Jen Spyra, a former writer for The Onion and The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, joins Zibby to talk about her new book of short stories, Big Time. Jen shares how she wanted to write stories that weren’t TV-friendly (and that wouldn’t be rejected in a writer’s room), as well as how she drew inspiration by recalling events from her life and asking, “What if this had turned out differently?”


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Jen. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Big Time: Stories.

Jen Spyra: Oh, my god, Zibby, thank you so much for having me. I’m so honored to be folded in in some way into the empire.

Zibby: Aw, that’s a nice thing to say. Folded into the empire, love it. Your stories, you are funny. You are dark. Your mind goes to these crazy places. I was reading and I was like, oh, she is interesting. Let me talk to her. Oh, my gosh, tell me about writing these stories. How did this all even happen?

Jen: First of all, thank you so much. That is awesome to hear. It happened because I’ve been on comedy staffs for the past seven years. First, three years at The Onion, and then four years at The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. During that time, my fun hobby and the way that I felt like I could cope with the daily rejection of those jobs was to do my own stuff where no one could tell me no and where I could be the boss and also explore things that weren’t necessarily appropriate for the editorial voice of wherever I was working. The book started as, I started writing these one-pager, funny stories for The New Yorker in their Shouts & Murmurs column, which made me feel so fancy. I had eight years of rejection before they got me, they took one of them. There was a lot of that. Then I, on my own, just started to, in the tiniest little segments, I was doing one-pagers. Then I did a five-page story and then a seven-page story. Can I do a ten-pager? Can I do a twenty-pager? Then the last story’s a novella. It’s a hundred. There was so much learning on the fly about fiction and about prose. I have written so many sketches and monologue jokes and monologues. All of the stuff that you have to include in a story for pacing, for breathing for the reader, that’s all stuff that I was trained never to include because it’s all fat in the old stuff I used to write. Getting to include that, that was the real learning. Anyhoo, in terms of where it’s all coming from, it was really fun to write things that were not TV friendly.

Zibby: All your stories start out fairly traditional. Okay, a bride wants to get ready for her big day. Oh, I treat my first kid different than my second kid. I’m in the backyard building a snowman. All these things I’m doing seem okay. Then next thing you know, a page or two in, you’re like, wait, what? Now the bride is stuck in some horrific, I don’t even know, cult world in a cave. The daughter is — it’s crazy. I love this sense of imagination that you have that veers off. I understand your background and all of that, but when you start to go off in these funny ways, is that just the way your brain works when you think about funny situations? Is it a shock — not shock, but just explain when those turning points happen in all your stories, pretty much.

Jen: That’s such a good question. All of those very silly, whimsical, fantastical, and then often dark turns, they’re so rooted in real experiences that I’ve had that have then generated these very real, relatable emotions: anger, jealously, anxiety. The Bridal Body story, which is about a bride who wants to get hot for her wedding day, that was just like me. I just fell into that trap really hard. I ended up spending so much time focusing on — it was almost like a game I was playing with myself where I was like, okay, how far can I take this? How hot can I get in my life? Then the absurdity of what I was doing and how beside the point it was for the actual wedding, that started to strike me as funny. Then I started just doing these thought experiments of, gee, how far could it go? Could I get so hot that I would be so hot that the only guys left in my league would be Timothée Chalamet and The Rock? It would render my wedding not even necessary. Thoughts like that started to pop up as I was like, I’m wasting so much time on all these exercise classes and various treatments. I wanted to ring some creative success out of all that wasted time. Outside of work, I was doing all this other stuff. I was like, I better get some freaking copy out of all this time I’m wasting. Then for the First Kid, Second Kid, it’s funny because everyone thinks that I’m the second kid, but I was the daughter with the canopy bed. I was the first kid. Just thinking about all the ways that my sister didn’t — the attention that she didn’t get and the attention that I loved so much, if I didn’t get that, what would I have been? I would’ve been a monster. As crazy as they get, they usually start from places of empathy and places that I’ve been.

Zibby: And that so many of us have been. I feel like I did an hour and a half yoga class the morning of my wedding. I remember walking to the park and being like, oh, the only one is the Exhale on Central Park South. I have to go to that particular studio.

