You might have seen Aparna Nancherla performing stand-up, in her role on Comedy Central’s Corporate (which returns for a second season this week), or a turn in fall’s hit film A Simple Favor. But if none of that rings a bell, you’ve definitely seen her on Twitter.
The platform suits her humor, which is often wry and self-reflective, and it has gained her a wide audience–more than a half million users follow her at @aparnapkin, and that’s a fraction of the number exposed to her eminently retweetable content. But being popular online isn’t always a comfortable experience.
“Stand-up feels like kind of a vulnerable art form, in that you’re putting yourself and your ideas on stage and kind of subjecting them to the feedback of random audiences,” she says. “And then, maybe, to compound that with the intimacy of talking about something you are personally struggling with like your mental health, I think increases those stakes. I think there is definitely a vulnerability in it.”
And, while she’s worked to develop a thicker skin for handling IRL hecklers, online critics and trolls can be extra vicious.
“There isn’t that face-to-face contact, so people feel more at liberty to just really throw anything they’re feeling at the wall,” she notes. “I’ve been starting to sort of shy away from really delving into reading comments or really delving into that kind of feedback, because it doesn’t help. It sometimes feels like it takes so much more energy than is worthwhile to expend.”
Setting limits for how many at-replies or nasty comments she’ll acknowledge is part of a process she’s working through to create a healthy, sustainable career. Stand-up can be a particularly raw kind of performance, and traveling around, working the clubs late into the night can be physically exhausting, but Nancherla, 36, is committed to making it work without burning out.
“Entertainment is kind of a long game, in terms of endurance, and being able to still do this five, ten years from now, it’s important to be able to set those boundaries,” she says. “I look at other people who are older and are still doing the work and finding ways to make it work for them. Maria Bamford, she’s maybe late 40s now, and is still touring, but she’s found ways to do it that work for her. It’s about forging your own craft for yourself, rather than just conforming to the constraints of the system as it’s been. I think I’m inspired by people doing that. It takes a strong sense of self.”
Hannah Gadsby’s recent special, Nanette, also had Nancherla thinking about the emotional toll that performing raw, personal comedy can take on someone, particularly as a woman of color who speaks openly about her real-life struggles with issues like anxiety and depression.
“Nanette kind of explored that idea of making yourself an object of ridicule, and not necessarily provoking people’s thought on the issues that are faced by more marginalized communities,” she says. “That really got me thinking about how important it is to set boundaries around your own self-preservation, rather than maybe putting everything out on display without thinking about how that might affect you. The audience can’t just have everything from you for free. It is not your job to give everything to everyone.”
Despite the challenges, Nancherla continues to make comedy out of confronting the difficult, dark parts of her life.
“I started writing about depression, because it was something I was going through at the time, and I was feeling kind of creatively blocked otherwise,” she says. “I started talking about it on stage and it resonated with people in a way I was not expecting. A lot of comedians I looked up to, like Maria Bamford or Marc Maron, talk about mental health already. I wasn’t sure if I had anything new to add to the topic, but I found that, the more I talked about it, the more it became something that was of interest.”
Over time, the topics she’s tackled on stage have broadened–though they remain filtered through her point of view. On Corporate, she plays the savvy head of HR for an Orwellian megacorp; and in her recent performance on Netflix’s The Stand Ups, she talks about dating, how to interpret emoji, and more. Looking toward the future of comedy as a whole, she’s essentially optimistic.
“I think stand-up has become more progressive, and people are starting to express different views on what is OK to talk about, who should be allowed to perform in certain spaces, and the accessibility of those spaces,” she says. “You have people who have more privilege and power being finally held accountable in a way they were not before. In that sense, the dial has definitely shifted, and it does feel hopeful to me. I think in the past, more things were swept under the rug. Plenty of people in the entertainment industry are known criminals or perpetrators of things, and they’ve sort of been given license to just keep doing what they do without any public discussion about it.”
And if she were to put what she’s feeling going into 2019 into a single emoji?
“Without doubt, I can answer,” she says, describing the emoji with a raised eyebrow and squiggly line for a mouth. “I take some issue, because they’re calling it ‘drunk face’ or ‘woozy face,’ but I just really relate to the expression. I don’t really think of it as drunk, it’s just very discombobulated. I feel like it captures the sentiment of the world right now.”
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