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The Feministing Five: Aparna Nancherla

Aparna Nancherla is a comedian unlike most others.

Rather than command the stage with larger-than-life bravado like many of those on Netflix’s most popular specials, the petite DC native gently invites you into her world of the absurd, quirky, and often existential. Her comedy ranges from punchy one-liners (“Any pizza is a personal one if you cry while you eat it”) to dry ruminations on her mental health and anxiety (“The saddest thing about never doing my therapy homework is I’m failing the subject of me”). The result is humor that’s as charming and witty as it is thoughtful.

Though she’s a rising star in the comedy world, Aparna’s been in the game as a writer and performer for over ten years. She’s appeared on Inside Amy Schumer and Conan, written for Late Night with Seth Myers, created the hilarious podcast “Blue Woman Group” about anxiety and depression, and co-hosts the laugh-out-loud feminist webseries “Womanhood” with Jo Firestone. She’s got a Comedy Central half-hour special in the works, and recently released her debut comedy album “Just Putting it Out There”, the first on Tig Notaro’s new label, Bentzen Ball Records. You can check out her tour dates here! Aparna’s also killing it on Twitter, where her pithy observations about the weird world around us are prime retweet material.

I had the pleasure of catching with Aparna for this week’s Feministing Five to talk feminist comedy, humor as a mode of self care, the importance of breaking through the stigma of depression and anxiety, and more!

Senti Sojwal: You have so much going on right now! Can you tell our readers a little bit about recording your debut comedy album?

Aparna Nancherla: So I actually didn’t have plans to record an album, but one of my comedy heroes and inspirations Tig Notaro approached me about recording one for her new label. She came to me and I was like, well I guess I don’t have a good excuse for not recording an album! This is such an incredible opportunity. I feel like my path has been very sort of one foot in front of the other — just seeing what happens. I haven’t been very structured about setting goals, so it has been a little bit of “wherever I end up, there I am”! I definitely admire people who have their five year plan and have everything mapped out, but speaking for comedy and entertainment, it is such an erratic industry that you have to be okay with embracing uncertainty. Oftentimes your opportunity might not be in the form you expected it to be. It’s always good to have that flexibility of embracing every opportunity that comes your way.

Senti Sojwal: Your new series “Womanhood” with Jo Firestone is a hilarious and I would say, decidedly feminist project. It feels like it’s really comedy for women, by women in that it’s really funny and silly but also explores the absurd social pressures and expectations of being a woman. What are your thoughts on how humor can be a positive tool for feminism?

Aparna Nancherla: That’s so nice to hear! We definitely made it without knowing how it would be received. That’s true of any project, but we really had no expectations going into it and we’re so happy people have responded positively. I think we’re both feminists in our ideals and our comedy. We were excited to do something women-driven, and driven to a more female-centric perspective. The nice thing is that a lot of women have responded, but men too. It’s refreshing to know that this other perspective can still be embraced by everyone. Often in comedy, the male viewpoint or sense of humor is considered the default and anything outside of that is niche or specific. I want to show that the other half of the population’s viewpoint is legitimate! I actually didn’t set out to do “feminist comedy”. My comedy is really a reflection of where I am in my view of the world and what I’m passionate about. I feel like I came to feminism later than maybe a lot of other people. I feel like I came to it in stand up, by seeing other women who were more overtly feminist in their comedy and talking to them about their experiences. It’s made me much more aware and focused and want to address so many of these things that affect us all.

Senti Sojwal: In a recent interview with Elle, you said “I use self-deprecation as a coping mechanism a lot of the time. I think it’s a valuable tool for destigmatizing things and opening up conversations that might be hard to just jump into right away.” Can you talk a little bit more about that?