Jen: I know that Exhale.

Zibby: Then I ran to Weight Watchers. I was like, now I have weigh in. Oh, no, I’m a pound higher. I was in my head at that time about that whole thing. It was awful. I wasn’t even sleeping.

Jen: I was not sleeping. I love that you said you went to Weight Watchers right before. I’ve done Weight Watchers since I’m twelve for different — oh, god, I love Weight Watchers. It’s funny, I remember doing my last arm exercises the morning of and just being like, oh, there’s nothing else I can do, looking in the mirror and being like, all right, that’s it. There’s nothing else. It’s happening now.

Zibby: Of course, then we’re all setting ourselves up for what? These unrealistic — I’m never going to go back to that. Not to mention that I was twenty-something. Really?

Jen: Totally. It’s definitely a besides-the-point game. I’ve been so impressed with friends who buy their wedding dress a year before. They have no thought of their goal weight. They’re just like, oh, this one looks good. I’m like, that is not how I did it.

Zibby: I have to say, not to talk about me, but for my second wedding, I got a chance to do it all “better.” I was much older. I had four kids. I was like, okay, this wedding is about our relationship. It has nothing to do with — I literally was like, I’m not going to try to lose weight for this wedding. This is who I am. I bought a dress that fit that day, and it was okay. I was forty years old by the time I figured that out.

Jen: Wow, that’s so freaking cool, though.

Zibby: Whatever. Anyway, point is, I could completely relate to that essay. Not essay, sorry, story. You’re so funny, too, with your voices, like the Uncle Mickey or whoever with the snowman. Who are these people? It’s crazy.

Jen: You are so right. Sidebar, the actor that reads that in the audiobook is Dan Stevens. He’s this British — he was the beast in Beauty and the Beast. He reads all these fancy audiobooks. He does the Agatha Christie estate. He does the Ian Fleming estate, the Roald Dahl. His voice, his New Jersey accent was hilarious. That is really, honestly — my mom and my dad are so from two different worlds. My mom is from this sophisticated, Jewish world in Pittsburgh. My dad is also from Pittsburgh, but it’s literally the other side of the tracks. He was a Polish Catholic. My dad’s a lawyer. He has all these friends and workers. I’ve grown up around these guys. They’re just one of those guys to me. I made him be New Jersey, but I think of these things in Pittsburgh accents in these weird Pittsburgh cities.

Zibby: By the way, what you said about having something to decide — I was just with Liz Astrof who I became friends with after she was on my podcast two years or something. She wrote this hilarious book. She’s a screenwriter and a TV writer and everything. She’s like, “I write essays because there doesn’t have to be any input. I can do what I want.” I feel like you guys should meet.

Jen: That’s so cool that she had that, that she also came from the screenwriting world. I know, I was expecting so much more note-giving as I was working with my editors at Random House. I had no idea the kid-glove treatment you get. It’s super sweet.

Zibby: Are you now hooked on books? How did you feel ?

Jen: Oh, my god, I am so hooked. What I want to do is just keep doing both and keep doing books on the side and always have it as a valve. Once you taste the freedom, it scrambles your DNA. It’s your fantasy. Whenever you’re on a staff, you always hear no for different good reasons. There’s different reasonable reasons why things don’t make sense that you want to do. This was intoxicating. I want to keep doing this and then definitely still do TV. Hopefully, there will be adaptations of things from the book. I just would love to write my own ticket more in TV. That’s the diff.

Zibby: That sounds .

Jen: It does. It really does. I know, it’d be cool if it could happen. I want to be in that room. That’s actually the only thing I’m really gunning for, is to make that room that you’re in and have it be my room. Your room is gorgeous, behind you. I’m looking behind you.

Zibby: Just come on over.

Jen: Oh, my god, Zibby.

Zibby: Are you in New York, by the way?

Jen: I’m in New Orleans in a hotel right now. I am en route back New York. My husband and I did a crazy thing where we literally just lived in Savannah. When COVID started, we just put our stuff in storage. We don’t know anyone in Savannah, but I needed to finish the book and I knew that I needed to have space outside at a café to write because that’s how I do it. It wasn’t going to happen in the city. We’re coming back, though, in a few weeks. I’m thrilled.

