don’t really do it the way other people do it.”
That’s funny. I guess that could be a good thing. Could you do it every night in D.C.?
You definitely could. I started juggling it with improv. I started doing improv six months after I started doing standup. Rory Scovel started in D.C. Everyone looked up to him and he was a big champion of, “Improv is great! It’ll really help with your standup.” So I was like, “Ok, I’m gonna start doing improv.” So then I was juggling that because there was this theater called Washington Improv Theater and I was in some of their performance groups and we would have rehearsals. So I was juggling standup and that. I didn’t really stop doing improv until I moved to New York for this job. I was still taking classes in LA I went to LA first.
To do comedy?
Yeah. I was in a serious relationship with another comic from D.C. and we were both ready to move. He was very gung-ho LA and I was like, “New York, LA, whichever.” So I just went with him. Pulled a Felicity.
Living in D.C., did you follow politics closely? Were you turned off by it? In your standup act, you don’t really get into political material.
I think people in D.C. tend to shy away from it, just because the city is so saturated with it already, the comedy tends to be not that. More observational, anecdotal stuff.
Now that you work for Totally Biased, did you have to change your mindset a little bit?
Yeah, I’ve been reading the news a lot more regularly and with a finer-tuned eye for what would fit for our show. And sometimes that can be really depressing because a lot of the stuff we highlight is injustice and oppression and it’s like, “Oh my God, the world is a horrible place.” [Laughs.] You don’t realize it. But then again, it’s the news’ job to highlight the worst of it. But I think, now that we’re going daily, we’ll have to broaden a little what we cover, just to vary the palette.
How is it working with (executive producer) Chris Rock? How involved is he with Totally Biased?
I started after the first six episodes and, from what I hear, he was way more involved in the beginning and then I think he’s been trying to slowly back away. Just because I think he knows that once it’s daily, he can’t be there all the time, so he’s been stepping away from it. But I would say he’s been there for the majority of the tapings and he’ll just give notes on everything. It’s Chris Rock, so he’s going to have an opinion. [Laughs.] But it is very much of a sort-of “godfather” role. It’s cool just to have him around. It’s like, “Whoa. You’re Chris Rock.”
Is he hard on the writers?
He’s pretty frank about stuff. He’s not like a monster though. [Laughs.] He’ll be like, “This is not working.” Or he’ll be like, “You need a better joke than this.” But he won’t, like, humiliate someone.
Now that the show’s nightly, is this going to limit your opportunities to do standup?
Well, when we were weekly, it was actually pretty manageable. It was probably like a 10-to-7-type job, so you could definitely go out and do a set afterwards. But now that we’re going daily, I think we’re all like, “Okay, we might not have any other life than this for the first few months.” I think everyone’s prepared for that. It’s one of those things where you don’t know until you start. But I think we are anticipating long days.
Is that disappointing for you? Are you going to miss being able to do standup as much?
Yeah, for sure. I’m hoping, if anything, it’ll make me more eager to… It’ll make it clearer to me whether my interests lie more in shows or standup.
I’m sure you’ve been asked this before, but, the whole Lindy West thing. Being a female writer on staff, what’s your perspective on all that?
I was really happy that they covered it. That was my main point of view on the whole thing: as a comic, yes, you should be able to talk about anything. I do agree with that, but I do feel you should be able to have a discussion around topics that tend to be more divisive and uncomfortable for people. So I think the fact that Kamau was like, “Yeah, let’s put this on TV!” was really exciting, because I feel like no other show has done that.
And I liked that Kamau’s position was pretty much down the middle. He wasn’t siding with anybody.
And obviously you can’t, like, solve it; it’s just a very limited amount of time. It just made it – it brought to life that it is something that comes up frequently and it is something that should be talked about. And I think it ended back up on the internet but I think for it to be in a space that’s not the internet is really nice, just because that can be a very vicious medium.
Extremely vicious. Was there a lot of debate in the writer’s room about it?
I think we were kind of okay with the format and, yeah, I think we didn’t really hash out who agrees with who because it was just like, what would normally fill our interview spot. I think one or two of our writers wrote the interview questions, but for the most part the rest of the writers weren’t really involved in it. But I remember Kamau was pretty upset at how much backlash Lindy was getting from that afterwards.
Back to your standup, what’s next for you? Are you working towards an hour?
Yeah, I’ve been working towards 45 to an hour. It’s a little hard in New York and LA just to get those longer sets. I think New York is a little bit easier for stage time in general, but it’s still like shorter sets. And that’s where going on the road helps a lot, just to be able to do like twenty or thirty and work on those longer bits and weaving stuff together.
Do you like talking with the crowd, or do you mostly stick to the act and the material?
I’m not a big crowd work person. I think when you have a lot more time to play with, I might venture there, but it’s definitely not something I do regularly.
I’m a fan of your Twitter feed. Has it helped your career at all? It seems like more and more people are getting jobs because of their Twitter feeds.
It’s helped a lot with just getting opportunities to submit to stuff.
Yeah, people have contacted me through there, like “Hey, we want you to submit a packet to this show.” And I think if people follow you, you’re like “Oh my god, this comedy person is following me.” That’s kind of fun too. Even though I don’t know what exactly they’re following me for, like if someone told them to or I was recommended.
I’m fascinated by Twitter and how it relates to comedy. Obviously standup is more than just jokes, it’s about your presence and performing and timing and all that, but at the same time, everyone’s up there just telling jokes. You can boil most things down to one punchline, and that’s what Twitter sort of is in a very short character limit.
Yeah, I think it’s interesting. There are a lot of standups who are like, “Twitter does not make you a standup comedian.” And then there are also people who are like “It’s funny, this person is really funny on stage but their Twitter is not that funny.”
Yeah, it goes both ways, totally.
Yeah, I don’t know. It’s like its own medium. There are definitely jokes on Twitter that won’t work on stage and vice versa.
Do you ever use jokes from Twitter in your act?
Yeah, I definitely do, and I’ll use it as sort of like a premise-incubator. For a while it was sort of handicapping my ability to write longer bits, because everything kept getting boiled down to one line. And I was like “Ah! I don’t remember how to tell a story anymore.” But now I’ve sort of, like, relearned.
Where do you want to go with standup? Have you thought about that, long-term? You have a good writing job.
It’s tough. I feel like It’s such a fickle industry that it’s tough to be like, “This is my definite plan.”
Yeah. I mean, do you want to stay within TV and working your way up and maybe creating shows? Do you want to be doing standup in theaters someday?
Yeah, I love performing, so I’d love to keep being able to do that in some capacity. I don’t think I’d need to be playing, like, sold out theaters. That would be nice, but it’s not something where it’s like, “This has to happen!” I just like doing shows and being able to keep doing them, probably on my own terms. Because one of the things about standup is it can turn into sort of a grind where it’s like going out every night, night after night. Sometimes you don’t want to or sometimes you’re like “What am I getting out of this? There’s nobody in the audience, just comics.” I’d like to build up enough of an audience where I can perform regularly and develop stuff and feel like I’m growing. And then, I like TV. I’d love to write on different types of shows and then eventually maybe create someday. I like working with other people, so I think I’d love to create something with someone else. And I love, like, ensemble comedies, so I’d love to do something like that. And I’d also like to do voiceover stuff. I feel like a lot of comedians do that stuff now and I think it’d be really fun. It just seems like a fun job! And it’s also kind of protected because you don’t want anyone else to look at you. It appeals to the introverted side of me.
Phil Davidson writes about, performs, and produces comedy.