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Literary Death Match Returns to Chicago

June 08, 2011 By: Alba Machado Category: Reading Series

Hosts Todd Zuniga (foreground) and Dennis DiClaudio (background).

In April of 2010, I saw Todd Zuniga give a lecture on the future of publishing at Columbia College Chicago (see “How to Trick People into Reading”). The founding editor of a stylish, funny, and cutting-edge literary magazine called Opium, Zuniga was scheduled later that day to host an installment of his popular reading series, Literary Death Match. I’d never been, but I opted instead for an evening in front of my computer, writing about his lecture. I thought, I’ll catch Literary Death Match next time. Big mistake. Because Chicago shares Literary Death Match with 33 other cities around the world, including Beijing, Edinburgh, Paris, Dublin, and Amsterdam, it wouldn’t return to us until over a year later.

At long last, Zuniga is back at the Hide Out for Literary Death Match’s 152nd show. Sporting a black bow tie and a shiny, elaborately-patterned blazer, he stands beside his co-host, Comedy Central’s Dennis DiClaudio, and says apologetically, “We haven’t been in Chicago in fourteen months because you guys have the most amazing reading series in the world.” He has a point. Each of tonight’s contestants and judges has participated in one local reading series or another. In fact, Ian Belknap, tonight’s champion, has developed a degree of notoriety by regularly being the “Minister of Veracity” or “Fact Checker” at The Encyclopedia Show, the “Dean of Mean” at The Paper Machete, and “The Overlord” at Write Club – a series he himself created and hosts (see “Fighting Words at Write Club”). These excellent reading series are listed among others in Literary Chicago’s left-hand sidebar (see “A Year of Essay Fiesta” and “Encyclopedia Show for the Metrophobic”). Zuniga is right to suggest that we have not lacked for good literary entertainment and enlightenment in his show’s absence, but it’s still great to have it back.

Literary Death Match’s “about” page says that it “marries the literary and performative aspects of Def Poetry Jam, rapier-witted quips of American Idol’s judging (without any meanness), and the ridiculousness and hilarity of Double Dare.” Alan Black, author of Kick the Balls, calls it “the magic mushroom of Planet Lit,” and who among us on Planet Lit doesn’t need a good magic mushroom from time to time?

Judges from left to right: Steve Gadlin, Kate James, and Claire Zulkey.

Tonight, the magic mushroom consists of readings by Johanna Stein, Samantha Irby, Amy Guth, and the aforementioned Ian Belknap; and judging by Claire Zulkey, Kate James, and Steve Gadlin. Zuniga determines the order of readings by throwing “projectiles” into the audience (tiny rolled-up pieces of paper that resemble spit balls) and by flipping a toy gun. Following is an overview of each of the readings and highlights of the judging.

Round 1:

Johanna Stein versus Samantha Irby

 

After lamenting the fact that no school has invited her to give a commencement address to its graduates, JOHANNA STEIN cues the Pomp and Circumstance and delivers one to us, beginning by saying, “If I can impart one piece of advice to you, it is this: don’t be an asshole.” People who are assholes include those who ask, “So, what do you do?”  and Stein’s dog — who’s gay, in love with her husband, and hypercritical of her lovemaking. She ends her speech by flipping onto her back, legs in the air, and squealing, “We represent the lollipop guild!” (It totally makes sense in context.)

 

Claire Zulkey: I like the timeliness of Johanna’s piece. I went to a school full of assholes, so I appreciated that.

Kate James: You flipped and we saw nothing — except magic.

Steve Gadlin: Hearing you talk about assholes, all I felt was shame for me. But I liked that feeling.

 

Cheered on by fans of her blog, Bitches Gotta Eat, SAMANTHA IRBY explains why and how she wanted and then, subsequently, didn’t want to “fuck a midget.” “When I saw 5’2″, I thought, ‘Finally, my opportunity to legally fuck someone who’s not allowed to ride on a roller coaster . . . ‘I thought you’d be slimmer,’ he said. Yeah. The midget.” In the end, Irby decides that she can’t “in good conscience make love to a human the size of a My Buddy doll.” There isn’t a moment free of laughter throughout Irby’s entire reading.

 

Claire Zulkey: We knew right away that this was going to be about fucking a midget.

Kate James: I don’t know you, but I already like you. Based on what you said and based on the fact that someone back there is holding up a Bitches Gotta Eat sign.

