Created By: JonnyB on April 20, 2012 Last Edited By: LordGro on May 1, 2012
Troped

Tall Tale

A humorous story full of unbelievable or impossible events.

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A tall tale is a story with unbelievable or outright impossible elements (such as an impossibly tall man, hence the name "tall" tale), told as if it were true and factual.

Tall tales arose, more or less, from braggy exaggerations and other cock-and-bull stories. They may contain exaggerations of actual characters or events, or they can be entirely made up. Common prototypes for tall tales are fish stories (“it was this big!”) (which makes it transparent where the “tall” humor is coming from), as well as the the hunter's story, the war story, and the traveller's story. Tall Tales are inherently related to Satire, although they are usually humorous and good-natured.

Some tall tales also draw on myth or legend; but while myth and legend may exaggerate the exploits of their heroes beyond the possible, the Tall Tale is aware of its own absurdity and exaggerates Beyond the Impossible.

Note that "tall tale" is sometimes also used in a wider sense for any "story that isn't true" (particularly when the teller pretends it is true); in this looser sense it also covers Shaggy Dog Stories and campfire Ghost Stories (in parts of the US, "tall tale" and "shaggy dog story" are indeed synonyms).

Tall tales are also often told in a way that makes the narrator seem to have been a part of the story. If he himself is the hero, there are likely to follow outrageous Badass Boasts (often followed by the praise of one’s own modesty). This kind of a narrator is a Munchausen or a Miles Gloriosus. Standard stylistic devices are also the insistence on factuality, and the pitying of naïve skeptics for their disbelief.

Tall tales are an ancient genre of folktales (as encountered in the tales around Paul Bunyan in the USA or Crooked Mick in Australia). But there is also the literary tall tale; the literary tall tale catalyzed the emergence of such respectable genres as Science Fiction and the Utopia.

This page is for the Tall Tale genre. If a work is a tall tale itself, or a compendium of them, or the plot revolves around the telling of tall tales, then it goes in this trope. If it merely contains a braggart who is telling tall tales, but the tales aren't the focus of the work, then the trope you seek is Miles Gloriosus or The Munchausen instead.

Examples:

Film
  • Tall Tale: The Unbelievable Adventures of Pecos Bill, a Disney film about a young boy's adventures with Pecos Bill, Paul Bunyan and John Henry.
  • The Adventures of Baron Munchausen by Terry Gilliam, based on the 18th century tall tales around Baron Munchhausen.
  • Big Fish, which is all about a man deciphering his father's tall tales.

Literature
  • Tall Tale America: A Legendary History of Our Humorous Heroes is a book about American tall tales.
  • True History by 2nd century AD author Lucian of Samosata is likely the Ur-Example.
  • Played with in The Star Diaries by Stanisław Lem. It's never clear whether Ijon Tichy, the book's narrator, "really" had all those wacky adventures in space, or whether he is just a teller of tall tales.
  • The several books under the label The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, by Erich Rudolph Raspe (1785-1789 and 1792) and Gottfried August Bürger (1788).
  • In the Red Mars Trilogy, which is set on a future Mars that is being terraformed, people still tell stories of Paul Bunyan, but they make him out as a Trickster Archetype creator figure, not unlike Raven in Native American mythology. This is an In-Universe illustration of how tall tales can evolve into mythology.

Live-Action TV
  • An episode of The Twilight Zone features a man who continually tells tall tales. When he tells them he was abducted by aliens, they believe he is just Crying Wolf. (The whole episode could be a tall tale... from Rod Serling's point of view.)
  • Chau from Off Centre did this once about the story of Euan and Liz.

Mythology And Folklore

Radio
  • An adaptation of the Baron Munchhausen stories was popularized by radio comedian Jack Pearl in the 1930s, with his character's signature response to any doubts about his veracity- "Vas you dere, Sharlie?"- becoming a well-known catchphrase.

