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Comic Aparna Nancherla uses humor to confront self doubt and anxiety

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Our guest, comedian, writer and actor Aparna Nancherla, is known for her stand-up about her anxiety and depression. Now she has a book about having imposter syndrome. She talked about it with FRESH AIR's Ann Marie Baldonado.

ANN MARIE BALDONADO, BYLINE: By most measures, comedian, actor and writer Aparna Nancherla has had a lot of career success. She's a stand-up comic who's consistently been on lists of the funniest people right now and comedians to watch for her humor that she herself calls low-key and cerebral. She's had specials on Netflix and Comedy Central. She has a comedy album called "Just Putting It Out There." She's written for shows like "Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell" and "Late Night With Seth Meyers," and she's written for The New York Times.

If this interview was happening at any other time and there wasn't a Writers Guild of America strike and a SAG-AFTRA strike, I'd be asking her about all this and her many acting roles, including parts in shows like "BoJack Horseman," "Corporate," "Space Force" and "Master Of None." Instead, I'll be asking her about her book of personal essays. In it, she examines her life and career and the anxiety and depression that she often talks about in her stand-up.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "COMEDY CENTRAL STAND-UP PRESENTS")

APARNA NANCHERLA: You know, sometimes when you tell people you have anxiety, they're always like, well, you know, there's nothing to fear but fear itself. It's like, OK, have you checked out some of fear's work?

(LAUGHTER)

NANCHERLA: Like, pretty much churning out solid-gold hits.

(LAUGHTER)

NANCHERLA: And, like, if you don't have anxiety, the way I would describe it is, like, there's an edgy improv group in your brain...

(LAUGHTER)

NANCHERLA: And it just needs, like, a one-word suggestion...

(LAUGHTER)

NANCHERLA: ...To spin, like, countless scenarios that no one's comfortable with.

(LAUGHTER)

NANCHERLA: Like, the whole time, you're just like, when will this show be over? I just came to be supportive.

(LAUGHTER)

NANCHERLA: None of these thoughts have a future.

BALDONADO: Her honest, funny take on anxiety and depression is what makes her so relatable to her fans. And in the book that's part memoir and part cultural commentary, Aparna writes about mental illness and about the fact that she can hear that list of career highlights and still think of herself as a fraud. Her book is called "Unreliable Narrator: Me, Myself, And Imposter Syndrome." Aparna Nancherla, welcome to FRESH AIR.

NANCHERLA: Thank you for having me. Happy to be here.

BALDONADO: Why did you decide to write a book about imposter syndrome and how it pertains to you?

NANCHERLA: It's sort of similar to how I first started talking about mental - my experiences with anxiety and depression in my act, where I was struggling with it so acutely at the time. And I had gotten some career success under my belt, and I was working full-time as a comedian, but the feelings of self-doubt only seemed to increase the more opportunities I got. And I found that very demoralizing, I guess, to finally have achieved this, quote-unquote, "dream" and then feel either unhappier or, like, more confused than ever. And, I think, just seeing that self-doubt escalate with, you know, success on paper was scary for me. But also, you know, as an artist, I was kind of like, well, you have so much to say. Why don't you do some work, you know, you do something I can monetize? So I forced my self-doubt to write a book.

BALDONADO: In the intro to your book, you say that a therapist once asked you, so what if you're a fraud? Is that the worst thing? At least you're getting away with it. What do you think she meant by that? (Laughter) I'm not sure what that message was.

NANCHERLA: I think she meant that maybe a lot of people feel like they're faking it, but they're not so hung up on the fact that maybe they're not fully, you know, qualified to be there. Or something like - you know, I would say, societally, like, maybe straight, white, cis men get away with that a lot where they're given things they don't necessarily deserve. And then they're fine with it. And they're like, you gave it to me, so why shouldn't I have it? Whereas I'm like, oh, this is wrong. I shouldn't have this, someone else should. And I think my therapist was gently suggesting I adopt the former attitude. It seems to push people further in America than the latter.

BALDONADO: I was hoping you would read a bit from the beginning of your book. In this part, you're talking about what it was like right before you got a big break in comedy. You were thinking about quitting. You had just turned 30. You were temping at a studio in LA during the day and doing stand-up at night. To make things worse, your relationship with a long-term boyfriend was coming to an end. Can you pick it up from around there?

