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Todd Zuniga on his brainchild, Literary Death Match


I've wanted to interview Todd Zuniga, the co-founder and editor of Opium Magazine and co-founder of the Literary Death Match, for a while now.

Since he'll be in town for our next Death Match it seemed like a good time.

For this, the 30th San Francisco episode, LDM has teamed up with Litquake and the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts to bring a blow-out spectacular event.

In case you've never been to a Literary Death Match (what?) it's more competitive and less contemplative than other literary events.

Part Poetry Jam, part American Idol, Literary Death Match started in New York in 2006 with four episodes, then had its legendary first event in San Francisco in July 2007 before Todd went viral: London, Beijing, Paris, Chicago, Denver, Austin, Iowa City, Savannah…

Here's what Todd has to say about death matches, literary style, Brian Boitano and fine art of judging.

Avakian: How did you come up with the idea of a Literary Death Match?

Zuniga: With readings, I went to so many when I was in NYC, and when one hit, it was paradise. But so few were.

So we - Dennis DiClaudio, who is Comedy Central’s Indecision blogger and a good friend, and Elizabeth Koch, Opium Magazine's co-founder - constructed this thing that was full of fail-safes.

If we do a LDM event where the readings aren’t perfect, the judges save the day.

If the judges aren’t funny, the readers make it sing.

And if it’s all a mess, the finale has everyone exiting in a good spirit.

So, to answer your question in very short: we came up with a literary-type of idea that made people happy. And then we called it something semi-scary.

S.A. Brian Bontano is one of the judges for Friday’s event. How did that happen? The crowd went wild last month when Elissa announced he’d be a judge.

T.Z. Brian came to a LDM a few months back, the first one that the brilliant Elissa Bassist curated (she's LDM SF's executive producer). He does a cooking show called "What Would Brian Boitano Make?" and he's so perfect to judge a LDM, it makes my knee-skin tingle.

S.A. What makes a good judge? Who has turned you down to be a judge?

T.Z. People who have the ability to pull wild non-sequiturs from their brains. People who speak up. People who are fun. People who don’t bother being self-conscious. People who sort of privately giggle at the absurdities of the world. People who tell great stories.

As for who has turned us down: Tobias Wolff is pretty much my literary merit dream judge. He's said no a few times, and the funny thing is, he's actually perfect for it. He's hilarious in just the way we love: subtle, kind, generous. He's still at the top of my list, followed by Billy Crudup, Steve Martin and David Sedaris.

S.A. Is there going to a death match T.V. show?

T.Z. That’s the dream. Seriously. I’ve dreamt about it, and daydreamt about it. And the people we could showcase, the judges we could lure, the finales we could pull off. It really would be a dream come true.

I’ve talked to people in LA, now that we’ve produced a sizzle reel.

It’s funny, because we had so much feedback from TV people when we first did the sizzle reel, and they were all about making it more exciting, putting the action in the front, and we actually decided not to do another edit to accommodate their ideas (plus, when you do something like this, I’ve found, the amount of contradicting ideas is suffocating).

The reel starts slow, and it builds, just like the LDM, and our thinking was: this is a literary humor show for TV. If people don’t have 40 seconds of patience and concentration, they’re not going to be into this. It’s like reading a book in a way — the payoff isn’t immediate. But if you watch the entire thing — televised or live —you’ll feel giddy for two days.

Read the rest of the interview here.




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