Tabletop Games
  • The party game called The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen is based on the art of tall tale telling. Each player in turn tells the most unbelievable (but absolutely true!) stories, with the others trying to trip him up, without calling him an outright liar. Whoever tells the best story wins.
  • Captain Park's Imaginary Polar Expedition, a board game from Cheapass Games. You play members of a Victorian gentleman's club, all of whom are trying to one-up each other with heroic tales of adventure. In fact, all your exploits are entirely fictitious. You've just spent the last few months hiding in a hotel and sneaking out in disguise to scavenge in junk shops for "artifacts" from your "expeditions". The aim of the game is to collect convincing sets of photographs, anecdotes, and artifacts, without being spotted and exposed as a fraud.

Video Games
  • In the beginning of Dragon Age II, The Narrator, Varric, tries to start his story as a tall tale (resulting in a Tutorial Level wherein you control unkillable Game Breaker characters), but is soon interrupted by his listener, who wants to hear the real story. He still occasionally lapses into tall tales later (and is always interrupted again).

Web Comics

Web Original
  • In The Adventures of The League of S.T.E.A.M. episode, "Tall Tails", three League members sit around telling stories of their encounter with a Kraken... some of them being a bit hard to swallow.

Western Animation
  • The Pixar Shorts:
    • "Mater's Tall Tales" are a modern spin on this tradition.
    • The short "Boundin'" is a tall tale that features a Jackalope.
  • Disney has made shorts based on Paul Bunyan and John Henry. Melody Time has segments for Johnny Appleseed and Pecos Bill.
  • Pinky and the Brain had "A Legendary Tail", an episode where the Brain used a computer to combine elements of other tall tales and make one starring himself. He hoped to use this as a way to gain acclaim as a folkhero. However, the resulting tall tale ended with other folkheroes suing the Brain's character for plagiarizing parts of their names (his name, by the way, was "Big Johnny Brain Jones Peachpit Bill Boone Crockett").
  • Käpt'n Blaubär's whole shtick. The Framing Story of every episode (done in puppetry) is retired sea captain Bluebear telling an improbable sounding tale about an adventure he once supposedly had. Those stories (told in animation) are always Snark Bait for his three very skeptical grandkids.
  • The World Of Commander McBragg, loosely based on Baron Munchausen, consisted of the eponymous McBragg telling ridiculous tall tales about himself.
Community Feedback Replies: 41
  • April 20, 2012
    mzytryck
    A Song Of Ice And Fire has Tormund Giantsbane, an archetypal Boisterous Bruiser whose most recognisable trait is his tendency to tell totally ridiculous stories, many of which relate to his legendary virility. The series also has various in-universe myths that reference various heroes in previous millennia, whose feats are doubted or disputed by the serious historians in the series.
  • April 20, 2012
    nman
  • April 20, 2012
    NESBoy
    Pinky And The Brain had "A Legendary Tail", an episode where the Brain used a computer to combine elements of other tall tales and make one starring himself. He hoped to use this as a way to gain acclaim as a folkhero. However, the resulting tall tale ended with other folkheroes suing the Brain's character for plagiarizing parts of their names (his name, by the way, was "Big Johnny Brain Jones Peachpit Bill Boone Crockett").
    The Brain: The trouble with computers is that they're just too blasted logical.
  • April 20, 2012
    LordGro
    Film

    Literature

    I'd much prefer the title being Tall Tale (without the 'The'). I'll move the movie to its namespace, so there won't be a title conflict.

    Edit: I don't think the A Song Of Ice And Fire example fits. A character that tells tall tales in-story is The Munchausen. This is for stories that are itself Tall Tales, isn't it?
  • April 20, 2012
    TonyG
    Disney has made shorts based on Paul Bunyan and John Henry. Melody Time has segments for Johnny Appleseed and Pecos Bill.
  • April 20, 2012
    Duncan
    Big Fish, which is all about a man deciphering his father's tall tales.
  • April 20, 2012
    JonnyB
    @LordGro: Tall Tale without the 'The' was my initial thought, so that would work, thanks.

