Comedian talks about depression and mental health issues – and how culture makes things more complicated
Aparna Nancherla is an LA-based comedian, actor and writer who performs all over the US and worldwide. Her TV stand-up appearances include Netflix’s ‘The Standups,’ HBO’s ‘Two Dope Queens,’ and Comedy Central’s ‘The Half Hour.’ Aparna was also a series regular on Comedy Central’s ‘Corporate,’ and appeared many times on HBO’s ‘Crashing.’ She’s also made late-night appearances on ‘The Late Late Show with James Corden’ and ‘Late Night with Stephen Colbert.’ Aparna’s book of personal essays called ‘Unreliable Narrator’ is out now.
S5 Ep 10 Aparna Nancherla: Comedian on Depression Not being Fun
Aparna Nancherla 0:00
I think I thought of myself as more American. But I also thought of the two lives as I grew up because my school life was so compartmentalised from my life within the South Asian community, it did feel like kind of two identities. And I think comedy ended up being more in the western identity. So it felt harder to blend the two after the fact, and I also think I was maybe more protective of my South Asian identity where I felt more wary about misstepping so it felt a little bit more maybe unsafe to do jokes about that when I didn’t feel like maybe my place in that community felt as assured.
Sangeeta Pillai 0:58
I’m Sangeeta Pillai and this is the Masala podcast. This multi-award winning feminist podcast for and by South Asian women is all about cultural taboos, from sex, sexuality, mental health, menopause, to nipple hair, and more. This season is a US Special, and it took me by surprise. You see, I interviewed these incredible South Asian American women. I expected to hear some angst around identity and belonging. Instead, they told me how comfortable they were with both their South Asian and American identity. I confess, this is not the podcast season I set out to record. It’s so much more powerful.
I had the most thought-provoking chat with Aparna Nancherla. She’s an LA-based comedian, actor, and writer who performs all over the US and worldwide. Her TV stand-up appearances include Netflix’s ‘The Standups,’ HBO’s ‘Two Dope Queens,’ and Comedy Central’s ‘The Half Hour.’ Aparna was also a series regular on Comedy Central’s ‘Corporate,’ and appeared many times on HBO’s ‘Crashing.’ She’s also made late-night appearances on ‘The Late Late Show with James Corden’ and ‘Late Night with Stephen Colbert.’ Aparna’s got a book of personal essays coming out called ‘Unreliable Narrator,’ which I’m really looking forward to reading because I love Aparna’s gentle style of comedy.
Aparna Nancherla 2:41
I was pretty shy And I think my mom was often worried that I was too timid for the world, that people would take advantage of me or I just couldn’t stand up for myself. So I started a lot of my younger life as kind of an observer, taking in everyone else, and maybe not sure what my place was. Not just as a South Asian person, but just as a person in general. I sometimes didn’t know how I fit in socially, even in majority South Asian environments. I just felt quieter than the person next to me and not sure how to conduct myself. I also had a lot of anxiety at that age, so I wasn’t sure if that was something everyone experienced or just something I had to navigate on my own. I don’t think I had a word for it for many years, so it was just kind of informing a lot of that early childhood.
Sangeeta Pillai 3:47
Did you have any friends? Did you have many friends in the school that you were in or the neighbourhood that you lived in?
Aparna Nancherla 3:53
Yeah, my sibling and I definitely were friends with the neighbourhood kids, and then I had friends in school, but it was very compartmentalised. Maybe I wouldn’t see my school friends outside of that environment, and I would see neighbourhood friends in the neighbourhood. But socialising outside the family wasn’t necessarily a priority or something my parents were seeking out, other than maybe cultural events or community events that were more South Asian focused.
Sangeeta Pillai 4:28
I realised that growing up in India meant that I was always part of South Asian culture and communities. It’s only now, living in the West, that I realise I didn’t need to question my cultural identity like a lot of folks who grew up outside the homeland. Being Brown and Indian, like everyone else on the street, meant I could take my Indianness for granted. I ate mostly the same Indian food as all my neighbours, except maybe we made a lot more fish curries from Kerala. I wore the same sort of clothes as my other little friends, usually MIDI dresses and crumpled, printed cotton, or Pinafores in bleached white. My skin turned the exact same shade of burnt Brown from playing outside in the sun. Of course, as I grew up, I questioned a lot of things as a young woman, but my Indianness wasn’t one of them. And for that, I am grateful.
