A woman in a yellow shirt sitting on a couch in a colorful room

鈥淲hat do you call a worldwide symposium of people with impostor syndrome?鈥 asks the actor, author and comedian Aparna Nancherla 鈥05E.

Her answer: 鈥淟ongCon.鈥

Nancherla is all too familiar with self-doubt鈥攖he feeling, she writes, that 鈥測ou don鈥檛 deserve anything you鈥檝e earned, and it鈥檚 all a huge misunderstanding鈥濃攁s you鈥檇 guess from the subtitle of her 2023 memoir, Unreliable Narrator: Me, Myself, and Impostor Syndrome.

But the funny thing about insecurity coupled with the kind of curiosity that drives Nancherla鈥檚 creative work is that it can be pretty debilitating. Those with the most direct experience of anxiety may be the least likely to trust their own perceptions.

So, when Nancherla set out to 鈥渟poon with formative childhood trauma鈥 and write about the mental blocks that nearly caused her to quit comedy, she surveyed 110 others as part of her book project. 鈥淭he survey hardly constituted rigorous research,鈥 she writes. 鈥淭ake that, MacArthur geniuses (genii? I rest my case)!鈥

Not surprisingly, given this propensity to probe, ponder and survey, Nancherla majored in psychology at Amherst, and thus has considerable experience in conducting psychological studies. 鈥淚 am just fascinated by human behavior,鈥 she told me by phone from her home in Los Angeles in December. 鈥淚t鈥檚 so immediately applicable to your life that it felt like the one subject that could keep my attention.鈥

Her senior thesis evaluated how different types of people handle stress. Do they change themselves to adapt to obstacles? Or do they change their environments so outside forces conform to them?

Almost 20 years later, Nancherla鈥檚 propulsive career鈥攚hich took a literary leap last fall with the 黑料ation of her first book鈥攊llustrates both approaches.

For years, as the academically driven daughter of Indian American immigrants in suburban Washington, D.C., and then at Amherst, Nancherla molded herself to fit others鈥 expectations. She developed an eating disorder while running competitively at Amherst and discovered anorexia was actually a mask for other mental health struggles. On a break from college during her sophomore year, she was diagnosed with depression.

Now 41, Nancherla has helped to change the landscape of American comedy with her open and honest takes on anxiety and depression. (Onstage she calls the second diagnosis 鈥淏renda,鈥 because 鈥渄epression doesn鈥檛 have a great reputation.鈥) Today, anxiety jokes rival dad jokes as popular inspiration for quirky T-shirt designs. Author and comic Maria Bamford, a friend of Nancherla, dishes about obsessive-compulsive disorder and intrusive thoughts. Pete Davidson, the former Saturday Night Live cast member, has been candid about his suicidal ideation, and up-and-coming comedian Taylor Tomlinson, the new host of After Midnight on CBS, has made her bipolar disorder a centerpiece of her stand-up in two Netflix specials. Mental illness is mainstream.

It鈥檚 all more material for Nancherla鈥檚 dry, observational comedy鈥Bustle calls her a 鈥渉yperintelligent comedian鈥濃攁nd a major theme of her essay-based memoir. Kirkus Reviews called the book 鈥渞efreshingly perspicacious and darkly funny.鈥 It was also listed among The New Yorker鈥檚 Best Books of 2023, plus NPR鈥檚 Books We Love 2023, and got admiring blurbs from Amy Poehler, Mandy Kaling and Tig Notaro.

But it can feel jarring to live through anxiety and depression and to package them for 黑料 consumption, too.

