Mr. Tolstoy, we love your little book, Peace, but have you considered, for excitement’s sake, adding a bit of war?
However, there’s no need to rely on serendipity to make things grow. Ideas, concepts, and pretty much the entire real world are extraordinarily flexible in the humor writer’s mind, and therefore, on the printed page. Adding some deliberate stretching delivers some of our best laughs.
According to the latest poll, congress has a ninety-nine percent approval rating among people who didn’t understand the question.
Humor writers have a unique love of exaggeration. However, they are not alone. Artists love caricatures with big eyes, big ears and big noses; clowns wear size 100 shoes, and movie directors turn a burnt meal into an exploding oven. Exaggerating our everyday experiences rarely fails to produce a smile or a laugh. If we actually saw the real world in those proportions, we’d all be under psychiatric care.
However, exaggeration is much more than simply making something bigger or smaller. Exaggeration is bigger than you think.
Any physical attribute can be made bigger, smaller, hooked, twisted, broadened, squeezed, heightened, shortened, or added to a bowl of mixed nuts! Why settle for making something bigger when you can make it freakishly HUGE! Consider some of the classics: Uncle Buck’s pancakes, a toddler in a ten-gallon hat, a woman’s bust rivalling the Grand Tetons… You get the idea. Big is a relative term.
By order of the base commander, our Fourth of July celebration will use traditional fireworks only. Please put the tactical nukes back in storage.
Going small is simply a variation on a theme, easily pushed to a similar extreme.
That restaurant serves such small portions. The last time I ate there, a housefly stole my entree.
And you can do the same with any other modifier: hooked, twisted, tall, etc.
Actions and Reactions
Slapstick, exaggerating a characters actions beyond reason, is often viewed as childish. While it’s true that slapstick is often used in children’s cartoons, some of the most popular comedies in television and film use it extensively. Gilligan’s Island has been in syndication for fifty years, and was Number One in worldwide syndication for many of those years!
Many writers miss opportunities for slapstick scenes in novels and short stories, feeling that it won’t translate to the written page. Not true at all! Kurt Vonnegut’s novel, Slapstick, easily comes to mind (Wonder why?), and many slapstick scenes have found their way into books both classic and current.
Exaggerated reactions to actions or situations are also common:
Last week’s Large Hadron Collider experiment reached a record temperature of 5.5 trillion degrees Celsius. The science team was ecstatic! It was champagne and toasted marshmallows all around!
The Fine Art of Caricature
Read the tragic Moby Dick to see the exceedingly obsessive Captain Ahab driven to his own destruction. Watch the comedic As Good As It Gets (TriStar Pictures, 1997) to see Melvin Udall, a misanthrope with OCD, pushed to the limit.
“If there is some mental health foundation that raises money for people like you, please be sure to let me know.” – Cuba Gooding, Jr. as Frank Sachs
Exaggerated character traits have created some of the most iconic characters in literature, theater and film.
Don’t be afraid to push your limits.
Exaggeration by definition is pushing boundaries, and a writer must push their own boundaries to produce the best results. Most exaggeration that fails to produce a laugh does so because the writer did not push themselves to find the funniest, or sometimes most bizarre, comparison, relationship or association. With exaggeration, there are no limits. (<= Possible exaggeration.)
Next Up: What Does It Mean To ‘Push The Envelope’?