The Walled Off Astoria

Starting with realism, the humor writer tries to determine how far in any direction the truth can be exaggerated without destroying credibility. It's called "good, better, best." A story about a prisoner who calls his companion a "cellmate" is good, calling him a "bedroom mate" is better, and calling him a "suite mate" is comedically the best of all. Realism is frequently funniest when it's exaggerated to the most extreme possibility. In math, 1 + 1 = 2. In humor, 1 + 1 = 11. This can be done by either overstatement (also known as hyperbole and exaggeration) or understatement. Here are some examples.

Overstatement

CEO to members of the board: "There you have it, gentlemen.

The upside potential is tremendous, but the downside risk is jail." —Robert Mankoff

If I had all the money in the world, I'd pay off my debts—as far as it went.

The scarecrow scared the crows so badly that they brought back the corn they had stolen two years before. —Fred Allen

Understatement

He jumped out the window. As room 18 was on the fifth floor, you can imagine his surprise. —Ring Lardner

Hostess to guests at mammoth reception: "Glorious Food Caterers did the buffet, but Willy designed the traffic flow himself."

A scoutmaster is shielding a young scout from an irate and totally disheveled old lady ready to swing her umbrella. He says, "Don't be upset, madam. He just felt that if taking you across a street was a good deed, taking you across the eight-lane turnpike would be even better."

How far can you go with exaggeration? Generally, the more your punch line exaggerates the introductory realism, the better the result.

Girls are much more psychic than guys. They're the first to know if you're going to get laid. —Paul Rodriquez

What appears to be exaggeration one day may not be the next.

One small town citizen to another: "Those terrorist hijackings are getting serious. First they were in Beirut, then Cairo, Athens, Rome. They're getting closer to Ottumwa every day."

It seems logical and obvious, but it isn't easy. Many of today's novice stand-up comedians have trouble with it. They'll start with some realistic premise like the way women dress, picking up girls in a singles bar, outsmarting the police, or advertising slogans, but then they'll shift into fifth gear with a wild display of ludicrous fantasy that's not connected well to the initial premises. Their material has a success rate of only one out of four or five because they make the same mistake over and over. They consistently disrupt the balance of realism and exaggeration.

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