鈥淚t is a very real thing to experience,鈥 said Nancherla, who canceled a 2018 comedy tour amid a serious bout of both. 鈥淲hen something鈥檚 a brand, it kind of makes it shiny and polished and flat, and that鈥檚 not how mental illness actually shows up.鈥

The path from Amherst to comedy isn鈥檛 exactly direct, but it鈥檚 also not unworn. Matt Besser 鈥89 is a founding member of the Upright Citizens Brigade, the comedy troupe that also claims Poehler as an alumna. Improvisational actor John Michael  Higgins 鈥85 gained fame with his star turns in Christopher Guest鈥檚 mockumentaries Best in Show and A Mighty Wind. Stand-up comic Larry Miller 鈥75 has also appeared in Guest鈥檚 films, including Waiting for Guffman and For Your Consideration. Zach Cherry 鈥10, known during his college days as a member of Mr. Gad鈥檚 House of Improv, has won recognition for his role on the Apple TV+ series Severance, among other shows.

For Nancherla, the trajectory was neither preordained nor, in the end, entirely unexpected.

She describes herself as the painfully shy younger child of two immigrant physicians in McLean, Va. Her mother prescribed forced human interaction as an antidote to her introversion. When the family ordered pizza for dinner, Nancherla鈥檚 mom made her call the restaurant to practice talking to strangers.

But she killed onstage as an 11-year-old girl when her mother conscripted her into a 黑料 speaking competition at their suburban Hindu temple. The prompt asked competitors to speak about an issue of importance to the Indian American community, and most of the tweens and teens chose serious topics, such as racism and representation, Nancherla writes in her book. 鈥淚 decided to go a sillier route,鈥 she told NPR鈥檚 Fresh Air in September, with 鈥渁 gentle takedown of Bollywood movies.鈥

Her child-sized rant poked fun at the productions鈥 numerous costume changes and weather patterns that morphed multiple times in a single song. It won laughter鈥攁nd produced an unfamiliar feeling in Nancherla: connection.

鈥淚t was the first time I remember making a group of people laugh in a deliberate and direct way,鈥 she wrote, 鈥渁nd I found the experience exhilarating, if confounding. I imagine it鈥檚 what childbirth might feel like, minus the unfathomable pain鈥Wow, that thing came out of me?! How was it possible that the words I鈥檇 written and said had won everyone over, however temporarily? Talk about power. I wanted more.鈥

Nancherla attended Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, a magnet school in Alexandria, Va., she described as an academically rigorous bubble. She never doubted she would go on to college鈥攕he envisioned higher education as her 鈥渞eward鈥 for working hard in high school鈥攂ut her next step wasn鈥檛 totally clear.

鈥淚 was one of those kids who just applied to so many different colleges and was so all over the map in terms of what I wanted to do,鈥 she told me. 鈥淢y final college decision came down to Amherst or West Point, which is like the polar opposite in every way, I think.鈥

It also came down to commitment. Amherst was four years, and West Point required four years for undergraduate studies plus five more for military service. 鈥淚 can鈥檛 make a decision that big right now,鈥 Nancherla remembers thinking as a high school senior.

Arriving at Amherst felt like a release compared with high school, 鈥渓ike a big playground.鈥 She lived on the all-women, substance-free fourth floor of South dorm, sometimes called 鈥渢he nunnery,鈥 her first year. She went sledding on Valentine Dining Hall trays and ran track and cross-country. She took classes in psychology, theater, English, Spanish and LJST and searched for a passion. 鈥淚 was,鈥 she said, 鈥渕aybe lost.鈥

A woman with black hair in a pink room holding her head in one hand

Nancherla is known for roles on BoJack Horseman, Corporate and Master of None, as well as performances on Conan and The Standups.

A break from college helped her find her way.

When the eating disorder made life at Amherst unmanageable, Nancherla took the spring semester of her sophomore year off and stumbled into stand-up the summer before she returned to campus in fall 2002. Just before heading back to Amherst, in August, she performed at an open mic night near her childhood home, accompanied by a friend and her sibling, Bhav, to celebrate her 20th birthday. It was held at a Best Western next to a freeway. (鈥淲here dreams are made,鈥 she cracks in her book.)