Aparna Nancherla: It’s funny because stand up I think in and of itself people see as a very masculine art form. You’re kind of controlling a room and you want these very specific reactions from the audience. I feel like the feminine side of comedy or humor is kind of softer — like you’re not trying to dominate the audience with your point of view. I feel like my comedy has always come more from that place of gently suggesting an idea and saying, if you’re interested you can listen but I’m not going to force you to. I think that’s always been where I come from. I don’t have that aggressive tendency to be like, no I’m right, this is the only way things are. I feel like the easiest way to get to something is to take a shot at myself, to get to whatever idea I’m going for.

Senti Sojwal: You’ve talked in the past about your comedy being a way for you to work through your depression and anxiety. That’s a part of your comedy that so many people gravitate towards and appreciate. As you’ve gotten more exposure as a comic, has your relationship to comedy as a mode of self-care changed at all?

Aparna Nancherla: I think so. Sometimes it’s a little bit like chicken and egg — I feel like comedy and entertainment is so erratic as an industry. It can hit on your sense of self and how you negotiate your identity with the world. I think especially if you have depression or anxiety, or whatever kind of mental health cocktail, it makes it even trickier. Sometimes I can’t tell if stand up has made some issues worse, because I still get pretty bad stage nerves. Sometimes it won’t necessarily be in proportion for the show I’m about to do. If you’re going to continually put yourself in that situation, in a sense you’re exacerbating it for yourself. At the same time, it’s forced me to be more proactive about managing it. It’s something I have to face pretty immediately on a day to day basis. It’s a little of both — it’s made better at some parts of what I do, but some of my mental health issues have been heightened from the industry I’m in. Honestly, the most rewarding part of talking about it is how much people respond. It is something that’s often seen as private or shameful, and hard to translate to people you know who may not deal with those issues. It’s inspired me to want to talk about it more, and make it less of this taboo thing. I want to normalize it, in a way. I think that’s the best part of it for me, and knowing that other people are listening to a podcast or a joke I made that’s providing some comfort. That’s so humbling to know.

Senti Sojwal: How do you navigate between being Indian-American, a woman, and a person of color and not wanting that to define who you are as a comedian and writer? I feel like often, people of color in the public eye are unfairly targeted for not speaking enough on issues that affect their community, or not being political enough, and obviously these are things that don’t happen to white public figures. Has it been difficult to navigate the various parts of your identity and also wanting to be known as a comedian, and not a “female comedian”, a “brown comedian”, etc.?

Aparna Nancherla: I think in some sense I feel lucky because when I started doing comedy it was right when Mindy Kaling and Aziz Ansari were breaking into the public arena. I feel like they set the precedent for being like, we’re not going to just make our work about what we look like. That can just be a part of it. For me, they made it so at least there were other examples — people wouldn’t necessarily look at me and think, oh she’s going to do this kind of comedy. I think that lightened my load. I still get people asking why I don’t bring various parts of my life more to light. I think you’re right in that regardless of which communities you represent, you can’t speak to everything equally. I think for me I’ve always been foremost someone who lives inside my head and perceives things from the inside out. It’s hard for me to write from “outside experience in”. Race and gender can often be things that are put on you rather than vice versa. That has made me not talk about being Indian-American as much. It’s not something I’ve chosen not to talk about. I’ve never thought, oh I don’t want to be a comedian who just talks about their background. I’m still finding my own way to talk about it.

Photos courtesy of Aparna Nancherla. 

NYC

Senti Sojwal is an India born, NYC bred writer, reproductive justice activist, and feminist organizer. She graduated with a BA from Hampshire College in Gender Studies & Politics, and has worked with NARAL, The Civil Liberties & Public Policy Program and its sister program PopDev, and has written on feminist issues for Mic, Bustle, and What NOW, the blog of the National Organization for Women's NYC chapter. She currently works at Sakhi for South Asian Women, an advocacy organization that supports immigrant survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence through an array of culturally competent services and programs. Senti loves 90s pop, a bold lip, and is always hunting for the perfectly spicy Bloody Mary. She lives in Brooklyn.

Senti Sojwal is a writer, reproductive justice activist, and feminist organizer based in Brooklyn, New York.

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