Zibby: All right, so you can just come and hang out. You don’t have to .

Jen: Cool. Okay, it doesn’t have to be a life-long people project.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. What do you like to read? Do you like a similar — what’s your go-to?

Jen: I do it for pleasure, but I also have to do it for comedy stuff. In comedy, you need to constantly be folding in other people’s experiences and other worlds and languages. I’m always reading historical, high-stakes nonfiction so that I can literally give myself new metaphors to use. I’m doing that. I was recently reading the David McCullough Johnstown Flood book. It’s just really interesting. I’m always trying to find those out. For my own fun pleasure, the thing that I wrote is — it’s funny, I’m thinking of this quote that I love that’s so insane from Jaden and Willow Smith. There was a crazy interview they did where they said that they only read books that they write.

Zibby: What?

Jen: I know. It’s so amazing. It’s true that the thing that I wrote is a thing that I would like to read. I do read things that are kind of similar. I love Simon Rich’s work. I don’t know if you’ve ever — yes, what do you have?

Zibby: His new book.

Jen: Hits & Misses?

Zibby: Hold on.

Jen: Oh, you have his new one, Baby Teeth.

Zibby: Yes.

Jen: Of course, Zibby. Very cool.

Zibby: I don’t know where it is. It was right here a minute ago.

Jen: I love his stuff. Actually, I always get recommendations from the authors I love. I find out the stuff that they love. I’ve naturally gravitated to Simon. I love Jack Handey short stories. I recently found Jean Kerr’s Please Don’t Eat the Daisies. Have you read that?

Zibby: No.

Jen: Zibby, you have to read that.

Zibby: I’ll write it down.

Jen: Zibby, I feel horrible because I am absolutely on the floor. I’m so impressed with your output, how much you read, and how much you do. I feel, actually, disgusting giving anything to do. It’s from 1954. There was a Doris Day movie based on it. Jean Kerr was married to Walter Kerr, who was the big New York theater critic. Actually, it’s about the tensions of being a mom and also working and writing. It’s from 1954. It’s so fresh and modern and funny. I was blown away. Sidebar, Simon is obsessed with Roald Dahl’s fiction for adults. I’ve just been blowing through them. This is My Uncle Oswald. Roald Dahl’s fiction for adults, I found it two months ago. I’m furious I haven’t had it in my life my whole life.

Zibby: Wow.

Jen: Oh, Zibby, yeah.

Zibby: Wait, Jen, how did you become a comedy writer to begin with? How did you get involved with the Stephen Colbert show? How did this all happen?

Jen: It’s so funny because all of my friends, they were so not like me. They were the normal way you get it where as a kid, you’re obsessed with late night and comedy. You read about comedy. Oh, my god, that wasn’t me at all. I never watched late night. I wasn’t aware of comedy as a career. I got The Late Show because I had worked at The Onion. I had sparked to comedy. I did get the break of getting picked out of a slush pile for Colbert. That was the most exhilarating call, the most exhilarating interview with Steve. It kind of felt like it was so the small time that I was in. Then it was like, everything changed in one day. It was so cool and fun. I know that he was impressed that I’d been at The Onion because he’s a fan. I was a fan before I was writing there. Getting The Onion, that was the real break. They have a really deep bench of people that they groom. I wasn’t on it. I had no friends there. I heard from a friend of a friend that, here’s the application if you want to apply. I just worked like a dog for two weeks on the packet.

I was scared because I always thought my whole life, I’d be really good at that, but I never tried. Then it was like, here’s your chance. As I was doing it, it was such a reckoning. It was like, oh, my god. It felt like my identity as a funny person was on the line. Put your money where your mouth is. You think you’re good at this? Okay, let’s see if you’re really good at this. Then amazingly, I did get this lucky break where they let me come on as a fellow. That was what I was applying for, a fellowship. It’s a six-month audition. That’s how they get their new people. I’ve never worked harder in my life than I did for that six months. Then you get it. Then of course, at the jobs that I’ve had, there’s that part in the beginning where you’re just working like a dog. You’ll do anything. Then you notch up your successes. You get your respect. Then you get to that beautiful coasting area. I shouldn’t say coasting because that sounds like I wasn’t really giving it my all. You just have to work for the respect in the beginning. That’s always hard. Sorry, that was way too much. That was way too much of it.

