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One-joke town: Can comics hit the big time in Washington?

By Christina Ianzito
Sunday, December 19, 2010; W20

"Hi!" says Aparna Nancherla, 28, from the stage. "It's okay, you guys, I'm surprised I'm a comedian, too!" The audience here for open-mike night at the Topaz Hotel laughs at the self-awareness of the joke -- understanding, perhaps, that this short, slight Indian American woman with her low-key delivery looks more like a high school student. "Your eyes will adjust," she adds.

She starts with some of her newer material in this small, dark room in the hotel's basement -- where she has performed countless times. One new bit is a riff on possible sales pitches for "camouflage" Snuggies, a version of the fleece blanket she recently spotted on a store shelf. "Camouflage Snuggie: because why not be comfortable when you're being hunted?" Then she says: "I always think 'workaholic' when I see a firefighter putting out a cigarette. It's like, 'You're not even on the clock; what are you trying to prove? Stop being a hero for one second. . . .' "

She might not be winning over everyone in the whole room, but at least half are in stitches. What more could a young, aspiring comedian want? When you've recently decided that making people laugh should be your career, as Nancherla did this year, you want a lot more.

(VIDEO: Watch Aparna Nancherla's acts on her Web site)

***

Nancherla has been one of the few promising young female comics in Washington in recent years, a regular at open mikes and well-known in the local comedy scene. That's in part because she's a woman, as well as an ethnic minority, and standup is an overwhelmingly white male pursuit. But beyond having a kind of first-glance uniqueness, she's also getting noticed because she has shown talent. Mike Way, 30, another comic who has appeared frequently in shows with Nancherla, calls her "one of those people who I watch and think, 'Gosh, I wish I'd thought of that.' "

Curt Shackelford is a former standup comic who organizes three open mikes around Washington every week. They aren't entirely "open"; he chooses the performers, and often includes Nancherla. "Most of the time she's hysterical," he says. "There aren't that many people that write better stuff than her."

For the past few years, Nancherla has pushed herself to perform locally four or five nights a week -- a jumble of small shows and open mikes -- and until recently, each appearance came after a long, generally unfunny day in Alexandria editing and writing for a monthly trade magazine devoted to workplace training trends and issues.

Many comedians who get started in Washington and want to take their comedy career to the next level decide they have to move to New York or Los Angeles, the industry towns where stars are made. As a Washington standup, it's easy to start feeling stuck and insecure, Nancherla explains, "when you do, like, seven shows in a row and there's no audience [besides other comics] . . . and you're just starting to doubt all your goals or something." But comedians also say that a low-pressure comedy town such as Washington is a great place to learn, experiment and make mistakes before heading out.

So Nancherla finds herself at a crossroads: She still has a lot to learn, she knows, but doesn't want to grow stale here. Her boyfriend and fellow comedian, Hampton Yount, 26, left for Los Angeles in April. He's been crashing in a friend's apartment, doing odd jobs and performing in more shows as the weeks go by, including a contest at the high-profile Laugh Factory, where he impressed the management enough for them to promise him future slots.

At first he seemed "a little bit shell-shocked," Nancherla says, but, "I think there's probably just an adjustment period."

For now, though, she still has a set at the Topaz's open mike to finish. "I'll leave you guys with this," she says. "My mom doesn't come to a lot of my shows -- you've figured out why -- but she's like, 'Oh, you're going to do this whole comedy career thing?' So she's started heckling me in everyday life, like during routine tasks, and so far, it's been a lot of booing and yelling, 'I want my money back!' "

***

Nancherla's small size and shyness -- and until they were removed in September, a set of braces -- give her an almost childlike vulnerability. She acknowledges, "People tend to treat me younger than I am." That image is exaggerated by how she dresses, which is usually in jeans and a sweatshirt or a baggy tunic-like shirt. And then there's her bedroom. It's the same room in her parents' McLean house where she slept as a kid, with a single bed and a pile of stuffed animals. Next to her bed is a stack of notebooks filled with jokes in tiny, perfect print.

Nancherla often posts goofy comments on her MySpace blog, or sends out stream-of-consciousness tweets, which she calls, "a way for comics to come up with one-liners." (Aparna "does a lot of charity gigs as a comedian. Mostly for benefits of the doubt.")

One area of potential material that she considers off-limits is her Indian background and culture. She's never joked about being Indian American, much less made it central to her comedy in the manner of Margaret Cho's take on her Korean American family or George Lopez's riffs on Latino culture. Nancherla grew up fairly steeped in Indian culture, eating traditional Indian food at home, and traveling with her India-born parents (both are physicians who speak their native language, Telugu, to each other) to southeastern India every other year. Their large home is filled with Hindu statues and photos of family in Indian dress; the fridge is stocked with curries. Nancherla's older sister, Bhavana, 30, a community organizer in New York, was born in India, and has a deep affinity for her Indian roots. But Nancherla, born and raised in the Washington area, says her ethnicity "is not a strong identifier for me. I identify more with being a shy, quiet person."

