Understated Numbers

On the other end of the numerical scale, understated numbers are an equally effective technique:

A newspaper editor was honored at a testimonial dinner by the governor as one of the great leaders of his community. Flushed with pride, he asked his wife on the way home, "I wonder just how many great leaders our city has?" The wife said, "One less than you think."

I have three children—one of each. —Rodney Dangerfield

When New Yorker editor Harold Ross was once asked why he printed the cartoons of James Thurber, a fourth-class illustrator, Ross said, "I don't think he's fourth-class—maybe second-class!"

Like most humor, the pause before the surprise word effectively builds tension. When a reporter asked David Brenner what he thought of the remo deled Catch a Rising Star nightclub, he said, "It's beautiful, impressive. Must have poured three hundred and fifty . . . dollars into this place."

Here's an example of an exaggerated number that would work better if it were more realistic:

A Hollywood producer, to impress his aged mother on her birthday, bought á bird for $50,000 that could speak ten languages. He sent it to New York. A week later, he called her and asked, "How did you like the bird?" She replied, "Delicious!"

The reaction to that number is, "Jerk. If he spent that kind of money, he deserved what he got." But if the bird cost five hundred dollars, the humor is switched to the little old mother. Then there's more sympathy and more laughter.

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