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Tuesday
Jul222008

Inside With: Jen Dziura, 'Pop Intellectual'By: Andrew Singer

Jen Dziura is a PiMP | Photo: Bill Waldman
Photo by Bill Waldman

New York comedian Jennifer Dziura's affiliation with competitive spelling began four years ago when she was asked to co-host the Williamsburg Spelling Bee, the bimonthly-dictionary throwdown at Pete's Candy Store. Since then, Dziura has presided over some of the most grueling spelling battles Billyburg has ever seen.

But more recently, Dziura (pronounced "Di-ZUR-ah"), who is a Dartmouth alumnus and former teen columnist for The Virginian-Pilot, has taken the reins of another adult spelling bee at the Housing Works Bookstore Cafe in Manhattan, and also a weekly-quiz show called Chelsea Mind Games, which features competitive math and geography. A longtime blogger, Dziura is also working on a book about live game shows. The Apiary recently stopped the "Pop Intellectual" between buzzers and the looking up of $10 words to ask and learn about nerd comedy and why a quiz show is a great place to meet singles.

What value do you see in making your audience compete instead of simply watching passively?
Well, I never really planned on it, but my live game shows have become a meeting place for smart singles. Think about it -- rather than merely sitting in the audience at a show and hoping to attract someone with your looks (and perhaps allegiance to the same band or performer), you get to come up to the mic, be introduced, and show your intelligence and personality! One recent Chelsea Mind Games show generated a Missed Connection on Craigslist.

I found the Missed Connection while Googling the name of my own show, and when I saw it, I realized I actually had the email address of the person it was for, since he had signed up on the Mind Games email list. I forwarded him the post, and they actually went on a date! Mind Games generated possibly the only Missed Connection to ever result in a date within 48 hours.

Jen Dziura and guest co-host Jonathan Lill are playing those Chelsea Mind Games together | Photo: Brian Van
Photo by Brian Van

Do you see comedy becoming more nerdy in general? Do you think many comics are genuinely nerdy, or are they just faking it?
There's a real generational (and subcultural) divide in who goes to comedy clubs. Comedy clubs require you to make reservations, arrive prior to showtime to be seated, and fulfill a two-drink minimum -- plus, you get told where to sit, you tend to get made fun of if you try to get up and go to the bathroom, and you end up jam-packed in with strangers. Also in the comedy world, all the comedy ends up jammed together in one big club.

Music venues, in contrast, are much more targeted -- one place has blues, one has jazz, one has a big college scene, one place is full of sedate couples, one has a big hookup scene, and those venues look and feel different, as appropriate for the type of entertainment they offer. Nerd comedy is just one of many niches in comedy that is enjoyed by people who often don't feel well-served by comedy clubs, or don't enjoy the comedy club environment.

That said: If I were an author, there would be nothing wrong with saying that I write for people who read on a collegiate level. Similarly, there's nothing wrong with performing comedy for people who comprehend on a collegiate level. The centerpiece of my one-woman show, "What Philosophy Majors Do After College," is a bit I call "The History of Western Philosophy in 15 Minutes." If you don't want Spinoza in your comedy, there are plenty of other comedians who have different things to offer, and we can all be fine with that.

In response to the second part of your question: when you've gotten to the point that people "fake it" at being nerds, you know nerds have won!

The most popular forms of entertainment are accessible to the masses. Do you ever fear that intelligence-testing shows will push too many people away?
Well, it's nigh-impossible to get something like that on television. But it's that very lack of mass-marketability that attracts a couple dozen smart people to a bar to spell, do math, or answer trivia questions -- and attracts a few thousand smart people to following those exploits online and plan their visits to New York to coincide with Monday spelling bees. It's incredible to have people from the west coast, Europe, and Australia consider a spelling bee in Brooklyn to be one of the highlights of their trip to New York!

If you had to choose between hosting game shows and doing comedy, which would you choose and why?
Someone once called me a "pop intellectual," which I'm fine with. I love comedy, but New York is packed to the gills with comedians. In game shows -- and in the blogging and one-woman philosophy show that are also part of what I do -- I offer something that you can't find in every bar in New York. I feel as though I've reached the pinnacle of Maslow's hierarchy of self-actualization!

Please describe some of the most amazing competitors on the show as well as any moments that took you completely by surprise.
One vocabulary competitor was given three difficult words to use together in a sentence and not only delivered a grammatically correct, stylish, informative sentence with no hesitation, but also was able to make the sentence rhyme.

But that's really one of those "you had to be there" moments. One competitor, though, in the midst of the same challenge to use three hard words in a sentence, hilariously declared "There's a lot of pulchritude in my orange juice."

RELATED
Williamsburg Spelling Bee blog
Chelsea Mind Games
New York City Spelling Bee

--Andrew Singer performs regularly as "Soce the Elemental Wizard."

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Reader Comments (1)

Nerds are not allowed to be hot.
July 22, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterAbbi Crutchfield

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