Aparna Nancherla on Totally Biased, Australian crowds and avoiding the dregs of Twitter
The High Plains Comedy Festival will return next month, and SexPot comedy will whet fans' appetites tonight with another weed-and-jokes pizza party at the Oriental Theater. The lineup is packed with crushers from start to finish: SexPot host Jordan Doll and comics Sean Patton, Ashley Barnhill and Ian Douglas Terry will join headliner Aparna Nancherla for an evening that promises to be a greasy slice of laughter pie. Nancherla is a fast-rising star on the alternative comedy scene whose absurdist perspective informs a wide-ranging act that can touch on everything from the gross combo of orange juice and toothpaste to imperialism within the same five-minute set. Nancherla has appeared on Conan and @Midnight, and contributed several memorable segments as a performer and staff writer to the prematurely cancelled Totally Biased with Kamau Bell. In advance of tonight's show, Westword caught up with Nancherla to chat about about SexPot, Australian audiences and avoiding the dregs of Twitter.
Westword: So, you've lived in both of the big coastal cities. In general, do you prefer being an up-and-coming standup in New York as opposed to Los Angeles? Aparna Nancherla: Yeah, I moved to New York for a writing job on Totally Biased, and after that ended, I stayed in New York because I like the standup scene a lot. It's just so easy to get a lot out of the city. There's so many shows and so many places to get up, so I just ended up staying. And I'm from the East Coast originally and my sister lives here, so a lot of things made it easier for me to stay.
What was the experience of writing for Totally Biased like? I talked to Kamau shortly after it was cancelled and it seemed like it was still a bit of a fresh wound.
It was definitely a roller-coaster experience. Going from a weekly show to a daily show was a huge jump. Then I think we were only on for two or three months before they pulled the plug, so it was a crazy few months. But it was a super-fun writing staff. Definitely a great experience to be a part of.
Do you have any favorite segments that stand out in your memory? Because I thought it was a cool and unique show.
I think there were a lot of things that were fun about it. Sarah Silverman did an interview that I liked on the show. I think that one of our writers sort of called her out for a roast on Comedy Central where everyone made homophobic jokes...
The James Franco roast?
Yeah, yeah, that's what it was. He kind of called her out for it and she responded, and it was such a reasonable way to resolve the issue without resorting to mudslinging. I think another thing that we did that got a lot of press was the Jim Norton and Lindy West rape joke debate. I'm sure that came up if you talked to Kamau.
That stand out as a flashpoint moment for the show, at least within the comedy nerd echo-chamber.
Yeah, and I think that it's the first time I had ever seen anything like that on TV, so that was cool.
Have you sought out any other writing jobs in the aftermath?
I mean, I've been back in the process of submitting to show, but mainly in the first half of this year I've just been focused on doing standup and traveling. Totally Biased was my first writing job and it definitely took up a lot of my schedule, so it was was nice to have an extended break after it ended.
So getting to do more standup has been a bit of a silver lining, then?
Yeah, for sure. It definitely opened the door to go out on the road and to do more festival. It helped elevate my profile enough that it's nice to get out of town and perform outside of New York or L.A. I feel like whenever I go to another city people are so nice about the show, and when a lot of the staff was working there we didn't necessarily know the impact. In the aftermath, we realized that a lot of people watched it and we didn't necessarily even know.
It's hard to tell with the Internet. A lot of people probably watched that Lindy West interview embedded in a Huffington Post blog.
So, did you get to travel much before this point your career?
Not really. I started in D.C. and my first move was to L.A. and I was there for two years before I moved to New York. I would travel for festivals and road stuff here and there, but this year has been the most consistent for traveling as a standup for my main gig at this point.
Have you been to Denver before?
I have, but not since high school, way before I started comedy. I'm definitely excited to come visit; I've heard so many good things about the scene from various people. I know a couple of the Grawlix guys. It feels like a long time coming.
Where there any particularly notable stops on your travels? Actually, in April, I went to Australia to do the Melbourne international Comedy Festival. It was the first time I'd ever been to Australia and the furthest I've traveled for comedy. That was a really interesting experience. I was excited just to go, period. Whenever you go to a different city, you wonder, "Do I have to adjust my jokes?" But when it's a whole other culture, you're a little bit more worried about what's going to work. I was there for two weeks and there was kind of a learning curve the first week. I had to figure out what they got and didn't get; figure out the best set to do. The second week got more comfortable.
Keep reading for more from Aparna Nancherla.
Did the Australian crowds like your imperialism joke?
I don't think I did that one there. There's a different approach towards race there.
