The office comedy Corporate can be bleak—so bleak that it sometimes circles around to relatable, as it follows two groggy-looking junior executives who fluctuate between being strung out and just shrugging off their terrible work conditions. The show follows a handful of employees at Hampton Deville, a soulless corporation that tends to exploit human tragedy for its own profit. (Its tagline is “We don’t make anything, we make everything.”) Whereas the quiet subtext of its predecessor The Office was that the work was boring and the workplace was antagonistic, Corporate lets that dynamic play out in a workplace that is patently evil. The characters’s fantasies—where they dream of praise or going home—are laid bare, and though the show can verge on chaotic, it’s hard to look away.
Comedian Aparna Nancherla (who previously wrote for Late Night with Seth Meyers and has been on Crashing, Bojack Horseman, and Netflix’s The Standups) plays Grace, a Human Resources employee. Grace is as no-nonsense about the workplace as she is about her desire to pick the pink Starbursts out of the candy bowl in the office kitchen or stay home on occasion to just read a book and masturbate. The character and the premise of Corporate are a natural fit for Nancherla, who has made a name for herself in the standup comedy world by joking baldly about her experiences with anxiety and depression.
There’s a beautiful quality to a lot of Nancherla’s jokes about what could otherwise be generally dark thoughts—she delivers them with such an affable disposition and so little judgement that they almost feel more like affirmations. Her humor is not self-deprecating as much as it confronts the fact that everyone else has gone through something similar once, that talking helps, and that, all things being equal, human existence can tend to be very embarrassing and dumb.
Nancherla spoke to Jezebel over the phone about the latest season of Corporate, the potential pitfalls of making anxiety your brand, and how she just started reading the Harry Potter series. Below is a lightly edited and condensed transcription of our conversation.
JEZEBEL: A lot of Corporate is about getting up and going to work every day at a place you hate and realizing the system doesn’t care about you. Have you ever had a really terrible office job?
APARNA NANCHERLA: I temped at a big studio when I was living in Los Angeles and still doing comedy at night. As a temp, you’re already like, half-invested—but I would see how everyone became these pawns under this big umbrella of people in charge that you never really saw. [There] were these kind of faceless entities that would occasionally give us information, or be like, “This big thing happened and now we all have to go to this meeting!” And there are like, cupcakes for some reason. It felt very impersonal.
I worked for a long time in D.C., where I started comedy, at a trade association magazine and it was kind of interesting because the magazine was about studying the workplace. It was kind of a meta job about how offices manage their employees and how can they do it better and how can they make people more motivated. So that was an odd job to have, to be like, ‘How do companies sort of teach... slash trick their employees into loving their jobs more?’ But I wouldn’t say I’ve ever had a job that was quite as nihilistic as the one on Corporate.
Right, the show is a super exaggerated version of that. But for me, the best parts are when the characters say something out loud that like, in real life, you would just think to yourself and not tell anyone and bury deep down.
I think in office environments, there’s this kind of facade of smiley-ness and productivity that masks any problems or issues people are having. And Corporate plays with that, with the things you would never actually be allowed to say at work.
I thought Season 2 was a little more light-hearted—it’s still dark, but there are definitely more antics.
Yeah, it definitely pushes itself in terms of like, getting weirder and sillier with some of the characters and the directions that it goes in.
Your character Grace works in HR, which is supposed to be the moral backbone of a place—but at the end of the day, she’s also just someone who wants to go home like everyone else. Were you nervous about walking that line?
It’s unusual to have an HR person who’s as jaded as some of the other departments, because you’re used to seeing them as the straight man, or the person who instills reason back into whatever hijinks happen in the office. But it is interesting to have an HR person who feels equally fed up with the system or cynical about how effective it is. And I think [Corporate] plays with the idea—now where we’ve had more transparency about things in the workplace, where there’s MeToo or other types of corruption—that HR might not be as effective in providing justice as people have thought it to be.
At the end of the day, it’s another person who might be similarly flawed and have their own agenda.
Do you think there’s more of an appetite now for comedy about anxiety?
Yeah, it’s interesting because as a standup, I did notice that since the election, all the standup shows I’ve done have been more well-attended and there seems to be no shortage of people wanting to [see comedy]. Whether that’s to escape the news or get a lighter take on everything that’s happening in the world, there seems to be more of an appetite for catharsis, maybe, for all of the fear and uncertainty that people are feeling. Some of [that comedy] is probably pure escapism—but I think people also appreciate—like we were talking about earlier—someone saying, “This is what’s happening and this is how I’m processing it and these are the dark thoughts I’m having.”
