"In L.A., people high-five, which is weird," says Todd Zuniga. "In Paris, people just look dourly at everyone. Then they don't have sex with you."
Dressed in a gray suit and a red tie, Zuniga is standing before a packed crowd at sports bar Busby's East, bantering with co-host Melinda Hill, telling jokes about Lil Wayne and face-sex with Sean Penn. Three women, former employees of the defunct Borders Books chain, start laughing as they dip their buffalo wings into blue-cheese dressing.
At some point, Hill tells a joke that goes: "Rappers are a lot like religions. They all claim to be the best one. And the more popular they are, the more they get away with rape."
This is, strangely, a literary event, Literary Death Match, held Jan. 26. After starting with events in places like New York and San Francisco, LDM, as it's called, arrived in L.A. in 2009. Zuniga, LDM's worldwide curator, oversees events in 39 cities, though he believes the L.A. branch will explode now that he's moved here permanently.
L.A. feels like a natural fit, as LDM is drenched in sex jokes, blondes in leather knee-high boots and an electric ambience that feels one step away from something you'd see on TV. It's a hybrid between a game show and an episode of Chelsea Lately featuring guest David Sedaris.
What the heck is a death match, anyway? LDM takes two pairs of amazing writers and forces them to read for seven minutes from their best writing in front of three judges, who base their rulings on literary merit, performance and "intangibles." The winners from each pair then battle in a finale.
What are those "intangibles"? "You mentioned burgers a few times," says Twitter phenomenon and comedy writer Megan Amram while judging novelist and Los Angeles Review of Books Senior Fiction Editor Matthew Specktor. "I love burgers. ... So yeah, that guy eats burgers. He doesn't just write." Clearly, Amram wasn't brought onto the panel to judge pacing or thematic control. She was there to riff, make people laugh, bring humility and entertainment to an art form traditionally characterized by an old white male sitting on a chair and burping through his latest critically acclaimed tome.
Many audience members say they've never been to a literary event before, but there are appearances by some of L.A.'s literary elite. Between performances, bass from another part of the bar pumps through the hardwood floor.
"Literature is capable of being celebrated in a way that hits all the buttons of fun and excitement, but [LDM] is also still very much about the literature itself," says Zuniga, the curator of LDM worldwide, in an interview afterward. "What we're trying to do is celebrate literature and have the judges, basically, use the [contestants'] work as another leaping point for [more] storytelling."The stories feature sex of many varieties, including 19th-century and mallard. Performer Natashia Deón loses in the first round to Specktor, but she certainly provokes the audience by whispering lines like: "His lips were sticky-sweet as promised," "stretching me to my potential" and "I was married at 13. He wasn't going to be the first at anything."
"You said that the man smelled like jasmines, which is a beautiful sensory image," Amram says, "but I also first heard it as smelled like jazz men. If I don't go into a candle store and find a jazz-men candle, I'm going to be very disappointed."
The rest of the evening is filled with tangents by the other two judges, Natasha Leggero, a frequent panelist on Chelsea Lately, and Chris Regan, former writer for The Daily Show. Never hurtful and often encouraging, the judges listen intently and take notes while Edan Lepucki and Ben Loory read in the second round. Leggero loves Lepucki's legs, but the judges decide on Loory, a writer whose work has appeared in The New Yorker. Loory read a story in which a duck falls in love with a rock, infuriating a former duck lover. The competition ended when Specktor and Loory met in a spelling bee, with Specktor the victor.
"My feeling is to make literature a show," Zuniga says, "make it a spectacle. The world is a series of louder-than-thou marketing noise. ... With LDM, we're trying to give a way for literature to compete."
The next Literary Death Match is Feb. 22; for details, go to literarydeathmatch.com.