The Art of Exaggeration

bigfishjby Robert Morgan Fisher

We all know someone with The Gift of Comedy. Not that person who reaches for clichés like: “That baby is as cute as a button!” Or “Traffic in the canyon was a parking lot!” No—I’m talking about the person whose wry observations are 1) original, 2) concise and 3) truly funny.

One look at that kid and I need a shot of insulin.

I sat there so long—flowers turned into fossils.

The jokes work—why? one describes “a baby so sweet it actually causes diabetes” and the other indicates “traffic slow as to allow plant life to die and become fossilized.” Each joke is an effective use of Exaggeration.

In Mel Helitzer’s wonderful book, Comedy Writing Secrets, he describes the T.H.R.E.E.S. Formula. T.H.R.E.E.S. is an acronym for Target, Hostility, Realism, Exaggeration, Emotion and Surprise. Today I’m focusing on Exaggeration as it relates to Short Fiction. But first, a few famous examples from TV and Film to get us into the proper “hilarity headspace”:

  • The legendary “More Cowbell” sketch on Saturday Night Live: Arguably the most beloved SNL sketch of all time, the premise relies on the exaggerated importance of the cowbell as an instrument in Blue Öyster Cult’s iconic 1976 hit, “Don’t Fear the Reaper.”
  • Recently Stephen Colbert had presidential candidate Bernie Sanders as a guest on The Late Show. Before bringing Sanders out, Colbert—in his trademark style—noted that Sanders was now topping the polls, causing networks to ask “What is going on?” He played a quick montage of pundits and newscasters asking that very question, ending with a horror movie clip of a woman screaming “WHAT IS GOING ON?!” Funny in itself—but then Colbert adds: “Even Hillary Clinton is asking…” Therein lies the exaggeration that truly makes the joke work: implying that the screaming woman was Hillary.
  • Exaggeration in feature film comedies is pretty easy to spot as it’s primarily character-driven. Movies like Anchorman, Bridesmaids and Scary Movie all take character traits or scenes and push them to ten and beyond. This is broad comedy. But consider the nuanced humor of superhero movies such as The Dark Knight and Ironman. And where would the Coen Brothers or Quentin Tarantino be without humor? Films such as Fargo, True Grit, Pulp Fiction and Django Unchained have a comic dimension to them that, while not broad or clownish, is singularly important to each filmmaker’s brand.

It’s also, in its way, literary.

Even drama requires humor. Why? Because humor is part of our everyday consciousness; it’s a survival tool. It’s frequently how we process and manage trauma. I recall reading an account of a U.S. soldier who died in combat. His grace under pressure was often leavened with the judicious use of humor. A fellow soldier pinned down with him under enemy fire recalled how the soldier in question turned to him and shouted, “Do these pants make me look fat?” By exaggerating a sense of misplaced priorities, our hero inspired his comrades with a moment of much-needed levity.

In the literary world, humor is highly prized—mostly because it’s so hard to successfully execute. Books are meant to last decades and comedy often has a short shelf life. This can be due—among other things—to topicality, subjectivity and overexposure.

The fiction of David Foster Wallace employs what I call “an accumulation of digressive detail” in which footnotes, data, et cetera, are all used to build a detached, academic case. The stories themselves are often violent, but the action is so buried in dry discursion that the reader is forced to dive in and become a colleague. It is a brilliant conceit, one of many reasons Wallace is considered a true genius. But this technique is also a form of exaggeration—both in DFW’s comedic, tedious avalanche of information and in the narrator’s understated tone.

Wallace is one of several short story writers we examine in my 4-week online Antioch Inspiration2Publication course, Rub a Little Funny on It: Humor in Short Fiction. Drawing from a diverse cross-section of writers (Lorrie Moore, Denis Johnson, Jamaica Kincaid, George Saunders—and many others), we figure out just exactly how humor is employed in short stories. You learn practical comedy writing tools and then incorporate comedy into a short story of your own.

Oh—and we laugh a lot.

Whether you’re an experienced short story writer or a novice; whether you’re looking to improve a short story, memoir, novel or even a prose poem, one must know how to apply humor.

If you think you don’t have a gift for comedy—I’m willing to bet you’re wrong. You just need a toolkit to access it. Comedy is inherent in everyone and in almost every situation, it just needs to be discovered, developed and nurtured. It’s a process.

And that… is no exaggeration.


Robert Morgan Fisher’s four-week online inspiration2publication class, Rub a Little Funny on It, begins November 5. Register here.

Robert Morgan Fisher’s fiction and essays have appeared in Teach. Write., The Wild WordThe Arkansas ReviewRed Wheelbarrow, The Missouri Review Soundbooth Podcast, Dime Show Review0-Dark-ThirtyThe Huffington PostPsychopompThe Seattle ReviewThe Spry Literary Journal34th ParallelThe Journal of MicroliteratureSpindriftBluerailroad and many other publications. He has a story in the 2016 Skyhorse Books definitive anthology on speculative war fiction, Deserts of Fire and in the 2018 Winterwolf Press Howl of the Wild Anthology. He’s written for TV, radio and film. Robert holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles and is currently on the teaching faculty of Antioch University Santa Barbara. Since 2016, Robert has led an acclaimed twice-weekly writing workshop for veterans with PTSD in conjunction with UCLA. He often writes companion songs to his short stories. Both his music and fiction have won many awards. Robert also voices audiobooks. (