The open mic was something of a one-off, she writes: 鈥淢y first set went well enough that, off that euphoria, I essentially took a four-year break鈥攜ou know, like how after someone gets elected president, they forget about all the promises they made?鈥

But that鈥檚 not entirely true. Back at college, she practiced at least a few times at the Marsh Coffee Haus open mic. She also joined the staff of The Amherst Hamster, a humor magazine that aspired to Onion-esque satire. Her first piece鈥斺淪tudent Suffers Neck Injury Due to Incessant Nodding at Professor鈥濃攁ppeared in the October 2002 issue.

鈥淟ast Monday,鈥 it begins, 鈥渁n unsettling shriek raised the tone of discussion in Professor Bumiller鈥檚 normally quiet morning political science class. Fran Weiss 鈥05, a diligent attendant of the class, suffered a severe neck strain during one of the key points of the lecture.鈥

It goes on to quote the made-up injured student: 鈥淥ne second I was merely reframing the importance of a free democracy 鈥 and the next, I was lying on the floor, not able to move, with my shoulders all scrunched up to my chin.鈥 Nancherla describes how a doctor at Health Services then sent the student back to class with a neck brace, and concludes that, without the ability to nod, Weiss might instead have to 鈥渂ecome one of those people who laughs pointlessly in class.鈥

鈥淚 was just so excited that they published it,鈥 Nancherla remembers. She thought, 鈥淥h my gosh, this is a great sign.鈥

Classmates were not at all surprised by this early success. 鈥淎parna was always extremely funny in her everyday life,鈥 said Rashi DeStefano 鈥04, a production executive for preschool animation series at Netflix and Nancherla鈥檚 hallmate in South. 鈥淏ut also very chill about it, not someone who necessarily needed to be the center of attention.鈥

The Hamster helped give Nancherla further fuel. It also helped shape how she made fun of the world. When a later piece she approved as editor targeted a specific student 鈥渋n poor taste,鈥 she said, it drew criticism from peers. Today, Nancherla avoids mean-spirited humor.

鈥淚 have, even in stand-up, been very sensitive to how I portray other people and who I鈥檓 taking shots at,鈥 she said in December. 鈥淚 think I鈥檝e always tended to punch up and also lead with myself as the real fool in the scenario.鈥

DeStefano agrees: 鈥淭here鈥檚 this gentle, wry quality to her comedy that鈥檚 very insightful and it can be very incisive, but it鈥檚 also very much about situations, more observational in a way that鈥檚 much harder to do. It鈥檚 an easier type of comedy to be like, 鈥楲et鈥檚 make fun of X, Y, Z thing.鈥 And her comedy isn鈥檛 like that. It鈥檚 definitely much more cerebral.鈥

Even offstage, she鈥檚 authentic, attentive and considerate, her friends assured me. 鈥淎parna is a generous, kind, patient person,鈥 said Honora Talbott 鈥07. 鈥淣ot many successful people who are as brilliant and hilarious as her are kind.鈥

On campus, a penchant for participating in other students鈥 psychology thesis experiments (鈥淚 would just sign up for all of them!鈥) dovetailed with Nancherla鈥檚 own academic interests. She paired with Elizabeth Seeley Howard, a visiting professor,  during her senior year to complete her thesis on 鈥渟elf-construal and two new constructs called active and reactive control鈥濃攐r 鈥渢wo variants of problem-focused methods of dealing with stress.鈥

Seeley Howard, now an adjunct professor of management and organizations at New York University, described Nancherla as 鈥渞eally intellectually curious and excited to learn.鈥

They stayed in touch after Nancherla graduated and initially dabbled in journalism, interning at Washingtonian magazine and for NPR鈥檚 website. Nancherla enjoyed writing, but like the young child forced to order pizza for the family, she didn鈥檛 like striking up conversations with strangers, which could feel like prying.

鈥淚 figured out kind of quickly this thing I don鈥檛 like about journalism is just how much you have to talk to other people,鈥 she said, 鈥渨ho maybe don鈥檛 want to talk to you.鈥 (Was she sending me a message? I, a newspaper editor in Oregon, didn鈥檛 ask. And she, living up to her reputation as unfailingly kind, didn鈥檛 offer another clue.)