Aparna Nancherla 5:51
Yeah, I think I was always attracted to silliness and goofiness. and my mom definitely has a playfulness about her that I think, sometimes she would go into that gear, and then sometimes she’d be more serious, but I think it was always like, it felt like something was lighter, or more possible when we were in that kind of sillier, goofier mode. And I think I observed, you know, class clowns, and people who were more immediately funny in their environment and I was kind of like, I want to do something like that. But I didn’t know what my own entry point into it would be. So I just started taking in more comedy as I got older. And you know, this was before YouTube, and the internet, so there wasn’t quite the accessibility that there is now of, you know, having a career or pursuing something in that field. So I think the first time I tried it, my friend and I went to a stand-up comedy open mic over the summer when I was home from college and he was definitely interested in stand-up. He was like, I think I’m gonna try it. So we both kind of made a promise to each other that we’d both try it one time before the summer was up. I think that was the first time I ever went up, maybe on my 20th birthday, I believe it was, but I think it helped to have that agreement with someone else. Otherwise, I think I would have maybe talked myself out of it. I just prepared some basic material about what my life was like around then. I was living at home with my parents and just had some summer jobs. So I just kind of did some jokes around that, and it went better than I thought, like, I thought it was just gonna go horribly and then I would be like, “Well, I tried that and now I’m moving on.” But it went well enough that I think I was like, “Oh my gosh, like maybe this is something that I could keep exploring and like, see where it goes.” But after that, I actually tried it maybe like a handful of times in college, just at student events. I really didn’t start pursuing it until after I graduated and moved back home. So it was kind of like I tried it and then essentially took four years to be like, well, maybe, maybe let’s try it again.
Sangeeta Pillai 8:11
What was the family’s reaction? Did you ever have a conversation where you said, “Mom, Dad, I’m going to be a comedian”?
Aparna Nancherla 8:18
I don’t think I officially had that talk with them. It was more, for me, something that the more I did it, the more I was like, I guess this is something I’m pursuing actively. I think I’ve always kind of approached things in my life with this tentative nature. So I’m always wary to put a label on it too soon. So I think it was way after the fact that I even called myself a comedian, and I think the first time I really had to negotiate with them about it was when I had been in DC for like four to five years and then decided to move to Los Angeles to pursue it more seriously. I think that was the first time they really felt like I was making a statement of like, okay, I want to actually make this my job. Like most parents, they were worried about my financial security, but they never discouraged me in the sense of, “Don’t do this. It’s a bad idea.” It was more like, “But also, why don’t you go to grad school?” Like, I don’t think that’s what I want to do, and yeah, for whatever reason, they’ve been very open-minded about my choices.
Sangeeta Pillai 9:33
That’s wonderful because South Asian parents, as we know, unless you’re a doctor, lawyer, engineer, it’s quite tricky, right?
Aparna Nancherla 9:42
So I guess, yeah, that’s really, really… and they encouraged me early on to go into medicine, you know, get more degrees. But yeah, I think I’ve always, in my own kind of quiet way, been pretty stubborn about the way I want to go.
Sangeeta Pillai 10:02
What was it like, though, as a young brown woman trying to break into comedy and make it? Was it difficult? Was it easy?
Aparna Nancherla 10:10
Again, I think it helped being in a diverse area that it wasn’t so unexpected for me to try this. I definitely wasn’t one of several women of colour doing comedy, but there were at least a handful of other women. I knew there had been a South Asian woman who had done comedy in the area maybe a couple years previously and then lived in New York at the time. So I think there were enough examples for me that I didn’t feel like, “Oh, this is something no one like me has ever done before.” But I do think there were ways also that maybe helped me that I didn’t even realise at the time. My material was very much in the everyday and the mundane, kind of the trivialness of life. And I think sometimes women and comedians who are people of colour get shoehorned into maybe doing a lot of identity-based material. I kind of didn’t go that route when I started, not for any particular reason other than that it just wasn’t what inspired me to write about. I think sometimes I would get praised for that, just because people would be like, “Oh, you’re doing something different than other people like you have done before.” And it was a little bit conflicting to hear that because in some ways, you don’t want to be the exception that’s erasing your identity completely. But I think I was so new at the time, I sort of was like, “Oh, I guess this is the right way or something.” I didn’t quite know what to make of it at the time.
Sangeeta Pillai 11:45
What was your identity? Did you think of yourself as American, South Asian, somewhere in the middle, what?
Aparna Nancherla 11:53
Yeah, I thought of myself as more American. But I also thought of the two lives as I grew up, because my school life was so compartmentalised from my life within the South Asian community, it did feel like kind of two identities. I think comedy ended up being more in the western identity. So it felt harder to blend the two after the fact. I also think I was maybe more protective of my South Asian identity, where I felt more wary about misstepping. So it felt a little bit more unsafe to do jokes about that, when I didn’t feel like maybe my place in that community felt as assured.
Sangeeta Pillai 12:36
It’s so common, this double identity thing. Every guest I’ve ever spoken to talks about trying to balance these two worlds, this Western world and this South Asian world. Sometimes, I’m at home wearing a kurta and eating samosas, and outside, I’m, you know, eating burgers or whatever the equivalent. But it almost feels like it’s how we survive. We build these two worlds, and we exist within them, and they don’t necessarily meet a lot of times.
