Thursday, June 25, 2009

Jen Dziura: Spelling out success in comedy

Comedy and spelling have a lot more in common than you think, and Jen Dziura is out to prove just that. As a founder [editor's note- our apologies, bobby blue is the founder] co-host of the Williamsburg Spelling Bee, an intellectual triathlon for adults, the New York native has her sights set on conquering not only the world of academic bees, but that of smarty-pants comedy as well. And with the recent success of her one-woman show, What Philosophy Majors Do After College, waiting in the unemployment line seems like the least likely scenario for comedy's queen bee. Hear what Jen has to say as she checks in with Wisecrack to discuss the correlation between grammar and comedy, getting back on her feet after failure, and Pee-Wee Herman in drag.

Wisecrack: Have you always known you wanted to pursue a career in comedy? Can you name a specific instance in which life drove you to laughs?

Jen Dziura: You know, that's a funny question, because I'm not totally sure what I'm doing now is exactly about pursing a career in comedy. I've always felt as though there's a Venn Diagram at play -- there's comedy, and there's my Platonic ideal of being the best possible public version of myself, and there's some overlap in the middle that is my working space.

I saw Sandra Bernhard's "Without You I'm Nothing" on DVD in a Queer Studies class in college, and I think that was pretty formative for me. And then I saw Josh Kornbluth's monologue show about being a math major, but at the time (in college) I was training to be an action adventure star in the movies -- I was captain of the boxing team for awhile, I did martial arts and rock climbing and bodybuilding and wrote a screenplay that I would theoretically star in, about a teenage lesbian superhero.

So it all took awhile to gel and come around to my running an adult spelling bee and telling jokes about philosophy. I can no longer do as many pull-ups as I once could.

W: Is there an inherent relationship between good spelling and good comedy? How are the two connected?

JD: I'm not sure about spelling, but there's a strong correlation between irregular grammar and comedy. For instance, just take a basic joke form such as the "your mom" joke. Compare:

What I love about your mom are (noun), (noun), and (insulting noun).

What I love about your mom are (noun), (noun), and (insulting independent clause).

Both forms have a "surprise" at the end in that the third item in the list does not actually belong in a list of things the speaker loves about the subject, but the first joke template obeys the principle of grammatical parallelism and, despite the nouns chosen, will likely end up only moderately funny; the second violates the conventions of grammatical parallelism, and is thereby already funnier. Try it!

Another good example -- the other day, I made some vegan ravioli for myself, and they were kind of hideously green, due to some kind of spinach pasta situation. Also, they had come apart in the pot a little bit and were leaking things like peas and beans. My boyfriend looked over and said, "Oh look, you made boiled terribles!"

It was such a funny comment because "terrible," of course, isn't a noun. I don't think "boiled disasters," for instance, would have been as funny at all; a great part of the humor was in the surprising (and technically incorrect) diction.

W: You seem to have a wide-ranging array of interests, from comedy to martial arts to nearly every facet of academia. Can you describe the process by which you brought all of these things together to formulate a bankable career?

JD: Well, thank you for assuming that I masterminded the whole thing! I think it was quite a bit more haphazard than that. And it involved a lot of failing. I failed at running a dot-com, I failed at shopping around a screenplay, I failed at making a living as an art school model, I failed at holding a 9-5 job, I failed at getting myself into the traditional comedy club system.

I also tried a lot of things that didn't stick. The martial arts didn't stick. Some other things I've tried that didn't stick include skydiving and lesbianism. (No connection).

Somewhere in the middle of all the failing, when I was living in East Harlem in one of those hallways that people cordon off with a shower curtain and rent out as a bedroom (welcome to New York!), someone asked me to host an adult spelling bee. That was in 2004. And I've been doing that every other Monday since then. The high-water mark may have been when the New York Times ran a story about the bee on the front page of the style section, and that night, Bill Maher made fun of us on his show. It was in the "New Rules" segment -- as in, "New Rule: Adults must stop acting like children. The kids are going to spelling bees in bars!" I think the low-water mark was when Law and Order: Criminal Intent put out a casting call for, um, an actress to play a "female 20-something host of an adult spelling bee in a Brooklyn hipster bar." Seriously. I sent them something ("You know, I could just make a cameo as myself -- ever hear that story about the time Charlie Chaplin entered a Charlie Chaplin lookalike contest and came in third?") but didn't get anywhere. Finally, the episode came out, and of course it was awful. As in, the Brooklyn "hipsters" had bleach-blond gelled hairdos and earnestly said things like, "I just want to ROCK, man!" In other words, they were straight out of a 1987 Pop Tarts commercial on Nickelodeon. I never did get to see who they cast as me, because the spelling bee scene had been cut -- there was just a mention that the "hipsters" had attended a spelling bee before one of them was murdered. Jeff Goldblum got to be all, "Kids these days! Spelling bees! Pshaw!"

