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Episode XIII: "The ghost of joy and possibility drifting casually through the night"

Published 5/6/15
In this installment, I speak with Adrian Todd Zuniga, creator/host of Literary Death Match. Topics include the LDM origin story, what makes an entertaining writer/performer, the best and worst matches, hosting in New York vs. LA vs. Paris, the French, the future of LDM & more.

I’m here with Adrian Todd Zuniga, the creator and host of Literary Death Match, a competition combining literature with performance. In each episode, four authors (each representing a publication) are paired off and perform their writing in front of a live audience. After the judges have their turn being as irreverent as possible, they declare the two winners, who compete in the finale.

Literary Death Match has performed across the world, in London, Nashville, Brattleboro, Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, the Twin Cities, Edinburgh, Miami, Hong Kong—you get the picture.

First things first. Let’s bridge the digital divide: where are you and what do you see?

I'm sitting in Los Angeles, California, staring out a window into white-bright sunshine — just south of The Grove.

Brilliant. Let's get started with the truncated origin story of LDM. How'd it get going?

I was sitting at a sushi dinner with my now-ex- and hilarious friend and we were discussing how the literary reading was just plain dull, and how to make it fun (if that was possible).

There were a few key things, one of which was integrating humor. I'd been to several events where it was reader, standup comedian, reader, standup, and I always felt so bad for the readers that followed the comedians. Watching someone go from off-book to on-book is tough for an audience.

By bringing in the judges — who always skew smart/oddball/fun (we have an anti-Simon Cowell rule when it comes to meanness) — we're able to integrate humor organically. And sweetly.

Do you think the 'dullness' you found in readings was due to the people reading or the atmosphere the readings generated?

I should first say, we rode a wave that was building, that not everyone knew was building quite yet. Let me make sense of that statement: In the olden days of readings, there's this sense that people SHOULD listen. Regardless of who the reader is. The thing is, we mix i people who are better writers than readers, but because it feels like spectacle, and a showcase, we get the best of their work, and their best performances.

I'm all over the map here, but audiences want to be impressed and surprised. We find a mix of four authors that do just that. And, ideally, in four different ways.

To ring the cliche's bell one more time, variety is the spice of life. What makes an entertaining writer you think? Natural sense of humor? An irreverence? A dedication to what they're reading?

Like falling in love with someone, it could be a million different things. Poet Abraham Smith is impossible to turn away from because of his energy — he's like a boxer holding a book. Simon Rich is so sweet and hilarious you don't want to miss a word. Roxane Gay writes prose that makes you starve for the next word.

But the common thread is sheer talent. In whatever form that showcases itself.

What's been the most memorable match or, anticipating you won't call one the best, what's one of the most memorable?

There's a best, in my mind. Literary Death match LA, Ep. 33 trumps all, for the moment. And that supplanted some amazing events. Liz Meriwether, the creator of New Girl, in the finals against Carol Leifer who wrote for Seinfeld. Academy Award-winner Graham Moore, the writer of The Imitation Game, and an outstanding author, didn't even make the finals!

There are 9 things that have to be A+ for the show to light the world completely aflame.

Everyone has to be amazing, and I have to give the hosting of my life (I'd say in 370 shows, I've been up to my own standard around 10-12 times, but it's getting easier). Then the finale has to pop. Plus, there's another element: something has to go wrong. What went wrong is we had a late-minute cancellation. Fred Savage had to drop out. Twelve hours before the show started, Chris O'Dowd said he could fill in. CHRIS O'DOWD. So, yeah.

Wait wait wait. You haven't given me the 9 things!

4 readers, 3 judges, 1 host, 1 finale. Those are the 9. The 10th being: something going wrong. The 11th being: the ghost of joy and possibility drifting casually through the night.

Poetic (and thanks for clarifying). Now: how about the least memorable?

There are three that pop to mind.

Wasn't expecting you to answer that.

I'll answer, happily! And carefully. One was a game-changer. Seattle, Ep. 2. November 11, 2009. I'd really only started touring the show and didn't understand yet how to balance energy, and enthusiasm, and exhaustion. The three e's! I was reading The Men Who Stare At Goats by Jon Ronson at the time, and he talked about how they'd used music to torture people in Iraq.

Right before I went on stage, I heard this super-creepy music that seemed to unravel my lungs — it gave me the weirdest sensation, and was an immediate mood-changer.

In text it sounded like this, only soft: EEEEKEERRRRREEEEEE!!!!!!!!

