Aparna Nancherla

Pop Culture

Aparna Nancherla Isn't Quite so Simple

This is quite a year for Aparna Nancherla. Following her memorable turn on Comedy Central's Corporate and her whimsical Netflix special on The Standups, she’s in her first big film, Paul Feig’s sleeper hit A Simple Favor, opposite Blake Lively and Anna Kendrick. In the special, Nancherla weighs in on her struggles with anxiety and depression, along with her thoughts on women’s magazines, contemporary dating and texting her family. During our interview, she tells Playboy about bonding with her Simple Favor director, discomfort, dehumanizing corporations and Master of None co-star Aziz Ansari.

"It’s like, 'What do you mean, women are funny?’” Rose Byrne told me about silly media coverage of A Simple Favor director Paul Feig’s classic Bridesmaids. Do you feel the media is better with its coverage of women being funny these days?
I think the media is maybe trying to find new angles on funny women, but for now, the actual concept itself seems to be less astounding. Which is something. Of course, I think the #MeToo movement has given the media brave new areas of focus to tackle, like "Wow, women have also worked at [blank] company for decades! And maybe did not progress farther because of this horrific thing that happened to them at a time when their ability to address it was far more limited!"
What is special about working with Feig on A Simple Favor?
Paul Feig is a one in a million. He is such a kind, genuine and thoughtful person, on top of being a brilliant director and comedy mind. He and I had been in touch a little bit over Twitter before actually getting to work with him in person, and the rumors are true. He is dressed to the nines every day, his sets are incredibly professional and pleasant places to be, but also he puts together opportunities for cast members to share meals and other experiences together with him. I know you hear the phrase "I cannot say enough good things about so-and-so" thrown around, but in his case, it’s the real deal.

What’s something you relate to with your character, Sona?
Of the Greek chorus of snarky parents, it feels like Sona is the voice of naivete-slash-worry-slash-why am I always tired. She wants to join in, but she’s also a general fear-ball, and I think that deeply spoke to me.

What do you hope people might take away from watching your Netflix special, The Standups?
As with any set of mine, I hope people get a better sense of who I am, what it’s like to be inside my brain. I operate a lot from with inside my head. I hope to give people a different approach to things.
How about Corporate, where you play HR rep Grace Ramaswamy?
Corporate is definitely a darker approach to comedy. Three of my friends wrote it, and one of them directed it. It’s really smart, and really funny, and really timely, in a lot of ways. People who work in offices say it can hit a little close to home, because some of it is pretty sharp satire of those corporate workplaces.

I admin-temped for a big corporation, so there’s this sense of, These are all the things I don’t miss about it. It can be dehumanizing in a lot of ways, some of them overt. There are so many employees; they make these policies that apply to so many people, it becomes almost this faceless thing. These policies are being implemented over the whole company, but you don’t know quite know where they’re coming from, or why, and it does feel a bit authoritarian.

The show captures office life’s absurdity right in the first episode, where there’s that interrogation over correct email protocol.
People do get caught up so much in the details, and the micromanagement of it, because those are the only powers you do feel you wield sometimes. The only control you have, you latch onto it when you’re in those middle-manager positions.

Corporate explores the dark thoughts people have in offices?
The show does a good job of naming things that, in a normal office place, you might not be likely to. The character of Jake, especially, is more nihilistic and cynical. He’s calling out the absurdity of, "Why do we dress like this every day? Why do we treat this structure with so much reverence, when really it’s arbitrary as anything else?" In a normal office, you’re not really allowed to say those things. The show states it outright.
The general problem with contemporary HR is, it represents corporate management’s interests, not the workers.

Corporate covers the ineffectiveness of what HR does [for workers], as opposed to what they should be doing. The solution to problems is towing the company line. They don’t have employees' interests in mind. They do the minimum they can do to skirt around certain issues, to cover their bases, so they are not sued.
Every second, there’s a new bit of news to latch onto and respond to—easily, it can spiral into something unhealthy.
The titular Hampton DeVille—with its bald CEO—has the slogan, “We Make Everything.” Is that a shot at Amazon?
Yeah, it’s a shot at a lot of companies. Also, a company like Facebook—it’s now clear that their advertising algorithms affected the [2016 presidential] election. Where does the reach and influence of these companies end? Capitalization and globalization continue to expand their reach. Will they take any responsibility? It’s a comment on separating commerce from the rest of our lives.