NANCHERLA: (Reading) To cap off the low-grade Greek tragedy, my boyfriend and I had just rid our apartment of fleas for the second time. We did not have pets. The likely culprit was a stray cat who liked to conduct sit-ins on our welcome mat, a form of protest I'd typically respect. To add insult to injury, the fleas left my boyfriend alone and bit only me, leaving me constantly itchy and gaslit in my own home. Conveniently, this is also an apt metaphor for trying to make it in show business as both a woman and a minority. You experience negatives that are clearly at play, but your male or white counterparts don't seem to be affected by them, whether that's being automatically considered for fewer opportunities because of how you look or present - yes, even now - or not knowing whether people value you for your actual ability or just for the fact you make them look more open-minded, essentially as college admissions brochure set dressing. Worst of all, you're constantly scratching your feet and weirding out potential employers. Fine, I took it too far.

BALDONADO: I like that, comparing living with fleas to, like...

NANCHERLA: (Laughter).

BALDONADO: Imposter syndrome, trying to make it in Hollywood (laughter).

NANCHERLA: Very relatable analogy.

BALDONADO: Yeah. No, you know, women, people of color experience a nagging, itching feeling that's invisible, like an invisible handicap. And I think that's something important to keep in mind, that, you know, there are these feelings of being a fraud, but maybe that's not because of the person but the systems around them that are making them feel like they don't belong or that they're a fraud.

NANCHERLA: I try to touch on that in the book about how a lot of things in our society are framed as individual-level problems, because then it's kind of like you can target individuals as the, you know, makers of their own destinies. But a lot of it is systemic. And we need to kind of address these things at a systemic level to really move forward in fixing them. And I certainly think that's the case with imposter syndrome where it is like, why do people like women and minorities not feel like they fit into these environments, not simply because maybe there haven't been people like them in those positions before, but also, like, what is the culture not doing that's still not making them feel like they fit in? Like, I think those things often get avoided in favor of saying, like, why don't you feel confident? Why don't you attend another seminar?

BALDONADO: I want to ask you about self-deprecating humor and humor as deflection. I think, you know, as we've been talking about, humor is just a good way of dealing with anxiety and depression. But did you ever feel like humor was, like, putting off dealing with things instead of dealing with things head-on?

NANCHERLA: Yeah. I think early on in my comedy, I did a lot of self-deprecating humor that was just kind of like, oh, let me make the joke before you can. Like, I remember, I think, my first late-night set. And a joke I did pretty early on was, you know, when I got onstage, I'd say, I'm surprised I'm a comedian, too, just to kind of let the audience know, like, yeah, this is weird that I'm going to be the next performer or, like, that I look like this and now you are expected to laugh at me, or something like that. So I think I was always kind of trying to be like, yeah, I also think it's weird that I'm here, and feel like they were right for being surprised by me. But because I struggled with this performance anxiety for so long, it was so wrapped up in other people's expectations of what they wanted of me or what I assumed they wanted. And I just realized that you can't operate like that as an artist.

BALDONADO: Comedy was something you wanted to do so much, but there were times where, like, your anxiety kind of took over and you couldn't quite do it. I'm wondering if you can talk more about that. Like, describe how difficult that must be, like, wanting to do something, but sort of having part of you fight against it.

NANCHERLA: It just felt very isolating to - and I think especially when I was talking about anxiety in my act, it felt very strange to then not actually be able to perform or just feel like even admitting I had it was, like, not enough to relieve some of the feelings involved with it. And, yeah, I think I've always had a weird relationship with performing where it's just like, I love to do it and I value doing it, but there's so much ambivalence around showing up and even, like, you know, just conversations in the green room before and after the show. Like, kind of everything about it stresses me out. And then it's like there are then these just, like, fleeting moments on stage and it's like, that's those are the things that I think really get me excited. And there's a lot of song and dance to get there.

BALDONADO: Let me introduce you. My guest is comedian, actor and writer Aparna Nancherla. Her new book is called "Unreliable Narrator: Me, Myself, And Imposter Syndrome" - more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEASTIE BOYS' "GROOVE HOLMES")

BALDONADO: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Ann Marie Baldonado back with Aparna Nancherla. She's a comic, actress and writer known for her standup specials and her roles in shows like "BoJack Horseman" and "Corporate." Her new book is called "Unreliable Narrator: Me, Myself, And Imposter Syndrome."

You grew up outside of Washington, D.C., in the suburbs. Can you describe where you grew up?