It's easy to see why she's living at home at age 28: It's comfortable here, and her parents dote on her and make sure she eats plenty of home-cooked meals. Plus, the rent's free.

She was never a rebellious child in her close-knit family. Her mother, Suchithra, an endocrinologist who practices in Falls Church, remembers Nancherla at age 7 or 8 saying, "I like to make people happy." As a teenager at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax County, Nancherla was not, she says, the class clown, but rather the sardonic observer on the sidelines wielding "a very active inner monologue."

An A student, she applied for and was accepted to both West Point and Amherst College ("I sort of glossed over the weapons part of it," she says of her interest in a military career). She chose Amherst, and during a summer at home had her first standup experience, at Wiseacres, a now-defunct bar in a Best Western hotel in McLean. She'd been dropping by occasionally with a group of friends and began writing down a few ideas. Finally, at summer's end, on her 20th birthday -- despite being "kind of terrified," she says -- she got up and did a few bits about her job at a summer camp. People laughed. She marvels, "I was really shocked -- it went really well." She tried it (and liked it) again a few times at school.

After graduating with a bachelor's degree in psychology, she moved back to her parents' house and took a comedic hiatus for a few years, because, she says, "I was scared and thought I wouldn't fit in." She muddled half-heartedly through a series of unsatisfying journalism internships, and three years ago got up the nerve to test herself again during an open mike night at Soho Tea & Coffee near Dupont Circle. With a friend there for support, she managed to do a four-minute bit. A few other comics who were watching complimented her afterward. "I felt on top of the world," she says.

Two years ago, she appeared in the audition round of NBC's "Last Comic Standing" and had a few emcee jobs at the DC Improv, a gig that's a nice stepping stone for local comedians. With each small success and taste of the comic world beyond the Beltway -- she performed at 10 festivals around the country last year -- she has become more resolved to quit her day job and make comedy a career.

***

It is a few months before Yount will move to Los Angeles, and Nancherla is driving him in her parents' gray Volvo to open mike night at the Arlington Cinema 'N' Drafthouse, where both will perform. On the way, they stop on 16th street to pick up Nancherla's friend, Hillary Buckholtz, 30, a bubbly publicist by day who has been taking comedy classes at the DC Improv. Tonight will be her fourth public standup show.

Waiting outside Buckholtz's apartment building, Yount, who has a relaxed, gregarious comic style, spies a forlorn-looking chair parked on the street corner. "What is this, some sort of makeshift office?" he says. Nancherla giggles. Almost everything they notice is potential joke material between them.

He and Nancherla met several years ago at the Topaz open mike, where, Yount remembers, "I walked right up to her and said, 'You're hysterical. I think you're great.' " They didn't start dating for another year and a half, and now, she says, "we're definitely trying to make each other laugh more than the average couple."

Buckholtz runs over to the parked car and plops into the back seat. She says she's been emboldened after watching Nancherla's performances, adding: "It feels like a huge relief just to do it. I don't know how to explain it, but it's not like I want to. I need to."

That performance anxiety is nothing new to Nancherla. Even now she says that before getting on stage she can be in a state in which, "I'm shaking, and I'll have nausea, and I'll be completely a wreck." But, she counters, as they drive over the Key Bridge, "If I don't do it, I get even more bummed."

By 10, they're at the Drafthouse, where the threesome join a handful of other comics milling around in the lobby. They have been asked not to enter the bar area and take up space from paying guests.

Nancherla peers through the doorway into the performance space, where the packed room is listening silently to the first comic. "I get nervous when it's a big crowd and they look like they might be rowdy," she says.

Buckholtz looks thoughtfully at Nancherla, a tiny figure wrapped in a multicolored scarf, sipping from a bottle of water.

Buckholtz asks, "Are you worried that they'll hate you?"

"Yes," Nancherla says flatly.

Yet when it's her turn onstage, she looks fearless as she grabs the microphone, to some welcoming applause. "Oh, the microphone's taller than me," she notes, dripping sarcasm. "That never happens." She starts the set with a joke about the Olive Garden's motto, "'If you're here, you're family.' So does that mean they never fully accept any of your choices?" The audience chuckles. And then, "Do you think anyone has ever overdosed on chill pills?"

Washington, which once spawned such big comedic names as Wanda Sykes, Martin Lawrence and Dave Chappelle, has only one downtown venue devoted solely to comedy: the DC Improv. For stage time at a traditional comedy club -- "a good room" as comedians put it -- local comics have to travel to places such as the Baltimore Comedy Factory or the Funny Bone in Richmond.

Washington comedian Matt Kazam, 42, says it's an unfortunate situation for new comics, who "need to be around comedy clubs some in the beginning," in the same way that minor league baseball players "can't be playing on a basketball court instead of a baseball diamond. They've got to see how it's done right."

