Updated: Feb 5
It's Sunday morning at a family breakfast table. A five year old girl is presented a plate of steaming pancakes, smothered in buttery syrup, by her grinning grandpa. With a squeal of delight and a sing-song "Thank you, Gram-paw!" she grabs her fork, and is about to dig in when, suddenly, she stops.
Climbing onto her chair, she declares "I have an announcement to make!"
Her mother, too amused to be annoyed by the girl's exuberance, asks, "What is it, Sweetie?"
"I've decided to get married."
"Wow!" her mother laughs, playing along. "Congratulations! Who's the lucky fella?"
"Well, he's kind, and funny, and he's really good at whistling and playing the guitar, and... and gardening! And he's a great cook, and!" here she pauses for emphasis, "he thinks I'm wonderful."
"Well, he certainly sounds like marriage material. When can we meet him?"
"He's right in there!" the girl chirps, pointing to the kitchen.
"Wait," her older brother says, putting it together with a knit brow, "you mean... grandpa??"
"Yep! He's perfect for me," she beams.
There's an awkward pause as the mother and son look at one another in a mild state of panic.
"Well my love," the mother begins, choosing her words carefully, "I'm afraid we have a problem there."
"What do you mean? What problem?" the little girl sinks back down into her chair, deflated.
"I'm afraid you can't marry your grandfather," the mother tells her daughter gently.
"What?? Why?!" she asks, tears welling up in her eyes.
"Because, Sweetie," her mother replies, "he's my father. You can't marry my father!"
"Why not?" the girl cries defiantly, "You married mine!"
Not all stories are jokes, but every good joke tells a story.
As The Story Whisperer, the majority of the stories I help people tell are sincere, inspirational, and true. My job is to help them open up to the emotional truth of their personal journey, and share it in a form that will resonate with their ideal audience and offer hope that positive change is not only possible but inevitable once you take your rightful place as author of your own story.
But sometimes the emotional truth of our message or story is just too painful, dark, taboo, or overwhelming to confront head-on. When this happens, one of the most powerful tools in our storytelling arsenal is humor.
Humor has the magical ability to help us recognize and process difficult truths about ourselves and the world around us while still remaining in a playful and positive frame of mind.
Laughter not only serves as that much-needed "spoonful of sugar" that helps the medicine of harsh realities go down, it keeps us from feeling victimized by those realities, allowing us to distance ourselves from them and envision alternate, less absurd realities we could and should help create.
They say the fastest way to the heart is through the stomach, but if you want to access the deeper emotions, I recommend taking a detour through the funny bone.
Humans like to be right. When challenged, we are inclined to defend and double-down on our position, often without thinking it through. Humor has the remarkable ability to disarm and defuse our defenses, allowing us to re-examine our sacred cows and question our assumptions, hopefully without feeling attacked or made wrong.
So if you're wanting to persuade, convince, affect, or motivate your readers to take action, remember the old adage:
"If you can make 'em laugh, you can make 'em do anything."
Humor comes in many forms, of course. From snappy one-liners to snarky satirical essays to sitcoms with seasons in the double digits, there are as many ways to be funny as there are ways to be human. But today I'm going to focus on a form of funny that I find especially useful when asking audiences to follow you into emotionally tricky territory: the exaggerative art of hyperbole.
Hyperbole and a laugh
One of my all-time favorite humorists is Allie Brosh of Hyperbole and a Half. What makes Allie's prose so milk-through-the-nose-inducing is her ability to describe her wholly relatable experiences with such grandiose exaggeration that a vaguely awkward situation transforms into a tragicomedy of Shakespearian proportions.
This is the same skill that helps David Sedaris transform everyday scenes from a garden variety dysfunctional Suburban family into farcical masterpieces, and which Bill Bryson uses to transform his travel journals into laugh-out-loud comedic gems.
And happily, it's one of the simplest forms of comedy to master. Largely because, conveniently, we have a tendency to exaggerate emotionally significant events in our own memories. So we're already halfway there.
The truth is that it's impossible to tell a story exactly as it objectively occurred. Our memories are subjective by nature, and automatically edit events in accordance with our emotional experience, so we may as well lean into the skid.
This in turn helps the audience confront the full range of their own emotional experience by holding up a kind of fun-house mirror to their own messed up memoirs, at enough of a distance to allow recognition without triggering trauma.
They say comedy is simply tragedy plus time. I would modify that to:
Comedy = tragedy + distance
That distance could be due to time passed, or it could be thanks to the fact that it's someone else's gut that just got kicked by an overzealous kangaroo. Either way, we humans find pain hilarious, just as long as we aren't currently experiencing it.