NANCHERLA: So I grew up not far outside D.C., but I grew up in a city called McLean, Va. And I would say it was a pretty typical suburban upbringing. Like, we played, you know, with other kids on the street, my sibling and I. My parents were immigrants from India, and they were both doctors. They kind of came over in that, I guess, white collar rush of professional workers from abroad that happened, I guess, in the late '70s. And, yeah, I grew up in a pretty sheltered household, I would say. My parents, like many immigrant parents, were kind of wary of a lot of American traditions and customs. So I feel like I grew up a pretty bookish kid. I loved to read. I loved to go to the library. I loved to kind of stay close to home. But I was also just naturally pretty introverted and kind of daydreaming and in my head. So that kind of worked out perfectly for me anyway.

But, yeah, my mom was always, I think, trying to push me to kind of be more outside my shell. Like, she would sign me up for all kinds of activities. I think I was in Girl Scouts for a while. I think I was - she put me in, like, Junior Jazzercise. Like, she just wanted me to be a very well-rounded person. She was like, you have to get your physical activity. You got to get your mental activity.

BALDONADO: Yeah, your mother put you in different activities. And one of them was this public speaking class where you guys were the only kids in the class. The rest of the people were adults. And can you describe what that class was like and then what it kind of encouraged you to do, which was enter a public speaking competition for kids at your Hindu temple?

NANCHERLA: Yeah. So I think, I mean, the public speaking class - I think my mom was like, this is, you know, a soft skill that will serve you for life, so why not start early? So we ended up in this class, and I honestly - like, I found it stressful. But I also found it kind of comforting in that it was, like, a very - like, they laid out step by step how to kind of talk to a group and, you know, even, like, how to move your hands and stand physically and how to make eye contact. And I found that, like, very helpful to just know how to navigate a situation like that because I had trouble even talking to, like, one stranger face to face. So I think something about that sense of control you have when you're talking in front of a group is later what translated to me to stand-up as something that, oh, maybe this would fit for what makes me more comfortable in terms of engaging with other people.

And so after the public speaking class, yeah, my mom had my sibling and I sign up for this speech contest that was run through our local Hindu temple. And I remember the prompt was something like, what is a critical issue facing, you know, Indian American youth today? And most people went with a more serious interpretation. They went with, like, bigotry or assimilation or, you know, being an immigrant. And I decided to go a sillier route. And I went with doing just a gentle takedown of Bollywood movies, which is what my parents would often make us watch at home. And they usually didn't have subtitles, and I didn't speak Hindi. So it would be a lot of, you know, having to stop it and be like, wait. What's happening? What did they just say? And so I think I had some built-up resentment about watching so many of them. I love them now, and I understand them for the art form they are. But at the time, I think I went on a minor rant about them, and it went over better than I expected. Like, the - I think the jokes all hit. And I think I had never experienced connecting to other people in terms of that many people in such a way where I felt like I was reaching them. Like, I had never experienced that before. So I think, in a way, it opened a door. And I ended up winning the contest, which I think also was just like, OK, humor, there's something to it.

BALDONADO: Yeah, I think you were 11, and you describe it like a roast.

NANCHERLA: (Laughter).

BALDONADO: Like, so it's, like, 11-year-olds roasting Bollywood movies. I was wondering if you remember any of the things that you said. And I'll say that you write, like, you loved winning and loved the response so much. You sort of ate it up. You said, quote, "talk about power. I wanted more."

NANCHERLA: (Laughter).

BALDONADO: So it was kind of like your gateway to stand-up.

NANCHERLA: But even then, I felt kind of the weird divide where people would be like, oh, my gosh, you're the girl who did the funny speech. And I'd be like, oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. Like, I would just try to play it down because it still felt like there was, even at the very start, a split between being onstage versus myself off of stage. And it almost felt like two different identities I could inhabit, which I guess is not uncommon. As an immigrant kid, you often feel caught between two cultures or two ways of being, so I think it just felt natural that this other thing would be - would also fall into that sort of category.

BALDONADO: What were some of the things that 11-year-old Aparna didn't like about Bollywood movies?

NANCHERLA: Oh, yes. What did I make fun of? I think just, like, the multiple music numbers with, like, costume changes. And then, like, the weather would change multiple times within the same song, or just how dramatic they would be. Like, I think there was - I think I made fun of - they would feel, like, a woman's pulse, and then they would know if she was pregnant or not. Like, just - I think just the campiness of them, which I think is actually the reason they're great. Yeah, as an 11-year-old, I was unforgiving.

