Friday, July 3, 2009

Writing Humor, Part II - The Art of Exaggeration: Steal from the Barry Best

John Philipp

If you want to write comedy, you have to learn to steal. I don't mean plagiarize; I mean steal, a long-standing, revered (or at least tolerated) technique among comedians.

Of course, you don't lift whole sections of a humorist's work and call it your own. Don't even use their punch lines without giving them credit. But you can analyze their writing and steal devices. If you are going to steal, do as Milton Berle did: steal from the very best.

One of the very best is Dave Barry, one of only two humorists to ever win the coveted Pulitzer Prize (the other was Art Buchwald).

What are Dave's secrets? One is that he's a master of using exaggeration to heighten humor. Consider this passage about the plight of the American male when faced with the 4307 dials and settings on the modern washing machine. (See, I'm using exaggeration as well.)

  • "We worry that if we get just one variable wrong, we will find ourselves facing a wrathful spouse, who is holding up a garment that was once a valued brassiere of normal dimensions, but is now suitable only as a sun hat for a small, two-headed squirrel."
What makes exaggeration most effective is when you apply it to a real situation - in this case, the known fact that an improper temperature setting can cause some garments to shrink. Then you pick the funniest garment as an example and shrink it to an exaggerated, absurd level.

Dave once told me that after he writes his column he spends days going over every sentence and every word looking for the funniest option. Squirrel was the winner in this case. He asked, "Which is funnier: hamster or gerbil?" I answered, "Gerbil." Dave said, "No, weasel is even funnier. You have to keep stretching.

"The key is to not hold back, the bigger the exaggeration, the funnier the line. Mr. Barry, some examples if you please:
  • "Eugene is located in western Oregon, approximately 278 billion miles from anything."

  • "I have been a gigantic Rolling Stones fan since approximately the Spanish-American War."

  • "If you were to open up a baby's head - and I am not for a moment suggesting that you should - you would find nothing but an enormous drool gland."

  • "It is a well-documented fact that guys will not ask for directions. This is a biological thing. This is why it takes several million sperm cells ... to locate a female egg, despite the fact that the egg is, relative to them, the size of Wisconsin."

  • "She has enough leftovers to make turkey sandwiches for everybody in Belgium."

  • Re: an explicit lingerie outfit: it was "so sheer you could read an appliance warranty through it in an unlit closet."
And, you can exaggerate in the other direction, as in, "Gravity is a contributing factor in nearly 73 percent of all accidents involving falling objects."

Another way to use exaggeration is though metaphors and analogies. Again, we can look to Mr. Barry for a graduate course in using these devices. Here are some examples that also incorporate exaggeration for a double-whammy:
  • "Our primary living-room sofa looks like a buffalo that has been dead for some time."

  • (The singer) "sounded like a water buffalo giving birth over a public address system."

  • "Aging faster than a day-old bagel in a hot dumpster."

  • A teenaged boy is "basically a walking hormone storm."
And, when you find a good exaggerated metaphor, extend it even further:
  • "Even as I write these words, there is a spider right outside my house that could serve, all by itself, as our NATO forces. This spider has erected a web that covers most of our property and contains wrapped-up food bundles the size of missing neighborhood dogs."
The last point is that when you write comedy you take out all qualifiers. Delete, probably, some people, sometimes and maybe — all those words that weaken the exaggerated position you are taking. These words would be appropriate if you were trying to be realistic. You're not. You're trying to be funny.

(If you want samples to learn from, while Dave stopped writing columns last year, his newspaper, the Miami Herald, reprints his classics every week at Dave Barry Classic Columns )

John Philipp is a weekly humor columnist for four Marin County, California newspapers and has won numerous humor and memoir writing awards. His humor columns are posted at wisdom (with Phil Frank's cartoons) is posted at Thought~Bytes


VA said...

Hysterical. Since my first three attempts at typing this response started with"yst" and "aht" I'll take my cue and come back with a fresh brain.

~Sia McKye~ said...

Welcome John, I've been looking forward to this installment. Like Viv, I've been giggling...

Happy and safe 4th to all...

Jill Lynn said...

The 4th of July fireworks were brighter than...

Hmm. Must think. WWJS? :-)

Kat Sheridan said...

John, outstanding advice (steal from the best!) I remember you teaching me about exagerration when I was attempting to learn to write humor (not a skill for the faint of heart--doing brain surgery while blindfolded and dancing the macarena is easier than writing humor, and the brain surgery is less messy). And I can tell from your last Dave Barry example that the man lives in Florida. His spider (along with all its spider capos and famiglia and hit squads) take up residence in our southern home while we're away and must be placated with offerings (a whole pig carcass with an apple in its mouth and a dozen Cinnabons) before they hand over the key to the house and let us in each time.

John, entertaining and educational article, and Sia, another great guest! I love this series!

Anonymous said...

John's advice transcends comedy and applies to all writers, in all mediums! Well said. And it reminds me of one of my favorite quotes:

"Mediocre writers borrow; Great writers steal!" ~T.S. Eliot

Julie Zimmer George

John Philipp said...

Thanks, Sia, have a wonderful 4th as well.

"must be placated with offerings (a whole pig carcass with an apple in its mouth and a dozen Cinnabons) before they hand over the key to the house "
Well, Kat, you've certainly learned the art of exxageration. :)

Julie, I love that quote and will apply myself to its practice.

aries18 said...

Terrific! I've got to study your blog entries John. I want to write comedy some day when I grow up. Or some day whether I grow up or not. You give a girl a lot to think about.

Other Lisa said...

It fascinates me that you can break down humor so logically - it makes perfect sense, but I never thought of it this way.

Happy 4th, everyone!

John Philipp said...

Aries, if you find any techniques in my writing, please let me know. Then I can steal from myself.

Lisa, you can have devices and approaches to your thinking that act as catalysts in creating humor. You still, as they say, "have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find a prince."

I suspect "a sun hat for a small, two-headed squirrel" wasn't the first option that occurred to Dave Barry.

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