That's why I was curious. It would have been a ballsy move. I've heard they're a rowdy people.
Yeah, and my style is more subtle and understated, and I was sharing the bill with guys who were definitely more high-energy and in your face, so crowds wouldn't quite know what to make of me. But it's part of standup to figure out what common ground we can start from and go from there.
Maybe that imperialism joke would work better in England. That's one atrocity Americans like to let ourselves off the hook for.
That's true. It's weird; in Australia, I think they're a little more thin-skinned about that sort of thing than the British are. Which is weird because the city of Melbourne itself is really diverse. I didn't get to go to any else, so I don't know about the country as a whole. But I went to the immigration city when I was there, and yeah: They're very recently integrated, and there was a whole campaign to weed out any not white people for a long time.
And they don't really have a Bill of Rights.
Oh, I didn't know that.
Yeah, it's not part of their constitution, I think. It's a weird, weird place, and not just because of the nightmare creatures.
It's very bizarre in a lot of ways.
So, I imagine that part of the job description in writing for a satirical comedy news show is following the news, which can become kind of a compulsion. Do you still have that compulsion, or have you been able to unplug?
It's kind of funny, because I feel like for other late-night topical talk shows you have to cover the big stories, but you're not seeking out horrible things to talk about. But for our show, it was about finding the worst thing and covering it in some way. So in some sense, it became depressing to read the news. Like the few good things would be like the first gay player in the NFL. That would be a more positive thing, but then we'd cover other things that became sort of dreadful. You read all those stories.
Even a positive story, like the Michael Sam thing, can be undermined by the barrage of hateful comments. It's like, "Can't I just feel unambiguously good about the way our society is going for a second?
Exactly. All the reactions on Twitter or whatever. It could turn a bad angle on a positive thing. Since the show has ended, I haven't read the news as much; just to take a break from it. But every now and then, I'll watch just to practice writing monologue jokes, I'll scour the news and write up some stuff. I wasn't a hard0news junkie going in, so it's not something that's second nature to me.
So, you're pretty active on twitter. Do you ever have to deal with some of the grosser elements on there?
I do, but for some reason, compared to what I've heard other people go through, I've escaped without anybody being too horrible. I don't have any hate-stalkers. At least that I know of. But I'm pretty guarded about what I check. If someone responds negatively, I won't keep checking, aside from the odd moment of weakness. But I won't go out of my way to check what people are saying about me because I know I won't like it. I won't deal with it well if it sets off a nerve.
Have you ever engaged and regretted it?
The most political things I post are like, anti-gun and pro-women. Nothing crazy, but any time I post anything along those lines, there will be one or two people who are like, "Shut up, dumb bitch!" It's usually not people who follow me. The people who do are usually on the same page with me about those things.
Because my Twitter feed is an echo chamber of comedians and writers, I often wonder, "Where are all these awful people?"
Yeah, who are they following? I guess they just sort of validate each other. I don't know.
Twitter's not all bad, though. I read a quote of yours about how you use Twitter as an incubator for joke premises that made me feel better about how often I do that. I'm not sure there's a great question there.
No! I definitely do that. I am very good at procrastinating and putting off writing, so I've managed to get in the habit of posting regularly on Twitter, so at the very least I can go through the past few weeks of my feed for ideas. It's very organic because a lot of it comes to you in the moment. It helps jog your memory.
Only following comedians makes the entirety of Twitter seem like rough drafts for jokes, but when you get the occasional glimpse at its entirety: It's an ugly thing.
I know. It really is. Oh gosh, so needy.
Have you performed with any of the comedians on the bill for your SexPot show before?
Sean Patton. He's the only one; I don't think I've done a show with Ashley or Ian.
Well, Denver loves a show where you're unofficially allowed to smoke weed.
That's never a bad thing.
Have you ever performed in that sort of context before?
Yeah, do you know Andy Haynes? He does that Midnight Run show.
He did a SexPot show before, yeah. I interviewed him.
Yeah, they seem like a good pairing.
So, you did his show? Where you get all high beforehand?
Yeah, but I don't have an extensive history with weed.
You don't strike me as much of a weed person. How'd you do on that show?
Yeah, it makes my brain slow down a bit, but it doesn't have a specific -- there was nothing about it that made me want to become a regular. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem to do for me what it does for other people.
Doors open at 7 p.m. for the 8 p.m. SexPot show on Friday, July 18. Tickets cost $10 and are available on the Oriental Theater's website.
Follow Byron Graham on twitter @ByronFG for more mildly amusing sequences of words.
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