A monthly column, Funny Feminism features conversations with feminist-identifying artists who use humor in their creative work.
Last month, I had the pleasure of interviewing one of my favorite comics, Aparna Nancherla on what happened to be the coldest day in New York history since 1950. We were mistaken for NYU students “doing their homework on a Friday night” while carrying out the below interview at Oro Bakery. The included quotes are taken from Aparna’s Twitter account.
“There needs to be an affirmative action program to get more white men in jail.”
ON COMEDIC BEGINNINGS
Cathy de la Cruz: I know you’ve mentioned this in your stand-up, the “I know you’re surprised I’m here, I’m surprised too.”
Aparna Nancherla: I started performing stand-up regularly 9-years ago. I got to stand-up a little bit in a more random way than a lot of other comics in that my friend was like, “Oh there’s this open mic near where we live that we should go check out,” just as like a free entertainment thing, not even to perform, but just to watch. We went one night during the summer and people were funny, but then there were people who weren’t as good, so we were like “This is something we could try” because we were both interested in humor. And I think that was my first access point to stand-up comedy. I didn’t grow up watching a lot of stand-up. I had seen it maybe once or twice on TV and I definitely didn’t think it was something that anyone could do. I came to stand-up from a direction of not knowing a lot about that world.
CD: Do you remember your first open mic?
AN: The first time I tried stand-up was when I was home from college the summer after my sophomore year. It was in the Northern Virginia suburbs and it was at a Best Western bar, so it was a lot of truckers and hotel guests in the audience. It was pretty grungy. I was a Psychology major. It was just human behavior and social interactions that I found really interesting. Then I did stand-up a couple times during college but just at random student mics. [I] didn’t really start pursuing it until after I graduated.
CD: When you started doing stand-up after your sophomore year of college, were people in your life surprised? Did you tell people, or was it a secret?
AN: I didn’t keep my stand-up performances a secret. I told people I was doing it, but I definitely wasn’t that person who was inviting people to shows. It was kind of like, this is something I’m trying and we’ll see what happens. People want to come [watch] when you’re first starting because they think it’s weird and different, but I was a little hesitant about people seeing me right away and I think even now I prefer it when I don’t know people in the audience because I guess it’s just, like, this weird other world you inhabit a little bit when you’re on stage. Even though it’s still, like, a version of yourself, it feels like I’m this other persona a little bit.
“Today a woman screamed in the middle of the street, ‘How am I still single?’ And it’s like, I’ve got at least one reason.
CD: Do you identify as a feminist or a feminist comic? I’m thinking of that bit where you joke about a male stranger outside a cafe exposing himself to you and then referring to yourself as a “feminist detective.” I love how you sarcastically call the interaction a sort of “missed connection.”
AN: I don’t think being a feminist comic as an exclusionary label. I think of it as an “Of course I am!” even though it’s not necessarily in bold on my website. Feminism does frame everything when I’m writing because I think: These are values I care about, and if I can bring them to light in a comedic bit, I will. There are comedians where social justice issues are at the forefront of their agenda, and I don’t feel like I’m as explicit about it a lot of times, but there are guidelines I always keep in mind as I’m writing and I try to honor them as much as I can.
CD: Can you talk a little bit about your experience writing for Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell?
AN: Totally Biased was my first writing job. One of their executive producers saw me do stand-up and that’s sort of how I was on their radar. I applied once and didn’t get the job, but then I think a lot of friends of mine who were comedians already worked for the show, so that kind of helped keep me [stay] on their radar, and they asked me to submit material again and I did, and I got it that time. It’s good to know—that it’s not always the first time you try something that you get it, but it was a really cool first writing job just in that it was a really diverse writers’ room, which I think is probably rare in the grand scheme of television, though it’s changing now, which is good. And they were very much trying to put topics and points of view on air that you hadn’t seen on TV before, so all those things made it a pretty unique experience, and in the end people say that it was ahead of its time. Some of the stuff that was on the air was amazing and hopefully it will just cement future equally progressive projects to exist and be sort of a jumping off point for a positive direction of television.
CD: Your tweets are amazing and you’ve mastered the art of Twitter… I’m curious how you realized Twitter, as opposed to long-form blogging—which it seems like you used to do a lot of on your website—was a better medium for you, or just the medium that seemed more natural. I don’t know if that’s true. I’m just curious about your relationship with Twitter.