Anyway, the spelling bee happened and became very popular, and then I started running geography, math, trivia, and vocabulary tournaments for adults, and somehow word got around the internet that I tell a lot of grammar jokes, and then I was in a pilot for a show on the Sci Fi Channel that didn't get made, and every once in awhile something awesome would happen, like the time I had this piece on McSweeney's that was getting a lot of hits, and then someone posted it on, and then someone trying to be mean commented that I look like "Pee -Wee Herman in drag" and I said, "Oh my god, it's true!" It was a great feeling, like finding a long-lost twin. But a twin with his own playhouse!

Keep in mind, though, that this all happened really, really slowly, over a period during which I couldn't help being aware that I am aging, as are we all, and that Hollywood cares about this sort of thing an awful lot. I'm waiting to get some really good crow's feet so I can have diamonds embedded in them. Don't steal my idea!

So, no master plan. I just realized, over years of trying things, that I am good at hosting intellectual game shows and being nice to people even when they get the answers wrong, and that I'm good at telling jokes for smart, polite people. If I could just tour from library convention to library convention ... oh, a girl can dream!

W: What is your favorite word to spell, and why?

JD: For years, one of my favorite words was "apropos," because I learned that word as a young teenager from a translation of Dostoevsky's "Notes from the Underground" in which the book's second part is called "Apropos to the Wet Snow." Could that possibly have also rhymed in Russian?

Here are some of my favorite words from the Williamsburg Spelling Bee:

chionablepsia - snow blindness
rhinorrhagia - nosebleed
horologium - timepiece
discalced - barefoot, especially of a monastic order
poetomachia - an Elizabethan "War of the Theaters"
kakidrosis - smelly perspiration

Of course, that last one shares a root with:
kakistocracy - rule by evil men

Which reminds me a bit of:
hecatontarchy - rule by one hundred rulers

Which reminds me that this word is not "rule by eight rulers," which would instead be "octocracy":
ochlocracy - mob rule

And then there are the classics: lepidopterology, triskadecaphobia, trichotillomania, rhododendron, hyacinthine, hippopotamian. For the literature buffs: Lilliputian, Brobdingnagian, quixotic. Many of the hardest words are not from Romance languages: schipperke, aebleskive.

And if I'm going to go all meta on your ass: sesquipedalianism.

W: Ten years from today, what is the life of Jennifer Dziura going to look like?

JD: Hopefully no chionablepsia, rhinorrhagia, kakistocracy, etc.

In comedy, I'm really moving away from telling 15 minutes of jokes here and 15 minutes of jokes there.... I'm just going to develop one big show every six to twelve months, and do that show a few times, and then go back inside my head for a few months. I admire people like Mike Daisey, who do just that. Spaulding Gray's "Swimming to Cambodia" was really seminal for me. Of course "seminal" is a pretty gross word. And it's funny, I've donated eggs -- maybe I should insist that creative works that really influenced you be referred to as "ovoid." Of course, that just means "egg-shaped," which, in virtually all cases of seminal works, is simply not true.

The going back inside my head business is really crucial for me, and I've come to terms with the fact that stand-up comedy does not create a huge overlap on the Venn Diagram with what I know my mission to be. I've never been one of those comics who needs to be on stage five nights a week. I'm going to save it all up -- you can come watch me once or twice a year. It'll be more special that way. You'll be more likely to buy me alcohol when it's over, because of the extra specialness. Hmmn, you know what's never happened? Cute young men don't come up to me after the show and ask me to autograph their chests. I would like to autograph some chests. I just realized that that's a goal.

My current one-woman show is called, "What Philosophy Majors Do After College." I'm doing it August 7th in New York at The P.I.T., and then taking it on the road. Then, a book, a comedy CD.... Over the next ten years, I'd like to do a live show a year or so, and do more projects for television, hosting a reality show or variety show, ultimately landing a talk show. (Have I mentioned that Dick Cavett is a national treasure? That's what I mean when I say "talk show.") I'm going to have some kids who are really good at spelling. And a nanny who makes mimosas.

Also, I just moved into this Wall Street apartment that has a 25th-floor balcony, and I put a hammock on that balcony, and every time I lie on the hammock and look up the side of my 50-story building, I imagine that Batman's on his way, which I think can only be a plus for my creative process.

Read more from Jen in her McSweeney's pieces:


  1. I think "Swimming to Cambodia" was oval. Feminists' oval could be like surfers' tubular.

  2. Great interview! Love her favorite words to spell.

  3. Actually, Bobby Blue - was the founder of the Williamsburg Spelling Bee.