Aparna Nancherla Is My Favorite Impostor
11:21 AM EDT on October 18, 2023
It fits that Aparna Nancherla’s first book, Unreliable Narrator: Me, Myself, and Impostor Syndrome, would be about feeling like she doesn’t fit in because, to be frank, her comedy is kind of hard to describe. The best I could come up with is it’s a sort of deadpan, self-effacing resignation. Like, Oh dear, the world has gone to shit. She started out as a writer and performer on Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell in 2012 before going on to act in some major comedy series like Master of None, Crashing, and Corporate. Nancherla, who also does stand-up, might be better known for her voice work on BoJack Horseman (she plays Hollyhock) though.
Before I interviewed her about her memoir, which came out in September, I became a little addicted to watching episodes of Womanhood, her web series from 2016 with Jo Firestone. It is Amy Sedaris-style absurdity—nutso advice for women that no one should take—but then YouTube rolled into behind-the-scenes footage and I saw Nancherla break a bunch of times. It was funny to see the private lightness behind the more public gloom. That did not fit the idea of Nancherla I had. But I guess that’s the message you could take from her book: That, in a sense, we’re all impostors in one way or another at various points in time to various people, including ourselves. Or maybe that’s not the message. I’m a bit of an impostor book critic.
I spoke to Aparna Nancherla on Zoom about everything from whether her Indian parents get her humor to whether she is ever really mean about anyone (only finance bros). Our rambling conversation is edited for clarity.
Hi! Hold on, I got a new laptop. I hope nothing happens.
No! I just did one of those Apple updates and I feel like everything doesn’t make sense again.
OK. Congratulations on the book! We’re very similar in lots of ways. Both my parents were doctors. I’m also part Pakistani. I have this feeling, just from my own family, the Pakistani side, that there is a huge amount of humor in the culture. I don’t know that a lot of people know about that. It’s a nudge nudge, wink wink, kind of humor, I guess. I was wondering if your family has that.
I grew up pretty introverted, so I feel like maybe I wasn’t always in step with what was going on around me. My sense of humor developed in a bit of a vacuum in that I live very much in my head. But I will say my mom had a very silly side. When the silly side came out, it was kind of just a delight and like a little treat. I think having access to that part of her made me really appreciate the goofiness of life, or how playful you can be just out of nothing, because it would come out of nowhere. I think that’s a lot of where my humor formed, just like, Oh, sometimes everything is just kind of ridiculous.
Do you feel like your parents understand your sense of humor?
They don’t always understand the literal humor of my jokes. But with my mom it is very much, Oh my gosh, I’m so proud of you for getting up and talking in front of a bunch of people because I never could have imagined you pursuing this as a career when you were a kid. You were so shy and scared of everything. In terms of the humor itself, I don’t know that they always get it but every so often my mom will just drop something in our family group texts and I’m like, OK, I see where I get it from.
In the introduction to your book, the part about the comedian Steve Rannazzisi lying about being in one of the towers during 9/11 really stuck out to me. The first person I thought of was Hasan Minhaj, who was recently caught in some of his own lies. I was wondering how you gauge the lines you’re allowed to cross in comedy.
I think the way memory works, it can be kind of fickle. The way we remember things might be different than for someone else who was there. When I’m writing jokes, I do start with the facts, and then it might spin out and get more absurd from there or take a sillier direction. But I think the inciting incident, I try to keep true to because that’s where the whole idea of the joke came from. It feels a little disingenuous for my own act to fully pull something out of thin air and then be like, “And I thought that was so weird.” It is very much having lived an experience that is what incites me to want to write about it or capture that feeling of what it felt like in that moment.
I just read Maria Bamford’s book ... you guys are all releasing books at the same time—
I know. I think there’s like nine comedy memoirs.
—and I was like an idiot, I was sitting there going, Why is this happening? And then I’m like, Oh, it was COVID.
I remember doing an interview with two other comedians and we were all on the exact same timeline—started and then a pandemic and now the book comes out.
I know Maria Bamford’s sister had issues with her imitating her on stage. Have you ever had anyone complain about you including them in your work?
Because of my fear of disappointing other people, I try not to mine too much from other people’s lives. My fiancé, I have some material about him now. He’s heard all of it. I tried to still put the butt of the joke on myself but there’s some stuff where I take some digs at him. I think it’s honestly the first time I’ve really done that with another close person in my life. A lot of times I’ll contort material to make it impossible to figure out who I’m talking about. To me, it’s scary to put someone else on stage.
Did you guys just recently get engaged? Congratulations!
Oh, thank you. We got engaged last summer.
Like yours, my parents were both doctors. I found that helped a lot with my anxiety in so many ways (in other ways less so) because they knew what they were dealing with. Did it help with your anxiety and depression, which you write about in your book, at all that both your parents were doctors?
I don’t know if this is more common than not in the South Asian community, but even though my parents are both doctors, my dad still is not fully trusting of psychiatry and psychology and still attributes a lot of that to willpower. That’s a bit of a paradox, because you studied medicine, you know that the brain is also a part of the rest of the body and can be dysfunctional in the same way. It’s a little bit funny to see the way they were raised or some mentality they were given, that they still cling to certain beliefs. My mom has also struggled with anxiety and depression over her life. I think her understanding is a little more expansive, as someone who has sought out treatment. But, yeah, it’s a little bit strange that when I was struggling with an eating disorder in college, my dad only had so much of an understanding of it, which makes sense as an immigrant dad to be like: You have food, why would you not eat it?
