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Story Design Tips: Writing Comedy, Part II: Exaggeration

You want to add comedy to your story? We’re covering the basics of comedy theory.

Guy Hasson, Blogger

August 10, 2011

5 Min Read

This is the second out of six articles about writing comedy. Last time we covered a shortcut that works in almost all cases when writing comedy, a shortcut that doesn’t need any knowledge of comedy theory. Today we’re getting into the nitty-gritty.

What Is Humor?

To understand comedy, we need to understand where it comes from. I mean, why do we, as humans, have it. How is it that evolution gave us laughter and jokes? What good is it?

Humor and laughter have two evolutionary purposes. The first purpose of humor is to take those who are different from the group and bring them back into the fold in a non-violent manner. Think about kids laughing and pointing at someone because he’s different, making fun of him. That kid feels embarrassed and would sure like to become part of the whole and to fit better. We laugh at that which is different. How do we do it? We exaggerate.

We’ll come back to exaggeration in a second. In the meantime, let’s cover the second evolutionary purpose of humor and laughter. Humor and laughter are also a way to root out stupidity and to promote intelligence. We make jokes of how people are stupid, we don’t make jokes of how people are smart. Or do we? We do make jokes of smart people when they act stupidly. In highlighting stupidity, we encourage those who act in such a way to act in a smarter manner, and we show the audience of the comedy how to be smarter. As we’ll see in a later article about comedy, we don’t just make fun of those who are stupid, humor is based on those who do not adapt fast enough to changing circumstances (intelligence). This kind of humor encourages us and teaches us to become smarter.

Even laughter is built into us in a way as to favor the intelligent: Laughter begins suddenly. Everyone knows when someone got the joke. Not only that, but whoever laughed first, got the joke first. Whoever laughed last, got the joke last.

The First Element of Comedy: Exaggeration

There are five elements to comedy. All humor contains at least one, if not more, of these elements. Once we learn all five, you can start putting them together as you like.

The first element of comedy we’re going to cover is exaggeration. As I said above, we have to take something that is different or stupid or not smart enough and we exaggerate it. We overdo it. We take that difference and expand its proportions, blowing it up and blowing it out of proportion.

Caricatures do that all the time. Taking a person’s ears and blowing them up, taking a puffed up mouth and blowing it up, a long nose, a fat stomach, a bald head, a small head, a monster-like head, and more.

We can exaggerate not only physical traits, but also emotions (having the hero scream like a girl), reactions (Ralph Kramden’s “hummana-hummana-hummana-hummana”), personality traits (almost any character in Fawlty Towers?, Kevin Kline in A Fish Called Wanda, or Steve Carell in The office), a human foible (Raymond can’t disconnect from his mother, can he?), a situation (The Hangover – it just gets worse and worse, doesn’t it? In other words: more and more exaggerated), a human relationship (Charles Grodin and Robert De Niro in Midnight Run), or anything else that is both human and flawed. That flaw can be exaggerated.

Giving examples in these articles is a problem. Usually, when I give lectures on comedy, I do it with video clips, so you can get a wide range of comedy and when you laugh at the bits, you know it’s true that it’s funny. In these articles, you’re going to have to rely on examples given in words. After reading this article, go and look at your favorite comedies, those you haven’t seen in a while, and try to find examples of exaggeration which you find funny. Exaggeration is a huge part of comedy, I’m sure you’ll find many examples.

Next, treat this like a course in the university, and do some homework. Look at your life, find some things that are slightly off, and try and make them funny by exaggerating something about them. Then try to find a few fictional situations and fictional characters that could conceivably be in a story in a game: find something to exaggerate about them, their situation, or their relationship, and see how you do it in order to be funny. Don’t start with the story you’re building – it will take you time to improve your craft.

I’ll give you this warning: it won’t work at first. You’ll fall into lame archetypes you’ve seen before, and that’s not going to be funny. But keep on practicing. Try and be original. Find what you think should be exaggerated, and find your own way to exaggerate it. Then you’ll get it right.

Last word about examples: I was asked by one of the readers to give examples from games. I won’t do that. First of all, comedy is comedy. Games have been around only for a couple of decades. Comedy has been here for thousands of years. There are classics in literature that will make you roll on the floor laughing (Three Men in a Boat, for example), and classics in film and TV that will do the same. Do games have their Marx Brothers, their Zucker Brothers, their Harold Lloyds, Buster Keatons, Charley Chaplins, Monty Pythons, screwball comedies, Eddie Murphies, Robin Williamses, Lucille Balls, Archie Bunkers, WB classics, Disney classics (to name but a drop in the ocean)? Not yet, but they should. Which is what this series of articles is all about. The second reason you shouldn’t feel bad about being given examples from the non-gaming world is that everything in the gaming world is borrowed from other crafts. We borrow from the best film directors, from the best cinematographers, from the best films and writers; why shouldn’t we borrow from the best comedy has to give us?

And, lastly, this is just one of the five elements. They all relate to each other. So join us next week, for the second element in this crash course in comedy.

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