The Blue Woman Group, a new comedy podcast about depression, opens with a meditation—well, sort of. Led by comedians Aparna Nancherla and Jacqueline Novak, it’s a mix of deep breathing and humorous banter that proves self-reflection doesn’t need to be boring.
Each episode explores a potentially panic-inducing topic, like social media or crying at work, using clever quips and metaphors to bring dark thoughts into the light. It’s at once a light-hearted chat and deep dive into emotional pain, something the two self-described “depressives” are all too familiar with.
On the most recent episode, they playfully anthropomorphize worries: “[Today’s horrors] are just some thoughts that couldn’t find their car keys, and are wandering around the parking lot of your brain,” says Nancherla. “D1, E3, where did those thoughts park? Perhaps they should just walk home,” says Novak. “Yeah,” adds Nancherla. “It’s nice out!”
The podcast shatters the stigma around depression in a unique and incredibly intimate way. It’s a natural move for Nancherla, whose hysterical Twitter feed and stand-up often caters to the anxious and lonely. (“Why is there no emoji for sustained weeping over a lifetime?”)
As the podcast takes off, The Daily Beast talked to Nancherla about realizing she was funny, disliking the term “female comedian,” and which battles aren’t worth fighting.
Is depression something you’ve struggled with for a long time?
Yes, it’s pretty much something I’ve had my whole life that runs in my family, but I wasn’t really able to put a name to it until college, when it truly began to shine!
When was your first time doing stand-up?
I went up the first time on my 20th birthday and I remember I was so nervous. I invited my sister and another friend and, implicit bias aside, it went OK! I don’t know what I was expecting. I guess you anticipate a worst-case scenario where no one laughs and it’s very embarrassing, but it was my birthday so I definitely milked the audience for sympathy. I feel like if it hadn’t gone as well I probably would have stopped right then and there.
Did your family know you were funny?
Definitely between my mom, my sister, and I, we have a silly streak where we joke around whenever we get together, but I don’t think anyone in my family was like: “Oh yeah, we knew she was going to be a comedian.” It was more something I kind of discovered on my own randomly. Being a more shy, quiet person, when I did speak it would often be very dry comments, so then people would say, “Oh, you have a sense of humor” or “You make these funny observations.” That was my first indication that, “Oh, OK, I guess I see the world in a funny way.”
So you sort of harness this quiet side?
Yes, I think often people assume most comedians are the outgoing class clown-type and that is definitely one kind but there are so many neurotic, introverted comedians—the person who is very much observing everything and taking it in and putting it through their filter. I think I came at it more from that direction. I lived very much in my head, so stand-up was a way to bring that out, but I definitely wasn’t trying to be the center of attention in a room.
Were you shy at school?
I was a good student, but my teachers were always like, “She needs to talk more in class.” I think the thing about stand-up though is that I do have a lot of anxiety, especially social anxiety, but it’s a controlled environment and it’s the perfect way to be like, yes, I will be more extroverted, but in this very contained atmosphere.
What does a typical day look like for a stand-up comedian?
It depends if you’re just touring versus having a regular writing or acting job. It can be very bohemian with a lot of like naps, but it feels like a good skill to learn how to make your own schedule—even though it can be challenging. It’s a lot of weird stuff like answering emails and booking stuff that takes up more time than you’d think.
How does it feel to be a Twitter celebrity?
(Laughs). I don’t even think of myself as a Twitter celebrity. But Twitter…I think it’s helped me find an audience that I definitely wouldn’t have had before, a reach that I could not achieve through my own self-promotion because I honestly hate self-promoting. So it’s kind of a blessing in that it’s a way to get your stuff out there without having to be hitting people over the head with like “READ MY STUFF!” Instead, you can read it if you want to, but you certainly don’t have to.
You have a huge following on Twitter. Was there one event that set it off or just over time?
I don’t exactly know when it really picked up. I didn’t start it because of comedy, I started it because a friend was on it. So I would post things at work throughout the day and then I saw that other people were using it just to write jokes and I thought, hmm, that’s kind of fun, like word puzzles that you have to figure out, and I think that helped me hone in on my voice.
Do you care if people call you a female comedian instead of just a comedian?
I used to not be bothered by it, but now, I very much see how people often use it as a diminishing qualifier, and it reiterates the idea that a default comic is a man, and more often than not, a straight white man. And that is the norm versus “Oh, get ready for something a little different!” So I would prefer comedian, just like a writer would prefer not to be called a female writer, or a doctor would prefer not to be called a female doctor.
Do you experience sexism?
There is still a very much male-dominated undertone in stand-up, and it’s not like everything is fine and everyone gets to do all the shows and there are no problems. But I do think sometimes it’s confusing, like what battles are worth fighting? Is it worth getting on this show that has a misogynistic tone or is it better to just go start your own show? At the end of the day, it feels better to make your own work and stand behind it than to waste all this energy fighting someone who is not going to change their mind and prefers to perpetuate an antiquated system.
What was the inspiration for the podcast?
My good friend and fellow comedian Jacqueline Novak and I first bonded over both being depressives, specifically through daily correspondence over where our depression was at and how we were progressing through our given days. So then later, we had the idea of starting a podcast spun off of these daily progress reports. And we both have dealt with depression for most of our lives and learned to function within its fluctuations, so talking about it in a less clinical fashion with a comedic bent felt like a natural fit for us.
Do you think mental health/depression is under-covered in the entertainment world?
I think it’s steadily been getting more coverage through podcasts like the Mental Illness Happy Hour and WTF with Marc Maron, as well as stand-up comedians like Maria Bamford, and shows like In Treatment or movies like Welcome to Me, but there’s still room to grow and destigmatize it much further. There is still very much a bias in many communities toward getting help and treating people who struggle with it with empathy and understanding. It can be a very challenging topic given that it can cause people to isolate and/or behave in ways that may alienate them from friends and family.