A woman in a yellow shirt sitting on a couch in a colorful room

“What do you call a worldwide symposium of people with impostor syndrome?” asks the actor, author and comedian Aparna Nancherla ’05E.

Her answer: “LongCon.”

Nancherla is all too familiar with self-doubt—the feeling, she writes, that “you don’t deserve anything you’ve earned, and it’s all a huge misunderstanding”—as you’d guess from the subtitle of her 2023 memoir, Unreliable Narrator: Me, Myself, and Impostor Syndrome.

But the funny thing about insecurity coupled with the kind of curiosity that drives Nancherla’s creative work is that it can be pretty debilitating. Those with the most direct experience of anxiety may be the least likely to trust their own perceptions.

So, when Nancherla set out to “spoon with formative childhood trauma” and write about the mental blocks that nearly caused her to quit comedy, she surveyed 110 others as part of her book project. “The survey hardly constituted rigorous research,” she writes. “Take that, MacArthur geniuses (genii? I rest my case)!”

Not surprisingly, given this propensity to probe, ponder and survey, Nancherla majored in psychology at Amherst, and thus has considerable experience in conducting psychological studies. “I am just fascinated by human behavior,” she told me by phone from her home in Los Angeles in December. “It’s so immediately applicable to your life that it felt like the one subject that could keep my attention.”

Her senior thesis evaluated how different types of people handle stress. Do they change themselves to adapt to obstacles? Or do they change their environments so outside forces conform to them?

Almost 20 years later, Nancherla’s propulsive career—which took a literary leap last fall with the publication of her first book—illustrates both approaches.

For years, as the academically driven daughter of Indian American immigrants in suburban Washington, D.C., and then at Amherst, Nancherla molded herself to fit others’ expectations. She developed an eating disorder while running competitively at Amherst and discovered anorexia was actually a mask for other mental health struggles. On a break from college during her sophomore year, she was diagnosed with depression.

Now 41, Nancherla has helped to change the landscape of American comedy with her open and honest takes on anxiety and depression. (Onstage she calls the second diagnosis “Brenda,” because “depression doesn’t have a great reputation.”) Today, anxiety jokes rival dad jokes as popular inspiration for quirky T-shirt designs. Author and comic Maria Bamford, a friend of Nancherla, dishes about obsessive-compulsive disorder and intrusive thoughts. Pete Davidson, the former Saturday Night Live cast member, has been candid about his suicidal ideation, and up-and-coming comedian Taylor Tomlinson, the new host of After Midnight on CBS, has made her bipolar disorder a centerpiece of her stand-up in two Netflix specials. Mental illness is mainstream.

It’s all more material for Nancherla’s dry, observational comedy—Bustle calls her a “hyperintelligent comedian”—and a major theme of her essay-based memoir. Kirkus Reviews called the book “refreshingly perspicacious and darkly funny.” It was also listed among The New Yorker’s Best Books of 2023, plus NPR’s Books We Love 2023, and got admiring blurbs from Amy Poehler, Mandy Kaling and Tig Notaro.

But it can feel jarring to live through anxiety and depression and to package them for public consumption, too.

“It is a very real thing to experience,” said Nancherla, who canceled a 2018 comedy tour amid a serious bout of both. “When something’s a brand, it kind of makes it shiny and polished and flat, and that’s not how mental illness actually shows up.”

The path from Amherst to comedy isn’t exactly direct, but it’s also not unworn. Matt Besser ’89 is a founding member of the Upright Citizens Brigade, the comedy troupe that also claims Poehler as an alumna. Improvisational actor John Michael  Higgins ’85 gained fame with his star turns in Christopher Guest’s mockumentaries Best in Show and A Mighty Wind. Stand-up comic Larry Miller ’75 has also appeared in Guest’s films, including Waiting for Guffman and For Your Consideration. Zach Cherry ’10, known during his college days as a member of Mr. Gad’s House of Improv, has won recognition for his role on the Apple TV+ series Severance, among other shows.

For Nancherla, the trajectory was neither preordained nor, in the end, entirely unexpected.

She describes herself as the painfully shy younger child of two immigrant physicians in McLean, Va. Her mother prescribed forced human interaction as an antidote to her introversion. When the family ordered pizza for dinner, Nancherla’s mom made her call the restaurant to practice talking to strangers.

