Review: Literary Death Match

Literary Death Match, created by Adrian Todd Zuniga ten years ago, is something like a literary version of American Idol. In a small theatre, three judges evaluate four contestants on a quick snippet of their writing—the winners move on to the next round, the losers don’t. Unlike American Idol, though, Literary Death Match takes itself a lot less seriously, and it’s much more ridiculous and self aware. The judges, who are friendlier and funnier (no Simon Cowell here), do improv, the local contestants dramatically read seven minutes of their work, the audience sips wine, and the show-host, also Adrian Zuniga, keeps up a quick stream of literary jokes that validate and reward a liberal arts education while moving the show along through it’s own chaotic hoops. Last weekend the show came to Vancouver.

From the beginning, the fun of the event is seeing a new kind of literary format. Here writers get to show off their work in a setting without quiet rooms and Q&A’s, and audiences don’t attend out of duty or support, but because the show is packed with quick references and a dab of the absurd. I see the event as radical, or if that sounds too grand, at least reformative—in the same way changing demands and constraints on television required an alternative like Netflix, an event like this points to a new way of sharing literature and stories. It’s a new way to energize the literary community.

Fun, though, is the point. Here’s an idea of what it looked like: In the first round, Aaron Chapman and Lucia Misch faced off with a spoken list of everything Hemingway survived (anthrax, malaria, pneumonia, skin cancer, hepatitis, and diabetes is less than half of the list) as backdrop. Chapman’s story spoke about changes in Vancouver’s landscape in a radio-play-like drawl. Misch performed her poem with a spoken word vibe, detailing the end of the world. Chapman lost, Misch won. In the second round, Jayson Mcdonald won out with a Lovecraft-ian homage to Burroughs against Susin Nielsen’s story about drunk, underprivileged school kids subjected to Disney-like after-school therapy. After packing in a number of literary references, a movie, a story, a six word story by Margaret Atwood (“Longed for him. Got him. Shit”), the final round resolved with a jeopardy style call-in format. Zuniga read out six one-star Amazon reviews of famous books, and the two sides, wading through the scorn, had to guess which books were being reviewed. Lucia Misch won.

At the end of the event, the theatre unpacked slowly. Everyone looked two parts content, one part energized. “Why aren’t there more shows like this?” someone behind me asked. I agree. Can we have more shows like this, please?