Comedian Aparna Nancherla Talks Mental Health in New Book ‘Unreliable Narrator’

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A few hours before the comedian Aparna Nancherla was scheduled to perform at the Elysian Theater in Los Angeles last month, she was at home tapping.

With her index and middle fingers, she was tapping the crown of her head, tapping her chin, tapping her chest and reciting affirmations. I’m allowed to make mistakes, she told herself. Tap, tap, tap. I’ve done this before, I’m good at it. Tap, tap, tap.

She was using this technique, rooted in acupressure, to help settle her preshow anxiety. Her nerves were also why, I was told by her publicist, I could not meet Ms. Nancherla before her performance. Exactly an hour before showtime, she took the anti-anxiety medication propranolol, timed so that it would kick in right when her set began.

Then she stood onstage and made light of her mental struggles.

She’s “been on so many different meds,” she told the audience, “that at this point I’ve basically donated my body to science.”

Ms. Nancherla’s mental health has been the animating force behind her standup since 2002, when she did her first open mic gig. She is haunted by depression and anxiety. And, as is often the case for comics with mental illness, she is also expert at turning that pain into punchlines.

“I got into comedy to translate my brain,” Ms. Nancherla said. “I always wrote from the inside out — kind of like, these are things I think about, this is what’s going on in my head.”

In the midst of a bout of depression, she will write her thoughts in a notebook, two out of five of which turn into jokes, she said. “And then three of them are just like, ‘Oh, this is just me being sad and writing something down — this is not a joke at all.’”

Ms. Nancherla, who has tried a range of treatment options, including Prozac, Zoloft, ketamine infusions and bright light therapy, lets the audience in on the minutiae of her turmoil. She details the “terrible dry mouth” from one of her medications, “which, you know, perfect for this line of work.” She walks the audience through what it’s like contending with both depression and anxiety. “I kind of like to do anxiety for the week, depression for the weekends,” she jokes in another bit. “They both have custody.”

It is a brand of comedy that has earned her a degree of success: She has written for shows like “Late Night With Seth Meyers” and “Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell,” acted in “Crashing,” “Corporate,” “A Simple Favor” and the hit animated series “BoJack Horseman.” In 2017, Ms. Nancherla was named one of Rolling Stone’s “50 Funniest People Right Now.”

But by 2018 her anxiety had snowballed; she simply could not perform. She felt deeply uncomfortable onstage, clammy and unable to enjoy the moment. Preshow nerves would consume her mind for days. She canceled a 31-city, four-month tour a couple of weeks before it was scheduled to begin. In late 2019, she decided to take a break from doing standup shows altogether.

As a creative outlet, she started writing about her mental health, laying bare her spiraling thoughts, low moments and self-doubt, which culminated in a book — “Unreliable Narrator: Me, Myself and Impostor Syndrome” — that will be released this month. It is both a memoir and a dive into the nuances of depression, anxiety and feeling like you don’t belong. The idea, she explained, was to examine her mental illness — which had prevented her from going on a tour that she had always dreamed of doing — in order to understand it better.

She also hoped that the book would in some magical way sort of cure her. “I was like, ‘I’ll just write it all out,’” she said, “and then it will all be gone.”

During her childhood in McLean, Va., Ms. Nancherla’s anxiety would often render her speechless. She remembers going through the school day sometimes with a growling stomach because she couldn’t pry her lunchbox open and felt too shy to ask for help.

Her parents, who immigrated from southern India in the late 1970s and both became doctors, worried that her quietness would be a hindrance. “They were just like, ‘How are you going to hack it in this world?’” she said. To coax her out of her shell, they would put her in charge of calling and placing the family’s pizza delivery orders — “just to get me to talk to people,” she said. When she turned 11, her mother put her in a public speaking class.

In 2000, when she was studying psychology at Amherst College, she joined the cross-country and track teams. The monitoring of her diet that came with it developed into anorexia, and Ms. Nancherla lost so much weight that she stopped menstruating, she said. She eventually asked her parents to drive her to an eating disorder recovery center, where she was diagnosed with depression.

“It gave me a lot of relief to be able to name it,” she said. “It made me feel like I had somehow just really started living life now that I had this context for everything.”

Ms. Nancherla writes in her book that being a timid South Asian woman who started her standup career in 2006, when the industry was largely white and male, instilled in her a powerful sense of impostor syndrome, which is prevalent in women and especially women of color. When Ms. Nancherla arrived on the scene, there were few female South Asian comedians, said Hari Kondabolu, a comedian who has worked with her on several projects. And, of those, fewer still were discussing their mental health.

“She didn’t make sense to people,” he said, “she was just like a unicorn.”

She resorted to opening her performances by addressing the strangeness of her presence. The first line of her bit on “Conan” was, “It’s OK. I’m surprised I’m a comedian, too.”

The South Asian female comedians who entered the standup scene after Ms. Nancherla’s arrival were often referred to as “Aparna 2.0,” she said. Kiran Deol, a comedian who started her career 10 years ago and has a louder comedy style than Ms. Nancherla, said she has been mistaken for her “many, many times.”

Eventually, when someone would come up to her to compliment Ms. Nancherla’s work, “instead of correcting them, I just started saying, ‘Thank you,’” Ms. Deol said.

So how does a painfully anxious, clinically depressed and insecure person become a comedian? Antidepressants. At least that’s how Ms. Nancherla tells it.

She was still in college in 2002 and trying out selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors for the first time, experiencing a “honeymoon period,” as she put it, when she saw her first comedy show.

Watching the show while being on antidepressants “was kind of a revelatory moment — I didn’t realize life could be experienced in this frequency,” she said. “I really don’t think, if I had not been on them, I would have had the courage to try an open mic.” That initial effectiveness eventually diminished and she has since switched among treatments, which she calls a “meds merry-go-round,” to try to get back to that sweet spot.

Ms. Nancherla’s four shows at the Elysian in Los Angeles involved trying out new material — a common practice for comedians to weed out jokes that don’t land or to finesse delivery before taking the material to a bigger audience. Before her break from comedy, Ms. Nancherla was never comfortable with this process, she said. “Something about the idea of making people come and watch me fail felt too scary.”

Her willingness to return to the stage — flaws and unedited bits and all — is, to her, a form of growth that she said was only possible because she took time away.

Writing the book wasn’t the “cure” that she had privately dreamed of; she still has her mental health issues and, she said, always may. But she now feels greater ownership over “these messy unresolved parts of myself,” she said. “There’s a freedom in that.”

https://www.nytimes.com/2023/09/16/well/mind/aparna-nancherla-comedy-mental-health.html, GO TO SAUBIO DIGITAL FOR MORE ANSWERS AND INFORMATION ON ANY TOPIC

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