Exaggerated Numbers Aren’t Funny (Forever)

When I was a kid, I spent lots of time reading my stepmother’s paperback collections of Mad Magazine. To this day, I remember one piece premised on the notion that government form letters were dull and unfriendly, and that rhyming postcards would be a nicer way to communicate with citizens.

Each postcard had a picture on one side, and a poem on back with blanks that Mad Magazine had helpfully filled in with absurdities, a little bit like government-form-letter Mad Libs. One postcard, for a declaration of eminent domain, began with the lines:

Your Uncle Sam is Building You
A _________ lane highway, nice and new

The absurd number filling in the blank was “eight.”

An eight-lane highway isn’t small, even today, but I’ve certainly driven on highways six lanes in each direction, and possibly even highways eight lanes in each direction. The rest of the postcard is still funny, but that particular line has lost its absurd edge.

I think back to Bruce Springsteen’s deadpan single, 57 Channels and Nothing On, and I wonder if people who have grown up in the era of 200-plus channel cable television would think the song sincere in its implicit desire for more channels.

A mere five years ago, The Onion published a humorous piece about five-bladed razors. Only a year later, Gilette announced the real thing. Suddenly The Onion seemed prescient rather than funny. (I’ll admit that happens with some regularity.)

And the recent New York Times “EdLife” section published a piece about college life, which mentioned in passing a 72 inch television. As televisions that big aren’t actually common today (certainly not in a college student’s price point) I presume that the article’s author intended a humorous exaggeration, but it strikes me that the day isn’t far off when a reader would presume serious intent on the part of the writer.

In fact, I’m still not sure it was supposed to be funny, just as today’s new shavers might not be sure about the Onion piece, or the other two examples. Exaggerating numbers might be funny, but I’m sure it won’t be funny for long.

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