Of Moby, Mustaches, & Literary Death Matches (Plus Why L.A. is "the next Berlin")

Wednesday night marked the 9th episode of Literary Death Match LA; a wonderfully difficult to define, category-defying variety show dedicated to witty one-liners, obscure literary trivia, and spectacular short fiction.

Housed in the Miracle Mile’s infamous Busby’s East, and hosted by the quixotic Todd Zuniga, editor of Opium Magazine and proprietor of fine three-piece suits, LDM is a kind of unscripted, neo-vaudeville performance. Digressions abound. Nerf darts barrage the audience. Lemons are lobbed, tossed, and ‘flipped’ like coins (I assure you, it can be done). Blindfolds, literary mustaches, and 90’s alt. icon Moby are not only involved, they are integral to the outcome of the entire show.

This is how it works: there are two rounds, in which two sets of readers (Ramona Ausubel vs. Graham Moore; Carolyn Cohagan vs. Taylor Negron) compete for the adoration of three judges (Moby, LA Times staff writer Carolyn Kellogg, and stand-up comic Rory Scovel), who each present their critiques to the audience. The winners of both rounds face off in a final lit-themed test for the championship title. Jokes, improvisation, literary ephemera, and general debauchery are scattered throughout.

Round 1: Ramona Ausubel vs. Graham Moore

Graham Moore, author of The Sherlockian and the screenwriter for the forthcoming film adaptation of Devil In The White City read first. Moore’s selection explored the tribulations of owning a racist dog, and the arduous task of hiring a black dog walker to rid the dog of its embarrassing prejudices. The story was funny, well performed, and elicited great reactions from the audience.

Up next: Ramona Ausubel, whose work has appeared in The New Yorker, One Story, and The Paris Review Daily. Ausubel read an inventive piece about the secret lives of cars in a purgatory-like lot, with “bug-smacked grills,” parked in and surrounded by “white lines like jail cells.” Her story was unique and surprisingly poignant, filled with wonderful imagery, clever puns, and a talking Impala.

Winner: Ramona Ausubel. After some deliberation on comic Rory Scovel’s nostalgia for the 1-95 freeway, Moby’s racist childhood dog, and Carolyn Kellogg’s musings about JG Ballard’s Crash, the judges named Ramona the winner of the first round, on account of the inventiveness of her story.

Round 2: Carolyn Cohagan vs. Taylor Negron

Carolyn Cohagan read first in the second round. Cohagan is a stand up comic, author of Lost Children, and has starred in several one-woman shows. Her LDM story took The Catcher in the Rye to task by reimagining the classic as a modern day summer blockbuster (“Jerry Bruckheimer presents: The Catcher in the Rye.”)—with Nick Fury played by Samuel L. Jackson, and where Holden Caulfield might as well be played by James Van Der Beek. Near perfect execution and comedic effect were the strong suits of Cohagan’s story.

You might know round two’s second reader, Taylor Negron, from films like Easy Money, Fast Times At Ridgemont High, and The Aristocrats. He’s also starred in his own HBO show. Negron read a hilarious narrative of modern day life in LA. From Yelp.com, to the Los Angeles dilemma (“How the fuck am I going to fix my car?”), to asides about his hometown, Pasadena (“In Pasadena, we don’t raise our voices, except for a parking spot or a rose”), Negron’s piece was a knockout—witty, local, and full of epic one-liners.

Winner: Taylor Negron. The judges weighed in on both performances, hemmed and hawed that it should be a tie, but ultimately awarded Taylor Negron the second round win. Moby liked that Cohagan talked about Salinger crying, and Taylor liked that Moby even knew who he was.

Round 3: Ramona Ausubel vs. Taylor Negron vs. Some Random Audience Participants

I suppose everyone should have seen it coming: the finale of Wednesday night’s Literary Death Match LA inevitably came down to a battle of the ‘staches. Blindfolded and shoddily directed toward the target, both round winners and a few stray audience participants attempted to stab famous literary moustaches onto a giant ‘stache-less picture of Ernest Hemingway. Taylor Negron won and it just felt right.

But winning isn’t really the point of Literary Death Match. Throughout the night, it was evident that literature and its admirers run rampant in LA. The place, I tell you, was packed. Right before the 3rd round, host Todd Zuniga told an anecdote about a guy who randomly deemed Zagreb “the next Berlin.” “That’s ridiculous,” said Zuniga. “Look around. LA is the next Berlin, the next Los Angeles. We have tons of space and art and great people like you who love books.”

The next Literary Death Match takes place at Busby’s East on June 5, 2012, featuring Trinie Dalton, Dylan Hicks, and Anne-Marie Kinney. They will be judged by Justin Ian Daniels, Eliza Skinner, and a final judge TBA.

For more information, check out literarydeathmatch.com and follow @litdeathmatch on Twitter.