BALDONADO: It was interesting to me that part of the reason why your mom encouraged you to do these things, including, like, forcing you to order pizza and talk to the pizza guy and pay the money - part of the reason she would encourage you to do these things is because she was shy, too, and she had to force herself out of it. And I think you write that, you know, some of that was also about being an immigrant in the U.S.

NANCHERLA: She had had an arranged marriage to my dad and then moved here. And I think it's just that whole thing where you're kind of starting from scratch. You've left, like, all your loved ones behind and you just have to figure it out. And she was struggling with her own anxiety and panic attacks at the time. And I think she was just so worried of that being passed on to me and my sibling that she was kind of very proactive about being like, what are ways I can really, like, try to curb your anxiety or your, like, hesitance in the world? I mean, I think we know that, like, mental illness doesn't necessarily work that way. You can't take a class and get rid of anxiety. But, yeah, I think the intentions were, you know, I don't want you to feel like I did when I first got here.

BALDONADO: When you were younger, what kind of TV and movies did you like? What was the pop culture that was important to you?

NANCHERLA: I think I had pretty plebeian tastes in terms of humor. Like, I think my movies I remember loving were, like, "Airplane II" and "Weekend At Bernie's II." For some reason, I always watched the sequels. And I didn't...

BALDONADO: Not the first one?

NANCHERLA: Yeah, it was like, whatever was on TV, I was like, sign me up. But yeah, I mean, it was - yeah, it was very much - because my parents, again, were very diligent about, don't watch too much TV. Like, books were kind of prized above everything else, so the TV I did watch was kind of, a lot of times, in illicit form. So sometimes it would just be, like, the TGIF lineup or something because I think they were just always worried that we would somehow download, like, you know, loose American values that we did not need. So yeah, a lot of it was just what I could get my hands or eyes on.

BALDONADO: And what about books? What books did you - were you drawn to the most growing up?

NANCHERLA: I loved animal - like, books where the narrator was, like, a dog...

(LAUGHTER)

NANCHERLA: ...Or, like, a horse. I don't know if I was just like, I think the human thing is overrated, I should have been born a dog or a horse or something. Something about animals, I think, and nature really felt calming to me. But then I was also really into, like, fantasy and magic. And, like, we grew up reading a lot of - now I'm blanking on the author - Enid Blyton, I think, a British author, where she writes a lot about, like, fantasy worlds and, like, magic places that kids travel to, "Wizard Of Oz"-type stuff. Yeah, anything escapist, I think. Like, the further away from the human experience, the better.

BALDONADO: So dogs and fairies.

(LAUGHTER)

NANCHERLA: Yeah, yeah. Dogs and fairies and magic and horses.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR'S Ann Marie Baldonado recorded with Aparna Nancherla, author of the new book "Unreliable Narrator." After we take a short break, they'll talk about how Prozac factored into Nancherla's first stand-up set. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JON BATISTE'S "KINDERGARTEN")

NANCHERLA: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with more of our interview with stand-up comic, actor and writer Aparna Nancherla. She has specials on Netflix and Comedy Central. She's written for shows like "Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell" and "Late Night With Seth Meyers." She's had roles in shows like "BoJack Horseman" and "Corporate." In her stand-up, she usually talks about her anxiety and depression. Now she writes about it in her new book, "Unreliable Narrator: Me, Myself, And Imposter Syndrome." She spoke with FRESH AIR's Ann Marie Baldonado.

BALDONADO: I read when it was time for you to go to college, you were deciding between going to Amherst, which is a small liberal arts college in western Massachusetts, or West Point, which is, you know, the United States Military Academy, the university for the Army. Why were - I mean, those are very different choices. Why were those your final two?

NANCHERLA: OK. So I grew up - I think I was maybe 7 or 8 when the Gulf War happened. And I think I full hook, line and sinker just swallowed all the U.S. war propaganda. You know, just, like, I want to serve my country. I just feel like what we do is so important. Like, I was just - I was that kid. I was, you know, pledging allegiance on my own time. And so I think I had always kind of glamorized the military in some strange way just because the ads made it look so exotic and glorious. And I kind of bought all the taglines.