But she killed onstage as an 11-year-old girl when her mother conscripted her into a public speaking competition at their suburban Hindu temple. The prompt asked competitors to speak about an issue of importance to the Indian American community, and most of the tweens and teens chose serious topics, such as racism and representation, Nancherla writes in her book. “I decided to go a sillier route,” she told NPR’s Fresh Air in September, with “a gentle takedown of Bollywood movies.”

Her child-sized rant poked fun at the productions’ numerous costume changes and weather patterns that morphed multiple times in a single song. It won laughter—and produced an unfamiliar feeling in Nancherla: connection.

“It was the first time I remember making a group of people laugh in a deliberate and direct way,” she wrote, “and I found the experience exhilarating, if confounding. I imagine it’s what childbirth might feel like, minus the unfathomable pain—Wow, that thing came out of me?! How was it possible that the words I’d written and said had won everyone over, however temporarily? Talk about power. I wanted more.”

Nancherla attended Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, a magnet school in Alexandria, Va., she described as an academically rigorous bubble. She never doubted she would go on to college—she envisioned higher education as her “reward” for working hard in high school—but her next step wasn’t totally clear.

“I was one of those kids who just applied to so many different colleges and was so all over the map in terms of what I wanted to do,” she told me. “My final college decision came down to Amherst or West Point, which is like the polar opposite in every way, I think.”

It also came down to commitment. Amherst was four years, and West Point required four years for undergraduate studies plus five more for military service. “I can’t make a decision that big right now,” Nancherla remembers thinking as a high school senior.

Arriving at Amherst felt like a release compared with high school, “like a big playground.” She lived on the all-women, substance-free fourth floor of South dorm, sometimes called “the nunnery,” her first year. She went sledding on Valentine Dining Hall trays and ran track and cross-country. She took classes in psychology, theater, English, Spanish and LJST and searched for a passion. “I was,” she said, “maybe lost.”

A woman with black hair in a pink room holding her head in one hand

Nancherla is known for roles on BoJack Horseman, Corporate and Master of None, as well as performances on Conan and The Standups.

A break from college helped her find her way.

When the eating disorder made life at Amherst unmanageable, Nancherla took the spring semester of her sophomore year off and stumbled into stand-up the summer before she returned to campus in fall 2002. Just before heading back to Amherst, in August, she performed at an open mic night near her childhood home, accompanied by a friend and her sibling, Bhav, to celebrate her 20th birthday. It was held at a Best Western next to a freeway. (“Where dreams are made,” she cracks in her book.)

The open mic was something of a one-off, she writes: “My first set went well enough that, off that euphoria, I essentially took a four-year break—you know, like how after someone gets elected president, they forget about all the promises they made?”

But that’s not entirely true. Back at college, she practiced at least a few times at the Marsh Coffee Haus open mic. She also joined the staff of The Amherst Hamster, a humor magazine that aspired to Onion-esque satire. Her first piece—“Student Suffers Neck Injury Due to Incessant Nodding at Professor”—appeared in the October 2002 issue.

“Last Monday,” it begins, “an unsettling shriek raised the tone of discussion in Professor Bumiller’s normally quiet morning political science class. Fran Weiss ’05, a diligent attendant of the class, suffered a severe neck strain during one of the key points of the lecture.”

It goes on to quote the made-up injured student: “One second I was merely reframing the importance of a free democracy … and the next, I was lying on the floor, not able to move, with my shoulders all scrunched up to my chin.” Nancherla describes how a doctor at Health Services then sent the student back to class with a neck brace, and concludes that, without the ability to nod, Weiss might instead have to “become one of those people who laughs pointlessly in class.”

“I was just so excited that they published it,” Nancherla remembers. She thought, “Oh my gosh, this is a great sign.”

Classmates were not at all surprised by this early success. “Aparna was always extremely funny in her everyday life,” said Rashi DeStefano ’04, a production executive for preschool animation series at Netflix and Nancherla’s hallmate in South. “But also very chill about it, not someone who necessarily needed to be the center of attention.”

The Hamster helped give Nancherla further fuel. It also helped shape how she made fun of the world. When a later piece she approved as editor targeted a specific student “in poor taste,” she said, it drew criticism from peers. Today, Nancherla avoids mean-spirited humor.

“I have, even in stand-up, been very sensitive to how I portray other people and who I’m taking shots at,” she said in December. “I think I’ve always tended to punch up and also lead with myself as the real fool in the scenario.”

