One-joke town: Can comics hit the big time in Washington?
"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.
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!' "