Rookie Comedienne Likes Her Chances In L.A.

In this week's look inside the pages of the Washington Post magazine, host Michel Martin speaks with a young woman, profiled in the magazine, who on a quest to make it in a world that is deceptively challenging: stand-up comedy. Aspiring Washington DC comedienne, Aparna Nancherla talks about her unlikely start in stand-up and her brand of humor, which she hopes will bring her fame in Los Angeles.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Next, our weekly look inside the pages of the Washington Post magazine where we find interesting stories about the way we live now. Today, a story about chasing a dream.

Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, Margaret Cho, George Lopez, those are all comedians who became household names and built successful careers from making people laugh. But what does it take to make it in the world of standup? Sure, the jokes have to be funny, but it also takes courage, tenacity and persistence, sometimes persistence for years. That's something aspiring comedian Aparna Nancherla is finding out. She's profiled on the Washington Post magazine story titled "One-Joke Town."

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. APARNA NANCHERLA (Comedian): I was walking in the street the other day, and I saw this guy talking to himself. And I was like, whatever. He's probably on his cell phone. He probably has one of those earpiece things.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. NANCHERLA: And I looked at him, and I realized he wasn't on his cell phone. He was just talking to himself. And I was like, nice. Old school.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. NANCHERLA: Plain, crazy guy, actually.

MARTIN: And she's with us now from NPR West in Culver City, California.

Welcome. Thanks for joining us.

Ms. NANCHERLA: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: How did you fall in love with comedy? And I do want to mention for those who have not yet read the piece, and we hope that they will, you are a young woman, yes, but, you know, comedy, even though there are a number of women comedians who've certainly made a name for themselves over the years, it's generally considered kind of a man's world, and you are Indian-American.

Ms. NANCHERLA: Right.

MARTIN: And I haven't yet seen a lot of people with that heritage background in comedy. So what drew you to this?

Ms. NANCHERLA: I think it kind of happened on a lark, because I've always been a big writer and observer of the world. I've always kept journals and sort of harbored my thoughts inside my head, but also on paper. And I think I just was home from school one summer from college, and some friends and I started going to an open mic near my house just to watch. It was like a free event, and two of us were like, we should try that, just we were both interested in, sort of, in humor and all things funny.

So I think I just somehow summoned up the nerve to do it, because I definitely had all kinds of stage fright. But it happened to go well, and I think that set off the course. But if it hadn't, I don't know if I would even be here right now...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. NANCHERLA: ...talking to you.

MARTIN: What's the subject of your comedy? What are the things that you tend to focus on?

Ms. NANCHERLA: I would say it's observational, like, if I had to boil it down to one word, then I think I tend to have an offbeat sense of things. So it might not be, you know, the same place someone else's mind goes, but it's kind of how - my filter on things.

MARTIN: Your parents are immigrants from India, and you...

Ms. NANCHERLA: Yes.

MARTIN: ...grew up very connected your culture.

Ms. NANCHERLA: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: But you don't tend to talk about it in your comedy, unlike, say, comedians - people like, you know, just name them. I mean, like George Lopez or Dave Chappelle, Chris Rock. You don't do that. I was curious why not.

Ms. NANCHERLA: Yeah. And it's not something where I'm, like, it's verboten, you know, I can't talk about it at all. But I think it's not the first place my mind goes when I'm thinking of the world and, like, what I want to share with people. And if, you know, my background jumps into a certain story, it'll be there. But it's not like when I was like I want to do comedy, I wasn't like, I want to tell people what it's like to be, you know, the children of immigrants. It's not really where I get all my inspiration from.

MARTIN: This seems to be kind of a cultural moment, though, for people of South Asian background.

Ms. NANCHERLA: Yeah. Definitely.

MARTIN: Have you noticed that?

Ms. NANCHERLA: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: In fact, there's a whole sitcom, "Outsourced."

Ms. NANCHERLA: I know. Yeah.

MARTIN: Which is based on the idea of kind of the stranger in a strange - only it's the other way. It's kind of white guy goes to India, trying to fit in.

Ms. NANCHERLA: Yeah. I actually think...

MARTIN: What do you think about that? Some people think it's ridiculous. I mean, obviously, it's a sitcom so it's supposed to be ridiculous.

MARTIN: I know. I definitely have read about, you know, the controversy surrounding the show. But I actually think it's really, you know, kind of a leap of faith to set a sitcom, like, internationally and kind of do it the reverse of, like, how America's viewed in other places. I think that's pretty bold, and I think that's really cool that they're doing that. And just to have, you know, five of the lead characters be South Asian. That's, like, totally unusual for...

MARTIN: Do you think it's funny?

Ms. NANCHERLA: I - yeah. I've watched a few episodes, and I think everyone has their doubts going in, but I was like, I was charmed. I liked it.

MARTIN: Do you mind if I ask what your parents think of your vocation?

Ms. NANCHERLA: You always hear the stereotypes of Indian parents being very demanding, or South Asian parents being, you know, very cookie-cutter, like, you have to be a doctor, engineer. But they have been really supportive. Like my dad did say at one point, like, I really thought this was just a phase, but...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. NANCHERLA: ...now that I'm still doing it, he's, like, okay. And now that I'm in L.A., it's hard for him to just be like, okay. This is a hobby. But yeah, no. They've been incredible about it.

MARTIN: Well, when you become famous, Aparna, will you remember us? If we come to your shows, you won't be like I don't know you. Who are you? Will we still get...

Ms. NANCHERLA: Of course.

MARTIN: Yeah?

Ms. NANCHERLA: Yeah.

MARTIN: Okay.

Ms. NANCHERLA: I've - yeah. I don't even know what that means, to be famous.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. NANCHERLA: I'm just - I'm one of the little guys.

MARTIN: Aparna Nancherla is an aspiring comedian. She's recently left the Washington area for Los Angeles, where she's trying to, you know, strike a chord. She was profiled in a piece in this week's Washington Post magazine. If you want to read the piece in its entirety, and we hope you will, it was written by Christina Ianzito. It's entitled "One-Joke Town," and we'll link to it on our site. Just go to npr.org, click on the Programs page, then on TELL ME MORE.

Aparna, thanks so much for joining us, and good luck to you.

Ms. NANCHERLA: Oh, thanks so much for having me, Michel.

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