Aparna Nancherla 13:07
Yeah, I mean, I remember distinctly, I took classical dance growing up. I remember there was a Lunar New Year celebration at my high school, and my sibling and I performed one of our dances at the celebration. I just remember there was a sound guy who was maybe a white kid, and I think I saw him doing something that seemed like he was making fun of us. It just reiterated my feeling of why it felt better to keep them separate, where I was just like, you don’t understand what this is or what this means to me, and it feels not worth it to try to explain it to you.
Sangeeta Pillai 13:49
Yeah, that’s kind of sad but I understand. It’s like, you’re so protective of this part of yourself that if other people don’t see it, and they make fun of it, which is really hurtful. Isn’t it? So you’d rather keep it. Yeah, I completely get it. So apparently, you talk a lot about mental health in your comedy, right? Why is this important to you?
Aparna Nancherla 14:10
I think it came about kind of unintentionally. I was struggling with a low point with depression at the time, and maybe my anxiety around performing had gotten kind of unmanageable. I started writing about it really from a place of being at a loss of how to move forward. I didn’t really write about it with the thought that like, oh, and now I can turn this into material and that will fix it for me. But more just like, I don’t know what else to do. I’m kind of in this stuck place, and my usual thing is to create something, so let me just write about it. When I first tried it on stage, I really wasn’t expecting anything out of the ordinary, but I think people responded to it in a way that kind of surprised me. I didn’t even think, you know, as you do when you embody an identity, I didn’t think of myself as like, oh, a woman of colour talking about mental health, like, that’s kind of unusual. Like, I never thought of it that way. I think my point of view has always been very much from the inside out. So it’s sort of just like, well, this is what’s going on in my head. So let me try to tell you what it’s like.
Sangeeta Pillai 15:28
I guess, sometimes with mental health, it’s very difficult to communicate how it feels, isn’t it? Yeah, I find that really hard. So I suffer from anxiety, depression..I had a panic attack a couple of weeks ago. So it kind of comes and goes, and you just kind of learn to manage it a little bit. I guess sometimes it’s very difficult to tell the outside world what that feels like, even if you are ready to, sometimes you’re not ready to talk or write about it, right? So what I wanted to ask you is, what does it feel like for you? These things, what do they feel like? Anxiety, depression, whatever the issue is, in your body, in your mind? What does it feel like?
Aparna Nancherla 16:13
Yeah, I mean, I think as someone who lives a lot in my head, I’ve been doing a lot of work in the past few years to kind of connect myself more with my body and how things show up in my body. So I’ve been just more observant of that in the recent past. I do think they physically, like, it feels like they physically take up space, just kind of by default. Like if I am just sitting, I can kind of be like, well, this, it feels like my depression is at this level and maybe it’s slower today, but I still kind of feel the presence of it. And then anxiety, of course, feels a little more activating and kind of…you feel that panicky feeling or the dread that kind of moves through your whole body. But I do think it’s like, I’m so used to it now that I can sort of immediately tell you like, Oh, this is that, you know, this is low and this is high today. Or I still kind of struggle sometimes with the fact that other people don’t experience the world the same way. Like, I can’t imagine what your brain is doing if it isn’t so crowded by these two things.
Sangeeta Pillai 17:27
And what do people do with that space in their mind? Right? No, I get that completely, completely get that. I guess if you’ve lived with this as long as you have, it sounds like you have for a long time, that state of being almost feels normal, doesn’t it? Like that’s just how it is, right? I also struggle with knowing when it switches. Like, sometimes I’m perfectly normal, and then I wouldn’t realise that I’m anxious. And then like a couple of days later, I’ll suddenly realise, “Oh, shit, I started to feel anxious two days ago, and I didn’t really clock it, you know?” Yeah. Then it just catches you and you’re like, “Oh my god, how am I feeling like this, it’s awful.” It’s awful, right? Yeah, it’s the old beast, you know, okay.
Aparna Nancherla 18:11
That’s the thing. I’ve come to learn just how cyclical it is. And that, I think, kind of helps with the lower periods now, knowing that, okay, this is temporary. I don’t know exactly how long it’s gonna last this time, but I’ve kind of come through this cycle before. Like, for me, I’ve developed sort of in the past few years also PMDD which is just like worsening depression and anxiety around my periods. So it’s like, well, at least that gives it a little more of a schedule. But besides that, it still tends to fluctuate, but it is kind of funny to be like, “Okay, this week, maybe don’t schedule a lot.”
