Little known fact: Long before she was starring in a Super Bowl ad, Aparna Nancherla was an NPR intern! But the comedian and actor has a confession: "I did not know that much about NPR," she told Ophira Eisenberg, host of NPR's Ask Me Another at the Bell House in Brooklyn, New York. "I had friends in high school who listened to NPR, and I was like, 'Seems like something I should get in on.'" Nancherla spent time after college at NPR's Washington, D.C. office, working on the website — and struggling to recognize some well-known hosts. "People would be like, 'Oh, I was in the elevator with whoever,' and I was like, 'How did they know? 'Cuz it's radio,'" Nancherla joked.
Stand-up comedy proved to be a better fit. Nancherla performed for the first time on her 20th birthday — at an open mic night at a Best Western hotel. "It was really like where a lot of truckers went to have a drink, because it was where a lot of interstates... intersected. Pretty much a dream first time," she joked. "I do think I got a lot of sympathy because people were like, 'Why is she doing this?'" Nancherla added. "I think it was just a lot of loud white men and this little ghost."
Nancherla got her big break in 2013, when she did a stand-up set on Conan and became the first female South Asian comic to perform on late-night television — at least, according to her. "I will say that I and a friend planted this information in the news," Nancherla said. At the time, Nancherla was writing for Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell with friend and fellow comic Hari Kondabolu. After the Conan spot, Nancherla and Kondabolu couldn't figure out if the comedian had made history. So they took matters into their own hands. "He said, 'I think you are [the first]. I'm gonna tip off Jezebel.' That's the most Brooklyn sentence ever said," Nancherla said. "We basically put it out there in the hopes of being corrected — and then we weren't."
Despite her success, Nancherla was privately battling depression and anxiety. When her struggles with mental health started to impinge on her ability to write, Nancherla said she needed to share her dark thoughts to prevent them from occupying too much space in her head. "I was like, 'I'll just write about this. If these voices are not gonna shut up, then I'm just gonna put 'em in the act," Nacherla said. While this vulnerability has restored her ability to create, Nancherla is also reluctant to solely joke about mental illness; for her, it's a balancing act. "Now sometimes I almost worry it's the opposite extent, like '[Depression and anxiety] run the show. 'We're you're brand now!'" she laughed. "No you're not! Get outta here, depression!"
Nancherla also plays Grace on the Comedy Central series Corporate, which depicts the lives of office workers at a multinational corporation. "I think I based it on every office job I've ever had. And being like, half checked-out," Nancherla explained about how she tapped into her character. Nancherla temped when she lived in Los Angeles, but her main job was at a trade magazine, T&D Magazine, where she wrote about how to make employees do their jobs better. "So it was like a meta-job, and it was the worst job to be not invested in," Nancherla said. "I was writing articles on how to motivate your employees with 17 other tabs open."
For Nancherla's Ask Me Another challenge, Eisenberg quizzed the former psychology major and current dog-lover to a game called "Dognitive Psychology," in which the comedian had to answer questions about canine brain studies.
On nearly attending West Point Military Academy:
"I think the simplest way to say it is, I grew up during the Gulf War and I fully was brainwashed by the military propaganda, in such a way that I was like, 'I have to serve my country.' It feels very vulnerable to say that in Brooklyn."
On why she was asked to appear in a recent Super Bowl commercial alongside crooner Michael Bublé:
"I have ideas: 'cuz it's a seltzer commercial, and the last late-night set I did had pro-seltzer material. So they were like, 'Who's not coming down hard on seltzer?'"
JONATHAN COULTON: This is ASK ME ANOTHER, NPR's hour of puzzles, word games and trivia. I'm Jonathan Coulton. Now here's your host, Ophira Eisenberg.
OPHIRA EISENBERG, HOST:
Thank you, Jonathan. It's time to welcome our special guest. She's one of the top comedians working today. She recently appeared in a Super Bowl commercial and stars in the Comedy Central show "Corporate." Please welcome Aparna Nancherla.
APARNA NANCHERLA: Thank you.
NANCHERLA: Thank you.
EISENBERG: I learned right before you came on the show that you used to be an NPR intern...
