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Exaggerate to accumulate

This is an exercise in what the comedian Stewart Lee calls “exaggerating for comic effect.” He was being ironic: we’re not. Just as a caricaturist or an impressionist makes someone funny by overstating the way they look or sound, so comedy-writing brings out the humour of a situation, a person, or a conversation by exaggeration. That’s not the whole story, of course, and sometimes it’s not at all true, but it usually is.

  1. Invent a character. It can be based on someone you know, or even someone fictional. Now note down that character’s personality traits: are they angry, melancholy, vain, greedy, kind? Now imagine those traits exaggerated: if they’re generous, make them absurdly generous. If they’re grumpy, make them ridiculously grumpy. If your character is now more comical, then the exaggeration has worked. And the character is stronger as well as funnier.
  2. Invent a situation. Is your character in trouble? They should be, or it’s not a story. Exaggerate the trouble. Make it sillier, or odder. Relate it to them: social embarrassment is always better when it’s dafter. Keep piling on the agony. Think of how the cast of Seinfeld make tiny agonies worse. How Miranda’s love life makes her burn with embarrassment. The bigger the trouble, the funnier it is seeing how your character deals with it.
  3. If you’re giving your characters witty or comic dialogue – and you don’t have to – then amp up the absurdity. Write a joke and then exaggerate it. If someone’s cold, don’t have then say, “I’m colder than an ice cube.” Have them say, “I’m colder than an ice cube that went to Antarctica by mistake and didn’t take a coat.” (But please, be funnier than that.)
    And now combine the three. How far you want to go depends on how silly you like your comedy. But, as an exercise at least, it always pays to exaggerate.
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