Sangeeta Pillai 18:52
So it’s still such a taboo to talk about depression and anxiety in the world, right? Yeah. Whether it’s the US, the UK, whatever, we are starting to have these conversations, but it’s still not commonplace. Like, I always say this, if I broke my leg, I tell someone hey, look, my leg is broken. Yeah, not a big deal, right? It still feels…I still hesitate to say, ‘Oh, I’m having a really bad day. I’m really anxious or I had a panic attack or whatever.’ It’s still that kind of, we don’t really say this in public…
Aparna Nancherla 19:25
That’s what I found really interesting, is just that it has, as you’re saying, entered the cultural conversation a lot more. Definitely, I see Gen Z talking very openly about their mental health and even having a shorthand for a lot of therapy language. But I feel like, even in talking about mental health in my work, I feel like there’s a distance between me talking about it in a sort of polished and funny way versus the actual experience of it, which is so much different and so much messier and maybe more frustrating to deal with. If you’re friends with someone with anxiety, where they maybe cancel at the last minute or for whatever reason, they’re kind of at the whim of their own brain. And I feel like that aspect of it hasn’t really been, I guess, the conversation is maybe not at the full level of nuance that it could be.
Sangeeta Pillai 20:19
I guess part of it is, it’s not that long ago that people were locked up, right? And particularly women, like there’s so much history about hysteria. Yeah. If you can’t understand why this woman is behaving like this, say, I don’t know, 80 years ago, 100 years ago, you just lock her up? I guess somewhere in our bodies or our psyche, we still carry that, I’m sure. Yeah. And I wonder if that’s part of the hesitation, similar? Can’t really say this, because what are people gonna think of me? Where am I going to end up?
Aparna Nancherla 20:49
Yeah, I mean, I think I still feel that kind of judgement of women as like, too emotional or irrational. Especially around my period, I will behave in a way that even to me, I’m sort of like, I don’t know why I’m acting like this. And then it feels like it feeds into that narrative of just like, we’re, you know, we’re like erratic creatures, and we don’t even know what is happening to us. So it’s like, why should we be trusted with our own minds? Yeah, I think there is a lot around women’s brains that is so questioned as to like their own autonomy over them.
Sangeeta Pillai 21:30
Do you remember when I think somewhere, I think in one of your sketches you talk about or maybe in the interview, about first starting to experience these symptoms when you were in college? Do you remember what kind of started or what happened?
Aparna Nancherla 21:44
Yeah, I mean, my depression was maybe there from my younger age, but I think it didn’t kind of reach a level where it was affecting my ability to live my life until college. And it actually first manifested as an eating disorder, where I was restricting my eating, I was like, running on the cross country team at school at the time. I think I sort of started engaging in these restrictive eating behaviours as a form of control. But then it felt like it really was just kind of a mask for this depression I was struggling with that was kind of an existential depression, but also just Yeah, feeling kind of stuck in general in my life, and like, as a person. I think once I was able to name that, that kind of helped resolve the eating behaviours, but there was some relief. And I think being able to name it, because I think for so long, I had just sort of thought it was this thing that just lived in me that I didn’t really know how to make sense of.
Sangeeta Pillai 22:50
I experienced panic attacks, and sometimes severe anxiety. When it happens, it’s like a million thoughts falling over each other. Boom, boom, boom, in my mind, until I’m exhausted. My body becomes a combination of fizzing, pumping adrenaline, and also, the inability to move. My mind goes into a sort of lockdown. I can try and move, but I won’t go very far. Everything slows down. I function at the most basic level, sleeping, eating, watching TV. I find myself unable to do all the things that give me joy, my work, my writing, my workshops, even my podcast. I then exist in a limbo, where every step, and every move feels like walking through jelly, or like trudging through a field of heavy mulch, all of it sticking to my legs. Usually, it’s a waiting game. I have to slow down, wait for the space to pass. But these days, the jelly phases, as I call them, are getting shorter. And I’m getting quicker at coming out of them, and when I do come out of them, it’s like the world waits for me. Fresh and new and shining.
Sangeeta Pillai 24:36
I guess the other aspect of it is in our culture, in South Asian culture we just don’t talk about mental health. It just doesn’t exist as a concept. And that feels like it’s adding another layer of difficulty, right? We’re taught to always have this mask on. Anybody asks you how you are, you’re fine. Right? Especially like, aunties, uncles visiting, you know, you’re like, you’re putting on a front and everything is good. Yeah, even within families, if someone’s struggling, the parents will never tell anyone outside that that person is struggling, their kids, it’s just you’ve got to put up this front, you’ve got to keep this mask on if everything’s perfect. Right? And I still see this among South Asian friends here in the UK. Yeah. What do you think of this? Like, where do you think it comes from? What would you feel about this?
Aparna Nancherla 25:25
Yeah, it’s interesting, because I think at some point, I thought maybe it was part of the here there, you know, with Asian American, sometimes there’s the model minority myth where, you know, you want to be seen as not a problem and like you’re you’re easy to deal with, and you’re not maybe causing any tension in your community. So I thought maybe some of it came from a place of just keeping up appearances and kind of staying under the radar in terms of any drama or stress. But I think you’re right, I think it even comes from just some cultural norms around. I don’t know if it’s just the collectivist idea of like, the group is more important than any individual problem, but I think there is something also to just family, like the family as a unit is maybe more important than any, like, individual struggle within it. Like, you have to seem like a strong front to everyone else, any conflict that’s happening below the surface, it does not need to be shown to other people.