AN: At first I would just post little thoughts on Twitter and then the more I got into it, the more I saw people use it to post jokes, and I got into that mindset of “Okay, this is just a good way to incubate jokes and get it down to a concise little capsule of an idea.” It is a really good way to sort of hone to the center of what’s funny about something.
CD: Do you feel like your tweets work their way into your performances? Or do you think things that come out of your performing become tweets? Or are they two separate things?
AN: It has to be a pretty good tweet or something that’s hinting toward an idea that I’ve wanted to cover for it to make it into my act, because then you have to do it, like, 1,000 times and hone it, so it can’t be something that you don’t really believe in.
“A U.S. Customs official wrote down my name so he can Google my stand-up to see if I’m funny or not because nightmares are real.”
CD: How often do you perform on average during a week, or even a day?
AN: The nice thing about New York is that there’s a lot of stage time, so it does feel like I can go for longer stretches between a show, or I can do a show, or two, or three a night. I would say on average for a week, I’ll do five to ten spots. And for some people that’s not a lot, but I’ve found for myself that after I hit a certain number, it’s no longer productive for me—it’s a little bit quality over quantity because I also have weird anxiety stuff that runs parallel to it. So I have to sort of balance the two and not burn out.
CD: I was wondering about the writing process for you. You write so much obviously—how much of what happens on stage have you written beforehand? How much of it is improv?
AN: I really come to stand-up from a writerly perspective in that I write a lot and I sort of have to have my idea hammered out a little bit before I take it to the stage. I’ve taken improv classes and I’ve done improv for a while too, so I think I also can surprise myself sometimes by saying something onstage that’s in the moment and I’ll realize I like that and will want to keep it. I think it’s a continual push and pull from both sides. There are definitely people who will have an idea and completely chalk it out on stage, and that’s not me. I’ll need my beats at least, and then once I’m up there I can sort of talk my way through them.
CD: Did you ever have a moment when you remember surprising yourself on stage?
AN: I think one of my jokes about living in New York being sort of like a reality show—I had a line about a pigeon or something that I just said in the moment, and then it got a great response and I wanted to keep that. Sometimes stuff you say in the moment will only work that one time. Then you have to deal with it in the future by realizing it was only funny to that one audience… [laughs], but that’s the beauty of standup—it’s a constant process of trial and error.
CD: I remember when I saw you at the New York Comedy Festival with Tig Notaro, you did that amazing bit with the receipts.
AN: I always feel weird guilt about whenever I have a visual aid. I’m like, “Oh, I’m a prop comic!” Because for whatever reason prop comics are assigned the bottom of the comedy hierarchy. Prop comedy in itself is a different thing—the prop is the joke, it’s not aiding the joke; it is the joke. So there is this weird bravado around, “All I need is the mic and my voice and I don’t need anything else…”, but I don’t think it matters. I’m so much more fluid about comedy. Some of my favorite people to see are people who are subverting all the tropes of stand-up. I really think anything is fair game. I’m always interested in people doing stuff that’s not just talking. There are people who just talk and it’s amazing and genius, but I don’t think there should be rules regarding one form [as] better than the other.
CD: I love your Conan performance. How are those televised stand-up performances different than regular performances for you?
AN: Performing on Conan was my first TV stand-up performance, so in some ways it feels like your coming-out party or like your introduction to the world of stand-up, this is your debut performance. In that way, it has to be perfect. It’s a set you’ve been working on for a while. There’s that pressure of, at least let it go decently so it won’t be some blemish on your resume. The actual thing was such a blur because it’s five minutes tops, more like four and a half minutes actually, so it goes by so quickly and I was just focused on getting all the words out right and in the right order so I almost feel like I wasn’t completely present for it, but everyone on Conan—Conan and Andy Richter—is so nice, and they try to make it as comfortable of an experience as possible. I definitely felt a little out of body experience where after it was over, I was like, “Did that happen?”
ON NEW YORK
“Oops the blizzard wasn’t as bad as expected but I already lit my bedding on fire & ate all the house plants.”
CD: I think I know the reason why so many comedians go back and forth between L.A. and New York, and I’m curious what ultimately made New York feel more like home for you than L.A.?
AN: New York is such a visceral city in terms of [how] you’re always walking around, you’re always very much in touch with your environment. In New York, you’re out and about a lot and it feels like when you’re here, it’s hard to not want to talk about something you saw that day. The cities I previously lived in, L.A. and DC, are both a little more about car culture. At least my experience of DC was more car culture and [in] L.A. for sure, everyone’s in their cars and you’re a little more cut off from other people and interaction, so it’s not as rich for material the way New York is.