DeStefano agrees: “There’s this gentle, wry quality to her comedy that’s very insightful and it can be very incisive, but it’s also very much about situations, more observational in a way that’s much harder to do. It’s an easier type of comedy to be like, ‘Let’s make fun of X, Y, Z thing.’ And her comedy isn’t like that. It’s definitely much more cerebral.”

Even offstage, she’s authentic, attentive and considerate, her friends assured me. “Aparna is a generous, kind, patient person,” said Honora Talbott ’07. “Not many successful people who are as brilliant and hilarious as her are kind.”

On campus, a penchant for participating in other students’ psychology thesis experiments (“I would just sign up for all of them!”) dovetailed with Nancherla’s own academic interests. She paired with Elizabeth Seeley Howard, a visiting professor,  during her senior year to complete her thesis on “self-construal and two new constructs called active and reactive control”—or “two variants of problem-focused methods of dealing with stress.”

Seeley Howard, now an adjunct professor of management and organizations at New York University, described Nancherla as “really intellectually curious and excited to learn.”

They stayed in touch after Nancherla graduated and initially dabbled in journalism, interning at Washingtonian magazine and for NPR’s website. Nancherla enjoyed writing, but like the young child forced to order pizza for the family, she didn’t like striking up conversations with strangers, which could feel like prying.

“I figured out kind of quickly this thing I don’t like about journalism is just how much you have to talk to other people,” she said, “who maybe don’t want to talk to you.” (Was she sending me a message? I, a newspaper editor in Oregon, didn’t ask. And she, living up to her reputation as unfailingly kind, didn’t offer another clue.)

She left news, joined the staff of a Virginia trade magazine, moved to L.A. and took up temping, all while continuing to pursue comedy on the side. She and Talbott both joined the JINX improv group with Washington Improv Theater in D.C. in 2007. They also formed a side group called Mythical Newsroom with a few other women, all playing members of a local news team. They’d take audience suggestions about a mythical creature and then act out the news event that followed. “It was just very funny, very ridiculous,” Talbott said.

Seeley Howard always understood Nancherla as a person who was enjoyable to be around.

“But definitely not cracking jokes all the time,” she said. “I was shocked when she told me, ‘I’m trying comedy now.’”

Nancherla’s first big break was as a staff writer for the FX comedy series Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell. That same year, 2013, she performed stand-up on Conan on TBS.

“Any pizza can be a personal pizza, if you cry while you eat it,” she told the audience.

A stint as a writer for Late Night with Seth Meyers in 2015 ended abruptly when Nancherla and the showrunners realized they weren’t a good fit. The grind of churning out jokes for a daily show didn’t suit her. “You essentially write for that show and then, at the end of the day, immediately restart for the next day,” she said. “I just realized that pace wasn’t necessarily the way my mind works creatively.”

Once again, instead of changing herself, she changed her environment. But not before landing one especially great visual joke for her boss’s opening monologue.

“Pope Francis began his tour of the United States today,” Meyers said from behind his host desk, “and he kicked it off in style with a stop at his favorite restaurant.”

Here the television screen flipped to a billboard for Popeyes fried chicken. Then Meyers read the sign aloud as “Pope Yes,” with obvious delight.

Nancherla was equally jazzed, though she attributes the joke to luck, having one day noticed the word “Pope” in the fast food logo. “I then reverse engineered a joke around it,” she explained to me, breaking down the steps of her seemingly intuitive creative process. “I was so excited to have made that discovery because I was like, ‘I don’t think anyone’s ever pointed that out.’”

She began voicing a role in the Netflix animated comedy series BoJack Horseman in 2017. “Aparna has a special talent for somehow sounding simultaneously bright-eyed and world-weary,” showrunner Raphael Bob-Waksberg told the news website Vulture in 2018. “What I love about her stand-up is that it’s a beautifully cathartic articulation of how a lot of us get through every day—part-smirk, part-cringe, part-deer-caught-in-headlights.”  (Nancherla’s character, Hollyhock, isn’t a deer, but she is a young horse.)

Nancherla is also well known for recurring roles on the Comedy Central series Corporate and the HBO series Crashing, and for her guest appearance in the “First Date” episode of Aziz Ansari’s Netflix show Master of None, in which she plays a pro-wrestling fan who blogs about ramen noodles under the nom de plume Ramaniac.