Sangeeta Pillai 26:34
I’ve always wondered if it’s a survival thing as well. When you’re operating in survival mode, you cannot let anybody else see the weakness or the chink in the armor. That’s the mode of functioning, right? Because to admit vulnerability, is to make yourself weaker isn’t it, in front of someone else?
Aparna Nancherla 26:54
Yeah, that’s a great way of looking at it. Because I know, especially in my family, my mom also struggles with anxiety and depression. I think she has been more open about her own mental health journey. It’s really my dad who’s kind of the one who has the most doubts about, you know, mental illness and seeing a therapist. He just doesn’t, I think he feels like what you’re saying where it’s like, if you’re having a problem, you kind of suck it up and keep moving. Like, you’re not showing your weakness. How is that going to help you in any way?
Sangeeta Pillai 27:34
No, I’ve had friends, South Asian friends say all sorts of things. I had one friend say to me that when I was talking to her about anxiety and depression, she’s like, that’s nothing, just pray to God, you know, and you’ll be fine. I’m like, that’s easier to, like, I’ll be at the temple every day, right?
Aparna Nancherla 27:56
I know. I know. Sometimes I am. Whenever I get advice like that, I’m like, wow, if that works for you…I really wish I had that brain where you, you know, do the thing and check off the problem.
Sangeeta Pillai 28:13
Have you had any weird advice like this?
Aparna Nancherla 28:15
I don’t know if I’ve gotten that one. But I’ve gotten, “Did you try taking a walk?” Or like, “Are you drinking water?” and, you know, things like, just very general self care. I’m like, sure, I think there are days where I could drink more water, but I don’t think drinking 20 pints is gonna fix it.
Sangeeta Pillai 28:39
Hey, I wanted to pause this episode for a minute to share something that I’m really excited about. Podcasting changed my life. I went from typing into Google, “what is a podcast?” Yes, I did that, to creating the multi-award winning Masala podcast, and now I’d like to share some of my knowledge with you. I’m starting podcasting master classes on my website, and one of them’s been created especially for women podcasters. Just go to my website, soulsutras.co.uk and look under courses, or email me at podcasting@soul sutras.co.uk and I’ll share details with you. I look forward to helping you on your podcasting journey. Now, let’s get back to our guest for this episode.
Sangeeta Pillai 30:00
I was watching the documentary this morning, ‘Laughing Matters,’ which is all about comedy and mental health, featuring amazing comedians like Sarah Silverman, Rachel Bloom, and of course you. I loved it. I thought it was so real and also so uplifting. Yeah, it talks about quite dark aspects of depression and comedy, and how comedians deal with it. But ultimately, it was absolutely uplifting. How did you get involved in it?
Aparna Nancherla 30:38
I believe that documentary, I’m not sure if the timeline was just a coincidence, but I do remember a comedian had recently passed away after taking their own life. I think this documentary was sort of in the wake of that event, just like, we should be having more conversations about this, especially in the artistic community. So I think I was brought in that way, just, you know, they had been familiar with some of the material I had done around my own anxiety and depression. But I do think, yeah, I’m always happy to help shed light on these things because I think for me at this point, I’m very open in talking about it and I want everyone to be able to have that freedom.
Sangeeta Pillai 31:27
To think life as a comedian kind of makes things harder if you suffer from depression and anxiety. I was just thinking about this. It’s like, you get up in front of people, and you’re telling all these jokes, and everybody laughs and tells you how amazing you are. And then it kind of goes away, and you don’t know when the next time that is, you’re going from this, lots of people, lots of adulation, to nothing. I wonder if that’s hard?
Aparna Nancherla 31:53
Yeah, I mean, I absolutely. It’s the worst career choice for like…, what is the most stressful environment to put someone with anxiety and depression? And how about something where you’re constantly subjected to just random feedback and you just want approval, and then if you don’t get it, you’re forced to admit that it was something about you that they didn’t like, or something about the way you see the world. So it is a little bit of a masochistic career choice as someone with my type of brain, but then it’s strange that so many comedians do deal with anxiety and depression. And I think some of it to me feels like having this kind of brain that’s kind of just hyper vigilant and constantly kind of questioning things does feel like the flip side of the artistic brain where you’re just constantly asking, why does the world work this way? It’s weird that people do that in this situation. But then it’s sort of the flip side of the darkness, I think.
