When comedians leave D.C. for the bigger pastures of New York and Los Angeles, there’s certainly a sense of loss within the local scene, but it’s coupled with the (occasionally desperate) hope that those departing funny folks will get the wider recognition that they clearly deserve. In the case of Aparna Nancherla, the move has worked in her favor. As a writer on FX’s Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell, Nancherla got to show off her surprisingly expressive nature in brief sketches alongside other strong up-and-coming comedians like Janine Brito and Hari Kondabolu. The show has since gone off the air, but that’s allowed Nancherla to take her stand-up act on the road—she even performed in Australia. Also, her set on Conan earlier this year highlighted a style that’s at once self-deprecating and hilariously critical of the world in general. She quips early on, “I know, I’m surprised that I’m a comedian, too.” She’ll be bringing sharp wit and wordplay to the Bentzen Ball at the 9:30 Club on Saturday. I caught up with Nancherla to talk about the experience of appearing on late-night television, the role social media plays in her writing process, and her most recent career highlight.
Since you’re from this area, how often do you get to come back and perform?
I grew up in the D.C. area. My parents still live right outside the city—literally just across the Key Bridge—so I feel like I’m home to see them at least a couple of times a year. Usually, I have shows that I’ll either work around visiting home, or someone will reach out about a show and I’ll come for that and then get to see my parents. So, it always helps for me to get to visit home at the same time.
You were just in town performing at the Kennedy Center. How did that go?
Yeah, that was really fun. It was very surreal because I grew up going on field trips to the Kennedy Center. It’s a great institution. It’s where they give out the Mark Twain Prize so it was a career high to get to perform there. And it was funny because people came from all different parts of my life—from college, from high school, from elementary school, family friends—it was almost like a This Is Your Life episode…It was a very sweet experience to get to have all these people who I’ve known in various capacities be there to support me.
On the subject of career highs, how was performing on Conan?
Oh, that was a very surreal experience. I’m still like, “Yeah, I did it. There’s video proof,” but the actual thing just felt like a blur to me. He’s definitely one of my comedic role models. A lot of people that I started comedy with—we grew up watching him. So it’s still sort of surreal to be like, “You get to perform on his show!” It’s kind of the nature of entertainment that you’re like, “Oh, I’m going to meet some of the people that I once only watched on television.”
Did you get to talk to him much at all or was it only the handshake at the end?
I got to talk to him a little bit after the show, and then he also introduces himself right before. He’s very welcoming and very personable, him and Andy Richter and really everyone on staff there is so nice. I think they try to make it a very comfortable experience for you, so if it’s like your first late-night set, which it was for me, they couldn’t have done a better job of making it feel good.
Are there any acts that you’re looking forward to seeing at the Bentzen Ball?
Yeah. I know that Retta’s doing the show that I’m on. I did a show with her a way long time ago in New York, but I haven’t seen her in a really long time so I’m looking forward to seeing her. And then there are a lot of people who now live in L.A. that I always enjoy seeing like Kate Berlant. Reggie Watts is always amazing. I feel like everyone that they’ve gotten this year is so great in their own way. It’s such a variety of acts that I think audiences will be very happy.
Are you doing any writing right now?
Not for a show. Last year Totally Biased ended, so I’m doing stand-up stuff and traveling more and doing sometimes freelance writing projects, but not a steady writing gig. I’d like to, but I’m not at the moment.
You often use Facebook and Twitter to hilarious ends. Do you use that as a testing ground to try out new material? What’s your view on how social media fits into your writing process?
I’ve found that Twitter works for me as a medium in that I like writing short jokes that are just one sentence or a couple sentences. When I first started, I didn’t quite know what I wanted to do with it, and then I saw other people writing jokes so I made it sort of a way to incubate jokes. I think some jokes feel like they’re specifically for Twitter, but if there’s something that feels like a more rich premise, then I’ll try to work it into stand up. Like, if it’s a line but then I can add more, I’ll try to work it in. And sometimes there’s a one-liner that I like so I’ll just use it as a joke. I know some people can be like, “Oh, is that a tweet? Why are you using a tweet?” But I feel like it’s all content you’re streaming, so I don’t really worry about, “Oh, people have already seen this joke,” because there are plenty of people who haven’t. So, I’m not strict about it in that sense.