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Story Design Tips: Writing Comedy, Part III: Under-Exaggeration

So you want to write humor? We’re covering comedy theory. Here’s the second of the five basic elements of comedy.

Guy Hasson, Blogger

August 18, 2011

6 Min Read

In the first article, we covered a shortcut to comedy that allows us to create funny scenes without knowing most of the theory. In the second article, we covered what comedy is from an evolutionary point of view, which led us immediately to the first element of comedy: exaggeration. Laughter is a result of, among other things, bringing the different back to the fold in a non-violent manner. We laugh at that which is different and the different feel bad and wish to be like the rest. To make our point, we exaggerate. From this, comedy is born.

Now, the truth is that when I talked about exaggeration I simplified matters. The truth is that there are two almost mutually exclusive kinds of exaggeration. The first is over-exaggeration. That’s the first element of comedy: blowing things out of proportion, overreacting, enlarging certain visual characteristic, over-exaggerating flaws of characters, situations, voices, and anything else that’s not one hundred percent mainstream.

The second kind of exaggeration is the one less thought of, and it is the second element of comedy: under-exaggeration.

Sometimes, you exaggerate by under-doing something, by not trying hard enough while thinking that you are, for example. Sometimes, rather than overreacting, you can under-react. Remember how George Costanza in Seinfeld reacted to the news of his fiancé’s death from having licked poisoned envelopes? He completely under-reacted. Rather than over-reacting, his reacting was mute, soft, understated, and, most importantly, it revealed a truth about his nature and true needs: his fiancé dying was good for him because he’s a) selfish; b) doesn’t care about other people’s lives; c) finds it preferable to the embarrassment of telling her he’d rather not marry her. The comedy made fun (and exaggerated) that which is different about him.

Sometimes, rather than overstating something you can under-state it. While overdoing something is funny, under-doing it is funny, as well. As always with these articles about comedy, I can’t show you video clips that you’ll find funny. We have to make do with written examples. You have to imagine the scenes, and then go watch comedies find more examples by yourselves.

Here’s an example of under-stating something, taken from Murphy Brown. One time, Murphy and her boss were in a hurry in the boss’ car, but it broke down. In the garage, the mellow mechanic, under the car, keeps saying “Oh, boy, oh boy… Oh boy, oh, boy…” When the mechanic comes out, the boss says, “So what’s the story?” The mechanic: “It’s your oil pan.” The boss: “How is it?” The mechanic: “I won’t know until I can take a look at it.” “So it’s…?” “It’s not here.” Now that the writers have established the premise, the boss asks: “How about the muffler?” The mellow mechanic says, “It’s no good.” “Gone?” enquires the boss. In the same mellow tone the mechanic answers, “Gone would be a great improvement.” – That last statement was all about massively under-stating the seriousness of the problem. The way the actor does it is hilarious.  

Here’s another example of under-stating something, taken from The West Wing. As you recall, the series dealt with people working for the president of the United States. Sam takes his boss, Toby, into a room and confides: “About a week ago, I accidentally slept with a prostitute.”

Toby raises his eyes. “Really?” “Yes.” “You accidentally slept with a prostitute?” “A call girl.” “Accidentally?” “Yes.” Toby thinks. Then he says, “I don’t understand. Did you trip over something?” - That’s under-statement again. Note that his statement exaggerates the flaw (that which is different) in Sam’s strange but true statement about accidentally sleeping with a prostitute.

There are many ways in which we can under-exaggerate. Another way is the opposite of over-reaction: let’s call it ‘under-reaction’. Sometimes, when something is too big to respond to, the exaggerated response would be under-reaction. For example: Once upon a time, in Family Ties, while the parents were gone, Alex Keaton (Michael J. Fox, remember?) and his sister, Mallory, had a party that got a lot out of hand. His father comes in in the middle and is shocked. Later, he got a very quiet and over-tranquil scolding from his father (imagine this spoken softly, slowly, and calmly,): “Alex, parents are conditioned to accept a few minor problems when they leave their children alone at home... Spilled milk on the rug... Broken dish….” He takes a deep breath and continues calmly, “There was a kangaroo… In my living room.”

Equally under-reacting, Alex responds, “It was just here for the party, Dad.”

Just as calmly, the father shakes his head and says, “Then I guess I’m overreacting.”

Mallory, the daughter, says, “Dad, if you just give us a chance, we can explain everything.”

The father’s tone remains calm as ever, “Oh, can you?... Can you explain the valet parking in the driveway? … The flashing Vacancy sign in front of the house?... The billboard on route 41?”

If done correctly, under-reaction is just as funny as over-reaction (but gets a different laugh). Note that it feels as extreme as an over-reaction, and it is done in a way that exaggerates the extremes to which Alex, with his extreme personality, took a small party. Once more, it exaggerates that which is different. Without a core that has to do with the ‘different’ in human nature, it just isn’t funny. (By the way, there are times in which we laugh because of structure rather than human nature, but we’ll get to those.)

In Conclusion

Exaggeration is a huge part of comedy, and, as you can see, there are two ways to go about it: Overdoing something or under-doing something. Keep in mind that if you really want to learn comedy, reading these articles is just the beginning. You’ve got to do most of the work yourselves. Treat this like a course in the university and do your exercises: Watch a lot of comedy now, and try to observe when something is exaggerated and in which way it gets exaggerated.

Then you’ve got to try and write something that uses the first element of comedy, and something that uses the second element of comedy. You have to get a stock of comedy into your memory (by watching what others have done) and you’ve got to learn to hone your own sense of humor by doing it yourself until it works.

Good luck.

There are three more basic elements to comedy. Next time we’re going to deal with the element that turns sad and/or tragic into funny.

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