The irony is that, on Corporate, they hate going to work, but life still has to go on—they keep going to work, and they find these moments of humor or silliness, within the larger context of feeling like, “Okay, I’d rather not be here right now.”
Yeah, totally. The bad guy in Corporate is like, capitalism—but in the same way that Jurassic Park was like, “Nature finds a way,” it’s like, “Humanity finds a way.” There’s still a way to be people in the face of it all.
I know you’re open about your experiences with anxiety in your standup, and I wonder how you balance that against still being funny and if you’re ever worried about crossing a line. Did you have to figure out what the line was?
I’m still always wrestling with it, because I do appreciate hearing other people talk about darker things and feeling seen or heard by them expressing similar struggles that I would deal with.
But maybe the counterpoint to that is, how much is digging too far? Or if you make it a part of your brand in a way where you’re like, “Well, now do I have an unhealthy relationship to these things because they’ve come to define who I am?” So I wrestle with that personally, and I think I’m always trying to negotiate what my relationship is to the things I talk about onstage. In a way, I don’t want my work and my art to become synonymous with who I am as a person, because I think we’re all changing and evolving.
Lately, I’ve been on the more cynical side of things. In the same way that people say on the internet you shouldn’t respond to your trolls, the people who are clearly trying to bait you—if I talk too much about anxiety and depression onstage, is that feeding them and giving them more room in my brain? I’ve been having that battle about it. But I think being just aware [of that] is a good thing to keep in mind, because I think, as someone who overthinks everything, it’s impossible for me to not just get lost in my own brain about that battle.
Thinking about the way people perceive you and your work, you mean?
Right, and whether there’s a limit to putting your own struggles up as like, entertainment.
I do feel like there’s been a trend in comedy, starting maybe with like, Girls and Broad City and now with Big Mouth and I don’t know if you’ve been watching this show on Hulu, Pen15.
Oh yeah! I’m like three episodes in, but it definitely plays with the idea of like, discomfort and comedy.
Yeah, I don’t know if it’s oversharing necessarily, but there’s more room to “be real” in comedy, whatever that means.
But with any other trend that gets oversaturated, it’s almost like now people truly have to go pretty far to outdo whatever came before it. So it’s like, what is the most extreme oversharing you can do?
Right. Are there any jokes that you’ve regretted adding to your standup, or that you’ve tried out and then been like, “Oh, that’s not landing”?
I’ve done stuff about suicidal thoughts and I’m always just worried about, even as someone who needs to be able to laugh at depression and anxiety, I don’t know how much I want to make fun of it, based on not knowing where everyone in the audience is at in their own struggles. I’m constantly negotiating with how much I want to share versus what someone else hearing it might then interpret it as. Which you can’t—really as a comedian, you can’t think about that so much, or you would never write anything. But at least with some areas, I’m a bit more cautious.
Has you relationship to anxiety changed by writing about it?
The good thing about writing is at least it gives you a layer of removal from [the thing you’re writing about], so you’re an observer to something that’s happening to you. I think the thing that can be so tricky and insidious about depression and anxiety is that you feel so consumed by them that you can’t think outside of them. Writing allows you to say, “This is what is happening to me, but it doesn’t have to color my reality.” You have be an impartial narrator to the best of your ability.
What you’ve been up to since wrapping Season 2 of Corporate?
I actually worked on this show that’s going to come out—I guess Apple is launching their own kind of streaming network, but I think they’ve still been pretty hush-hush about when it’s coming out and how they’re going to make it work. But I feel like they’ve announced a bunch of the programming at least, and the show that I worked on, I wrote on it and then I shot a sketch role on it. It’s by the It’s Always Sunny creator Rob McElhenney and it’s another workplace comedy, but it’s at a video game company, and it’s about the world of gaming and that whole sort of subculture.
Are there any shows you’ve been watching lately that you’ve really enjoyed?
I started that Hulu show Pen15, and I love it so far and I think the two leads are great. I just watched the Fyre Festival documentary, and that was... intense! I’ve actually been reading a lot. I’m very late—very late—to Harry Potter, but was sick over the holidays and started reading it at my boyfriend’s parents’ house and now I’ve just finished Book 6 and I’m like, I know no one is talking about this now but I would love to sit down with someone... and discuss.
Oh my god.
How do you feel?
I mean, I’ve been completely sucked in, I don’t know how I missed the boat before—I don’t know, I guess it wasn’t my time to read it. But yeah, I recently got a library card, and I’ve completely become infatuated with the library again.
Well, I hope you enjoy Book 7. I’ve always thought there should be a way for people who just discovered the Harry Potter books to talk about it.
Oh yeah. [laughs] There’s just so much to discuss!