Sangeeta Pillai 33:02
Yeah, and also, I guess, when you have the ability to make people laugh, which is what you do as a comedian. You become immediately likeable, which is not a bad thing. And also, you bring people’s defences down, don’t you? And I’m sure that helps if your kind of brain is wired like constantly worrying or constantly thinking about things or overthinking it. And this is what comedy does. So I can absolutely see why so many comedians who might have these issues have become comedians.
Aparna Nancherla 33:34
Totally. I think also, for me, I still have a lot of social anxiety, and it feels kind of more manageable to be like, here are my prepared thoughts in a very controlled, scheduled environment. And now and then afterwards, I can retreat. It feels more like I have more autonomy over that than a conversation at a party or something.
Sangeeta Pillai 34:02
Yeah, because you’re managing it. True, I get that. One of the comedians, I don’t remember who it was on that documentary, spoke about loneliness as a comedian, and just loneliness in society. And the fact that again, I think they were talking about the same sort of thing, you performing in front of thousands and thousands, and people are clapping and telling you, ‘Yeah, see?’ And then two days, you go home, and there’s no one, right? And there’s nothing, right? And he was talking about it being really, really difficult, and the day before was the same. He said…as you might sound like a little bit of an introvert. So you’re quite happy to kind of go on retreat, and it doesn’t bother you?
Aparna Nancherla 34:42
Yeah, I think I don’t mind. Yeah, being able to retreat. I think for me, that’s actually sometimes helpful to recharge. But I do think I relate to just how erratic it can be between all this feedback and like a ton and then suddenly nothing like it’s very hot and cold, it’s not like today I’m gonna go to work and talk to these five people. It’s kind of just like 1000 people today, six people the next day. You’re still doing the shows where it’s like, yeah, 15 people are not interested.
Sangeeta Pillai 35:22
No, I get it and for me, that’s a struggle as well because I work at home alone for myself. And sometimes I’m doing podcasts like this or speaking at events or talking to loads of people and you’re on and you’re up, right? And you’re like, get up, performing in a way, and then you go home, and then it’s really quiet. So I find that switch quite difficult. The switching on and the switching off. I can understand. I guess that’s true of anybody who’s performing or doing something that’s kind of public facing, I guess.
Aparna Nancherla 35:58
Yeah, yeah. I think that it’s such a tricky thing with a front-facing career where once it becomes your job, like any other job, there are days where you don’t feel like going or… and it’s funny when it’s like a job where you’re forced to engage and connect with people that sometimes you are maybe a little bit more on autopilot. Does that feel wrong on some level? You know, where it’s like you’re portraying this symbol of connection, but then maybe you’re not connecting to it in the same way every time.
Sangeeta Pillai 36:29
Yeah. And then you feel a sense of like, Oh, my God, I should really feel much more connected. So I feel quite guilty, right?
Aparna Nancherla 36:34
On top of it, because I think I constantly am also like, what a lucky career you have to get to do this at all. So yeah, to not wake up every day just being so thankful and ready to go. Yeah, sometimes it feels very guilt-inducing, or shameful.
Sangeeta Pillai 36:54
I’m not feeling on top of the world today. I really should, because I’m so lucky to…completely get that. So I’m gonna quote something that Rainn Wilson said on the documentary that really resonated with me, he said, ‘we all have these kinds of messed up things that happen to us, we can get through it and transform it and use it.’ And I loved that, because I feel like with a lot of creative people, comedians, writers, artists of any kind, it’s actually the darkness, the anxiety, the kind of trauma that transforms into something beautiful. Yeah, and I don’t mean we all have to be like tortured artists to create art. But art always comes, good art, I genuinely believe comes from trauma and angst and pain. Do you feel this as well?
Aparna Nancherla 37:44
Yeah, it’s kind of fascinating to see it play out in comedy at the moment, because I think there is, you know, a wave of comedy that’s very confessional, and maybe even toeing the line between, you know, drama and comedy, where there are one-person shows where they start out lighter, and then it takes it to a much more serious place. Or maybe the whole thing is a little bit more sombre than the usual comedy special. And it is interesting just to see the way people react when some people say, ‘Oh, well, that’s not a comedy special, like a comedy special is just jokes.’ And to me, I’m kind of like, well, I think that limits it as an art form to say it can only look this one way. But I also understand the perspective of people who are like, ‘I don’t want to just, you know, regurgitate my trauma for the stage. Like I go to the stage to forget about my trauma.’ So I think it can go either way. It’s just giving people the freedom to say, ‘take your pain and make it whatever you want it to be, but it doesn’t have to look one way.’
Sangeeta Pillai 38:48
Yeah, yeah. I think you said that as well, in the same documentary, that comedy is a way to transform your darkest thoughts into a form that gives them a little less power. I thought that was really beautiful.
Aparna Nancherla 39:00
Yeah, I mean, for me, it is. Some days, it’s kind of like, I’m like, “In talking about these things, did I actually give them more real estate in my brain?” I don’t think that, but I think, you know, anytime you turn your life into art or like part of your work, it is like, are you giving it more credence? Do you like, you know, adding it to people’s ideas about you? And what does that do to your sense of self? Like, I think I’m constantly wrestling with those kinds of questions.
