Surely, they jest -- as much as possible

  • Article by: BILL WARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 25, 2011 - 3:52 PM

The creative process extends well beyond the writing at Literary Death Match, a live game show with authors.

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Slam poet Jason Bayani was crowned winner of a Literary Death Match in San Francisco last year.

The most recent Literary Death Match in the Twin Cities went down to the wire. Brian Beatty bested John Jodzio by throwing a foam baseball through cutouts of F. Scott Fitzgerald's mouth, Louise Erdrich's cat and Joe Mauer's cap.

That the finale resembled the bottom of the ninth inning, or maybe a Dr. Seuss vignette, is no accident. Literary Death Match might not live up to its name -- no one has died (yet), and literary work is merely an entry point -- but it does fit founder Todd Zuniga's description as "a party that has a reading attached to it."

During the course of a Literary Death Match, which makes its third Twin Cities stop on March 1, four local writers and three judges create a madcap mash-up of performance art and improv, witticisms and criticisms and, perhaps most of all, beer and banter.

The first round finds the authors actually reading their stuff, but with an emphasis on entertainment value. They are encouraged not only to perform "their most electric work," but also to punch it up with props. So a ukulele or a talking/rapping hand on an iPad might pop up, or a macabre tale might be told with "blood" flowing from the author's mouth.

Anyone reading past the seven-minute limit gets assaulted with Nerf guns, and then the real ammo comes out: ribbing, roasting and other ribald feedback from three judges with individual focuses (literary merit, performance and intangibles).

"I'm literary merit," said Jeff Kamin, one of the judges for next week's event, "so I'll say something like, 'It's the son of Raymond Carver meets early John Irving,' and then you're free to do an improv and have some fun with it ... [and] go with a lot of non sequiturs."

Kamin, the jocular emcee of monthly Books and Bars events, is a typical judge, given to loquaciousness and levity. Moby, Tao Lin, Will Durst and Jane Smiley have been among the jurists, but Zuniga's favorite was "24" actress Mary Lynn Rajskub.

"This one guy read a hilarious story that was obviously fiction, and she went, 'I don't think that's true,'" he said.

After the judges pick the two finalists, an intermission finds the repartee and the libations flowing in near-equal measures.

"I always know the second round will go better, because people are more used to it and know what is coming -- and are just drunker," Zuniga said.

Drollery ensues, as the always-zany finals might find the authors reading while chewing marshmallows or participating in parlor games such as the Cash Advance Money-Grab or Stab-a-Hole-in-Nebraska. "It's usually something that skews toward the city," Zuniga said.

This round will be slightly skewed in the Minnesota Nice direction. "They asked me to be the anti-Simon Cowell," Kamin said.

But unless there's a serious course reversal from five years' worth of shows held everywhere from Beijing to Dublin to Kansas City, facetious frivolity and wiseacre whimsy will abound. Besides, the evening's host has a wild card up his sleeve.

"I'll be flying from Paris earlier that day," Zuniga said, "so my hosting will be, let's say, loopy and mildly confused."

With or without marshmallows in his mouth.

Bill Ward • 612-673-7643

  • LITERARY DEATH MATCH

    What: Four authors (Matt Burgess, Nicole Helgit, Barrie Jean Borich and Brad Liening) compete in front of three judges (Jeff Kamin, Mike Fotis and Ellen Stanley) and a live audience.

    When: 8:05 p.m. Tuesday. Doors open at 7 p.m.

    Where: Aster Cafe, 125 SE. Main St., Mpls.

    Tickets: $10; reserve seats in advance at 612-379-3138 .

    literary death match What: Four authors (Matt Burgess, Nicole Helgit, Barrie Jean Borich and Brad Liening) compete in front of three judges (Jeff Kamin, Mike Fotis and Ellen Stanley) and a live audience. When: 8:05 p.m. Tuesday. Doors open at 7 p.m. Where: Aster Cafe, 125 SE. Main St., Mpls. Tickets: $10; reserve seats in advance at 612-379-3138 .
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