EISENBERG: ...In in the D.C. office.
EISENBERG: What show were you working on?
NANCHERLA: I believe I was working - oh, my gosh. I can't even remember. I was a web intern, so...
NANCHERLA: ...I kind of floated.
NANCHERLA: I think I mainly worked on the home page.
EISENBERG: It needs a lot of work.
NANCHERLA: It's the front - what do you call it - customer service, the front-facing...
EISENBERG: That's right.
EISENBERG: That's the first thing...
EISENBERG: ...Everyone judges everything by.
EISENBERG: How long were you there?
NANCHERLA: I was there - I guess it's per semester...
NANCHERLA: ...Because it's, like, for college. I was out of college, but, you know, I was figuring out life...
NANCHERLA: ...Through radio. Yeah.
EISENBERG: Through radio. And how did you like the environment of the NPR D.C. office?
NANCHERLA: I have a confession that I did not know that much about NPR. Like, I had friends in high school listen to NPR. And I was, like, seems like something I should get in on. So...
NANCHERLA: Then when I started interning, people would be like - you know, like, oh, I was in the elevator with, you know...
EISENBERG: Robert Siegel...
EISENBERG: ...Or - yeah.
NANCHERLA: And I was, like, how did they know because it's radio, you know?
NANCHERLA: I was, like, I guess he just does vocal exercises in the elevator.
EISENBERG: I also read that you seriously considered going to West Point.
NANCHERLA: Oh, yes. This is a big one.
EISENBERG: So I know very little about this other than West Point is a military academy.
EISENBERG: OK. Why did you want to go there?
NANCHERLA: I think the simplest way to say it is I grew up during the Gulf War, and I fully was brainwashed by the military propaganda in such a way that I was, like, I have to serve my country.
NANCHERLA: It feels very vulnerable to say that in Brooklyn.
EISENBERG: Yeah, right?
EISENBERG: I know because everyone's, like, she's a soldier.
EISENBERG: You'd better be fighting for the rights of...
NANCHERLA: You guys got to support the troops and the almost troops.
EISENBERG: And the almost troops.
NANCHERLA: OK. So you changed your mind, though, and decided to go to a liberal arts college.
NANCHERLA: Yeah - the - you know, the natural alternative.
EISENBERG: What was the moment where you just stopped this path?
NANCHERLA: I ran track and cross-country in high school, and I - the college I went to - ended up going to was Amherst, and they were, like, you can run for our track team. So I was like, OK. I'll still be pushing myself.
NANCHERLA: Just won't have a machine gun. Yeah.
EISENBERG: Felt a lot better. So then 2003, you decided to try stand-up for the first time on your 20th birthday.
NANCHERLA: Yes. Wow. You got the date and everything.
EISENBERG: It's NPR, baby.
EISENBERG: This is a - I mean, the idea of deciding to do stand up for the first time on your birthday to me is incredible high stakes.
NANCHERLA: It is. It is and it isn't because you - I definitely brought it up, like, within the first 10 seconds I was on stage..
EISENBERG: Of course.
NANCHERLA: ...To milk the sympathy. Yeah.
EISENBERG: Yeah. And for...
NANCHERLA: Like, it's my birthday. It's my first time. Come on.
EISENBERG: And it was at a Best Western Hotel.
NANCHERLA: Yeah. It was, like...
EISENBERG: So they had a...
NANCHERLA: It was, like, triple...
NANCHERLA: Yeah. They had a showroom. It was really, like, where a lot of truckers went to, like, have a drink because it was, like, where a lot of interstates intersected. Yeah. It was...
NANCHERLA: ...Pretty much a dream first time.
EISENBERG: And was this their amateur night or open mic night?
NANCHERLA: Yeah. It was, like, a - they had, like, Tuesday, Wednesday open mic night, and anyone could sign up. And some of my friends and I - we went there, like, earlier in the summer, and we kind of sussed out the scene because two of us wanted to try it. And we were, like, well, it doesn't - seems like everyone isn't, you know, at a professional level, so we could try. And I do think, like, I got a lot of sympathy just because people are, like, why is she doing this?
EISENBERG: Just the curiosity...
NANCHERLA: Yeah. Yeah.
