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Aparna Nancherla’s Comedy Diary: ‘Inspiration Is Like the Urge to Pee’

As a stand-up comic, Aparna Nancherla is a master deadpan artist. Onstage she plays the role of the shrugging neurotic, dryly poking fun at her own shortcomings, surreal ideas and life’s grim absurdity.

In the past three years, she’s also parlayed her comedic talent into a lively acting and writing career, appearing in comedies on HBO and Comedy Central (“Crashing,” “Corporate”), voicing animated characters on Netflix (“Bojack Horseman,” “Boss Baby”) and recording her own comedy album (“Just Putting It Out There”), in addition to touring the country as a stand-up.

Ms. Nancherla, 37, is currently writing — or, as you’ll see below, sometimes not writing — a book for Viking Press, in the form of a collection of essays on impostor syndrome.


9:42 a.m. I wake up with a crick in my neck. My boyfriend and I officially moved in together in Brooklyn last weekend, and our new apartment doesn’t have a bed yet, so I’ve been sleeping on the sofa while he sleeps at his old place. It’s a millennial would-you-rather: I have all our stuff, but no internet; he has internet, but no stuff — which would you choose?

10:12 a.m. I go to the gym. Exercise helps keep my mind right, is a phrase I learned from a YouTube workout video. This is especially true on days when I perform — I get keyed up the entire day of a show.

11:40 a.m. I get a tour of my new writing center, where I plan to work on my book. Writing centers are co-working spaces just for writers — basically a quiet area with Wi-Fi and a printer that you can rent for long-term projects. Crucially, it also has a kitchen and a place where I can eat my meals. This is what I retain from the tour.

1 p.m. I am supposed to work on the book, but instead I answer emails. Did you know email always takes way longer than you think? TRUE.

6:45 p.m. Before my stand-up show tonight, I meet up with my boyfriend at a nearby noodle place that he’s been raving about. We talk about a possible work opportunity that’s come my way, a writing job out in L.A. It sounds great but would involve relocating; I’m not sure if now is the time. Mostly I think about my set tonight. I use the Japanese toilet in the restaurant, which has a bidet setting. I consider talking about it onstage.

8:10 p.m. The show is in the back of a Williamsburg bar, in the distillery-slash-storage area. (Comedy is so glamorous!) It’s very humid. The audience is sweaty, the comics are sweatier, and there’s hot dogs. I honestly can’t focus on the words during my set because I feel too sweaty, but I do talk about the mysteries of the Japanese toilet and the audience seems receptive.

When I try out new material, I just sort of tell the story. I’m not sure what the structure of the exact joke will be, but I can feel out where the possibly funny parts are.

11:20 p.m. I get home and get an urge to actually write some stand-up ideas! Inspiration is like the urge to pee: If you don’t attend to it, you will regret it. I write about going to Bed Bath & Beyond, as well as some errant material about dogs.

2:25 a.m. My mind won’t settle down after comedy shows. I hope to fall asleep by 3.


8 a.m. I wake up early, thanks to anxiety and natural light — we don’t have curtains in the apartment yet. I try to will away all the thoughts in my brain with breathing techniques and a meditation on how comfortable beds are. Eventually I fall back asleep.

10:20 a.m. I actually get up.

11:20 a.m. I find a spot on the floor with adjacent back support to meditate, which I try to do twice a day. It sounds profound, but you could also describe it as me sitting quietly with anxiety. The cable guy is supposed to arrive any minute to hook up our internet. I wonder if the cable guy will arrive while I’m meditating. I dare him to arrive.

11:50 a.m. The cable guy is still not here. I could work on writing the book, but I feel like as soon as I start writing, he’ll come and then what was even the point.

12:55 p.m. The cable guy is here!

3:15 p.m. I have to go to Manhattan to record voice-overs for a Netflix animated show, but I realize I haven’t had anything to eat or drink all day and am almost delirious. I go to a brunch place and order a coffee, a giant meal and a smoothie.

5 p.m. The nice thing about voice-overs is you can record remotely. Here in this little New York studio it’s just me and a sound engineer, and the director in L.A. connects via video conference. For this show (“Boss Baby”) I play a kooky baby who lives in the vents of a factory.

7:35 p.m. I leave for a comedy show in Park Slope. I am having weird show anxiety again: increased heart rate, upset stomach, heavy breathing.