And then as I got older, I think it was more just - I bought into this idea of they kind of teach you how to be. Like, something about the fact that the military - it's like, they tell you how to dress. They tell you where to be every hour of the day. Like, you kind of learn to be self-reliant. Like, I found all those things appealing. And I sort of didn't highlight as much the fact that, you know, you're in the military. You have to fire a gun. You have to go to places and maybe with politics you don't agree with. Like, I sort of glossed over all that and was just like, I'm going to be a leader, you know, and I'm going to know how to direct other people and know what to do with my life. Like, I think it just maybe scratched an existential itch that I didn't know how else to accomplish.

BALDONADO: Can you relate to teen Aparna? Like, can you remember sort of how it felt like to almost make that other decision?

NANCHERLA: Yeah, I can relate in that I think I just wanted that sense of belonging so badly, too. And I think that's one thing with the military. It's like you're part of a team. You, like, fit into a bigger hole. And I think that that really appealed to me. But the funny thing is I visited West Point. I think they had, like, you know, a thing you could - if you were interested in going there, you could visit for a weekend. And I didn't like it at all. And I was like, I didn't feel like I fit in immediately. And I was still like, should I go? Like, I think I - yeah, I was truly all over the map when I was a teen. And so I get it. I get where the impulse came from, but I'm also glad I did not go that way.

BALDONADO: I think it can also be compelling for children of immigrants or, like, you know, people of color in this country as a way of kind of feeling like you're part of the United States.

NANCHERLA: Yeah. It feels like it's sort of an unimpeachable way to prove that you are American or, like, you deserve to be American, I guess.

BALDONADO: When there's a lot of messaging otherwise that you're not...

NANCHERLA: Yeah.

BALDONADO: ...I think, you know?

NANCHERLA: And - yeah. And I was the only one in my family born in the U.S. Like, everyone else was born in India. And so I think I really leaned into that of - like, I'm an American. I have to show that I'm grateful sort of thing.

BALDONADO: There's a section of the book where you talk about beauty standards and how you were self-conscious about your looks. And you kind of joke your way into talking about how you had anorexia when you were in college - you know, issues with food. You ran across country a lot, too. And the irony of what you say - you write, the ugly truth was that my body disappearing made me more visible in a good way. So you write eloquently about why you think you had problems with food and how it had to do with expectations and control. Can you talk about what, in retrospect, do you think was going on with you during that time?

NANCHERLA: Yeah. For me, the eating felt like kind of me trying to get at issues that were happening deeper where I - similar to, you know, wanting to enter the military and figure out a path in life. I figured once I went to college, I would just get a lot of answers that first year of either what my passion was to pursue professionally or just make friendships that I would feel like I had been missing before that. And, you know, I definitely found a connections that I still value today, but I still felt as confused as ever at the end of that first year. And I think that led to somewhat of an existential spiral of, like, wait. I did all the things right in high school, you know, like, especially as an immigrant kid, where you're trying to, like, get good grades and have good extracurriculars and get into a good school. And then that's kind of - you don't think past that. That's - like, everything is kind of working towards that goal. And then I think I thought once I got there, something would be resolved for me or fixed, and it wasn't. And I think that led to a real - like, wait. Then what am I doing? Like, what is any of this for if there's no, like, kind of catharsis at the end?

And that, I think, then pivoted into trying to control my eating because it was sort of like, well, I can't figure out what I wanted, like, what creates meaning for me. So let me just focus on what I'm going to eat for lunch and how detailed I can be about it. Like, it became very - like, something that just consumed my brain and took up all my time. And once I took time off of school to get help for the eating disorder, I learned pretty quickly it was kind of a mask for an underlying depression. And I was first diagnosed with depression when I was 19. It really helped to have a name for that.

BALDONADO: Soon after that period or the period that you're talking about, you checked yourself into an eating disorders recovery clinic, and that was something you had to explain to your parents. I think dealing with mental illness with immigrant parents is something that a lot of first-generation Americans have to deal with and - even though your parents were in medicine, too.

NANCHERLA: Yeah. I mean, it's interesting because I feel like with my mom, she had her own struggles with mental health. And I think her - the fact that these conversations weren't open in our family - I think for her, it was a measure of protection, of, like, if I don't expose you to these things I went through, maybe you won't go through them, or I will shield you from them. And then my dad's more on the side of, you know, I don't really believe in mental illness. Like, it's more a measure of willpower, which I think is not uncommon attitude in the South Asian community. So I - yeah, it was weird because, like, with the eating disorder specifically, I think I remember him just being like, I don't understand. Like, why would you not eat? Like, especially coming from a scarcity mentality, it's like - trying to understand anorexia as an immigrant dad, I think it's just like, this is bananas. Like, you have food, and you're not going to eat it. Like, that's - what are you doing?

