Literary Chicago


A Time for Laughter

August 03, 2011 By: Alba Machado Category: Reading Series

Funny Ha-Ha Presents: “Hot Stuff” at the Hideout

Photos courtesy of Danette Chavez, staff photographer.

Someone once said, “Comedy is tragedy plus time.” Depending on who you ask, it might have been Charlie Chaplin, Woody Allen, Carol Burnett, or someone else altogether. “Tragedy” might be a strong word to describe the subjects of tonight’s readings at this installment of Funny Ha-Ha, but they were all certainly preoccupied with time—the test of time, time gone by, time wasted, and time spent peeing on an African man’s face. You know, stuff we could all relate to. The event is hosted, as always, by WBEZ blogger and TV critic for the LA Times and the A.V. Club Claire Zulkey, who is quick to turn the spotlight over to each of the funny people in tonight’s lineup.

Comedy Central’s Indecision blogger Dennis DiClaudio shares two pieces, one a relatively serious exhortation that you “Do Not Bring a Tree Into the House” and the other a series of brief open letters from the DiClaudio of today, or “Nowadays Me,” to his former selves. The advice he repeats three times, to three of his younger selves, seems personally relevant to many in the audience: “Look, I know this girl broke your heart. I know you thought she was the one . . .” The advice he gives to the DiClaudio of the year 2000 seems even more so: “Do NOT vote for Ralph Nader.”

“Ask Amy” columnist Amy Dickinson talks about how she “became an icon.” After the death of Ann Landers, she knew the Chicago Tribune would be on the lookout for a new advice columnist. Knowing that her New England background would be a liability in applying for this job, she decided to emulate one of our local celebrities, Bonnie Hunt. “I was going to have to be Judge Judy on the page and Bonnie Hunt in real life.” Her plan worked. She hit one major snag along the way, though: during the singing of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” which was supposed to be her grand coming out, her “Sally Field moment,” she neglected to replace “root, root, root for the home team” with “root, root, root for the Cubbies,” and consequently suffered the venomous scorn of loyal Cubs fans throughout the city. Having long since overcome that major stumbling block, though, she can now laugh at it and wear the Cubs jersey that she earned from the debacle with pride.

Write Club “Overlord” Ian Belknap pretends that being one of the most adored personalities in the Chicago literary scene detracts from, rather than adds to, his sex appeal. In characteristically histrionic tones, he bemoans his fate, saying, “I am a formerly attractive man.” We’re supposed to believe that when he worked minimum-wage-paying jobs, when he couldn’t bring himself to approach a cougar who’s into him, and when he cheated girlfriends out of money so that he could buy pot and liquor—that was the peak of his hotness. But now that he’s a master of both page and stage, a responsible breadwinner, and a husband and father—he’s unattractive. “Look at me,” he says. “I’m horrible. I should work in a dungeon or under a bridge. I should only hang out with moles and cave salamanders – the kind that have evolved to be eyeless and translucent.” Right. The only real evidence Belknap has to prove that he was once more attractive than he is now is that Uma Thurman once had a crush on him and, for obvious reasons, that evidence is suspect. He means well, I’m sure, telling us all to “carpe the fucking diem.” But he needs to stop obsessing about how, in his view, his gut has become a “marsupial repository for [his] self-loathing,” the bags under his eyes are “satchels stuffed with [his] thwarted ambitions,” and his double chin is a “pelican pouch of [his] poor choices.” He needs to get it together and prepare to be the “Minister of Veracity” for tomorrow’s Encyclopedia Show. I’ll be there with two more of his groupies—because, apparently, formerly attractive men have groupies nowadays.

Unlike Belknap, Bearded comedian (as he’s billed) James Fritz doesn’t claim to be unattractive, only angry, sad, and short. Because of his beard, build, and the sadness, some call him “Zach Galifian-sadness.” He traces back his emotional problems to his parents, saying, “A lot of people stay together for their kids. My parents are staying together for Jesus. And he’s never going away to college.” In describing their marriage, he tells us about how, once, when his mother was taking longer in the bathroom than a good Christian woman should, his father punched a hole through the bathroom door. Instead of replacing the door, his mom covered it with a pretty piece of fabric. That “hate doily,” he says, is “the perfect metaphor for a Christian marriage.”

Jezebel blogger Erin Gloria Ryan is the only one of tonight’s readers who doesn’t dig too far into the past. Her piece is about the last four years of her life, years spent working a job she hates for a company she hates. She started out with a number of various positions before she settled on being a receptionist. “I’m a corporate geisha,” she says, “a captive lady audience.” She copes with the trials and tribulations of what she calls the “stress-terarium” by taking numerous bathroom and vending machine breaks, fantasizing about quitting with a sheet cake that reads “Fuck all y’all motherfuckers,” and gathering observations to share at readings like this one. Among the characters she encounters in her “conversational cage” are Republicans who “say that Obama wants to raise the debt ceiling to pay for ‘illegals’ to have abortions,” and Mitzy, a corporate queen who “loves to see her stocks go up because that means they’re getting closer to Jesus.”

Filmmaker extraordinaire Joe Avella shares his campy movie, Chinese Star Cop, which is about a police officer who fails to bring his gun to the scene of a crime because he’s a Chinese star cop, not a gun cop. And he’s not even Chinese. Other, even shorter films are interspersed throughout this short film, including a commercial for the Chicago Park District that contains the line “ideal for soccer, jogging, and blood rituals,” and the saga of a guy who travels to Africa and drinks a bottle of AIDS in order to meet Bono.

Finally, we have Samantha Irby. It’s probably a good idea to save her for last. She’s a contributor to the Sunday Night Sex Show and the tag line for her blog, Bitches Gotta Eat, is: “I write about tacos, hot dudes, garbage-ass dudes, sexy lesbians, good music, and diarrhea. And sometimes other stuff.” This is a woman who gets jaws to drop. Anyone who reads after her is pretty much guaranteed to sound like a prude, ridiculously tame. She opens with a warning: “White people, it’s okay to laugh at this piece.” Then she proceeds to explain the very complicated relationship she’s had with African men over the years—not African American men, but African men. They seem to love her. She represents the “endless bounty” to them. But it never works out. One of them will say to her, “In my country, I have much land and woman like you would bow to me.” And she’ll respond, “Well, in my country, you park cars and wash windows, and dude, you missed a spot.” Despite her vow, she once succumbed to the charms of a freakishly smart African who was educated in a Swiss boarding school. She calls him “Amistad.” This is where it gets, well, jaw-dropping. Turns out, the man was a piss fetishist. That, in and of itself, of course, is no real cause for gasps and shudders. (We’ve all read Savage Love, right?) It’s Irby’s absolute candidness in describing the details of her sexual experimentation that takes you by surprise. Her first real foray into “golden showers” was a violent, albeit consensual affair that took place in a bathtub. She ripped the shower curtains, shattered a bottle of shampoo, and cut her face on the faucet. “I didn’t even know black people did that shit. We’re always like, ‘That’s the kind of weird shit that white people do.’” This all leads up to a horrifying incident of “piss-snowballing” that you’ll have to seek out on Irby’s website, if you dare. I’m not one for spoilers.

A riot in her own right, Zulkey has done a fine job of bringing together an incredibly funny group of people. If only we were all so adept at mining our past for nuggets of comedy gold.


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.”

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.

Ian Belknap

• • 


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.

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.

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