Twitter, a medium you have a lot of followers on, is satirized on Corporate. Any further thoughts on your New York Times op-ed, "Brevity Is the Soul of Twit"?
I wrote that when Twitter had just doubled its character limit. I was trying to keep everything to 140. I’ve loosened my grip on it because it’s not the most important stand right now. Whenever I’m writing, whether it’s tweets or stand-up, I try and err on the shorter way of saying something.

I have a love/hate relationship with Twitter. It can connect people, but it can also worsen disconnection.
Oh, yeah! I totally agree. Ideally, I like to use it as a way to work on my writing and be able to express ideas in a clear way—the way it’s put out to the world—and you can compare yourself to what other people are doing. Every second, there’s a new bit of news to latch onto and respond to—easily, it can spiral into something unhealthy. Nowadays, I find myself limiting my time on Twitter. I might check it a couple of times a day. I’m not necessarily on my phone all the time because I do find it draining, the longer I’m on it.
I’ve gotten used to dealing with depression and anxiety over the years. I’ve gained enough familiarity with it, that I know it might not go away completely, but I’ve learned to manage it better.
“Humans are, for the most part, inherently social creatures. We thrive on connection and mutual understanding. Why else do rappers roll with such large crews?” is a wise piece of Aparna advice.
It’s funny because I am more of an introvert than an outgoing person. I sometimes forget that I depend on other people to get that connection. Sometimes, I’ll isolate myself too much. I do feel like social media can create the illusion of connection, where you’re projecting your own mind onto other people. You can find like-minded people, or people who have insights into thinking about something in a way you haven’t thought about before. It’s not the same as talking face-to-face with a friend. It’s a slippery slope with it, sometimes, creating the illusion of connection.

You cameo as the idiosyncratic ramen blogger who dates Aziz Ansari’s Dev on Master of None. You endorsed Eliza Skinner’s critique of last year's #MeToo story (“dogshit”) about Ansari. What do you think of that whole situation?
Definitely an unfortunate situation. It sounds like the woman involved was not comfortable with the events of that night, what happened. I do think the way a lot of these #MeToo stories have broken is with thorough reporting and journalism. I feel the way that particular story was reported almost did more to discredit the victim than support her story. It seems like the reporter had just listened to her story, and printed a transcript. They didn’t cross-reference, or talk to a bunch of people. I feel the journalism around it took away from the impact of whatever the circumstances were. It shows there are many shades of gray around some of these discussions. It shows how important it is to do due diligence in sharing and reporting these stories, and making sure there is accountability on both sides.

You cite Tig Notaro, whose label released your 2016 album Just Putting It Out There, as a particularly special influence. Why?
She’s someone I’ve always looked up to in terms of doing her own thing and charting her own path. And not being afraid to speak up, even when it might not really be the common opinion. She’s someone I constantly look to as a role model for how I want to be in comedy, and in life.

Are comedians like you creating more understanding of social awkwardness?
Yeah, I think so. How I would put it more is: comfort in the relatability of discomfort.

Is stand-up addictive?
It can be. I’ve gotten used to dealing with depression and anxiety over the years. I’ve gained enough familiarity with it, that I know it might not go away completely, but I’ve learned to manage it better. Definitely, there are good days and bad days.

You’ve got a good joke about Hawaii being bad for anxious people—too much space and time to be alone with one’s thoughts and anxieties.
Right, as with everything, it’s about a balance. Since that experience, at least, I’ve been trying to be better about downtime, and time where you’re not filling everything up with distraction and noise. That can be the other extreme.

You introduced speakers at the rally that began the New York Women’s March. You’ve become more political since dropping Just Putting It Out There in 2016?
By virtue of the political climate we’re in, there’s so much happening—we need to take some kind of action. I’ve happened to garner a larger following on social media, so I should put it to good use. It feels important to stay involved, and be on the right side of the issues. Women’s issues have always been close to me. There’s the immediacy of immigrants, and immigrants’ rights. Gun control, unfortunately. The gun control debate is a bit surreal.

The Standups is streaming on Netflix.

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