Kristen Roupenian, Writer Of Viral Short Story ‘Cat Person’, Finds Humour In Darkness

3 May 2019 | 5:31 pm | Hannah Story

With ‘Gagging For It’, Hannah Story attempts to unpack the things that make everybody laugh. This week: Kristen Roupenian.

Michigan-based writer Kristen Roupenian is best known for her short story Cat Person, which went viral on its publication in The New Yorker in late 2017. She speaks to The Music the day after she lands in Australia, ahead of two speaking engagements as part of Sydney Writers’ Festival. 

The author, whose debut collection, You Know You Want This: Cat Person And Other Stories, was released last year, apologises for being jetlagged, and admits that she turned to her girlfriend – another SWF guest, writer Callie Collins – to help her answer the question: “Callie, quick, what makes me laugh?”

One of the most recent things to make her laugh a lot – that side-splitting kind of laughter – happened earlier that afternoon, when she and fellow SWF writers took a boat trip out onto Sydney Harbour.

“I asked if I could steer the boat. And I became the object of ridicule... To be gently mocked in a kind way by people that you like can be really joyful.”

When pressed, Roupenian won’t reveal who exactly teased her. “I will never say their names,” she laughs. 

“I’m not that hard to make laugh,” Roupenian says, “which I think is a reasonably good quality that I have. I laugh sort of easily and often, and I think that’s always been true.” 

Don't miss a beat with our FREE daily newsletter

“Even the darkest of my stories, I think there’s some humour in them, [because] if it doesn’t seem funny, it’s almost unbearably dark."

Still, while she can now point to 1985 Tim Curry vehicle Clue, Patricia Lockwood’s memoir, Priestdaddy, and the works of another festival guest, George Saunders – “I just met [him] today,” she says – she struggles to answer more broadly what makes her laugh. 

“Trying to abstract out what particular type of humour makes me laugh is a little harder. I think I like humour sort of edged with darkness, or kind of biting humour… I'm not as much of a fan of cringey humour.

“I do sort of love any work that's on the edge between I'm maybe horrified, I'm maybe shocked, I can't quite believe this is happening and I could scream, but instead I'll laugh. That's the feeling that I really like and I think it's because usually when something has gotten you to that point, it's pushing some boundary or pushing at a nerve. It touches a nerve so it's like you're laughing at it but there are all these other humour-adjacent feelings that you're also experiencing.” 

That dark humour is also found in her work, particularly in a story like Cat Person, where readers could find themselves often laughing in recognition of the sticky realities of modern dating. “Even the darkest of my stories, I think there’s some humour in them, [because] if it doesn’t seem funny, it’s almost unbearably dark,” Roupenian says

As a writer, she points to the moment that a so-called “terrible situation” tips “over to the absurd” as something that appeals to her.  “Shirley Jackson is one of my favourite writers. I think she works in that space really, really well, where it's just deadpan, 'This is horrible, but I might start giggling uncomfortably at some point.'” 

She says she’s always felt uneasy about cringe humour. She’s never laughed at “super gross or uncomfortable situations”, even leaving a book unread when she was eight or nine because “I couldn’t get through [the main character’s] antics”, which were “excruciating”, as she mumbled and embarrassed herself in front of her class.  

“I feel like that’s stayed with me as I’ve gotten older,” she concludes, adding that her sense of humour has “sharpened a little” with age – she is now 38 – evolving since she was a kid watching Looney Tunes animation, Tiny Toon Adventures – her first taste of meta-humour. 

“I had never seen [meta-humour] before, where they would make a joke about the jokes they were making or do like a crossover, and I always thought stuff like that was just so funny and almost shocking that a show could do that.”

Going further back she remembers being read to by her mother, who, when bored, would change the words of a much-read book to ‘rude’ words, like ‘poo’ or ‘wee’. 

“We would say, 'Mom, read the books funny,' and she would never do it, but then every once in a while she would do it and just change the words to be slightly rude in a way that kind of glorified it. I remember thinking it was the funniest thing I'd ever seen, my mum making fun of the books that we were reading.

“My most vivid memory is of a sort of sarcasm, kind of flat sarcasm, like we were expecting someone to say, 'Yes!' and then she just says, 'No.' It was just something absurd to make it not make sense. Or she would really melodramatically act it out. She really liked to do sound effects, so I mostly laughed at sound effects when I was small.” 

We ask if there’s anything that makes her laugh even though she wishes it didn’t. The answer? Memes. 

“So my girlfriend really loves memes. For whatever reason she thinks that memes are the funniest thing. She thinks they're so funny. And then one that she thinks is hilarious is a picture from Sixth Sense, the little boy from Sixth Sense, and on one picture it says, 'Do you want to see my teeth?' And then Bruce Willis says, 'No.' And then there's just a picture of a little boy showing his teeth. 

“And it's not funny,” Roupenian says through a laugh. “But every time [Collins] says, 'Remember that meme?' I just start laughing. And the way that Callie laughs at that meme every time she sees or just remembers that it exists, really cracks me up. She just heard me say that and is dying of embarrassment right now.”  

Laughter – and not just at memes – has pulled Roupenian through difficult situations, which seems to go hand in hand with her aforementioned fascination with humour found in darkness. 

She travelled to Kenya as part of the Peace Corps in 2003, which she describes as “hard, obviously in many ways”. But looking back at a journal she kept at the time, all she finds are “things that people said to me that struck as the funniest thing I’ve ever heard”. 

“My journal is almost entirely just me writing down funny things that people said to me while I was there, [which showed] sort of the absurdity of existing. It's almost kind of daffy humour. I feel like I was lucky enough to have friends there, Kenyan friends of the Peace Corp, who also had a good sense of humour. I feel like the fact that they could laugh and I could laugh at the things that were happening that were hard, truly did get me through those two years.” 

Kristen Roupenian appears as part of the Sydney Writers’ Festival from 3 May.