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Standup Comedy Technique #1: Exaggeration

Start with a grain of truth and stretch it to its ultimate extreme.

"Yoni Yack" by Liane Gabora
Source: "Yoni Yack" by Liane Gabora

As the new school year rolls around, I start thinking again about teaching, and one of the classes I teach is a class on the Psychology of Humor. Humor is a surprisingly complex creative act. The course covers the cognitive mechanisms underlying humor generation and appreciation, the role of humor in social situations, personality traits associated with funny people, and so on.

An optional assignment that students in the class can do for extra class credit involves writing and presenting their own original, five-minute stand-up comedy routine at the local comedy club, Dakota's. The owner of the club, Dave Kopp, gives a guest lecture near the beginning of the term and invites students to participate, and he kindly offers friendly advice to those who take him up on it. Each year, a handful of students do this and get the extra credit. But I have to admit I’ve never done a stand-up comedy routine myself.

So, I’m thinking of finally doing it! I thought I’d write out a few ideas for possible material and post them here. If you like any of the comedy routine ideas I post on this blog, let me know, and I’ll include them in the actual routine. Then after I actually do it, I’ll write a blog that analyzes in greater detail each of the "bits" (as they’re called) in the routine in terms of the psychology of humor principles covered in the class.

My first bit demonstrates the use of exaggeration:

Bit #1

I once stumbled onto the website of a professor whose area of expertise is narcissism and entitlement in the millennial generation. Her website was dazzling, full of promotional videos and invitations to talk to her agent if you want her to lecture to your group on her next worldwide speaking tour, but it was devoid of any kind of concrete information about what she does: what her research questions are, what hypotheses she tests, what populations she tests them on, what results she has obtained.

This is in contrast to the typical academic’s website, which looks like it was made in the mid-1990s and tells you things like:

When we vary the intercoital spawning aperture of the green-spotted hoverfly from .6 to .7 digi-hertz per second, the moose population in the region increases by the squared logarithm of the coefficient of interglacial hyperflagy divided by the copper fixation rate in the soil. My team has tested this hypothesis with green-spotted hoverflies, yellow spotted hoverflies, and purple spotted hoverflies, with positive results in each case. It has been published in the Journal of Spotted Hoverfly Research, of which I am a member of the editorial board. I will be presenting this research, along with my graduate student, Hoodit Pan-Chinn, at the prestigious International Symposium on Spotted Hoverflies and Damselflies this October in North Banderwick, Nebraska. Here you see a photograph of me with the Chief of the Nilooquamalout First Nation in the Yukon, on whose land this research was gratefully carried out. In the background, you see the picturesque Pulabilawootz Sound, where we spent many a pleasant summer's afternoon ice fishing.

So, you see there is some contrast between this narcissism researcher’s website and the decidedly less slick, less culturally hip tone of the website of the typical academic. Anyway, suddenly it struck me the irony of her research topic being narcissism and her over-the-top self-presentation on her website. But then, maybe she does actually know something about the topic. (They say, takes one to know one…)

But what actually made me laugh out loud, as they say, was when reading a little deeper into the website, it tells you she has three teenage kids. Gotta wonder what her relationship with these three teenage kids—i.e., supposed narcissistic millennials—is like. And you gotta wonder what it would be like to be the teenage kid of a mother who travels around the world promoting the theory that people in your age group are narcissistic.


Although this bit was indeed inspired by the website of a particular academic, one of the psychology of humor methods I’ve employed here is exaggeration: You start with something for which there's a grain of truth and stretch it further and further to some ridiculous extreme. Exaggeration can be a surprisingly simple and effective means of making material funnier, as well as more memorable.

You may have noticed that there's something else going on here too. Yes, I know it mentions irony, but I'm thinking about something of a social nature.

Hint: this bit isn't entirely "innocent." Rather than telling you about this other aspect outright, I'll give you time to mull it over and see what comes to mind, and then discuss it in another post.

To be continued…