Aparna Nancherla used to walk onstage, grab the microphone and greet her audiences this way: "It's OK, guys — I'm surprised I'm a comedian, too!"
As far as the audience knew, it was a stereotype joke; a reflection on the dearth of demure-looking South Asian women wearing barrettes and print dresses in the current comedy landscape.
But to her parents, that line is an essential truth. And it's the core of their daughter's triumph.
After all, Aparna was the toddler who tore holes in her mother's saris by clinging so tight. The little girl whose parents had her practise making eye contact with them, so that she could someday do it with others. The kid who went hungry, day after day, rather than ask a teacher to help open her lunchbox.
If you had told Ananth Nancherla that his painfully shy second daughter would some day make a living performing hilarious 30-minute monologues in front of hundreds of people, that she would star in her own television specials and have half a million online followers devouring her insights, he would have said, "Keep dreaming." A future in intergalactic space travel might have seemed more likely.
Except . . .
There were flashes. Not of humour, always, but persistence.
As a 9- or 10-year-old in McLean, Virginia, Aparna would began to quake when her parents asked her to bring the bill to the Pizza Hut cashier.
"Painfully, she would take it to them," recalls Aparna's mom, Suchithra Nancherla. "And then when she came back with the four mints, she was so proud of herself. She'd say: 'I did it! Look what they gave me!'"
She conquered herself, then and so many times since. Gathering material along the way.
A couple of decades later, Aparna would tweet one of her best-known jokes: "Any pizza can be a personal one if you cry while you eat it."
If each life presents forks in the road, they are not always as divergent as the one Aparna Nancherla faced as she chose between colleges. It came down to two prestigious schools: Amherst College, an idyllic New England liberal arts school, and West Point.
Her parents — both doctors who immigrated from India — were terrified by the prospect of their introverted daughter joining the Army, but not entirely surprised. Aparna had developed an impassioned patriotism writing letters to soldiers during the Gulf War. And, more than that, she'd always sought ways to challenge herself.
She took college-level courses during middle school. She chose rigorous Outward Bound hiking excursions over traditional summer camp. At Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in northern Virginia, she excelled academically but also joined the cross-country team. It would make her father cry, sometimes, to see his daughter struggling up hills at the end of long runs, but she never thought to quit.
He nearly cried again — with relief — when Aparna chose Amherst. There she majored in psychology, but she wasn't convinced it would be her career path. And soon she was gripped by psychological problems of her own. Issues around eating and depression led her to take time off in the spring of her sophomore year.
And that stretch at home led to a surprising decision: to tell jokes during an open-mic night at a Tysons Corner comedy club. She and a friend had been going there as a cheap form of entertainment, and she felt herself wanting to give it a try.
"I think it was because I went on antidepressants," Aparna, now 36, says from a cafe near her Brooklyn apartment.
"You get this euphoric boost that is more than what is normal in your stable mood. You're in this honeymoon period where you're like, 'Oh, I didn't know you could experience life in these frequencies.' I really think that's how I ended up doing it the first time. Because I don't think I would've otherwise had the courage."
Aparna's older sister, Bhavana Nancherla, came along for Aparna's comedy debut. It seemed like a quirky thing to try, but Aparna had always broken her long stretches of silence with brief outbursts of silliness.
To Bhavana, Aparna was like "one of those flowers that only bloom for five minutes a day".
"The conditions had to be exactly right, but when they were she was this amazing character," Bhavana says. "There was this absurdist humour. She would occasionally drop into it, and it would be just glorious to witness."
The inaugural set in Tysons Corner — performed on Aparna's 20th birthday — went surprisingly well. "And the first laughs are just this incredible feeling," Aparna says. But it wasn't until after college, when she was back home living with her parents and working temp jobs, that she started doing stand-up regularly.
To her parents, it seemed like a hobby — a phase they didn't fully understand but were sure would pass.
In the beginning, after bad sets, "there were nights when she would come home and cry," her father recalls from the Rosslyn apartment where they now live. "And I'd say: 'My God — why do this? I'll pay for your grad school.'"