Sangeeta Pillai 39:30
I also think something you said earlier about, you know, when you think about the rest of the world, and you’re like, Oh my God, what do you do with the brain that isn’t kind of taken over by anxiety? You know, how is it that the rest of the world isn’t like this? I actually think that most people suffer from some form of anxiety, depression, it might not be debilitating and you can still function or whatever. But I think that if you are human, and if you live in this world, you will suffer from those things. That’s extremely natural, but I think most people do not discuss it. Yeah, maybe never admit it to themselves, let alone to other people. I just think comedians, or artists or writers are just a little bit more open about suffering than other people are, I think.
Aparna Nancherla 40:15
Yeah, I think so. And along those lines, I think there is a sort of status quo way of being in society, like it might differ a little between, you know, like, India, or the UK or the US. But I think there is, like we were talking about earlier, just this idea of, like, the world is hard for everyone, and you get through it, and you don’t need to air your pain for everyone, because everyone’s in some kind of pain. But yeah, I just think, I don’t know, this idea that you never show it to anyone. Like, I don’t know if that’s like a capitalist thing where it’s sort of like, just keep moving forward. Just keep producing or, or just like some kind of social keeping up appearances thing, but it does feel like there’s some sort of mandate that everyone has, like you need to, if someone asks how you’re doing, you say, ‘Oh, good, good, fine,’ yeah.
Sangeeta Pillai 41:18
I’ve been tempted to answer differently, but I’ve never dared to. Yeah, you know, somebody asks that usual question. “How are you doing?” Oh, I’m actually feeling really down, you know, right. But I’ve never really done that.
Aparna Nancherla 41:32
I know, I feel like I’ve had that sometimes with other comedians, where someone will come in with a sort of distinctly off energy or something where they are going through something and they won’t try to hide it. And you still kind of see the panic in everyone else’s faces of like, what do we do with this? Why did they break the code, like what’s going on? And I also thought it was interesting during the pandemic, where there became a sort of shorthand where everyone’s like, how are you doing? And you don’t have to say good, because obviously, we’re all really sad. But even that became a sort of like, pat way of handling all that, you know.
Sangeeta Pillai 42:10
Yes. Yes. Yes. I’m not sure if it’s a capitalist thing. I’m thinking of India, growing up in India, living in India, it wasn’t even a concept, nobody I knew discussed, right? Mental health issues, like even during some of the hardest times in my life, like, during my mom’s death, and I was just in a really bad place. It was just, there was no room to talk about it. There were no words, there was no language, right? It’s just completely not included. So much so that someone, an Indian friend once said to me that Indians don’t get mental health issues. We just don’t, you know.
Aparna Nancherla 43:00
Yeah, I think that level of just like, refusal to engage is like, it’s like denial can be a powerful thing. Like, I think some people really, even think my dad on some level is just like, I don’t believe in depression. Like, I don’t know what that is. But yeah, I think the brain is a powerful thing, and like you’re saying, I think people are wrestling with these things. But you can sometimes convince yourself, you know, you’re not if you really don’t want to have to excavate any of those layers.
Sangeeta Pillai 43:32
Well, this is stuff like, oh, I just like to keep busy, right? I’m gonna start to feel something. I’ll just keep busy. Yeah, we know that that’s a classic kind of denial thing. It’s like, okay, let me just get really, really busy so I don’t have to feel this feeling that’s extremely uncomfortable.
Aparna Nancherla 43:45
Yeah, but then it’s like that, then they can’t ever stop.
Sangeeta Pillai 43:51
Yeah, and again, look, I always think this thing about the way we see people who are busy and together and ‘have it together’, let’s put quote unquote. And then on the other side, there’s people who suffer from anxiety and depression and ‘haven’t got it together.’ I’m doing air quotes, but where one is perceived as, ‘Oh my God, there’s something wrong with them.’ And the other lot are perceived as good functioning human beings.
Aparna Nancherla 44:17
Yeah, I mean, actually, that’s not true, right. I’ll notice that impulse even in myself, where I’ll be like, ‘Oh, well, at least she’s the productive kind of depressive where she’s grown up. While she was like, yeah, maybe she had a hard time, but she has a book and I had a hard time and I have no book.’ You know, like, all that weird competitiveness, and that may be probably as a capitalist impulse to be like, ‘Well, what did you produce from your pain?’
Sangeeta Pillai 44:45
So true! Wasn’t it enough that I just lay in bed and just watch shitty movies for a week, like what did I do with it? How did I channel my pain into this beautiful creative product?
Aparna Nancherla 44:54
Right, right. I think like the real massiveness of mental illnesses…there isn’t always like a nice, shiny product at the end of it.
