JUST FOR LAUGHS M4
She’s serious about
She’s serious about
Aparna Nancherla is probably the only desi
comic who doesn’t channel the Indian-uncle
accent routine finds Sandip Roy
Every Indian-American comic knows if you are stuck for laughs just channel the Indian-uncle accent. If you do it with a head bob, you are guaranteed a chuckle. Aparna Nancherla might be the only desi comic around who skips that routine. In fact, she generally steers clear
of the whole curry-and-sacred-cows brand of comedy.
“It’s ludicrous when human beings can’t just get to be
human beings,” says Nancherla.
Instead, she jokes about the Olive Garden restaurant
chain, being shy and dentists. She says people are sometimes surprised that she doesn’t live up to pre-conceived
notions of what minority comedians talk about.
“Sometimes people don’t know what to make of me,” she
admits. But she’s unusual in other ways too. She’s petite.
She always has to pull the microphone down to her height.
She has what she calls a “wide-eyed voice,” making her
sound very young. Her comedic style is kind of laid back
and mellow, not the kind best suited for noisy bars. And
she’s always been the “quiet girl.”
“I was so quiet my mom was worried that I wouldn’t
make it in the world,” Nancherla remembers. “I hated talk-
ing to people I didn’t know. So, my parents would make
me order food in restaurants.”
The one inkling about her future career came when she
took part in a speech contest for Indian youth. “My speech
was the only funny one,” she says. “I talked about what I
would change about Bollywood films.” She won.
She doesn’t remember much of what she talked about. It
was probably something about the multiple jobs she was
working at that time, she says. That has always been where
Nancherla looks for her comedy. “My mind takes things
that are mundane and finds the funny in them,” she says.
She’s always been a big journal keeper. She likes to break
down her thoughts on paper. All of that comes in handy
when you are writing comedy. “I was definitely not the
rebellious child,” she says. “I was the rule follower. But I
kept everything guarded in my head.” But as a shy person,
she says, she definitely had “the keen eye,” picking up the
details about everything going on around her.
Nancherla says she knows people who have a Web site
and T-shirts ready even before they have had their first
real show. “For me it took two years to even identify as a
comedian,” she adds.
Nancherla, in fact, was thinking about going to West
Point military academy. She ran track and field in high
school. “I was all into discipline and pushing myself,” she
says. “I thought West Point would be a good fit.”
Her parents were reluctant because they thought the
army would be a huge commitment. “It was down to the
wire,” she adds. “But in the end I decided to go somewhere
a little more open.” She ended up studying psychology.
But Nancherla’s parents, both doctors, who were hesitant about a military career for her, didn’t expect her to do
stand-up in comedy clubs and bars in front of boisterous
drunk people instead. At the beginning they thought it
was a hobby.
“When I said career, they were incredulous,” says
Nancherla. “But once they realized I was serious, they
were not discouraging.”
They have been to her shows. “My mom was mostly
happy I was talking in front of a bunch of people without
looking terrified,” says Nancherla. “And I think after a few
shows they almost understand most of my jokes.” Anyway,
she adds, her act isn’t particularly risqué.
The bigger issue for her was fitting into the comedy
scene. First off, in a city like DC the standup scene was
largely a white-guy scene. “You are out most nights, you
are in bars, sometimes it’s ill-attended, you have to develop a thick skin,” says Nancherla.
She remembers one night she got into a rather aggressive back-and-forth with a man and his friend, who were
somewhat drunk and not really listening. “Then I get off
and the host thinks it would be funny to bring him on
stage. And he just came up and made fun of me, of my
braces. It was awful,” she recalls.
But what kept her going, Nancherla says, was the high
you felt when you did connect with the audience. “As a shy
person I have often felt the outsider,” she says. “So it’s very
satisfying when people respond.”
Nancherla has had a lot of response. She’s been on NBC’s
Stand Up for Diversity, the New York City Regional
Showcase for the Last Comic Standing 6, the Aspen
Rooftop Comedy Festival and the Great American
Comedy Festival. But while DC was a good place to find
her comedic footing, she knew she’d have to head east or
west before long. Her boyfriend, also a comic, moved to
Los Angeles. Nancherla followed suit.
She remembers when she moved, her parents packed
her two containers of curry and rice and made her promise to exercise and eat home-cooked meals regularly.
She says it’s not easy to break into a new scene where
everyone is trying to launch a showbiz career. But being
around other comics, she’s building her own network.
She’s also doing more acting and writing.
“It’s been really nice to be on my own,” she says. “I live
with three others. And one of them likes to cook. But it’s
nice to tackle a new city and spread my wings.”
However, she adds, it’s still good to come back home
and be with family. “That’s always a comfort,” she says.
“And since they didn’t stop me at the airport last time
with the food, I think I might do it again. I’ll put in my
Who says Nancherla doesn’t put her heritage to good use? ;