BALDONADO: You write that you didn't have a severe enough case to be admitted, but they made an exception for you since you lived far away. And you write, for much of the time I was there, I kept waiting for one of the, quote, "sicker women to expose me as a fraud. Even at a center for dysfunctional behavior, I didn't think I made the cut." So you had imposter syndrome about your mental illness, too. But what - so what did you learn there? I mean, it seems like you kind of, like - I don't know, having, like, a way to - like, a systematic way to think about things.

NANCHERLA: Yeah. I mean, I honestly found - I mean, maybe this is a recurring theme in my, you know, emotional mental wellness journey, but I feel like any time I've needed help for something or been told I'm struggling with something, I find it kind of a relief because I so often in my life have maybe felt like I've had to keep up appearances or make everything seem like it's better than it actually is behind the scenes. So to be given maybe that permission to say, like, oh, actually I'm not doing well or I'm struggling with this thing and I need help - it sometimes just offers that space that I don't think I've always given myself, especially early on in life.

So even at this eating disorder center, like, I wouldn't say it was, like, vacation, but I found just, like, the fact that there was no pressure to kind of show up in any specific way - like, you just had to kind of exist throughout the day. And, you know, there would be groups, and then meals would be somewhat stressful. But for the most part, there was no, like, obligations in terms of work or keeping up relationships or, like, keeping - you know, like, exercising or something like that where it almost felt like this purgatory that I actually found quite like a rest from how my life had gone up until that point.

BALDONADO: My guest is comedian, actor and writer Aparna Nancherla. Her new book is called "Unreliable Narrator: Me, Myself, And Imposter Syndrome" - more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIJAY IYER'S "BLACK AND TAN FANTASY")

BALDONADO: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Ann Marie Baldonado, back with Aparna Nancherla. She's a comic, actress and writer known for her stand-up specials and her roles in shows like "BoJack Horseman" and "Corporate." Her new book is called "Unreliable Narrator: Me, Myself, And Imposter Syndrome."

When did you decide that you wanted to be in comedy, to do stand-up?

NANCHERLA: So I think that Bollywood speech was my first inkling that, like, humor was really some kind of thing that I could maybe keep pursuing or that lit up something in me. And then I guess over high school, I just found - like, I observed the class clowns from afar, or kind of the funnier people. And I was like, I just really like what they're doing. I was never one of those people myself, but just was, yeah, taking notes profusely on the side. And I tried - like, I took a theater class, I think, in high school, and I just started watching more comedy like Conan or "SNL." And then I think I - maybe one of my friends gave me a Mitch Hedberg CD. I think that was the first stand-up CD I had. And I just really loved it and listened to it a bunch of times.

And I think when I went to college, I had started to watch more stand-up, but I still didn't really know how to access it or if it was an option for myself. And I went to an open mic with, like, this same friend who had given me the CD and some other friends over the summer, and we just went to watch. And, you know, we saw that anyone could sign up. And I was like, oh, maybe this is my way in. Like, this is how I try this thing that's really scary, but I'm going to give it a shot. And we - I made a pact with my, like, other funny friend who was like, let's try it once before we go back to college. And I remember my first time was, like, on my 20th birthday, and I had just written about, like, sort of my life at that point, living at home and, like, working summer jobs.

And, yeah, it went better than I thought, but I also think part of the reason I had the courage to try it in the first place was because I had just gone on antidepressants earlier that year because I had been at the treatment center where they had put me on, I think, Prozac. And I think anyone who's maybe been on psych meds, it's like the - antidepressants specifically, like, when you're first on them, there's kind of this honeymoon period where colors are brighter. Like, everything tastes better. Music sounds sweeter. Like, I think that kind of gave me the boost to try something that was so far outside my comfort zone because otherwise I don't - yeah, I don't know if I could have without Big Pharma, sad to say.

BALDONADO: Do you remember what some of your jokes were?

NANCHERLA: I think one of the first jokes I did about depression might have been a tweet first, and I think it was something like, sometimes I'll feel sad for no reason, but then I'll remember the reason.

