“I was walking down the street recently and a black guy with a mohawk coming down the street complimented a white guy with a mohawk going the other way. So I made a wish. Yeah, I know how miracles work.”
Amid loud applause, Amherst alumna and comedian Aparna Nancherla ’05E began her stand-up stint on “Conan” in October 2013. Although this was her first time receiving national attention for her comedy work, Nancherla has been making people laugh even before she ever picked up a microphone.
A Natural Performer
Nancherla said that being a comedian happened “kind of on a whim.” Nancherla didn’t consider doing stand-up until the summer after her first year of college. While visiting home, she participated in an open mic night at a local cafe.
“It was something that I was trying, and I didn’t really have any expectation going in,” Nancherla said. “The first time I went up, it went pretty well, I think, for a first time, so I got bitten by that bug.”
The first time she performed, all she hoped was that she could get a laugh from the audience.
“I think I was really nervous, definitely a huge amount of anxiety,” Nancherla said. “But I think it was also like, ‘please, please I hope people laugh at something, anything, and that I don’t freeze up.’ The first time I went up, it was my birthday, so I definitely tried to milk the audience for sympathy on that.”
Despite her success at home, Nancherla did not pursue comedy much at college, only participating in a few open mic events. Instead, she spent the majority of her time at Amherst performing with Amherst Dance, hosting a WAMH radio show, writing for an Amherst magazine called Prism and a satire publication called the Amherst Hamster. Nancherla also ran on the cross country and track teams.
Grace Kay ’04, Nancherla’s South Dormitory floor-mate, WAMH co-host and close friend, said that Nancherla has always been a funny person.
“She might have seemed quiet originally,” Kay said. “But she was very quirky. She would always have very funny observations about people. She has always been interested in theater and performing.”
However, Kay was still surprised the first time she saw Nancherla perform stand-up.
“I remember seeing her first show, and I was just blown away by how polished she was,” Kay said.
From Open Mics to Conan O’Brien
After graduating from Amherst with a degree in psychology, Nancherla moved back to Washington, D.C., where she did some comedy on the side. However, comedy was not initially her main focus.
“[Comedy] wasn’t a conscious goal I had — it was more like when I started, I was like, ‘Oh, let’s see where it goes,’” Nancherla said. “It started out as a hobby and something I would do at night, but then it picked up and I got opportunities.”
Her first opportunity was NBC’s “Stand-Up for Diversity,” a program that brought together comedians of different backgrounds to help them start their careers in comedy. In 2007, Nancherla was a finalist for this program.
“That was sort of the first indicator that maybe this [was] something I [could] pursue seriously or as a career,” Nancherla said. “But I didn’t really decide that for myself until I got some external validation.”
Nancherla said that she gets inspiration for her jokes from everyday life.
“I think [what also interests me are] little trivial things. I sort of look into the deeper meaning of them,” Nancherla said. “I have a very, sort of dry and slightly [assertive] point of view, so it’s definitely, like, the mundane and day-to-day nature of things.”
Nancherla got her first job in comedy at a local club in Washington, D.C. called DC Improv. She won DC Improv’s stand-up contest and secured a guest spot in their lineup. She eventually hosted at the club for a few weekends.
After spending four years in D.C., Nancherla decided to move to Los Angeles to pursue comedy as a full-time career.
“It felt like if I really wanted to pursue [comedy], I sort of had to move to a bigger pool, to places where there was more opportunity,” Nancherla said.
She landed her first job as a writer for the show “Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell,” a late night news show on FX that presented political and observational comedy. As a writer for “Totally Biased,” Nancherla also received some on-camera time and was able to work with Chris Rock, the show’s executive producer.
“That was a huge thing for me: to get a job related to comedy where you also got to perform on camera,” Nancherla said. “It was pretty big and definitely a valuable, cool experience.”
But perhaps even bigger than writing for “Totally Biased” was landing a stand-up spot on “Conan” a year ago, which was her first late-night TV spot.
“That was really cool because I grew up watching [Conan O’Brien],” Nancherla said. “It was really fun and everyone was super nice. It was definitely one of those things where it felt surreal to even do it. Until it was over, I couldn’t really process that it had happened.”
Nancherla said that being on “Conan” involved a lot of work. She changed her performance based on the notes the show’s booker gave her and tried to make it more appropriate for the show’s audience. She said that the main hurdle she faced in performing on “Conan” was creating a set that the show would be happy with.
A Rising Star
Kay said that she isn’t surprised that her former classmate became a comedian.
“I feel like for Aparna, comedy ... that is who she is and what she wants to do and I felt like that was very apparent early on,” Kay said.
However, another friend of Nancherla’s, Rashi De Stefano, said that Nancherla’s eventual career path surprised her.
“It wasn’t something that we ever talked about — she only got into it later,” De Stefano said. “I’m surprised that she managed to turn it into a viable career and something that she is doing with her life. [Nancherla] was always sort of low key, but it really worked out. Once I started seeing her perform in public venues, I was like, ‘Oh yeah, this is definitely what she should do with her life.’”
De Stefano also said that she admires Nancherla for being a woman in comedy.
“It is really hard to be a female comedian; [that’s] what I realized just watching her,” De Stefano said. “Because 90 percent of the time, she is one of two women that are performing in a lineup of all dudes. I think it is a tough world to be in.”
Since leaving “Totally Biased,” Nancherla has been traveling, doing stand-up shows around the country and at festivals. She even performed at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival in Australia. She said that looking forward, her dream job would be to write a comedy show that represents her voice along with some of her comedy friends. She hopes to get some on-air time as well.
De Stefano said that it has been interesting watching Nancherla’s comedy career grow and sense of humor develop.
“I’ve seen her perform since [Amherst], and there has been this evolution of her humor,” De Stefano said. “It started as isolated jokes, and now she has this very witty, observational humor that was always part of her comedy. But now it has developed into these stories that she tells about things that she has seen or people in her life ... It’s gotten more clever, more witty, more specific.”