But, Aparna's mother remembers her daughter responding: "Dad, I'm going to become really depressed if I don't do this. It's what makes me tick. This is what I want to do."
Aparna is unassuming, soft-spoken, reflective. Character traits that might not make it easy for one to rise in the testosterone-charged comedy world. But perhaps because of that, she caught audiences by surprise, offering up observations she'd been filing away throughout her lifetime of quietude.
"I'm on a diet right now," she said in one early set. "Thank you. Yeah, I'm on that one where you can't stop talking about it. I've already lost 17 friends in just one week. It's working!"
Bhavana was concerned for her little sister during college. Mental health issues had stalked others in their family. "But in some ways I feel like comedy was the first sign that I didn't have to worry about her," Bhavana says. "It was like: 'Oh, you found something that helps you in this deep, deep way. You're doing something for your own healing.'"
In 2010, after four years of open-mic sets in the District of Columbia, Aparna set off for Los Angeles with a boyfriend. There she found an administrative job, a manager and a growing reputation for her subtle, offbeat humour. Still, there were no big breaks. "Nothing was striking and I was doing all the things you're told to do," she says. "I was not sure I was on the right path."
Then she got a call to come to New York to write for the FX show Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell. She moved over the weekend and, for the first time, had a full-time job in comedy.
When that show ended in late 2013, she supported herself doing stand-up until she was hired to write for NBC's Late Night With Seth Meyers. The gig was prestigious, but not a perfect fit. "I think there's something about writing for someone else's voice," she says. "I just have a hard time not writing weird — to my own sensibility."
But as she left the show in the spring of 2016, it felt to her "like the universe held out a net". Her stand-up bookings increased. She put out a debut comedy album. She was cast in a brief but memorable role on Aziz Ansari's Netflix show Master of None. She was hired to voice a recurring character on Netflix's adult animated comedy BoJack Horseman and won the role of a discontented human resources manager on the Comedy Central show Corporate. More than one website crowned her "the funniest person on Twitter".
She created an offbeat Web series called Womanhood with fellow comedian Jo Firestone and co-hosted Blue Woman Group, a short-lived but hilarious podcast about depression with Jacqueline Novak. "We're here. We're depressed. Get used to it!" Aparna says at the beginning of one episode.
Increasingly her mental health struggles became a recurring theme in her comedy. Firestone thinks it's Aparna's unabashed honesty that's won her such a loyal following. "Aparna has found a way to make fun of these dark thoughts everybody shares," she says. "She dusts off all the windows and lets the sun come in, and it's only then you see it's not so bad in there."
In her new half-hour special — part of Netflix's The Standups — Aparna talks about what it's like to have anxiety in 2018.
"If you're an anxious person it's kind of like: 'Well, you know, this is what we train for. This is our Olympics. All those nights awake — it's show time.'"
"I also have some depression," she continues. "I kind of like to do anxiety for the week, depression on the weekends. They both have custody."
Aparna says talking about depression can be helpful, but she can't say the same for her chosen profession — which can regularly challenge a person's self-esteem.
"The ideal you're going for seems not necessarily healthy," she says. "In stand-up, it's like you're only as good as your last set. It feels like such an arbitrary thing to pin your worth on."
On rough days, she retreats to her most familiar space: her own head. "The way some people fantasise about being rich and famous, I fantasise about being very under the radar — working in a bookstore. That's the thing I go to when I feel so overwhelmed," she says.
Still, she's writing a script for a buddy comedy with Firestone, working on a bringing back the podcast with Novak, shooting the next season of Corporate. "That," she says "is the type of work that is worth it for me to stay in comedy."
Bhavana Nancherla is glad for that. In a way, comedy has allowed her to know more of her shy sister than she ever had before. To see her bloom for so much more than five minutes a day.
"There's who she is in real life, and then there's her as a performer. And what's also true is the more time has gone by, the more it feels integrated," Bhavana says. "It was there all along. All she did was find a way to make us able to see her full self better."