The trick to effective hyperbolic humor is to take things just a liiiiiiittle too far so your audience can get enough distance from a recognizable emotion to be able to laugh at it.
For example, there's nothing funny about dropping your delicious chocolate fudge ice cream cone onto hot pavement. We've all been there, and it just straight up sucks.
But what if you dropped your delicious chocolate fudge ice cream cone, slipped on it, fell on your ass, and then had to finish out your zoo field trip with a giant brown spot on the back of your pants?
Be careful, though. If you push things too far, it could veer out of the realm of relatability and back into tragical territory. For example, if you dropped your ice cream cone, slipped on it, fell backward over the railing of the tiger exhibit, landed on your head, broke your neck, and got mauled by tigers? That's even less funny than dropping your ice cream cone.
How to Hyperbolate Like a Master of the Universe In 3 Simple Steps:
Step one: pick a true story with a strong emotional arc and a relatable theme.
When I was 8 years old, during a visit to my father's parents, my grandmother Roseanne baked up a batch of croissants from scratch and--for reasons I can only guess at--insisted I was not to leave the table until I had eaten them all. I ate way too many, got quite ill, and avoided croissants for a good twenty years afterwards.
Step two: use the art of speculation to assign motives, raise the emotional stakes, create more tension, and sway the audience's sympathies your way.
When I was 8 years old, I went to visit my father's parents, whom I hadn't seen since I was quite small. My grandmother, Roseanne, like a lot of women of a certain age, was fairly obsessed with appearances and, concerned that I was getting a bit chubby, decided to take matters into her own hands.
Much like an angry father who discovers his son smoking a cigarette and forces him to smoke the entire pack in one sitting, so as to put him off of the whole notion of smoking, Roseanne baked up a batch of croissants and insisted I was not to leave the table until I had finished every last one.
Her strategy was successful in that I was unable to even look at a croissant without feeling ill for the next two decades of my life, but unsuccessful in that I still managed to get fat, regardless.
Step three: exaggerate & emphasize key details to push the emotional arc over the edge of tragedy into the realm of comedy.
My grandmother, Roseanne, baked an entire basket of croissants, and set it directly in front of 8 year old me. I could feel the saliva pooling in my mouth, but hesitated to reach for one, out of both politeness and an intuitive sense that I would be reaching straight into a trap.
"Adrienne, you are not to leave zee table until all zees are finish," she announced in her melodic, Swiss-French accented English.
She then proceeded to pick up one of the buttery croissants, slice it in half, and slather its insides with even more butter. I held up my plate in anticipation, but she was far from finished. She then reached for the jar of homemade orange marmalade, and added a good dollop of that. Next, she grabbed the Nutella and added a healthy smear. Finally, she gave the whole sweet, sloppy mess a heavy sprinkling of powdered sugar before setting it on my plate.
As I ate, she watched me, her thin lips and hooked nose wrinkled up in ill-concealed disgust.
When I had finished, she started the process over again.
"I don't need--"
"Shhh!" she silenced my objection, completing the triple-slather routine undaunted.
About halfway through the second croissant, I announced that I was full and politely asked to be excused from the table.
"Perhaps you deed not leesten to what I say before," Roseanne's already sing-song tone began to veer into operatic territory, and her nostrils flared, "You do not leave zee table until all zees croissant are finish."
As the reality of my imprisonment sunk in, the last glimmer of enjoyment was wrung from the task ahead, and I soldiered on, mechanically chewing and swallowing until my plate was clean.
I don't remember how many croissants I got through before it happened. It certainly wasn't all of them. What I do remember with crystalline clarity is the look of abject horror on Roseanne's face as I tried and failed to push myself back from the table, said, "I'm sorry," and proceeded to projectile vomit all over my plate, the table, the remaining croissants, and of course, the white carpeting.
That look was almost worth the cruel, decades-long croissant aversion that followed, and probably would have been, had she not then hosed me down in the bathtub, clothes and all, like a rioting inmate.
Now, despite the speculation and exaggeration, this remains a true story. All the details are rooted in reality--for example, Roseanne really was known to serve her croissants slathered in butter, marmalade, and Nutella, and covered in powdered sugar, though I'm not 100% sure she did that in this case. And she did hose me down in the tub afterward, though she probably took my clothes off first, and almost definitely took the time to baby powder my butt afterward.
But, I mean, what is the audience supposed to do with that?
Try your hand at transforming one of your own tragical tales into a funny anecdote, and post it in the comments below (scroll down past the suggested articles to find the text box!).