EISENBERG: ...And the fact that this was happening at all.
NANCHERLA: Yeah. And I think it was just, like, a lot of, like, loud white men and then this, like, little ghost. Yeah.
EISENBERG: 2013, you went on to do a late-night spot on "Conan." And this is a specific moment, too, because it was - you were hailed as the first South Asian female stand-up comic to appear on late night.
NANCHERLA: And I will say that I and a friend planted this information in the news.
EISENBERG: You did?
NANCHERLA: Yes. Because I was working at "Totally Biased" at the time...
NANCHERLA: ...With a colleague of mine, Hari Kondabolu, who's also a comedian. And after I did that "Conan" spot, he was, like, are you the first Indian-American? And I was, like, I don't know. I can't think of anyone else. And he was, like, I think you are. I'm going to tip off Jezebel.
NANCHERLA: The most Brooklyn sentence ever said.
NANCHERLA: I'm going to tip off Jezebel. But we basically - he put it out there in the hopes of being corrected, and then we weren't.
EISENBERG: And speaking of your act, you know, around 2014, you became a little bit more confessional, talking about your own experiences with depression, anxiety...
EISENBERG: ...On stage and using that for comedic fodder. And also, it actually is a lot of vulnerability to throw out there. So, you know, what for you - did you decide, like, no, I actually want to do this?
NANCHERLA: Yeah, I think - honestly, I started talking about mental health as a byproduct of actually really struggling with it at the time that I started writing about it. And it was almost that I was having trouble writing in general because it was consuming so much of my brain, so I was like, I'll just write about this, you know?
NANCHERLA: If these voices are not going to shut up, then I'm just going to put them in the act, you know.
NANCHERLA: Yeah. Now it's - sometimes I almost worry where it's the opposite extent where they're like, we run the show. You know, we're like, we're your brand now. And I'm like, no, you're not.
NANCHERLA: Get out of here, depression.
EISENBERG: I banish you.
EISENBERG: And then recently, you were in a Super Bowl commercial.
NANCHERLA: It's true.
EISENBERG: With Michael Buble.
NANCHERLA: I know.
NANCHERLA: I know. The - yeah. If you had to pick a celebrity...
EISENBERG: I know. It's...
NANCHERLA: ...I mean, come on.
EISENBERG: You obviously knew you were auditioning for a Super Bowl commercial, or was it something that...
NANCHERLA: They asked me, which...
EISENBERG: Were they - wow. OK.
NANCHERLA: Like, I have ideas - 'cause it's a seltzer commercial.
NANCHERLA: And the last late-night set I did, I did pro-seltzer material. So that's...
NANCHERLA: So they were like, we need someone who's not coming down hard on seltzer.
EISENBERG: And you currently play a woman who works in HR, Grace...
EISENBERG: ...On Comedy Central's "Corporate." Did you base the character of Grace on anyone that you know or have met?
NANCHERLA: I think I just based it on every office job I've ever had and being, like, half checked-out.
EISENBERG: Have you had a lot of office jobs?
NANCHERLA: I temped a lot when I lived in LA. And then before that, my main job was actually working at a trade magazine that studied how to make your employees do their jobs better.
NANCHERLA: So it was like a meta job. And it was the worst job to be, you know, not invested in 'cause I was, like, writing articles on how to motivate your employees with, like, 17 other tabs open on my browser.
EISENBERG: That is kind of like working in HR...
EISENBERG: ...As a magazine format.
NANCHERLA: Yes. It was like an HR magazine. Yeah.
EISENBERG: Is that magazine still happening?
NANCHERLA: Yeah, I believe so. It's called - should I say - I guess - what are they going to do? It's...
NANCHERLA: It's called T&D. It's, like, Training & Development Magazine. Yeah, pretty sexy.
EISENBERG: All right. Aparna, are you ready for an - your ASK ME ANOTHER challenge?
NANCHERLA: I am so excited about this game.
NANCHERLA: And you guys will see why.
EISENBERG: Aparna, we asked you, what would you like to play a game about? And you said since you were a psych major, you wanted to do something to do with your brain.
EISENBERG: Not your brain - the brain.