BALDONADO: (Laughter) I like that joke of yours. So did addressing it in your comedy make you feel better about it?

NANCHERLA: I think it made me feel - I think what helped was feeling connected to people and realizing that they were connecting because they also struggled with these things. I think what got tricky about it was, you know, being lauded for talking about mental illness, maybe especially as a woman of color and having it become so, maybe, like, in what people knew about me and, like, what they expected from me, and then feeling like maybe those same things were actually making it harder to perform, because I started talking about them, but that didn't really necessarily cure them. So it felt like the anxiety was still getting worse, even as I was starting to talk about it more. And so then, down the road, it led me - led to me, like, starting to cancel stuff and, like, not being able to show up as much. So it's funny how, like, the kind of performed, curated version of something personal from your life as an artist is still not the same as the actual experience of that thing.

BALDONADO: Sort of like it feels like a seesaw or something? Like, how...

NANCHERLA: Yeah.

BALDONADO: Like, which side of it wins?

NANCHERLA: Yeah, like the fact that people are like, we love to hear your jokes about anxiety, but due to anxiety, Aparna cannot perform tonight.

(LAUGHTER)

BALDONADO: What was it like coming up in comedy clubs? Just from the outside, it seems like it could be hard to do that and, at times, lonely. What was that like for you?

NANCHERLA: Yeah, I started in D.C., in the D.C. comedy scene. And there was plenty of stage time and, I would say, a pretty welcoming group of people in terms of, like, a good community. But it was still - you know, I was a minority in being, like, a South Asian woman. And I was praised early on for not doing a lot of jokes about my identity, whether that was being a woman or being a woman of color or being South Asian. And I think that maybe gave me this impression early on of, like, oh, the more kind of neutral I make myself, the more positively I seem to be received. And that made me kind of falsely equate erasing identity as, like, the right choice.

And now I feel, like, very differently about it, where it's like, no, these are also things that are true. And everything is - everything colors the texture of what makes up my life, so everything is fair game to talk about. But I do remember, early on, probably coming from that same assimilationist mentality. When, like, male comedians would be like, oh, you don't do, like, hacky jokes about being a woman, like, I was like, oh, OK. I guess I won't do hacky jokes about being a woman.

But it's like, but it's not a hack to be, like, a gender identity. It didn't make any sense, like, now thinking back on it. But yeah, I think it comes from that early mentality of just really wanting to fit in and prove that you, you know, belong. And, yeah, I hope that's - those sort of expectations are less there now just with - because I started pre-YouTube and all that. And now I just feel like even the idea of what a comedian is is so much more expansive. And I feel like when you start in the clubs, there is such a kind of calcified model that is maybe outdated. But it's like, well, once you enter a comedy club, it's still 1985.

BALDONADO: Do you get heckled? And if so, do you feel like you get different kinds of heckling than your white male counterparts get?

NANCHERLA: I don't get heckled a lot. I think, sometimes, it's a stylistic thing. Like, some people, I think they're just - something about their persona maybe calls out for more interaction, or they're more interactive with the crowd. But I think I set up pretty quickly that I'm, like, this is - like, I'm barely holding it together. So please, like, do not feed the animals, you know, sort of thing, where it's just like, just let me get through this and we can all go home.

BALDONADO: Well, Aparna Nancherla, thank you so much for joining us. And congratulations on the book.

NANCHERLA: Thank you so much. Thank you for the interview.

GROSS: Aparna Nancherla's new book is called "Unreliable Narrator: Me, Myself, And Imposter Syndrome." She spoke with FRESH AIR's Ann Marie Baldonado. After we take a short break, John Powers will review the new series "The Gold," based on a 1983 gold heist. We're talking three tons of gold bars. This is FRESH AIR.

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Ann Marie Baldonado is an interview contributor and long-time producer at Fresh Air with Terry Gross. She is currently Fresh Air's Director of Talent Development. She got her start in radio in 1997 as a production assistant at WHYY and joined Fresh Air in 1998. For over 20 years, she has focused on the show's TV and film interviews. She became a contributing interviewer in 2015, talking with comedians, actors, directors and musicians like Ali Wong, Kumail Nanjiani, John Cho and Jeff Tweedy. In 2020, Baldonado hosted the limited-run podcast Parent Trapped, about the struggles of parenting during the pandemic. She talked to Julie Andrews about encouraging creativity in your kids, and comedian W. Kamau Bell about what to watch with them.