In the mid-'80s, standup was fully -- some would say painfully -- ubiquitous. Fans in Washington could take their pick of downtown clubs, including The Comedy Cafe, the Comedy Stop and Garvin's Comedy Club. The Improv arrived on Connecticut Avenue, a block from the Mayflower Hotel, in 1992, and quickly became a competitive powerhouse. In the following years, standup clubs lost some of their 1980s-era popularity. That early boom created a little bit of a bubble that burst, says Andy Kline, 36, an established comic who lives in Arlington. "There were so many comedy clubs needing comedians to fill the shows that a lot of unqualified comics were getting work." Too many unfunny shows led to a shrinking audience. And though the stronger clubs survived -- in Washington that was the 285-seat Improv -- many shut their doors. (There was also the rise of Comedy Central, launched in 1989, offering an outlet for the better comedians, who then demanded higher pay from struggling clubs.)

Now, says Kline, "the Improv is sort of this brass ring where people measure themselves by." He features as the middle act at the club about once a year -- no small accomplishment for a local comic. Simply featuring (working the 20 minute slot before the headliner) is a coup, and even emceeing is something to be proud of. Nancherla was chosen to emcee for headliner Christian Finnegan in May and for Dave Attell in October.

A handful of comics, such as Kline and Kazam, have built themselves a decent career while staying in the area, but staying in Washington usually involves a lot of out-of-town gigs to help pay the bills. One local star, Erin Jackson, 32, a Howard University graduate who had an appearance on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" a few years ago, has a solid enough reputation to perform at about 40 colleges a year, up the East Coast and as far away as Washington state, and is headlining at the DC Improv at the end of December.

Allan Goodwin, 44, a software developer in Northern Virginia, started doing standup in the early '90s, when Garvin's and the Comedy Cafe were the big, popular venues in town. Since then, he's stayed and had a family, and now uprooting is much more difficult. Yet, he says: "You're not going to make it here. I mean if you do, it's amazing. I wish I had gone a long time ago."

***

One night at a comedic/musical open mike at Solly's U Street Tavern, Nancherla is the only woman among 10 guys of varying talents -- and, not counting the performers, there's an audience of two. Everyone gets five minutes, and some of those minutes feel awfully long: One guy plays the bass guitar while singing in Spanish. He's followed by a comedian who tells a joke about midget vampires, which causes Nancherla to roll her eyes. But nobody, including her, gets big laughs or applause in such a low-energy atmosphere. "It's hit or miss," she says, after the performance. "A lot of times, it's this -- then one good week occasionally." She reflects for a moment, then says, "It just feels like it's time."

***

On a bright October morning, Nancherla is crouched over a small suitcase on the floor, stuffed impossibly full of clothes for her move to Los Angeles. It's a few hours before her flight from Dulles,and she exudes calm, though her parents are nervous about their daughter's departure. Her father, Ananth, hovers over her. "You need your alarm clock," he insists. She tries to jam it into the near-bursting bag. Nancherla has already sent her car off to California, its trunk packed with more clothes and possessions. Her room is near-empty: Just the bed and a few stuffed animals remain (the many other stuffed animals have already been packed).

Her mother tells her, "I'm going to miss your silly talk. Like when you come in the door and you say, 'How are you doing, chickens?!' "

Out of earshot, Suchithra says, "I was feeling kind of blah this morning, but then I thought, This is what she wants. This will make her happy. . . . This is the love of her life." She adds that when her husband worries about the uncertainty of a new life in Los Angeles and the instability of comedy as a profession, "Aparna will say, 'Daddy, without this, I'm going to be very depressed.' "

Still, when Ananth comes downstairs to the kitchen, he's hiding his tears. He sets to work filling a paper bag with an enormous plastic container of homemade rice and curry, then several pieces of fruit, "to make it look benign," he jokes when Nancherla wonders whether the food will make it past security.

They gather up the last of her bags, and Ananth asks, "You sure you don't want to change your mind?" She laughs. She's told him so many times: "If I hate it, I'll move to New York. But it has to be one or the other."

She'll be staying with a friend she met a few years ago at an open mike in New York, joining her in a group house, where she's not entirely sure there's a spare bed for her. She mentions this casually to her parents, which causes their expressions of concern to deepen.

At Dulles, Nancherla checks her bags and heads with her parents away from the ticket area, but they soon stop, unsettled to realize that only passengers can enter the gates.

"Appi," her father says, "remember, two promises right?"

"Yeah," she says.

"What are they?"

"Exercise twice a week and home-cooked meals twice a week," she says, and smiles. They hug tightly. She waves at them as she turns the corner toward her gate, and then she is out of sight.

Christina Ianzito is a freelance writer in Washington. She can be reached at wpmagazine@washpost.com.

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