Zibby: No, it wasn’t too much at all. Yes, yes. What are you working on now? Do you have more stories up your sleeve?

Jen: Yes. It’s such a luxurious position that I’ve really never been in. I’m figuring out what I want to work on. I am not working on the things that I’d rather not work on. It always feels surreal to me to turn things down. I’m thirty-five now. I’ve been doing this since out of college. It’s in your muscles, you take anything. You just take anything, and you build on it. I’m at a new place for me. I’m sketching out a novel. I’m trying to keep myself from writing the short stories because I’m now trying — once I cracked that last story, which is longer, I was like, ooh, maybe I can take down the big game. I was actually just so inspired. I was watching the new Hemmingway doc, the PBS Ken Burns, Lynn Novick doc. There was a point where he was saying he’d only written short stories. He was like, how do you do a novel? Can I do that? That’s how I feel. It was so exciting, keeping challenging myself and writing longer ones. Doing another short story collection, it’s like, I’d love to see if I could do a bigger boy. That’s what I’m working on. Then TV stuff, I’m working on some early-stage adapting things as well.

Zibby: That sounds awesome.

Jen: Zibby, thank you. Thank you for asking.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, don’t be silly. What advice do you have for aspiring authors?

Jen: I forget what you’ve written this on, but make the time. I only read this book once, there’s a book called The War of Art. You’ve read that?

Zibby: By Sun Tzu? Is that it?

Jen: No, no, not The Art of War.

Zibby: Oh, sorry.

Jen: I’m actually slightly dyslexic. It’s The War of Art. Sidebar, I was reading The Art of War recently just because it’s awesome. It’s crazy. It’s such a specific voice. Anyhoo, The War of Art — you don’t even have to read it. I’ll tell you. Although, I don’t want to shortchange that author. It’s a cool book. The whole thing is overcoming resistance to literally just sitting down. That’s the war. That’s it.

Zibby: I get it, the war.

Jen: The advice I would give is really just steep yourself in the stuff that you think is so good, the stuff that you love that really entertains you that you think is so good. Tri-pronged approach. Steep yourself in stuff that’s good. Be aware and inspired by all the stuff around you that you think is mediocre. Then the other thing is, and then just set — I do the Pomodoro thing where I set twenty-five minutes on my phone. I just have to write during the twenty-five minutes. I can’t check email. I can look up something that’s related to what I’m writing if I need to research. Obviously, I want to see any updates on the John Mullaney-Olivia Munn-Anna Maire Tendler thing. I just can’t google anything. I have to do that. I find that really helpful. I think the most inspiring thing if you’re starting is even looking at a book and being like, this was published. Do you think this is that good? No? Maybe you can do something just as good, at least just as good as that. I find that so inspiring. I know it’s negative, but I find it really helpful.

Zibby: No, I don’t think it’s negative. Whatever you can use to put some fire under your or whatever the .

Jen: You’re right. You’re so right.

Zibby: I feel like I used to read books and be like, oh, I could do that. Then when you sit down and you do it, you’re like, oh, yeah, it’s not that easy.

Jen: Exactly. Whenever I go to a café or even if I’m working at home, I will have a book next to me or a few that I love that really inspire me. I have to even remind myself and physically sometimes pick up the book to be like, someone has written a book. As I started doing it, I was like, this is not possible. No one’s done it. This cannot be done. It’s really hard, as you know. Sidebar, congratulations on the anthology.

Zibby: Thank you. Thank you so much. Awesome. Jen, it was so nice getting to know you. I hope you’ll come over when you’re back in town. I used to have author stuff here all the time. I hope to do that again. Thanks for being so nice.

Jen: Absolutely. Are you kidding? Oh, my god, the author stuff, wow, that would be so fun. It’d be fun to see you in any capacity in the city. Thank you for having me, Zibby. I’m so honored to have been on.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, don’t be silly. You deserve it. Your stuff is great. Have a great day. Thank you so much. I can’t wait to read what comes next.

Jen: Thank you, Zibby. Ditto.

Zibby: Take care. Buh-bye.

Jen: Bye.



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