There’s a Donald Winnicott quote at the beginning of your book, and I was wondering if there are other psychoanalysts’ works that have helped you.
Oh, no! I really gotta lean into my undergraduate psych major and pull out some names. As I was writing the book, I would come across a study or something, and then I would be really interested in that person’s approach to things or their mentality. For a while, I was really interested in positive psychology, but now I’m a little more mistrustful of it. I’m like, Is this just an extension of the American Dream bootstraps thing? I love Jung and even some Freud—I wouldn’t say all of it, but some of it bears fruit for me. I’m very much a reader where the last thing I read is the thing that I enjoy. Amy Edmondson, she’s studied how we approach failure and how we process it. I’ve been really into her stuff recently.
There is clearly a lot of research in your book. I personally have a problem with leaning on research, because I don’t trust my own authority. I was going to ask if you had that feeling when you were writing.
Oh my gosh, totally. They say if you’re writing a book, it’s good to read a lot and absorb a lot of writing to get you in the right mindset. I would read a lot of these essay collections by journalists, like your Jia Tolentinos and those of that ilk and think, Oh, I wish I was as well-read and as smart as these people. They make all these cool connections. So I think that maybe got translated into the book a little. I feel like I wrote a book of journalist fan fiction. It is kind of funny, writing a book about imposter syndrome and being like, Well, all these people said it better than I could.
But we’re trained to do that research. It’s not like we are so well-read. We’re doing it for the piece. It looks like we’re the authority, and we are for that period of time—not to downplay what journalists do, just to make it more realistic when you’re reading.
Sometimes I would be like, “OK, I got this source from this article,” or something, and then the fact-checker would be like, “Yeah, but that’s not the primary source. You have to go back further.” And I was just like, How far back do I have to go?
Yeah, everything was written down in the ‘70s.
I find it hard to maintain a consistent voice when I’m writing. And you have the added issue of your stand-up.
I knew some of my standup voice would inevitably make its way into the book. It just is how I write and frame things. But, to your point, I also knew it would be more serious in parts and maybe a little more thoughtful and measured than my stand-up act is—it’s not just the cleanness of a setup and a punch line. I did worry about that. It’s also weird because my career has been so many different little things cobbled together—some voiceover work, some acting, some random podcast, some stand-up—and the audience I have garnered has been a mishmash of people who have gravitated towards one or more of those things. So sometimes I am like, I don’t really know what you expect from me, but I’m going to try to give you what I think you like. As a creator, you can’t think too much about that stuff or you’ll just get lost in your own weeds.
When I was googling you—by the way, you must have noticed how bad Google is now, right?
I never google myself.
You don’t google yourself?
I can’t believe people who do. I don’t think I would ever recover.
It’s just interviews and stuff. It’s not, like, someone going, Aparna’s a big loser.
I have this fantasy of wanting people to see me and understand me, but then when I actually have proof that they are seeing me or taking in my work, I’m just like, Well, this is the worst idea I’ve ever had.
I really liked the failure resume in the book. I liked it the same way I really liked Maria Bamford outlining all of her finances in hers. It struck me that both of your editors were, like, We don’t like this. We don’t want this in. I was wondering how you fought for that and why you think there was pushback. That stuff is really important, especially the failure resume, because people have an unrealistic idea of people’s trajectories.
Whenever my editor pushed on something, I would always be, like, Well I guess it’s just not good. I would question the quality of it. But I remember maybe in one of the first reads, she was, like, You’re too down on yourself, you’re gonna bum people out. And I was like, Well, sorry, but that’s just kind of my brand. I had to lean into that. I think people will take it in the nature I’m giving it to them, which is a little tongue-in-cheek. There’s also the fact that we don’t talk about our failures very openly, in the way that people love to hear about your wins or your successes. I think part of it is the myth of meritocracy. You want there to be a reason things succeed and if you do X, Y, and Z, you too can succeed. If you take some of the mystery out of that, or just be like, No, some of it is just random, there is no great explanation for it. I think that devalues the system a little, and we don’t want that.
Along those lines, there’s a real premium put on confidence in comedy on social media these days. Do you worry that there’s this movement towards fun little missives, as opposed to the kind of thing that you do?
Having been in the comedy scene for a while, I know there’s ebbs and flows with trends, like with any cultural art scene. That is what’s selling right now – there’s something to the front-facing-ness of it all, that what gains traction online needs to be quippy, well-presented things. I think sometimes those trends are also a reaction to whatever is going on culturally. I feel for Gen Z, and that they were dealt a pile of shit in terms of the world. So, any way to cope, if that means making yourself look really nice and then just being really snappy and a little bit disaffected by everything, I get it. Whatever you got to do to get by. But I do think there will always, at least in comedy, be room for the cynics and the people who are just like, Yeah, I don’t buy this.
One of the things that’s really nice about you that people really like about you is that you’re very gracious. I was wondering if there’s anything you’re not gracious about.
Don’t get me wrong, in my head I am the opposite of gracious about everything. I’ve judged everything under the sun and been like, I don’t like what you’re doing. I don’t get you. I don’t know why we have to exist in the same space. I don’t know if I suppress it in areas of my life where I don’t feel brave enough to let it out and then it all ends up being directed at entitled businessmen on planes that I fly with, but they seem like an endless fount of things to be annoyed about.