She left news, joined the staff of a Virginia trade magazine, moved to L.A. and took up temping, all while continuing to pursue comedy on the side. She and Talbott both joined the JINX improv group with Washington Improv Theater in D.C. in 2007. They also formed a side group called Mythical Newsroom with a few other women, all playing members of a local news team. They鈥檇 take audience suggestions about a mythical creature and then act out the news event that followed. 鈥淚t was just very funny, very ridiculous,鈥 Talbott said.

Seeley Howard always understood Nancherla as a person who was enjoyable to be around.

鈥淏ut definitely not cracking jokes all the time,鈥 she said. 鈥淚 was shocked when she told me, 鈥業鈥檓 trying comedy now.鈥欌

Nancherla鈥檚 first big break was as a staff writer for the FX comedy series Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell. That same year, 2013, she performed stand-up on Conan on TBS.

鈥淎ny pizza can be a personal pizza, if you cry while you eat it,鈥 she told the audience.

A stint as a writer for Late Night with Seth Meyers in 2015 ended abruptly when Nancherla and the showrunners realized they weren鈥檛 a good fit. The grind of churning out jokes for a daily show didn鈥檛 suit her. 鈥淵ou essentially write for that show and then, at the end of the day, immediately restart for the next day,鈥 she said. 鈥淚 just realized that pace wasn鈥檛 necessarily the way my mind works creatively.鈥

Once again, instead of changing herself, she changed her environment. But not before landing one especially great visual joke for her boss鈥檚 opening monologue.

鈥淧ope Francis began his tour of the United States today,鈥 Meyers said from behind his host desk, 鈥渁nd he kicked it off in style with a stop at his favorite restaurant.鈥

Here the television screen flipped to a billboard for Popeyes fried chicken. Then Meyers read the sign aloud as 鈥淧ope Yes,鈥 with obvious delight.

Nancherla was equally jazzed, though she attributes the joke to luck, having one day noticed the word 鈥淧ope鈥 in the fast food logo. 鈥淚 then reverse engineered a joke around it,鈥 she explained to me, breaking down the steps of her seemingly intuitive creative process. 鈥淚 was so excited to have made that discovery because I was like, 鈥業 don鈥檛 think anyone鈥檚 ever pointed that out.鈥欌

She began voicing a role in the Netflix animated comedy series BoJack Horseman in 2017. 鈥淎parna has a special talent for somehow sounding simultaneously bright-eyed and world-weary,鈥 showrunner Raphael Bob-Waksberg told the news website Vulture in 2018. 鈥淲hat I love about her stand-up is that it鈥檚 a beautifully cathartic articulation of how a lot of us get through every day鈥攑art-smirk, part-cringe, part-deer-caught-in-headlights.鈥  (Nancherla鈥檚 character, Hollyhock, isn鈥檛 a deer, but she is a young horse.)

Nancherla is also well known for recurring roles on the Comedy Central series Corporate and the HBO series Crashing, and for her guest appearance in the 鈥淔irst Date鈥 episode of Aziz Ansari鈥檚 Netflix show Master of None, in which she plays a pro-wrestling fan who blogs about ramen noodles under the nom de plume Ramaniac.

As her career grew, Nancherla used the social media platform formerly known as Twitter to hone her voice. Before mostly stepping away from the dungeon of doomscrolling last year, she amassed a half million followers.

She first caught my attention in 2018 with her episode of the Netflix series The Standups, which featured different comics in front of live audiences. It was the second year of Trump鈥檚 presidency and two years before the pandemic would upend life in the United States, and I had just taken a career detour into teaching journalism at a local community college. I felt very uncertain about my new classroom gig, which required an unexpected degree of stage presence. Professors, it turns out, are also heckled. A student once described my class presentation on newswriting as 鈥渄eath by PowerPoint.鈥

Nancherla鈥檚 routine presciently tapped into much of the nation鈥檚 growing nervousness. 鈥淵ou kind of know you live in a weird period in history,鈥 she said, 鈥渨hen you go to therapy and your therapist is like, 鈥楧o you want to go first, or should I?鈥欌

