Amherst Magazine

Quietly Odd

By Katherine Duke ’05

Aparna Nancherla ’05E reassured the audience on Conan, “It’s OK—I’m surprised I’m a comedian, too.”

[Comedy] “You’ve reached Aparna’s carrier pigeon. Please cluck or squawk a message, and she’ll get back to you as soon as she gets the feathers out of her hair.”

Even in her voice mail greeting, I hear the quiet oddness that’s made Aparna Nancherla ’05E a favorite up-and-comer in comedy. I’m calling in November, weeks after she performed her first late-night TV stand-up, on Conan. It’s also shortly after the cancellation of Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell, the FXX political comedy series that had provided her first steady comedy-writing-and-performing job and allowed her to work with executive producer Chris Rock. Nancherla tells me (once I get her on the phone) that she’s on a “mini-tour/vacation” with some other former Totally Biased writers, doing stand-up shows down South—though it’s really “just an excuse to get ourselves to Disney World.”

Aparna Nancherla ’05E
Aparna Nancherla ’05E. Photo by Jeff Ender

Comedy, says Nancherla, is one of the few career paths she didn’t consider in her youth. It seemed, to her, like “the circus, where it’s something you’re born into, but you can’t just decide it’s something you want to do.” Growing up near Washington, D.C., with protective Indian immigrant parents in a household without cable TV, she was no class clown—more of an anxious introvert who filled notebooks with her daily observations. One week, she wanted to be a veterinarian; the next, a police officer. She got into West Point but chose Amherst, because military service seemed like too big of a commitment.

As a sophomore she had a “low-level existential crisis” and took a semester off, hoping to find a professional direction. On her 20th birthday, friends convinced her to take the stage at a comedy club. “It went better than I expected,” she says. Nancherla returned to college with a renewed sense of creative purpose, began writing for campus publications and gave stand-up a few more tries. Her psychology major proved helpful as she wrote jokes about human behavior.

After Amherst she lived with her parents and held journalism internships while doing open mics, studying improv and filming Web shorts. NBC’s 2007 “Stand-Up for Diversity” talent search led her to Last Comic Standing, where she made the semifinals. Though she snagged only a few seconds of national-TV screen time, this success startled Nancherla: “At that point, I still felt so new.”

Like many young comics, she took to Twitter as “an incubator” for jokes; her followers now number 30,000. (“You’re never too old to cry in a mall Santa’s lap,” she tweeted this December.) She moved to L.A., where she found a manager. She landed Totally Biased in 2012, on her second try, and moved to New York.

Her Conan debut was surreal, she says. On stage in a red dress, she reassured the audience, “It’s OK—I’m surprised I’m a comedian, too. We’ll get through this together.” Next, she plans to work with filmmaker Chioke Nassor on a Web series about “about various misadventures I have during my day-to-day life.”