When comedian Aparna Nancherla was a child, she was extremely shy. As a toddler, she tore holes in her mother’s saris by clinging so tight. She practiced making eye contact with her parents, so that someday, she could do the same with others. Aparna sometimes went hungry because she didn’t want to ask a teacher for help opening her lunch box.
So, if you told Aparna’s father, Ananth Nancherla, that his second daughter would some day make a living performing hilarious 30-minute monologues in front of hundreds of people, he would have said, “Keep dreaming.”
A future in intergalactic space travel might have seemed more likely.
But that’s just what Aparna is doing. The comedian has starred in her own television specials and amassed half a million followers online.
How did she get here? Persistence is one reason. Another might be a choice she made as a senior in high school.
As she approached graduation, Aparna had to decide between two prestigious schools: Amherst College, an idyllic New England liberal arts school, and West Point.
Her parents — both doctors who immigrated from India — were terrified by the prospect of their introverted daughter joining the Army, but not entirely surprised. Aparna had developed an impassioned patriotism writing letters to soldiers during the Gulf War. And, more than that, she’d always sought ways to challenge herself.
She took college-level courses during middle school. She chose rigorous Outward Bound hiking excursions over traditional summer camp. At Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Northern Virginia, she excelled academically but also joined the cross-country team. It would make her father cry, sometimes, to see his daughter struggling up hills at the end of long runs, but she never thought to quit.
Her father nearly cried again — with relief — when Aparna chose Amherst. There she majored in psychology, but she wasn’t convinced it would be her career path. And soon she was gripped by psychological problems of her own. Issues involving eating and depression led her to take time off in the spring of her sophomore year.
She came home. Then, she made a surprising decision: to tell jokes during an open-mic night at a comedy club in Tysons Corner, Va.
“I think it was because I went on antidepressants,” Aparna, now 36, says from a cafe near her Brooklyn apartment. “You get this euphoric boost that is more than what is normal in your stable mood. You’re in this honeymoon period where you’re like, ‘Oh, I didn’t know you could experience life in these frequencies.’ I really think that’s how I ended up doing it the first time. Because I don’t think I would’ve otherwise had the courage.”
The set — performed on Aparna’s 20th birthday — went surprisingly well.
Aparna’s older sister, Bhavana Nancherla, came along for Aparna’s comedy debut. It seemed like a quirky thing to try, but Aparna had always broken her long stretches of silence with brief outbursts of silliness.
To Bhavana, Aparna was like “one of those flowers that only bloom for five minutes a day.”
“The conditions had to be exactly right, but when they were, she was this amazing character,” Bhavana says. “There was this absurdist humor. She would occasionally drop into it, and it would be just glorious to witness.”
Aparna ended up putting comedy on hold when she went back to college. It wasn’t until she finished her studies, when she was back home living with her parents and working temp jobs, that she started doing stand-up regularly.
To her parents, it seemed like a hobby — a phase they didn’t fully understand but were sure would pass.
But, Aparna’s mother remembers her daughter responding: “Dad, I’m going to become really depressed if I don’t do this. It’s what makes me tick. This is what I want to do.”
In 2010, after four years of open-mic sets in D.C., Aparna set off for Los Angeles with a boyfriend. There she found an administrative job, a manager and a growing reputation for her subtle, offbeat humor. Still, there were no big breaks. “Nothing was striking and I was doing all the things you’re told to do,” she says. “I was not sure I was on the right path.”
When that show ended in late 2013, she supported herself doing stand-up until she was hired to write for NBC’s “Late Night With Seth Meyers.” The gig was prestigious, but not a perfect fit. “I think there’s something about writing for someone else’s voice,” she says. “I just have a hard time not writing weird — to my own sensibility.”
But as she left the show in the spring of 2016, it felt to her “like the universe held out a net.” Her stand-up bookings increased. She put out a debut comedy album. She was cast in a brief but memorable role on Aziz Ansari’s Netflix show “Master of None.” She was hired to voice a recurring character on Netflix’s adult animated comedy “BoJack Horseman” and won the role of a discontented human resources manager on the Comedy Central show “Corporate.” More than one website crowned her “the funniest person on Twitter.”
Increasingly her mental-health struggles became a recurring theme in her comedy. Firestone thinks it’s Aparna’s unabashed honesty that has won her such a loyal following. “Aparna has found a way to make fun of these dark thoughts everybody shares,” she says. “She dusts off all the windows and lets the sun come in, and it’s only then you see it’s not so bad in there.”
In her new half-hour special — part of Netflix’s “The Standups” — Aparna talks about what it’s like to have anxiety in 2018. “If you’re an anxious person it’s kind of like: ‘Well, you know, this is what we train for. This is our Olympics. All those nights awake — it’s show time.’ ”
“I also have some depression,” she continues. “I kind of like to do anxiety for the week, depression on the weekends. They both have custody.”
Aparna says talking about depression can be helpful, but she can’t say the same for her chosen profession — which can regularly challenge a person’s self-esteem.
“The ideal you’re going for seems not necessarily healthy,” she says. “In stand-up, it’s like you’re only as good as your last set. It feels like such an arbitrary thing to pin your worth on.”
On rough days, she retreats to her most familiar space: her own head.
Still, she’s writing a script for a buddy comedy with Firestone, working on a bringing back the podcast with Novak, shooting the next season of “Corporate.” “That,” she says “is the type of work that is worth it for me to stay in comedy.”
Bhavana Nancherla is glad for that. In a way, comedy has allowed her to know more of her shy sister than she ever had before. To see her bloom for so much more than five minutes a day.
“There’s who she is in real life, and then there’s her as a performer. And what’s also true is the more time has gone by, the more it feels integrated,” Bhavana says. “It was there all along. All she did was find a way to make us able to see her full self better.”