NANCHERLA: The brain.
EISENBERG: But then we looked on your Instagram, and we noticed that you love dogs. Do you have a dog?
NANCHERLA: I just covet. I covet.
EISENBERG: Yes. So we've combined those topics in a game called Dognitive (ph) Psychology.
EISENBERG: So if you do well enough, listener Jene Ines (ph) from Johns Creek, Ga., will win an ASK ME ANOTHER Rubik's cube.
NANCHERLA: Oh, Jene.
EISENBERG: It's going to go great. Multiple choice.
EISENBERG: So in 1989, a researcher at the University of California Santa Barbara tested color vision in dogs. What did he find? A, dogs can only see in black and white; B, dogs can see shades of blue, yellow and gray; or C, dogs have full color vision just like humans.
NANCHERLA: Oh, man. Now I'm like, well, "The Simpsons"...
NANCHERLA: I'm going to go with B.
EISENBERG: Yeah, that's correct.
EISENBERG: Dogs can see shades of blue, yellow and gray.
NANCHERLA: "Shades Of Blue" - that's the J.Lo show.
EISENBERG: "Shades Of Blue" - exactly (laughter). That is the J.Lo show.
NANCHERLA: I guess I'm doing cross promo now. I don't know.
EISENBERG: That's good. That's good. When Hungarian researchers studied dogs' brains using fMRI machines, what did they find? A, dogs can't distinguish human voices from other non-dog animals; B, dogs can distinguish human voices, but they can't detect emotion; or C, dogs can tell the difference between happy human sounds and sad human sounds.
NANCHERLA: Oh. C.
EISENBERG: Yeah, C is right.
NANCHERLA: I have a lot of doubt 'cause I just want to nail it for Jene.
EISENBERG: Yeah, so dogs can tell the difference between happy human sounds and sad human sounds. I think sad human sounds is a great name for a comedy album.
EISENBERG: According to a study published in Applied Animal Behavioral Science in 2016, what physical characteristics appeared on dogs who exhibit anxious or impulsive behaviors? A, their hair turned prematurely gray; B, their ears get droopy; or C, they slobber more.
NANCHERLA: I'll go with C.
EISENBERG: They slobber more?
EISENBERG: I'm sorry. Humans do that.
EISENBERG: In this case, it is A. Their hair turns...
EISENBERG: ...Prematurely gray within one to three years.
EISENBERG: I know. I know.
NANCHERLA: I guess I thought because some breeds are all gray...
NANCHERLA: I was...
EISENBERG: It would be hard to tell.
NANCHERLA: ...Too - yeah.
NANCHERLA: I was like, are they OK?
EISENBERG: They're super anxious. Do not buy a gray dog.
EISENBERG: The study sampled 400 dogs found in dog parks, where they're not anxious ever (laughter)...
EISENBERG: ...And found that dogs described by their owners as displaying more anxious or impulsive behaviors tend to prematurely gray around their...
EISENBERG: ...Muzzles. There you go. It's going to get better, everybody. It's going to be OK.
NANCHERLA: That's almost like a five o'clock shadow.
EISENBERG: I don't know. Maybe they're just maturing.
EISENBERG: All right. This is your last clue. Dogs have a famously good sense of smell. That part...
NANCHERLA: I thought you were going to say humor.
NANCHERLA: I was like, I know.
EISENBERG: They do. The part of their brain devoted to smell is actually proportionally 40 times larger than ours. But according to Swedish zoologist Matthias Laska, humans are more sensitive than dogs to certain smells, including what? A - meat, B - fruit, C - poop.
EISENBERG: What are we better at?
EISENBERG: Yeah, fruit. Yeah.
EISENBERG: They don't care about plants or flowers.
NANCHERLA: They don't.
EISENBERG: All right. Congratulations, Aparna. You and Janae Innis (ph) won ASK ME ANOTHER Rubik's Cubes.
NANCHERLA: Oh, thank goodness.
EISENBERG: Aparna will be back later in the show to play another game. Give it up for Aparna Nancherla...
NANCHERLA: Thank you.
EISENBERG: Want our next special guest to play for you? Follow ASK ME ANOTHER on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.