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Humour as an art form: Michael Frissore on having a laugh in fiction

 Humour as an art form: Michael Frissore on having a laugh in fiction

Short story collections have long been a risky proposition, and never more so in the current blockbuster-obsessed publishing context.

According to author Michael Frissore, short story writers have two options: to catch the eye of a smaller press by steadily amassing a series of publication credits through small but well-regarded publications, or to attempt to ascend the seemingly insurmountable peaks of publications such as The New Yorker or The Atlantic in the hope of endearing themselves to larger publishers.

'Obviously the small publishers care about sales, but the quality of the product matters more,' he says. 'Not that the bigger ones don't take quality into account, but they look for big names, and if Tin House or Ploughshares or The Kenyon Review aren't in your bio, then they tell you to go pound sand, if you'll excuse my French.'

Michael says that small presses are simply more willing to take the risk associated with collections, whereas larger publishers tend to be more interested in a publication history that involves repeat performances in the top markets.

'The number of collections that a big-time publisher will consider is very small and they're usually stories by David Sedaris or George Saunders ' writers people have heard of because they've been in The New Yorker countless times.'

On humour in short fiction

However, certain genres and styles of writing are often better suited to short-form fictionhumour being one of them. Michael, whose whimsical collection Puppet Shows is soon to be released through Writers AMuse Me Publishing, believes that comedic writers can forge a strong career in short fiction.

'S.J. Perelman, whos a favorite of mine, never wrote anything novel-length. He wrote humorous pieces for The New Yorker and some screenplays, including two for the Marx Brothers, who were the kings of this genre.'

Absurdist humour, says Michael, can be an acquired taste, and is best experienced in a series of 'brief punches'.

'Come in, squirt water out of a flower, throw a bucket of confetti at the crowd, leave. It was John Wayne Gacy's style; it's my style.'

Even the greats can struggle to sustain a comic voice in longer-form fiction, he says, pointing to Rik Mayall's memoir Bigger Than Hitler, Better Than Christ as a case in point. Mayall wrote and starred in a number of well-known British sitcoms such as The Young Ones, Bottom, Filthy Rich & Catflap, so he's no slouch when it comes to comedy. But his memoir doesn't quite hold up.

'Its the bible of absurdist humor. Its hilarious, but to a degree, because honestly, and I love Mayall, but after a hundred pages, its like enough already.'

Michael adds that a number of well-known comic novelists working todaysuch as Christopher Moore, Carl Hiassen, and Dave Barrymake their yarns work by mixing something else with the humour.

'Its not just whimsy; it's a comedic adventure. Thats more the way Ill go with novel-length works in the future. It's hard enough to write a humorous novel, or memoir, but to make it absurdist? Readers will only put up with that for so many pages. Even the Marx Brothers had some sappy songs thrown in between the absurdity.'

According to Michael, Gary Larson did it best: 'One-liner, with a picture. See you tomorrow.'

Humour and digital formats

That humour and short word counts seem to go hand-in-hand would seem to indicate that the shift from print to digital formats might work in the favour of authors such as Michael.

But although the idea appeals, he's not entirely optimistic about a renaissance of short fiction. Even with the advent of ereaders and greater availability of books, he believes that reader-types will continue to gravitate towards novels and non-fiction, whereas non-readers will remain disengaged with literature.

'There's no middle ground. People either invest in a novel or they invest in nothing. Short story is not an art I see taking off in the future, which is why most writers will produce enough short stories to go into one book and then concentrate on novels the rest of their careers.'

This is partly the reason behind Michael's pitching Puppet Shows as a collection of 'comic hilarities' instead of 'short stories.'

'It's a collection of thirteen comic hilarities for everyone to enjoy, not just the stuffy academia types who read things called short stories all the time.

Inspiring humorists

Michael's own interest in humorous literature is broad enough that he might be able to pass for an academic in the area, however.

' read a lot of comic authors. I like to laugh. Some of my most treasured possessions are the anthologies of humorous short prose I've collected that were published in the 40s with works by O Henry, Twain, Thurber, Ring Lardner, Dorothy Parker, Bret Harte, Perelman.'

John Kennedy Tooles A Confederacy of Dunces, which he says is 'probably the greatest comic novel ever written', is a huge influence.

'But I've also just read Blind Eye, the true story about Dr. Michael Swango, who was murdering patients back in the 80s. So that's not funny at all. Shame on you if you think it is.'

He's also greatly influenced by humour in other types of media, and lists Monty Python, Rik Mayall, the Marx Brothers and W.C. Fields as key influences for Puppet Shows.

'Even the non-fiction Ive written has always been influenced by a mix of Perelman's writing and The Opie and Anthony Radio Show, which is a messed up combination, but one I embraced for a long time.'

What should a reader get out of a work of comic fiction?

Michael's goal as a writer is to entertain and elicit a few laughsand possibly groans.

'One day I hope to achieve tremendous influence with my writing. I'm working right now on a novel about professional wrestling, and I think it will do for wrestling what To Kill a Mockingbird did for race relations. Or not. Six of one.'

In the meantime, readers should get a kick out of Puppet Shows.

'I hesitate to call it bathroom reading, but it can be. Youve got thirteen funny stories of varying lengths, certainly good for a laugh or two, perhaps more. Im going to go count the laughs now. Excuse me.'

About Michael:

Michael Frissore has published two adorable poetry chapbooks called'Poetry is Dead'and'Long Blue Boomerangand a lovely, easy to carry ebook called'The Thief.'His work has appeared, as if by magic, in nearly 100 publications in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K, and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and the Best of the Web series. He also still brags about being included in a humor collection alongside comedians Patton Oswalt, Sarah Silverman and David Cross a few years ago. He can be found online here.

About'Puppet Shows

 Humour as an art form: Michael Frissore on having a laugh in fiction

A kindly organ grinder and his performing monkey adopt a young boy after his father spontaneously combusts; a barber living inside a whiskey bottle confronts the neighborhood nuisance who wields a dead squirrel like a pair of nunchucks; and an unruly gang of sock puppets are born in a basement dojo. Welcome to'Puppet Shows, thirteen outlandish stories from a writer'Tucson Weekly'called a very funny weirdo. Click here for the publishers website.


  1. I love reading fiction that makes me laugh, but I do see that authors struggle to carry out the funny through the entire book. And if an author can do that, it is unlikely to continue through the series. I can see short comedic stories as a way to go to capture attention and laughs.

    • Stephanie /

      Great point, Jamie. I think it has a lot to do with the promises the author makes to the reader, too. Sometimes the humour is in the plot, the situation, the characters, or the dialogue, and the way the author chooses to blend those elements is very important. Humour can also be great to offset very serious events, and vice-versa: doing this seems to both deepen the humour and the drama. :)

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