Writing Down the Funny Bones: The Exaggeration
This is the first in a series of articles about comedy writing. This article discusses the technique of using exaggeration to write jokes. Future articles will cover other types of jokes such as the switch and the combination. Additional topics will cover polishing, sketches, clichés, tag lines, and some general thoughts on comedy and humor.
Many of these ideas came from classes I have taken on comedy writing. I'd like to thank the teachers, John Cantu and Danny Simon.
The majority of jokes that people write and perform involve some form of exaggeration. Exaggeration jokes work by first evoking a fairly common, day-to-day image, and then exaggerating one or more aspects of that image to such an extent that the ensuing pictures in the minds of the audience members become ridiculous, and funny.
Johnny Carson - "How blank was it!"
Late-night-talk-show-host Johnny Carson was a master at telling exaggeration jokes. His opening monologue was peppered with so many exaggeration jokes that the studio audience became trained to recognize and react to Carson's set ups.
Johnny Carson: You know, I was visiting a small town last week.
At this point the well-trained audience joins in with one voice, How small was it?
Carson: The Enter and Exit signs for the town were on the same pole. Rim shot and laugh.
The set up has people imagining small towns with which they were familiar. Images of a single gas station, no traffic lights, and a general lack of activity come to mind. The punch line comes by exaggerating all of the concepts that people have of small towns to an absurd extreme.
One Technique for Writing Exaggeration Jokes
I'd like to share one technique on how to write exaggeration jokes. This technique was taught to me by John Cantu. While there are other ways to write exaggeration jokes, one advantage to this system is that the process is very methodical and concrete. People don't need to feel that they are naturally funny to follow and take advantage of this very specific approach to writing exaggeration jokes. John's system involves three main steps.
Step One: Pick a noun. This noun is going to be the subject of the exaggeration joke. Going back to basic grammar, remember that a noun can be a person, place or thing. Proper nouns such as Washington, D.C., or George Burns can be used, as well as common nouns such as screwdriver or biscuit. Abstract concepts such as love are nouns, too, and are acceptable to use for this technique. Please remember to use love as a noun and not a verb.
Step Two: Once you have chosen your noun, focus on one attribute of that person, place, or thing. For example, let's say the noun you pick is a car. One attribute of a car is that it can be expensive. Other possible attributes are that cars could be large, fast (or slow), or old. Obviously, there are lots of other possible attributes for a car that you could choose.
Any noun you pick will have some attributes. Lights can be bright or loud. People can be tall. Magazines can be wrinkled. If you would like to make jokes about a person, place, or thing, whatever you choose will have some attribute that you will be able to exaggerate.
Step Three: Exaggerate the attribute you have chosen. Sticking with the attribute of expensive, the jokes come when you exaggerate just how expensive your car is.
Once you set up the premise the audience is ready to follow along on your comedy excursion. An obvious set up is to emulate Johnny Carson and just begin with, Boy, is my car expensive. Perhaps a bit more subtle of an introduction might be to confess to your listeners, Gee, I think I might have paid too much for my new car.
Now that you have associated the two ideas, car and expensive, in the audience members' minds you can deliver the punch lines. The following five ideas all exaggerate the idea that this car costs a lot of money.
- The radiator requires Perrier.
- Got a crack in the windshield. The repair shop referred me to Tiffany's.
- The onboard navigation system only gives directions to Hermes and Gucci outlets.
- Instead of a stereo, Luciano Pavaratti takes requests from the back seat.
- Took it in for a tune up. The oil steward offered to let me savor the aroma from the 10/40 cap.
Concrete Method to Writing Exaggeration Jokes
Rather than waiting for some form of inspiration to come up with these jokes in a vacuum, there is a step-by-step procedure you can follow to write exaggeration jokes.
Begin with a blank sheet of paper. On the top write Expensive.
Make three columns on the paper. The headings of the columns are: Persons, Places, and Things.
Use a brainstorming technique to fill in twenty items under each of the columns. Remember that brainstorming is not judgmental. You may use proper nouns or common nouns in any of the columns. The items you write in don't need to relate to each other. Also, don't worry about your items being funny; the comedy shows up at the next step. If most people agree with your assessment that the Person, Place, or Thing you fill in somehow implies Expensive, it's OK to add that item to the list.
