Jen Spyra’s Book ‘Big Time’ Is a Dose of Jack Handey-Approved Absurdity
Jen Spyra began writing Big Time, her collection of short stories, in three-hour increments after returning home from her day job, writing on the staff of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. In Big Time, the stories span a breadth of topics and lengths—and more references to asshair than one may anticipate—ranging from cavewoman influencers to a Clue-style tale narrated by a shifting set of narrators who all seem to suffer from certain cultural blind spots. Writing it allowed Spyra to explore more evergreen comedy premises, as opposed to riffing on the day’s news. The title story is a lengthy “novella,” a noir-ish memoir that took Spyra nearly two years to complete, which starts with a protagonist mentored by Shirley Temple before time-traveling to present-day, while still having the brain of a white woman born in 1917.
Citing a variety of references ranging from Beatrix Potter to Raymond Briggs to R.L. Stine, Spyra wrote a collection of stories that feels like a casual channel surf through her brain. The book is meant to be a light read, Spyra told VICE, “when you just want a break and you want to jetpack away from reality.” The ideal situation would be that you’re in a coffeehouse in Vienna, and you have three free hours,” she said.
For those familiar with the former Saturday Night Live writer and The New Yorker contributor Jack Handey’s writing, Spyra’s stories read as if Handey was plugged into the internet, and also a voracious consumer of Instagram and reality television. Both writers often feature an out-of-place central character who engages in senseless violence, and an inability to grasp social norms. If this connection seems lofty, consider that Handey himself called this book “a fabulous collection of brilliantly funny, dark stories.”
VICE spoke to Spyra about her book, the difference between writing short stories and riffing on the news, and what comedy she’s enjoyed in the past dozen months of lockdown.
VICE: In your mind, what does your typical reader look like to you?
Jen Spyra: No one has asked that. Actually, I think a long time ago, Random House asked me that. And I was like, “blue state people?” I didn’t really know what to say. Jack Handey’s fans, I hope would also enjoy this. Because of some of the topics that I write about, they naturally have audiences. I like to write about stuff that I’m either well-versed in, or kind of obsessed with. Influencer culture, social media, Hollywood, celebrity culture. If you like Jack Handey’s stuff, if you like Simon Rich’s stuff, those would be “If you like this, hopefully you’ll like my thing.”
The thing that differentiates the stories in Big Time and Handey’s style, his stuff doesn’t really reference anything. From a comedy writer’s perspective, how do you think about injecting references to pop culture while making sure the humor is there, as opposed to specificity for specificity’s sake. How do you think about that?
Jack’s stuff is evergreen and Simon’s stuff is pretty evergreen, too. Jack’s stuff is timeless. Sometimes I actually do dream casting and I cast real-life or dead people in a way that does peg a story to the now because they’re today’s current big celebrities. In general, I actually thought of this book as being evergreen comedy, compared to what I was doing before, which was like writing on Colbert and The Onion. The topical zeitgeist-y stuff that I digest and the stories, those things all have really long shelf lives for better or worse. Like sexism.
Specificity is one of the key ingredients. But specificity, of course, in and of itself does nothing. In terms of using current and pop culture references, that was just something that I had to do sparingly and with a lot of care. Because, of course, the reference itself is never the joke.
In the last year or so that we’ve been shut in, what’s the funniest thing you’ve read?
I recently read a few classic humor books that I wasn’t aware of, and was really impressed by. One was this collection called Please Don’t Eat the Daisies by Jean Kerr. This was really huge and popular in the 50s. And I just hadn’t heard of it. And I was surprised, I love when I read really old humor and it feels totally fresh, and it’s still funny. There’s this there’s this novel—I don’t know if they call it a novel or novella—it’s so short and so easy to read. Norwood by Charles Portis, which is a classic. Right before lockdown, I listened to this podcast called Smartr. It’s a scripted podcast, Team Coco did it. It’s a satirization of VC culture. It’s so well done. The first episode is with Tim Heideicker. And he has an app called PUEL, and it’s to find pools near you to swim in. But it ends up being racist. (Note: A “Startup of the Week” from Motherboard covered a similar real-life pool rental startup.
What was your process in terms of knocking out the first chunk while you were working at Colbert; were you working in terms of hours or word count?
I always knew I wanted to do a humorous short story collection, because I’ve always been a fan of them. When I eventually got my lit agent, he told me, “Look, you sell one by having 50 pages of new material. So get that pile together, and then we can take it out.” Knowing that there was actually an amount and wasn’t an open ended thing.
The adrenaline of an approaching deadline is always the most helpful. Later on, there was the real deadline after I actually had the book deal. But before I had the deal, it was just like, that was just me, like, do you want to do this? Well, you got to get these 50 pages to your agent or else it’s not gonna happen. So that was about mounting self disgust of like, “Come on, you really want to do this. Do it.” And I mean, when I was when I was getting that pile together, I was at Colbert, And so the writing time really was nights between like 8 and 11 p.m. And I would just set myself up. And because I had the job, those three hours were just so precious.
How did you work on getting feedback on the book versus your time at The Onion or Colbert, where those are rapid-fire, group decisions, as opposed to sitting with ideas, and then bringing them to people later.
That was so different for me. It would be like these creation periods where I’d be writing it. Before I sent my new stuff to my editor, my reader is my husband, who is also in comedy. He’s a comedy writer, performer, voiceover artist. He’s so funny. And he’s such a good writer. I try to get a draft as good as I possibly can, then I show it to him, then it lives or dies by his yes or no. Until I get his yes, I feel it’s horrible. I have no idea if the thing is really funny, or really bad. Once I get his opinion, it’s incredibly helpful. And then I eventually send it to my editor. And then I just have a ball of nerves just waiting. If he says it’s funny, then I feel great. And then that little chunk is over.
The references are pretty wide, but could you narrow it down to “if you put these five books into my head, this is what comes out after” in terms of source material or influence for Big Time?
One, of course would have to be Goosebumps, the R.L. Stine oeuvre, I was a big fan as a kid and I really love the language of the stories. I love how they read. They’re almost like screenplays, they just go down so easy. Stephen King who is not referenced in any way but Stephen King’s work is like so inside my head because it’s really high stakes, juicy premises and just high octane storytelling. I just love his stuff so much.
Beatrix Potter. I mean, one of the stories actually plays with the world of [Beatrix Potter.] Oh, film noir, and film noir fiction, I love the descriptors in those stories. I love the similes and metaphors. And those stories are always so spare and precise and great. And then like old Hollywood memoirs, I think The Kid Stays in the Picture. Monster Blood. The Tale of Jeremiah Puddleduck. Something really obscene, too, like Pimp: The Story of My Life by Iceberg Slim. and maybe Different Seasons or Full Dark, No Stars, these two Stephen King collections.
“Big Time” is available now.