Jen Dziura is a comedian, writer, and co-host of the popular Williamsburg Adult Spelling Bee, among other New York City verbal, math, and trivia contests (including the Chelsea Vocabulary Tournament, in which Arbiter of Style Austin has participated on several occasions). She has lent her coruscating wit to projects as various as articles for McSweeney’s magazine, a blog called Jen Is Famous, a one-woman show about philosophy, and a stand-up comedy tour for U.S. troops in the Middle East. Occasionally malapert but never jejune, she weaves her love of language into all her material and even claims, in stronger vocabulary than we are permitted on this site, to have experienced a sensual frisson induced by grammatical perfection. Recently she agreed to answer a few questions about words, humor, and the hazards of travel in Djibouti.
AMoS: How did you get your start in comedy, and how did that lead to your gig with the Williamsburg Spelling Bee?
JD: As a teenager, I wrote a humor column for the local newspaper. This got me a good deal of hate mail from the religious right, even in my adolescent years—some people would actually send physical letters to me in care of my high school, and my homeroom teacher would drop them on my desk. I would open them during class and laugh hysterically at the suggestion that Jesus would be dismayed at my burgeoning portfolio of hilarity on topics such as Jell-O, the SAT, gym class, and the Pledge of Allegiance. I think that’s where it all began.
I started performing standup in New York about six years ago. Since then, I’ve done comedy on three continents and at colleges and clubs from Boise to Raleigh-Durham to LA. I produce Ivy League comedy shows for private clubs and recently hosted the “Geeks and Freaks” show for the Hysterical Festival, New York’s first all-women comedy festival. I once did a horrible show at a casino where every time I’d get to a punch line, some old lady would win on the slots or the bartender would make a daiquiri.
The spelling bee was founded by my co-host, bobbyblue, who was inspired by the movie “Spellbound” to create a local adult bee. I competed in the first one as a contestant, and the bar asked me to come back and co-host. We’ve since held well over a hundred spelling bees, and are in our ninth bi-annual season.
It’s due to the spelling bee that I know “chionablepsia” (snow blindness), “strephosymbolia” (transposition of letters or numbers while reading), and “amygdaline” (like an almond or tonsil).
AMoS: Along with spelling and vocabulary tournaments, you co-host a geography bee, a math bee, and a general trivia contest. Which of these subjects are you, personally, best at?
JD: Good question! I like to think I’m the Michael Phelps of vocabulary, spelling, and math. But shorter, and less likely to eat more than one chicken parm hero at a time. I don’t actually know anything about geography; my co-host Meg handles all of that. As for trivia—well, you know the word itself means “trifles, unimportant things.” I like to think I am a master of the non-negligible.
AMoS: What word do you most frequently misspell?
JD: However would I know?
AMoS: Please use the following three words in a sentence: “uberous,” “polyphagia,” “soffit.” No fair using dictionary.com (we’re on the honor system here). We’ll award up to three bonus points for style.
JD: Austin, I’ve never given you words that hard at the Vocab Tournament! No one would come to an event that daunting. I looked up “soffit.” Turns out I don’t know anything about architecture (soffit = the underside of a structural component, such as a beam, arch, staircase, or cornice). I do know, however, that the underside of a structural component is usually the most sensitive part.
[Note: "soffit" does indeed mean the underside of a beam, arch, etc.; "uberous" means "fruitful, abundant" and "polyphagia" means "excessive desire to eat" or "omnivorousness." Sadly, we can't award any points on definitions, but we are giving the full three style points to Ms. Dziura for her double entendre. It's true that we picked perversely obscure words, although we're pretty sure we once saw Philip Roth use "uberous" in an equally salacious context. But we digress. - Ed.]
AMoS: You once served as a televised expert on “how to be witty.” We try, God knows, but it is so difficult. Can you give us some quick tips?
JD: Write your witticisms ahead of time. Alphabetize them, and memorize them in that order. Nod during whatever your date says, and whenever he or she pauses, recite the next witticism on the list. Warning: this method could cause you to fail the Turing Test.
AMoS: Given that you host the Williamsburg Spelling Bee, keep a popular blog, and contribute to McSweeney’s, do you find that you’ve become a hipster icon? When you walk down Bedford Avenue, do you get mobbed by people in skinny jeans and ill-considered headgear?
JD: If only! I’m not a hipster; I am a professional nerd. Not to make everyone uncomfortable by talking about class in America, but if you grow up lower-middle-class, I can’t imagine why you’d want to shop in a thrift store when you don’t have to. I love new things. Specifically, the exact new thing the mannequin at a national retail establishment is wearing right now. I want that. And I want to look just like the mannequin—tall, smooth, hard, no nipples.
While I spend every Monday evening in Williamsburg, I actually live in Manhattan, half a block from Starbucks, where the baristas know that I want an iced trippio, and I want it expeditiously. I am totally in bed with The Man. I may be wearing a “Here’s Looking at Euclid” T-shirt, but I love capitalism like a fat kid loves cake.
AMoS: Tell us about your experience entertaining U.S. troops in the Middle East. Did your set go over well? Would you do it again?
JD: For three weeks, I toured U.S. military bases in Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, and Djibouti with three other comics, doing shows for crowds of usually several hundred soldiers at a time (many of them armed!). Before leaving, Armed Forces Entertainment informed me that I was not permitted to tell any jokes about sex or politics. All fine and good. As soon as I arrived on base, however, a commanding officer would say something like “You’ve got some sex jokes, right? ‘Cause that’s all these guys want to hear.”
It was 120 degrees in the Middle East in August. I’ve never felt anything like it. The troops liked to say it was like “putting your head in an oven and throwing a bag of sand in your face.” I could feel the premature aging. I moisturized like a madwoman.
Every mode of transportation involved in the tour was extremely uncomfortable and extremely awesome. We were flown out to the middle of the Persian Gulf in a tiny plane, landed on the top of an aircraft carrier, did a show in the hangar, were flown in a helicopter to another ship where we did a show in the mess hall, were flown back by helicopter, then took off from the deck of the aircraft carrier in another tiny plane, in which you get strapped in the way you are strapped in to a roller coaster, and then the plane is shot off the end of the aircraft carrier with superheated steam. We also rode in a Learjet from Kuwait to Qatar, and were strapped in to the back of a (bathroomless) cargo plane from Qatar to Djibouti.
In Djibouti, even on base, you brush your teeth with bottled water to try to avoid malaria.
I didn’t tell my grammar jokes. I told a lot of new jokes about sand.
AMoS: According to your website, you are famous. Apart from this interview, how do you plan to become more famous in the future?
JD: Damn, do you mean that this interview isn’t going to do the trick?
Alas, interviews with The Abbeville Manual of Style won’t make you famous among the masses—just envied among the cognoscenti. Uberous thanks to Jen Dziura for her time, and remember to check out the 2009 Williamsburg Spelling Bee (starting Feb. 2 at Pete’s Candy Store), New York City Spelling Bee (starting Jan. 31), and Chelsea Mind Games tournaments (starting Jan. 7 with Team Trivia at Chelsea Market). Click the links for full details on each. See you there!