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Comedian Aparna Nancherla mines for laughs in everything from depression to fruit puns

Posted by Daniel Boscaljon | Oct 3, 2017 | Arts & Entertainment
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Witching Hour: Aparna Nancherla

The Englert Theatre — Saturday, Oct. 21 at 9:30 p.m.

Witching Hour performer Aparna Nancherla considers herself a comedic “magnifying glass.” — photo courtesy of the artist

Comedian and actress Aparna Nancherla has been named one of the “50 Funniest People Right Now” by Rolling Stone and one of the “25 Best Comedians of 2016” by Paste Magazine. In addition to recording a debut album and Comedy Central special in the last year, Aparna also has been featured opening for Tig Notaro and on the Netflix series Master of None and BoJack Horseman.

She brings her humorous perspective on the mundane and the depressing to the Englert Theatre at 9:30 p.m. on Oct. 21 as part of the 2017 Witching Hour festival. Tickets for her show are $15 in advance, $20 at the door. It’s also included as part of a festival pass, which is $65, or $40 for Saturday only.

For those of our readers who don’t watch comedy, and thus are unfamiliar with your name and have trouble spelling it (which rules out Google), can you briefly summarize the nature of your humor and why people should see you?

I would say my humor falls into thoughtful musings with an absurdist existential bent, mixed with a lot of my life experience.

Have you studied philosophy?

I read Sophie’s World. I was also a psych major and am interested in the brain and human behavior.

You tend to answer a lot of questions about depression and anxiety, and I’m sure that you have a concise answer to those questions. Can you share it?

I first started talking about them as a way of coping. I was in a depressive rut and it was hard to write about anything else. I think it resonated in a way I wasn’t expecting. It opened up my desire to put words to it and delineate my experience. I found that people can relate. More people discuss mental health now but there’s still stigma.

Can you describe your work process?

I am not disciplined. Some people are. I try to write daily, but I have a harder time fleshing out longer ideas. I observe the world as a canvas of experience and compare what I see to bigger ideas. I have an analogical mind, and I see the bigger existential questions in the minutiae.

Your website states, “Aparna’s sense of humor tends toward the dry, observational variety, but do be warned, her act runs rampant with absurdism and premeditated whimsy.” Can you describe what influences contribute most to your “dry observations?”

It is my daily experience. Growing up as a shyer and more introverted type, I felt like I saw my life from a distance. It has given me a third person narrator in my head that describes what happens to me rather than the first person perspective most people have.

How does being a woman of color affect what you’re allowed to observe?

I think it is tough because we all grow up with perspectives and it is hard to say what is external identity or internal workings. Sometimes I listen to a white guy telling jokes about his experience and I don’t relate, sometimes that happens with the audience when I do it. Stand up is merging my point of view with the audience.

What is the importance of whimsy and absurdism in comedy?

Personally, I think absurdist comedy is my favorite. As a comedian you take in so much technique that absurdism surprises me in its directions. The notion that reality is stranger than fiction is also true. Absurdism heightens the strangeness that reality already is.

What absurdism do you like?

Some old stuff. But also stuff like Portlandia or Tim and Eric. It flings paint at the wall. That stuff interests me. Also those who deconstruct forms. Eric André, who deconstructs the talk show form.

How does it run counter to Freudian theories of humor, that suggest that humor is a form of violence and aggression done at the expense of a third party?

All humor is at the expense of something even if the thing doesn’t have feelings or if it is yourself. It’s always commenting on something, looking at how it is strange. Comedy explains why it is strange. “Expense” implies belittling but …

You seem more to marvel at it?

My interest is in the trivial and mundane and how we sometimes don’t give credit to how complex and interesting [daily life] can be.

What kinds of comedy are you less attracted to?

Why do you find those styles less congenial to your personality? I think by virtue of repetition, comedy that is reductionist bores me. “All women, minorities —
fill in the blank — do this [stereotypical thing].” It works well with audiences but it feels like broad strokes, and I like the nuances.

What has been most important to your success as a comedian? What factors, situations, influences have allowed it to happen for you, when so many people — myself included — absolutely fail to become funny?

I came to comedy from a non-comedic background. I had no idea that I would be involved until later in life. My influences aren’t as much a comedic foundation. But I’m mostly inspired by seeing humans interact. Art that explores human behavior and explains why we do as we do or deconstructs how we’re socialized informs me most.

Why is absurdism important in our current political landscape?

It’s interesting. I feel like our current landscape is absurd. Past Onion headlines are coming true. It is funny when absurdism is reality: What is absurdism? It is new ground and comedians and trying to figure out what it looks like.

Do you have an answer?

Ultimately comedians are commentators. They’re not people making change but asking why they are the way things are. But some peers and I are trying to find the Venn diagram overlap of being an advocate of change but also a commentator.

So: Is comedy a mirror or a lamp?

It explores all those things. Some do a mirror and reflect class and race and the economy, while others shine a spotlight on one thing and tighten it to conventions and characters. Not everyone approaches it the same way. I’m a magnifying glass.

The Witching Hour festival is a celebration of the unknown. What kinds of unknowns do you think your approach to comedy forces people to grapple with?

My big constant unknowns in general: What is the point of it all, and why are we here? The greatest existential hits is what I will leave people with.

Daniel Boscaljon spends most of his time reading, writing, thinking and occasionally lecturing. If you’re having trouble sleeping (or a slow day), you can hear more of his cultural reflections on his podcast and online lectures. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 229.


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Sleep is generally elusive. Any attempt to force it only drives it further away. It is far better to divert the mind with soft music or light reading. While going to sleep, visualise a blank black wall surface occupying the whole field of vision. Turn your ideas to light and cheerful matters. Use light bed clothes and flake out. Do not lie on your back, put on your side with one or both knees brought well up and also the mind and shoulders slightly ahead. During the night, the position of the arms and legs should be changed often and a wholesome sleeper usually shifts from one side to the other many times for the duration of the night

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