Sangeeta Pillai 45:06
Yeah, or a nice Instagram quote you can put on it and make yourself feel better, right? Doesn’t exist. What’s it been for other people who kind of respond to this comedy that you do specifically around mental health or any of the other stuff? Have other people come up to you and said, how has it helped them?
Aparna Nancherla 45:26
I’ll still get messages from people just like, ‘I listened to your album,’ or like, ‘I watched your special where you talked about this, and it made me feel like less alone.’ And, yeah, that’s, it means so much to me, because I think I kind of assumed now there’s so much content, and there’s so many people freely talking about everything that to kind of still reach out and connect with someone like it feels very kind of humbling to know that you can still have that impact on someone just by sharing your own experience.
Sangeeta Pillai 46:01
Absolutely. And I guess when someone sees you, you’re a successful comedian, you’re on these amazing shows, and you’re still sitting there talking about, you know, I feel like this or this, you know, I couldn’t get out of bed or whatever it might be. I guess it normalises it for a lot of people that otherwise wouldn’t think of it as normal. Yeah, you know, and we don’t see many brown women saying these things. I don’t know many who kind of openly talk about it, because I still believe that, in our culture, it’s perceived as a weakness somewhere. You know, I’m sure it helps a lot of people.
Aparna Nancherla 46:34
Yeah, I mean, I think I noticed now, just like in doing shows, like local comedy shows, I have noticed a lot more young, South Asian women who are pretty openly talking about their mental illness or their sexuality. And so I am kind of excited to see that the next generation maybe is kind of further ahead in a lot of that, that’s very different from when I started. So that’s kind of cool to see the needle moving in that way.
Sangeeta Pillai 47:07
Yeah, and I’m sure you’ve helped it move a little bit.
Aparna Nancherla 47:10
I’m sure, yeah, it’s a very mixed message when someone’s like, ‘I’ve been watching you since middle school.’ And so you’re like, Thank you, but also Ouch.
Sangeeta Pillai 47:25
What have you got coming up Aparna? In terms of work and shows?
Aparna Nancherla 47:30
Yeah, funnily enough, I mentioned writing a book, I have a book coming out. It took me a very long time to write but it’s a book of essays, and the overarching theme is imposter syndrome, and how I’ve sort of wrestled with it in pretty much every area of my life. Yeah, so that is coming out in September.
Sangeeta Pillai 47:50
Fantastic! What’s it called?
Aparna Nancherla 47:51
It’s called Unreliable Narrator.
Sangeeta Pillai 47:54
I like that. What would you say to five year old Aparna if she was sitting here with us today? What would you say to her?
Aparna Nancherla 48:04
I think I would say that I realised the world seems like a very scary place and, and it’s okay to feel scared and you still belong here. And it’s okay to also just tell people you’re scared because there isn’t shame in that or any, like…it doesn’t make you any less of a person to know that maybe you approach the world in a more cautious way than the next person, and that’s okay.
Sangeeta Pillai 48:36
Yeah, yeah. I like that. Finally, have you got any words for listeners of the Masala podcast?
Aparna Nancherla 48:45
Yeah, I mean, I think going back to what we were saying just about, like having the freedom to express your own struggle but then you also do not have to monetise your struggle or make sure your struggle gets enough likes, that isn’t the point of trying to be a full person. I think sometimes on the internet especially, everyone is trying to be authentic and I think even when you’re trying to be three dimensional on the internet, you still can be flattened in a way so it’s important to kind of also have these conversations in person with people you love.
Sangeeta Pillai 49:26
And not feel the pressure to monetise everything. Yes, yes. No, that’s beautiful. Thank you Aparna for sitting with me and being so open about your thoughts and your own struggles and your journey. It’s been an absolutely wonderful conversation.
Aparna Nancherla 49:43
I appreciate all the thoughtful questions. It has been lovely.
Sangeeta Pillai 49:52
Thank you for listening to the Masala podcast. Masala podcast is part of my platform, Soul Sutras, dedicated to celebrating and supporting South Asian women. This is a space for all of us bad betties who don’t do as we’re told. This is where we get to celebrate our culture our way and be exactly who we want to be. I’d love to hear from you. Get in touch via email at soul sutras.co.uk or my website soulsutras.co.uk, I’m also on Instagram and Twitter, just look for Soul Sutras. Masala podcast was created and presented by me, Sangeeta Pillai produced by Anushka Tate, opening music by Sonny Robertson.
Sangeeta Pillai 50:50
I wanted to share another show that I love called the Meha podcast. It’s an award winning podcast about the stories of daughters of immigrants from all over the world. The podcast features immigration stories of different families and how immigration changes lives. Their new season, Meha on the Mic is great. I was on one of their episodes and I really enjoyed it. If you’d like to listen to Meha podcast, it’s available on all podcasting platforms.