The one condition that you need to remember is to not think about cars when you fill in the lists. Get cars completely out of your mind. It is too obvious a connection to think of expensive cars and Rolls Royce. The goal of this exercise is to come up with non-standard connections between cars and things that are expensive. In order to make the unexpected connection for this part of the exercise you want to get away from automobiles, and think about non-automotive Persons, Places, and Things that people associate with lots of money.
Here is one possible way to fill out your sample sheet of paper.
|J. Paul Getty||Cartier||jewelry|
|Arab||Beverly Hills||health care|
|Bill Gates||Kentucky Derby||gold|
|sports professionals||Ritz Hotel||Rolex|
|movie stars||ski resort||art masterpieces|
|Texas millionaire||Champs Elysées||oil|
|Ross Perot||Rodeo Drive||Lear Jet|
|stockbroker||bank vault||Chez Panisse|
|investment counselors||Silicon Valley||truffles|
|chauffer||private club||designer clothes|
|wine steward||vacation resort||Gucci bags|
|armored car driver||World Bank||lobster|
The next step is to take the terms from your list of Expensive and, one by one, associate that term with your car. The comedy comes from connecting items from your list to the noun you have chosen in ways that take people by surprise.
This step of associating things from your list with a car is actually quite logical. The first item under Things is Perrier. The logical association with a car and Perrier is the radiator. The idea behind the joke becomes, My car is so expensive the radiator doesn't use regular anti-freeze and water. It requires Perrier brand water.
The first item under Places is Tiffany's. This is a nice example of how you don't need to be that precise when brainstorming. Breakfast at Tiffany's is a well-known novel by Truman Capote. Tiffany and Co. is a famous jewelry store. A different company, Tiffany Lamps, is well known for creating ornate, stained-glass lamps. Many people confuse these two distinct companies and think of Tiffany's as selling both. The important point is that the word Tiffany is commonly associated with expensive things. What part of an automobile can we associate with stained glass? The windshield. Writing the punch line so that you need to get a referral to make an appointment at Tiffany's implies it is similar to, and as costly as visiting a doctor.
The idea of having Luciano Pavaratti live and on call in the back seat is an extension of the item opera in the Places column.
While there is no guarantee that every connection you make will be funny, most comedy writers are pleasantly surprised at how productive this technique can be at producing humorous connections that can be used for exaggeration jokes.
Some Random Thoughts on Exaggeration
Exaggerating things is a great way to make something memorable. A common memory technique is to visualize thousands of an object one is trying to remember, or imagine a colossal version of it.
The advertising industry has utilized exaggeration to increase business. Think of all the giant donuts sitting on top of donut houses around the United States.
Clowns naturally use exaggeration, even in the way they dress. The large red nose, inflatable feet, and electric red hair of the stereotypical clown are nothing more than exaggerations of the regular features of regular people. Clowns dress in over-the-top exaggerated appearances to help create visual comedy.
Looking for Your Contributions
These Writing Down the Funny Bones articles are meant to be interactive. I'd enjoy seeing and posting jokes you hvae written that are related to the topic being discussed. Submissions will be posted on this site and possibly used in a future book. Every published contributor will be acknowledged.Interested in trying out these ideas? Imagine performing with a giraffe unicycle and wanting to make some jokes about how high it is. The noun for this contest is unicycle. The attribute is tall or high.
Here is a sample list.
Attribute: TALL or HIGH
|Yuri Gagarin||skyscraper||oxygen mask|
|stilt walker||observation deck||beanstalk|
|human cannonball||Golden Gate Bridge||Sun|
|Yao Ming||Sears Tower||clouds|
|Andre the Giant||airplane||tall ships|
|giants||rocket ship||boarding pass|
|Paul Bunyan||moon||Bungie cord|
|astronaut||New York City||elevator|
|Watusi||Denver (mile high city)||climbing rope|
|St. Peter||pole vault bar||Goodyear blimp|
|mountain hermit||high wire||nose bleed|
Here are some sample jokes.
Before mounting the unicycle, look at it, emit a resigned sigh, and mutter, Perhaps I shouldn't have ordered a unicycle from Gustav Eiffel.
Now I know why this comes with a hook up for an oxygen mask.
That's the last time I trade the family cow for some magic unicycle beans.
Please submit any jokes you would like to share to:
f u n n y b o n e s @ t o d d s t r o n g d o t c o m
Remove the spaces in the e-mail address (above) and type a period instead of the word dot.
Look forward to your submissions.
copyright 2008 by Todd Strong
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