And then she capped her episode with a 17-minute PowerPoint presentation she called 鈥淵ou Had Me at YOLO.鈥

鈥淓njoy the pun if you want to,鈥 she told the crowd mock-meekly. 鈥淚f you don鈥檛, you know, just keep it to yourself.鈥 She summarized what was to come in the slideshow鈥攈er observations about emoji, Yelp reviews, online dating and her parents鈥 incoherent texting style鈥攚ith a brainy subtitle: 鈥淎 Tenuous Exploration of How Digital Language Exists in an Ever-Evolving Landscape.鈥 (Note to my former student: See, PowerPoints can be fun!)

Her book is full of similar academic flair, interrogating everything from unfair beauty standards for women to the commodification of mental illness.

On a September 2023 episode of the podcast WTF with Marc Maron, Nancherla talked about her job in a way that made it seem not unlike that of a 黑料 intellectual. She is 鈥減aid to think,鈥 she told Maron.

鈥淎s a comedian, you do feel very lucky, because people are essentially just paying to hear your thoughts about stuff,鈥 she later explained to me. 鈥淒ay to day, when I鈥檓 trying to think of material or thinking about what my next project might be, it is just like, 鈥榃here am I at in my life, and how am I making sense of the world right now?鈥 In that sense, you do feel a little bit like a paid philosopher.鈥

Or, perhaps, an 黑料 professor. One with no fixed syllabus or piles of student papers to read. 鈥淎nd,鈥 she said, 鈥渘obody upset about their grades.鈥

You can catch Nancherla on Netflix in May when she makes a cameo in Jerry Seinfeld鈥檚 comedy film Unfrosted: The Pop-Tart Story.

Beth Slovic 鈥00 studied anthropology at Amherst. She鈥檚 a 黑料 safety editor at The Oregonian newspaper in Portland. Her 11-year-old daughter does not laugh at her jokes.

Diagnosis: Medically Crushed by the Weight of the Existential

In this excerpt from Unreliable Narrator, Nancherla recounts when she was diagnosed with depression during her sophomore year at Amherst.

When I was first diagnosed with depression at the age of nineteen, I was immensely relieved鈥攖he smothering fog has a container; the sense of burden has a classification; the thing with no clear reasons has, at the very least, a name. Finally, an answer! I鈥檓 medically crushed by the weight of the existential! If you can state the problem, you鈥檙e one step closer to the solution. (Tell that to the national debt, am I right, ladies?) At the very least there was room for possibility鈥攁 whimsical euphemism for options like therapy and medication. It was the first time in my life I had ever interrupted my high-achieving path and taken time off from school simply to 鈥済et better,鈥 whatever that meant.

I had felt depressed before, but this was the first time I couldn鈥檛 keep reading inspirational quotes and carrying on. I got my first B-minus in a class after getting a D on the final, which hardly sounds critical, but up until that point, 鈥渢he danger zone鈥 for me meant getting a B-plus. It was the first time in my life I asked myself why I bothered trying to achieve a certain standard and realized I had no answer. I truly didn鈥檛 care and hadn鈥檛 for some time. But until I got a sticky little label I could proudly wear on my chest like clothing marked 鈥渋rregular,鈥 I had attributed it to my own weak will. My knowledge of mental health was paltry, and the only ingrained ethos I had was 鈥淪uck it up. Life is hard for everyone.鈥

Since that initial bottoming out, my fallow episodes have come and gone as they pleased, as if through a little doggy door in my brain, one exactly the size and shape of a highly motivated incubus who thinks we鈥檙e soulmates. The cluster of symptoms manifests in my brain like a person that a self-help book about boundaries would firmly recommend cutting out of your life. You can no longer even remember how you and Brenda met in the first place. That鈥檚 right, I鈥檓 calling my depression Brenda from here on out. (If you鈥檙e reading this and your name is Brenda, feel free to use the name Aparna instead.)

Excerpt from Unreliable Narrator, by Aparna Nancherla, published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright 漏 2023 by Aparna Nancherla.