A Word With Jen Spyra ’03

With an already formidable comedy career under her belt, the humorist turns her attention from the screen to the page with her debut collection of short stories

By Isabella Pechaty ’23

Headshot of Jen Spyra '03

Jen Spyra ’03 has already established herself as a culture-conscious, wisecracking voice in the entertainment world. The comedian held senior writing positions at The Onion and then at The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, where finding the funny in an otherwise tumultuous news cycle was her everyday task. As if this wasn’t challenging enough, Spyra, an English grad with an MFA in playwriting and screenwriting, has now begun her literary career with Big Time, a collection of humorous short stories that inject a dose of the bizarre into familiar tropes and storylines. 

What made you want to write fiction? 

I love the freedom you get in fiction. There’s no leash, and that’s exhilarating. I’ve found it to be totally addictive. It scrambled my DNA. When I was writing for The Onion or The Late Show, I was writing for an established editorial voice, and the job was to tweak my sensibility to serve those comedic brands. And I really enjoyed it, because I was already a big fan of Stephen’s and The Onion before I joined those writing staffs. But I always enjoyed writing fiction on the side because it was intoxicating to work outside the editorial parameters of a show or a publication.

I write about areas that I’m obsessed with, like influencer and celebrity culture, Old Hollywood, what it means to be a woman in today’s world. There’s a lot of feminist revisionist fantasizing in these stories. That’s really fun. And then I also write about emotions that feel urgent to me at the time. One of the stories I wrote as I was preparing for my wedding is called “Bridal Body,” and it’s about a woman who puts herself through hell to get ready for her wedding. That came from a personal place. 

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Book Cover of Big Time Stories
Photo Courtesy of Jen Spyra

You wrote for The Late Show With Stephen Colbert for several seasons. How did that experience inform your writing process for the book? 

It got me into the habit of producing volume. The show is a hungry animal, and it needs to be fed — whether or not that day’s headlines inspire you. So accustoming myself to producing lots of material, and then being okay when most of it gets thrown away, was huge.

Then there was the exciting daily exercise of pitching jokes specifically to Stephen and trying to write stuff that he’d really enjoy. I was a massive fan of his, I love his sensibility, and so stretching yourself to write for it was a joy — and because he’s got great, sharp, distinctive taste, it puts you in the habit of writing to hit that high mark. 

How do real-life observations make their way onto the page?

You want your writing to go down easy, you want it to be absorbed effortlessly — and the reader will bump against details that feel untrue. So making sure to weave in prosaic, unremarkable real-life details can help add a sense of believability to a premise that, in other moments, asks the reader to suspend disbelief. 

Why is it important to lend comedy and satire to our current lives? 

It would probably make more sense to spend time building some kind of habitable raft-village. But comedy does help with survival. Joan Rivers — fellow Barnard alum! — used to say, “When you make someone laugh, you give them a little vacation.” I love that quote. It’s so true. I know it feels that way when someone does it for me.

How did your background in English at Barnard help you with your writing today? 

Jennie Kassanoff, a professor in the English Department, was a huge inspiration. She’s brilliant and passionate about her work, and she brought a discipline to it that I really admired. I just wanted to be as smart and cool as she was. Take any class she’s doing!

What books have inspired your writing? 

I’m just going to rattle off some names and titles: Miranda July’s debut novel, The First Bad Man; Jean Kerr’s Please Don’t Eat the Daisies; Jack Handy’s oeuvre — all his collections, but his novel The Stench of Honolulu is particularly awesome; David Sedaris’ early fiction and any of his memoir essays; Adam Resnick’s amazing memoir Will Not Attend; P.G. Wodehouse — I’d highlight Carry on Jeeves and Quick Service; Roald Dahl’s fiction for adults — The Visitor is my favorite of his short stories; the short stories of Leonora Carrington; everything Simon Rich does; Jon Stewart’s collection Naked Pictures of Famous People; and this amazing memoir, I Await the Devil’s Coming, by Mary MacLane — it’s very funny, although it’s not going for straight humor.

Do you have any tips for aspiring comedy writers? 

I’d suggest steeping yourself in the work of writers you admire. Reading and watching stuff that inspires me is always so helpful. And when you encounter work you love, study it. And then just force yourself to get pages out. [This American Life host] Ira Glass has this great quote about the gulf between your taste and your ability being so huge when you’re first starting out — and how that’s devastating. But don’t worry, you don’t have to be fully formed right out of the gate — no one is! 

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