Also, I was trying to burn a DVD to display on the back wall, and it didn't burn. So the back wall was stark white. I went on stage, and made a joke about Ken Griffey, Jr. that no one laughed at, and I panicked, and the air went out of everything. My only F rating as a host.

Then one of the judges, Paul Constant, formerly of The Stranger did a thing where he wrote up the event as "The Stranger Unsuggests..." They unsuggested us, because it wasn't a great show. But I learned an endless amount about hosting, how to make every show great, and the value of what we do. Long answer, that.

I have to know the joke about KG Jr.

I think I just said something dumb about him not playing there anymore.

Crickets. Deservedly so! But Seattle has been our kryptonite.

That joke does sound pretty rough. You have so much energy it’s making me nervous. Have you ever considered doing improvisational comedy?

I'm okay at it, but not better than that. Standup is my game, now. Along with LDM. My jokes are jokes now. Though there's still the clumsiness, which is just part of me as a performer.

For some reason LDM seems like it had to have been born and bred in LA. Not that NY is void of performance readings, such as Liars' League. In your eyes, what's the difference between the coasts' literary scenes?

I moved NYC to Paris, then Paris to LA. In NYC, there's so much going on. So many book events. We go to Tulsa, we're special. We go to Portland, Maine, we're special. In NYC, we're not. Yet, in LA, we are. There's so many smart people here, and we're a chance to showcase celebrity and writing in such a cool, celebratory way. NYC is a fight. I love doing the show there — it's NYC! Who wouldn't!? But it's a fight.

In terms of scenes, I just booked a show at Bell House in Brooklyn on April 21. It was soooo hard. At first I thought it was because I wasn't local. Then I realized, it mirrors the sports metaphor: if you have two quarterbacks, you have no quarterbacks. In NYC, you have a zillion writers, and it makes it feel like, for me, there are none. You can't get it right! (But, the great news: you can't get it wrong, either.) In LA, it feels like a community, there's space to write, there aren't as many events, but there are still plenty. It feels calm, and special.

What about Paris?

\Well, the French are hilarious, because there's this sense of the literary elite — i.e. white people. And then there's the suburban writers i.e. the writers of color, Muslim writers, etc.

I remember putting together LDM Paris, Ep. 1 and someone said: "If you have writer X (elite), you can't invite writer Y (not-white) and I said, "Watch me." The writer of color won, and the elite guy was actually a snot about it. It was kind of brilliant.

Not just because X didn't like Y, but because of their races?

I mean, he said the writing was crap. I was like, what is this, Hemingway v. James Jones? It was in French, so I only understood enough. France is weird. That's why no one cares about their literature right now outside of Houellebecq, though that's changing. I think they could return to being a literary giant, culturally, because of what the writers outside the "elite" are creating.

I imagine it's not too uncommon you embarrass or offend an audience member. When else has that happened?

I'm my mother's son. My goal in life, and as a host is to make everyone in the room feel good. The writers, the judges, the audience. It's a really fun balancing act. So, no one's been offended, that I know of.

Have their been times when you've had to curb a judge's more irreverent attitude for the sake of keeping the show PG-13 rated (or at least R)?

Never in the way you might be thinking. We've had great luck! There's been a few awkward moments, but there are two rules to being a judge: 1. Don't be a dick, and 2. Make at least one-and-a-half references to your category (literary merit, performance, intangibles). There's such a good vibe, and we pick such great people, there's rarely anything that feels off.

We’re nearly out of time, so I’ll ask you one more. What’s in store for the future of LDM? I assume you plan to keep it going and growing?

Video is key. It's our future. I just finished a proposal for funding that I'm going to take out into the world soon. We want to showcase all the amazing writers, actors, comedians, geniuses in all kinds of creative ways, and that comes down to video. Not just of the live show, but beyond it. I honestly get titteringly excited over what we're going to pull off. If we get funding. And if we don't, we'll make it work. That's always been our way.

And LDM on TV. We've been pushing for that for two years, and it feels like it could happen, now. We're ready for it. We just need someone to take a chance.

If there's a reality TV show about fingernails, there should be a fun one about literature!

Oh, there's one more thing I should mention for our future: partnering with fun entities. We're doing a show with the cast of Silicon Valley, and we want to do that more and more. There's so many great opportunities, and we're going to chase the most fun of them.

That’s incredibly exciting. Thanks for your words Adrian, and your energy. I can't wait to see what the future brings you & LDM.

Thanks! This was fun.