8:25 p.m. The show is hosted by two comedians I’ve never met before. These days, people reach out to me to do spots, a real privilege. (When you start comedy, you have to reach out to people and go to open mics.) I try some of the things I wrote last night, as well as the Japanese toilet bit, sandwiching them between older, reliable stuff.


10 a.m. For some reason, my couch-bed has gotten so comfortable that I can’t get myself out of it. Something about the sunlight hitting my face just so. I must be strong. I rise.

11 a.m. I meet my friend Ashley Brooke Roberts for breakfast. She’s also a comedian, so we talk about that and how social media is warping our brains. Is the solution to get off it? But then how do we stay relevant? I try to limit my coffee to one shot of espresso rather than two, to limit my anxiety.

1:40 p.m. I figure if I get to the gym quickly, I can squeeze in some book-writing time. But then I get sidetracked with bills and then recording takes for a voice-over audition for a new animated show. Voice-over auditions are nice because you can record them by yourself on your phone. You can even record voice-overs in the bathroom! Which is what I finally do because cars keep honking outside my window. (New Yawk City!!)

4 p.m. I realize I probably will not write today. Besides that weird jag the other night, perhaps this whole week is going to be a writing non-starter. I know a book takes a lot of hours of trying to write vs. actually producing. And for me, a lot of ideas and inspiration come out of moments when I’m not trying to be creative — talking to a friend, on my way to something else, moments. Yet it still actually requires the grind of sitting there.

9:20 p.m. I used to watch things and live-tweet them, and I haven’t done it in a while. So when my boyfriend and I get our projector working to watch the Democratic debates, I decide to live-tweet them, mostly just as a mental exercise to try and write funny little quips. It’s not writing a book, but it’s something.


11:40 a.m. Gym. As I use the elliptical, I wonder about all the substances I put in my body; I picture my GI tract as a Wall Street trading floor with various liquids and solids yelling into phones, making demands of the rest of my sorry organs.

12:45 p.m. Race back to my apartment to shower and pack for the Solid Sound Festival in North Adams, Mass., tomorrow. I succeed in my goal of getting to Penn Station just before they announce our gate.

2:20 p.m. As a self-employed “creative,” I feel like I’m supposed to be good at working in transit. “Stand-up?” “I’ll write on the bus.” “The commissioned essay?” “I’ll whip something up on the train.” “My taxes?” “I’ll do them on the redeye.” Guess what? It never happens. On this train I make a set list for tomorrow, read parts of a book and play several games of Candy Crush. Don’t worry, I’ve berated myself thoroughly without your judgment, thanks.


9:30 a.m. Music festivals make me nervous. I figure people are there to see music, not comedy, and that kicks off the roll call of negative thoughts: What if they hate me? What if I have to walk around a bunch of people I just bombed in front of? Why does it matter? Why do I matter? Why does my ego get in the way of just existing? And so on. Nothing perseveres like anxiety.

10:35 a.m. Sound check. Thankfully, the comedy venue is indoors and apart from the music stage; it’s got an art museum vibe. I meet John Hodgman, who organizes the comedy show portion of the festival, as well as the other producers. It’s low-key in the green room, designed to make you feel at ease. But my nerves are like, “At ease? [Expletive] you! This is our time to shine.”

12 p.m. To try to calm my nerves I listen to an old set — it reminds my brain that I’ve done this before.

2 p.m. John Hodgman hosts the afternoon segment with Jean Grae, a comic and hip-hop artist from Brooklyn. They do a live version of his podcast, Judge John Hodgman, where he arbitrates issues people are having (e.g. one man is concerned about his girlfriend putting her drinking glass on top of the toilet). The crowd is warm and engaged, and Rhea Butcher, the L.A. comic who performs before me, has a killer set. I realize maybe my anxiety has no place here. Still, I take some meds — propranolol — to keep me from getting too shaky.

3 p.m. I go on. I start with some vague festival-themed stuff, which works — and then doesn’t. Thankfully the rest of my set chugs along. I skip the bidet and other new stuff until it’s more polished.

3:30 p.m. All done! The set went fine. (I feel uncomfortable saying things went well, so I tend to just say “fine” or “O.K.”) With bigger crowds, the pacing is slower; it feels good to let the punch lines breathe. The crowd was warm and more attentive than I expected.

After the show ends, John Hodgman kindly invites the artists to dinner at a nearby restaurant. It is fancy and delicious and boyfriends are invited. After a show you’re on an adrenaline high. It takes a few hours to really come down from the rush.

Interviews are conducted by email, text and phone, then condensed and edited.


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