Aparna Nancherla mines the blues
The Indian American comedian's material probes the everydayness of social awkwardness and depression
If you’re watching a stand-up act by Aparna Nancherla for the first time, allow yourself a few minutes to get accustomed to its visual and aural oddity. New York based Nancherla is a petite 35-year-old who riffs on her personal anxiety and depression in a high-pitched drawl that could feel...uninviting.
On the recently released second season of The Standups—an episodic Netflix series that features six 30-minute acts by up-and-coming comedians—Nancherla emerges as one of the show’s most distinctive performers. A large part of the act is delivered through an earnestly animated PowerPoint presentation, and accompanied by deadpan commentary on evergreen millennial subjects such as emoji politics, texting with parents, and enriching encounters with online trolls. While the set takes a while to gather momentum, Nancherla stands out as a unique comedic voice.
Mental health woes are the mainspring of several comedians today, but Nancherla tackles the subject with a matter-of-fact acceptance, while taking frequent flights to unrelated, delightfully absurd nooks. Her brand of comedy stands several shades apart from her female contemporaries, eschewing the graphic detailing of Amy Schumer, or brash political incorrectness of Sarah Silverman. Instead, Nancherla’s acts are conversational and low-key, propelled by her endearing oddball energy. In a 2016 National Public Radio interview, Nancherla revealed a bristling compliment she received early on, that perfectly encapsulates her style: “You kind of do stand-up like someone who’s never seen stand-up before."
The best way to approach Nancherla’s brand of deadpan is with a warm-up YouTube binge, starting with her 2016 Conan On TBS appearance (which made her the first Indian woman to perform stand-up on American late night shows) and clips from her Comedy Central specials, where she leads the uninitiated into a hyper-anxious mind: “If you don’t have anxiety, here’s how I would describe it: There’s an edgy improv group in your brain...and it just needs a one-word suggestion to spin countless scenarios that no one’s comfortable with."
Nancherla, who released her first comedy album, Just Putting It Out There, in 2016 under Tig Nataro’s label Bentzen Ball Records, also delivers witty, and now increasingly political, insights on her well-loved Twitter handle @aparnapkin. It’s also likely that you’ve come in contact with Nancherla’s steadily expanding acting work; she has made appearances on Master Of None, Crashing, High Maintenance, and Bojack Horseman, where she voiced young Hollyhock, and, most recently, featured as a series regular on the critically acclaimed sitcom Corporate.
Nancherla’s stand-up subverts performative expectations with a uniformly overcast tone that probably won’t leave you in splits, but that’s hardly important, as pointed out by this introspective YouTube comment: “Didn’t laugh once, still thought it was funny. Not sure how that works. But it’s ok."