Steve Gadlin: Roller coaster. There’s a vaudeville routine that sums this up for me: “Would you like a Hershey bar?” “Yes, I would like a Hershey bar.” “Well, I don’t have a Hershey bar.”

FINALIST
Samantha Irby

• • 

Round 2

Amy Guth versus Ian Belknap

Now a Chicago writer, AMY GUTH paints a vivid picture of herself as the cool New Yorker, unimpressed by celebrity sitings such as that of Cyd Charisse – until the day she spots Morrissey holding up a Squeeze album at a music store. “Let’s be very clear about this. I love The Smiths . . . I planned a couple of dates on my book tour around where Morrissey would be touring . . . Despite everything I’d been taught my entire life (about being a cool New Yorker), I wanted – nay, NEEDED, to talk to Morrissey.” While she may stand by her decision to approach him, she will forever regret her decision to “wing it.” Without a plan, she ended up holding her finger out to the Squeeze album “like E.T. reaching for Eliot” and making a sound “something between a pterodactyl and a horn.” Years later, an editor would deny her the opportunity to interview Morrissey because of this moment.

Claire Zulkey: I love stories about celebrity sitings. One time I got in line behind Jon Stewart in an airport McDonald’s, even though I didn’t want to buy anything.

Kate James: You’re a storyteller, not a performer . . . I love that you rested on Morrissey – that, of all people, it was him that made you lose your cool. This is a story your children will tell your grandchildren, and your grandchildren will say, “What’s a CD?”

Steve Gadlin: Who’s Cyd Charisse? Wonderful. Fifty percent of us had no fucking idea who you were talking about.

Entitled “My Persistent Difficulty in Obtaining Corporate Sponsorship,” IAN BELKNAP’S reading is an open letter to Nell Newman, daughter of late Hollywood legend, philanthropist, and organic foodstuff extraordinaire, Paul Newman. After requisite condolences, Belknap proposes that Newman’s Own Championship Cookies serve as sole corporate sponsor for his one-man show. In return, he will demonstrate his enthusiasm for their product by eating it on stage, then “pooping into a bowl,” then eating the resulting poop “while they’re still warm.” Because Nell’s father had “a real bug up his butt about helping sick kids,” Belknap also offers to fake the disease of her choice. “For a thousand bucks, I’ll throw up whenever you want.” His voice cracking wildly, he explains that such measures have become necessary for “hardworking Americans.” “I hate my job like syphilis . . . Every hour I don’t kill myself is a miracle.”

 

Claire Zulkey: Wow, Ian, you really took me on a journey tonight. Sometimes…I resented you. I don’t like thinking about eating poop. But I understand why you did that and there was not a word wasted. You talked a lot about cookies and that made me hungry.

Kate James: Big fan, first time caller. You are the most ridiculous person I know and I know a lot of people. I’m scared of you. I never know what to expect. When you started, I thought, “What is this about?” And then here we go, we’re shitting in a bowl. The levels are Escher-like. Lots of cookie imagery. Tonight we’ve had two celebrity encounters — our first two readings were sexy time and the second two were celebrity fucking.

Steve Gadlin: I’m surprised that cookies stand out for you two. Most of us will be haunted by the bowl of shit. That was beautiful . . . I just wish you send that letter to Nell Newman and that there will be a second piece about her response.

FINALIST
Ian Belknap

• • 

Finale

Samantha Irby versus Ian Belknap

In keeping with the series’ commitment to absurd physical contests that are only peripherally literary — or maybe, as Zuniga points out, “more literary than anything” — our finalists must face off in a game of Down with Book Burners! DiClaudio holds a small basketball hoop and Belknap and Irby throw as many crumpled-up photographs of known book burners into it as they can. In a 5-4 win, Belnap becomes the champion of the 152nd Literary Death Match by dunking a picture of Max Brod.

WINNER
Ian Belknap

Let’s hope that the next Literary Death Match for Chicago is not fourteen months away. We need it about one-tenth as much as Amy Guth needs to talk to Morrissey, which is saying a lot.

Related Blog Posts
How to Trick People into Reading by Alba Machado
33 Cities and Counting by Todd Zuniga

EVENT: LITERARY DEATH MATCH | TUESDAY, JUNE 7, 2011 AT 7PM | THE HIDEOUT