As her career grew, Nancherla used the social media platform formerly known as Twitter to hone her voice. Before mostly stepping away from the dungeon of doomscrolling last year, she amassed a half million followers.

She first caught my attention in 2018 with her episode of the Netflix series The Standups, which featured different comics in front of live audiences. It was the second year of Trump’s presidency and two years before the pandemic would upend life in the United States, and I had just taken a career detour into teaching journalism at a local community college. I felt very uncertain about my new classroom gig, which required an unexpected degree of stage presence. Professors, it turns out, are also heckled. A student once described my class presentation on newswriting as “death by PowerPoint.”

Nancherla’s routine presciently tapped into much of the nation’s growing nervousness. “You kind of know you live in a weird period in history,” she said, “when you go to therapy and your therapist is like, ‘Do you want to go first, or should I?’”

And then she capped her episode with a 17-minute PowerPoint presentation she called “You Had Me at YOLO.”

“Enjoy the pun if you want to,” she told the crowd mock-meekly. “If you don’t, you know, just keep it to yourself.” She summarized what was to come in the slideshow—her observations about emoji, Yelp reviews, online dating and her parents’ incoherent texting style—with a brainy subtitle: “A Tenuous Exploration of How Digital Language Exists in an Ever-Evolving Landscape.” (Note to my former student: See, PowerPoints can be fun!)

Her book is full of similar academic flair, interrogating everything from unfair beauty standards for women to the commodification of mental illness.

On a September 2023 episode of the podcast WTF with Marc Maron, Nancherla talked about her job in a way that made it seem not unlike that of a public intellectual. She is “paid to think,” she told Maron.

“As a comedian, you do feel very lucky, because people are essentially just paying to hear your thoughts about stuff,” she later explained to me. “Day to day, when I’m trying to think of material or thinking about what my next project might be, it is just like, ‘Where am I at in my life, and how am I making sense of the world right now?’ In that sense, you do feel a little bit like a paid philosopher.”

Or, perhaps, an Amherst College professor. One with no fixed syllabus or piles of student papers to read. “And,” she said, “nobody upset about their grades.”

You can catch Nancherla on Netflix in May when she makes a cameo in Jerry Seinfeld’s comedy film Unfrosted: The Pop-Tart Story.

Beth Slovic ’00 studied anthropology at Amherst. She’s a public safety editor at The Oregonian newspaper in Portland. Her 11-year-old daughter does not laugh at her jokes.

Diagnosis: Medically Crushed by the Weight of the Existential

In this excerpt from Unreliable Narrator, Nancherla recounts when she was diagnosed with depression during her sophomore year at Amherst.

When I was first diagnosed with depression at the age of nineteen, I was immensely relieved—the smothering fog has a container; the sense of burden has a classification; the thing with no clear reasons has, at the very least, a name. Finally, an answer! I’m medically crushed by the weight of the existential! If you can state the problem, you’re one step closer to the solution. (Tell that to the national debt, am I right, ladies?) At the very least there was room for possibility—a whimsical euphemism for options like therapy and medication. It was the first time in my life I had ever interrupted my high-achieving path and taken time off from school simply to “get better,” whatever that meant.

I had felt depressed before, but this was the first time I couldn’t keep reading inspirational quotes and carrying on. I got my first B-minus in a class after getting a D on the final, which hardly sounds critical, but up until that point, “the danger zone” for me meant getting a B-plus. It was the first time in my life I asked myself why I bothered trying to achieve a certain standard and realized I had no answer. I truly didn’t care and hadn’t for some time. But until I got a sticky little label I could proudly wear on my chest like clothing marked “irregular,” I had attributed it to my own weak will. My knowledge of mental health was paltry, and the only ingrained ethos I had was “Suck it up. Life is hard for everyone.”

Since that initial bottoming out, my fallow episodes have come and gone as they pleased, as if through a little doggy door in my brain, one exactly the size and shape of a highly motivated incubus who thinks we’re soulmates. The cluster of symptoms manifests in my brain like a person that a self-help book about boundaries would firmly recommend cutting out of your life. You can no longer even remember how you and Brenda met in the first place. That’s right, I’m calling my depression Brenda from here on out. (If you’re reading this and your name is Brenda, feel free to use the name Aparna instead.)

Excerpt from Unreliable Narrator, by Aparna Nancherla, published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2023 by Aparna Nancherla.