Perth Writers Festival Blog

What is Literary Death Match?

Tuesday 6 December 2016

In 2017, the Perth Writers Festival introduces the Courtyard Sessions – an exciting new platform celebrating spoken word, music and performance at the State Theatre Centre. 

This unique series will bring two nights of music, hip hop, spoken word and comedy from a range of brilliant writers, performers and RTRFM 92.1 DJs. 

As part of the Courtyard Sessions Literary Death Match will be joining us from the USA to perform on Friday evening, 24 February.

So just what is Literary Death Match?

4 authors | judges | finalists | 1 champion

In a nutshell, Literary Death Match is described as part literary event, part comedy show and part game show. It brings together four of today’s finest writers to compete in an edge-of-your-seat read-off critiqued by three celebrity judges, and concluded by a slapstick showdown to decide the ultimate champion.

We asked creater and host Adrian Todd Zuniga to give us a little insight into this literary phenomenon.  

How would you describe Literary Death Match?

Officially, it's four authors reading their own work for seven minutes or less, three all-star judges cracking wise in response to the stories, and it finishes with a madcap, vaguely literary finale (think Pin the Mustache on Hemingway). But unofficially, it's a sort of otherworldly spectacle that merges wit, lit and absurdity in one rambunctious evening (a.k.a. the greatest night of everyone's life).

How did the idea for LDM come about?

I was living in Manhattan in 2006 when myself, my now ex- and a friend who wrote for Comedy Central got together over a sushi dinner, and we discussed the show, founding it on two main principles: 1. every reading should be stellar, and 2. comedy should be integrated organically into the show. Principle one came from us going to loads of readings, and seeing one amazing reader, followed by everyone else being good enough. But we thought: what if everyone was great? The competitive aspect of LDM tends to have people showing up with their absolute best. Principle two came from a trend in NYC at the time in which people were trying to do comedy shows that featured readings. I remember seeing a brilliant off-book comedian followed by a guy buried in a piece of typewriter paper, who read about his sister's death. Then a comedian! It felt way off. So, that's where the idea of the judges came from: they're responding directly to literature. And beyond those two principles, I love good-hearted absurdity, and that's where the finales came from. An oddball finish that makes enough sense, and leaves everyone cheering. 

When did you realise that the show was going to be so popular?

We started in New York, then moved to San Francisco. I think I sort of knew what we had when the first show in San Francisco was so packed, we had to turn people away. But the real breakthrough came after we were invited to do the show at a literary festival in Beijing. And it hit me: the show translates globally. Every city has their writers; every city has their hilarious people. And to bring them together for one night of wackiness, all we had to do was hop on a plane.

Favourite LDM moment?

There are so many hundreds of moments that hit me where I'm like: I can't believe that happened; I can't believe it could've only happened in LDM. I'll share a recent one and one awhile ago. At a show a month ago in LA, actor/comedian Rob Heubel judged intangibles. I'd wanted Rob to do the show for years, and finally he did and was more brilliant than I imagined. While judging the second reader he looked out over the crowd and said, ‘During the second reader, I looked out at the audience, and I just have to say, you guys have the dumbest faces. All this smart, amazing stuff happening on stage, and your faces! You should be embarrassed.’ The crowd went nuts. Here's another: For our first-ever Helsinki show, Pulitzer Prize-winner Jeffrey Eugenides (Middlesex; The Virgin Suicides) just happened to be in town and agreed to judge intangibles. The entire show was in Finnish except for Jeff and I, and at one point he put on a hat that had been given to him by a long-ago ex- and explained that they had to break up because she was allergic to his semen. The crowd went nuts. 

Name an author who fights dirty:

I'll go with Abraham Smith, a poet who teaches at the University of Alabama. He's a three-time champ, and is as close to unstoppable on stage as I've ever seen. He doesn't necessarily fight dirty, but his poetry is ... it's something else. Here's the reading that I refer to as ‘the greatest in Literary Death Match history’:

What will the judges be looking for?

We've done over 450 LDM's in our history, and everyone has been completely different. But the common thread is the judges can't resist heart. If someone is giving it everything, they become the embodiment of consciousness, concern, authenticity and wonder. Or, as I'll call it here: heart. 

The best LDM trash-talk you’ve heard:

This doesn't quite count because it's after the fact, but Kristin Newman (author of What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding) said one of the greatest things I've ever heard. She beat Brendan Constantine in a ‘Cyrillic-Off’ (we typed out award-winning American writers names in Cyrillic and the finalists had to decipher them), and when she was announced champ she ran across the stage, arms wide to hug him, and shouted, ‘I'm a better writer than you!’ Brendan laughed. I laughed. No one else heard it. 

Any tips for competitors?

Everything that works in one show doesn't in another. So my honest advice is: Minimise any preamble before you start reading, if you have time write a piece specifically for the show (it's lead to stories that have appeared from The Atlantic to McSweeney's), and just plain go for it. 

‘Events like Literary Death Match are helping to revitalize the coolitude of the printed word.’ — Interview Magazine

Program Manager: Perth Writers Festival

Written By Katherine Dorrington

Constantly switching between her left and right brain, Perth Writers Festival programmer Katherine Dorrington spends half her time with her nose in a book (the real thing ­– no reading tablets here) and half her time crafting a Festival that is best described as a book club on steroids.