aparan icecream

How Aparna Nancherla Went From A Best Western Open Mic To Comedy Star: BUST Interview

by BUST Magazine

Photographed By Danielle St. Laurent


Just Putting It Out There


Aparna Nancherla used to open her sets by saying, “It’s OK, I’m surprised I’m a comedian, too.” It was a joke meant to dispel the audience’s discomfort with seeing an Indian-American woman holding a microphone. But for those of us who have been waiting our whole lives to see someone who looked like us do standup, the joke sounded like something else: a great big glass ceiling shattering to the ground.

Many of her fans first saw Nancherla on Totally Biased—a comedy news show FX launched in 2012—where she quickly became a favorite. “That was my first writing job,” says Nancherla, 33, when I meet her for a beer in Brooklyn, “so I didn’t have anything to compare it to. Now, I’m like, yeah, that was a very rare opportunity.”

Nancherla grew up in the Virginia suburbs of D.C. and discovered standup while home from college. “It was this open mic at a Best Western,” she says. “I thought, ‘These people are gonna hate me.’” It went better than expected, though, and after graduating, she returned to D.C. and worked the comedy scene for four and a half years, until, “I hit a wall creatively,” she says. She then moved to L.A., landed the job at Totally Biased, and came to New York.

Around the same time the show was canceled, in 2013, Nancherla appeared on Conan and became the first Indian-American female comedian to do a set on late-night. Since then, she’s dropped the intro joke—she’s hardly a surprise to audiences anymore.

aparnaPhotographed by Danielle St. Laurent

She’s now everywhere, from TV shows like Late Night with Seth Meyers—where she was a staff writer—Inside Amy Schumer, and @midnight, to every listicle titled “10 Funniest Women in New York” (Time Out New York) or “12 L.A. Comedy Acts to Watch” (LA Weekly). Then there’s her huge Twitter following, which now tops 93,000 thanks to one-liners like, “I hate when you think someone is waving at you, but then you realize they meant the search & rescue team behind you.”

Nancherla has been reaching an even broader audience since her debut comedy album, Just Putting It Out There, dropped in July. On it, she deftly combines the quips she’s honed on Twitter with the storytelling she’s perfected on stage. She imagines a show about a feminist detective who hunts down flashers from grainy dick picks, and jokes about her lifelong struggle with anxiety (“like an edgy improv troupe in your brain”) and depression (“Sometimes I’m sad for no reason, but then I remember…some of the reasons”). That last joke, she says, still feels like a risk. “Audiences want you to keep it light,” she says, “so you’re always taking a chance when you’re like, ‘Now we’re going down a darker path, and it’s going to be a little uncomfortable.’”

I ask Nancherla if she minds being asked about race and gender barriers in the comedy world. It’s the double bind of a pioneer—you don’t want to be pigeonholed, but you can’t pretend you’re not charting new waters. “I feel like I’ve been lucky to be part of a movement,” she says, mentioning podcasts she’s performed on like Another Round and 2 Dope Queens as spaces where female comedians of color have been able to flourish. “It’s almost like people have been waiting for it, and when it arrives, people are like, ‘Yes! We’ve been asking for this forever.’”


By Priya Jain

This article originally appeared in the August/September 2016 print edition of BUST Magazine. Subscribe today!

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Founded in 1993, BUST is the inclusive feminist lifestyle trailblazer offering a unique mix of humor, female-focused entertainment, uncensored personal stories, and candid reporting that tells the truth about women’s lives.

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