CD: As “California Soul” plays on the cafe speakers…
AN: I know! So appropriate. I liked L.A. in a lot of ways. I like West Coast culture. The weather’s beautiful and you definitely get more nature for your buck if you’re out there. I think the overall culture being very entertainment- and industry-focused was a little off-putting to me. You’re so entrenched in it and saturated by it that it’s hard to really get away from that, and your worldview kind of shrinks. I think [in] New York—it feels easier to work in stand-up just because the audiences are more diverse in terms of not everyone [in the audience] working for the entertainment industry. If you try out a joke, the diversity helps. It feels a little more real than L.A., but I don’t hate L.A. I feel sometimes New York comics groan about L.A. being phony. But I think both cities have values for what they are. But for me, New York just feels like a better fit in terms of feeling more grounded in my environment. You’re walking around, you’re walking to the train. To me it feels easier to connect to the city. In L.A., you’re driving a lot, you’re a little more isolated and everything’s spread out. Geographically, it’s harder to feel connected.
CD: Do you feel like you have a certain demographic of fans?
AN: I’m guessing that like all comedians, your demographic is a little bit defined by what you’ve done or what people have seen you on, so I think I definitely have some fans from Totally Biased, meaning progressive, sort-of activist, forward-thinking types, but then also from, like, Twitter. I definitely talk a lot about social anxiety and depression and I think there are a lot of introverts who might have found me that way.
CD: Who are some of your comedic influences?
AN: People I’ve looked up to forever are Maria Bamford, Paul F. Tomkins, Eugene Mirman—a lot of alt-comedy heroes have kind of lit the way for me. I really love weird stuff. Anyone doing weird stuff, like Brent Weinbach, Kate Berlant—I love.
CD: Are there other art forms besides comedy that influence your work?
AN: I’m a big reader. I love reading, but I think as a comedian, I gravitate toward stuff that’s darker—not necessarily humor writing. It will be more about pathos and the human condition. I think anytime you’re an artist, you kind of gravitate toward someone who does the polar opposite of what you do to some degree because you’re like, “This is art. What I do is garbage.” Definitely writers and musicians like Elliott Smith or someone who is on the opposite end of me, who gives off the impression they have never laughed once in their life is who I read or listen to.
ON SUPPORT & COMMUNITY
“If you wonder why some celebrities are out of touch, you would be too if you tweeted the word ‘tomatoes’ & it got 50 million RTs.”
CD: Your Chris Rock blog post got me thinking about comedy and what it means to be part of a team or a community, and I’m wondering if you feel like that’s part of your experience in comedy today, specifically in New York. Do you feel like your local peers are supportive of each other, and of each others’ work?
AN: I do feel like comedians are generally supportive of each other. It’s not like this cutthroat thing. I can’t speak to it fully because I’m not really in that world, but actors and showbiz types—I feel like there’s more of this competitiveness. [In] stand-up, for whatever reason—maybe because you’re already making yourself pretty vulnerable because it’s your own words, just you and the mic and hoping for a certain specific reaction—people are generally not trying to tear you down. People are, for the most part, supportive of each other, and helpful. I think it’s because everyone bombs, and everyone has miserable nights, and you don’t want to do that to each other because you’re already having that element of it— the rejection element is already there in the work.
ON THE FUTURE
CD: I know you listed her as one of your influences, and I love that Maria Bamford does stand-up and also makes those amazing videos that have played in museums, so there’s this whole other world who appreciates her work.
AN: I definitely love the stand-up work, but I do feel like it intersects with other sorts of artistic spaces, and I’m always interested in sort of bridging that gap. I would love to make a series of videos for a museum or gallery, because I feel like stand-up can be a specific world and especially comedy clubs can draw a specific crowd. And I feel like there are people who don’t know about stand-up. I feel like I was one of those people before I started doing comedy: “I would respond to their work if I knew about them.” I feel like you have to sort of step into other spaces to reach those people because they’re not going to be like, “I want to go to Yuk Yuk’s on Sunday night.” Sorry, Yuk Yuk’s. That’s an actual club that I’ve never been to. I’m sure they’re great.
CD & AN: [Laughter]
AN: I also feel like now it’s more common for comedians to collaborate with other kinds of artists. There’s more crossover between worlds, and it’s great because it just makes everyone’s world a little bigger.
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Aparna Nancherla will be recording her first live comedy album on June 2, 2015 at Union Hall in Brooklyn, NY at 7:30pm and 9:30pm. Click here for ticket information.