    As for A Song Of Ice And Fire: I think you're probably right; I'll give that some more thought. Which probably will mean some of the other examples here won't fit either; I'm not sure where to draw the line between tall tales, and tales about tall tales (especially if such tales are unique to the work).
  • April 20, 2012
    JonnyB
    Ok, how about this?

    If a work is about tall tales, i.e. a compendium of them, or the major plot of the work is that of a tall tale or series of tall tales, then it can go in this trope as an example of the tall tale.

    If it is merely a work that contains a braggart who is telling tall tales as one of it's characters but that isn't really the focus of the work, then it doesn't go here. Sound reasonable?
  • April 21, 2012
    LordGro
    Yes, that's exactly how I see it.

    Edit: Another Literature example:
  • April 21, 2012
    elwoz
    Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars Trilogy reused Paul Bunyan for a bunch of "native" Martian creation myths; I bring this up because I think it illustrates the difference between tall tales and myths that you point out in the description.
  • April 21, 2012
    Lumpenprole
    An adaptation of the Baron Munchhausen stories was popularized by radio comedian Jack Pearl in the 1930s, with his character's signature response to any doubts about his veracity- "Vas you dere, Sharlie?"- becoming a well-known catchphrase.

  • April 21, 2012
    JonnyB
    ^^ @elwoz: So it does go here, or it doesn't? (confused)
  • April 21, 2012
    LobsterMagnus
    Captain Bluebear's whole shtick. The Framing Story of every episode is retired sea captain Bluebear telling an improbable sounding tale about an adventure he once supposedly had. Those stories are always Snark Bait for his three very skeptical grandkids.

    [The framing story is live action with puppets, the stories themselves are animated. This means there are two valid possibilities to categorize the example. Your choice.]
  • April 22, 2012
    Koveras
    • In the beginning of Dragon Age II, The Narrator Varric tries to start his story as a tall tale (resulting in a Tutorial Level wherein you control unkillable Game Breaker characters), but is soon interrupted by his listener, who wants to hear the real story. He still occasionally lapses into tall tales later (and is always interrupted again).
  • April 22, 2012
    Arivne
    Compare Fearsome Critters Of American Folklore, which sometimes appear in Tall Tales.
  • April 22, 2012
    JonnyB
    Question: The current Tall Tale is a redirect page... I can't figure out how to edit that page when this launches, I keep getting redirected. >.< Any ideas, help?
  • April 22, 2012
    LordGro
    To edit redirect pages, you gotta manually edit the browser address. I did it for you (for further reference: I clicked "edit" on Film.Tall Tale, then swapped the "Film" in the browser address line with "Main").

    Another thing: Are Johnny Appleseed and Davy Crockett really Tall Tale characters? After all, they really lived, and even if their exploits might have been exaggerated by folklore, this is not done for pure entertainment or turned up to absurd proportions, like in a Tall Tale. (Of the other guys, I know that Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill are tall tale characters, the rest I don't know.)
  • April 22, 2012
    JonnyB
    Yes, Johnny Appleseed, Davy Crockett et.al. are considered tall tale characters. Even though they really existed, there also exists many a tall tale about their supposed exploits that enter the realm of the absurd. (See The Other Wiki's article on tall tales.) As the opening of the trope description states, "some such stories are exaggerations of actual events".
  • April 22, 2012
    JonnyB
    Also, thank you for your help. :) And that was a rather clever edit idea.
  • April 23, 2012
    LordGro
    ^^OK, I stand corrected ... :-)
  • April 23, 2012
    elwoz
    Re the Red Mars Trilogy, I think I'd include it with a description like

    • In the Red Mars Trilogy, which is set on a future Mars that is being terraformed, people still tell stories of Paul Bunyan, but they make him out as a Trickster Archetype creator figure, not unlike Raven in Native American mythology. This is an In Universe illustration of how tall tales can evolve into mythology.
  • April 24, 2012
    gleefan90210
    Chau from Off Centre did this once about the story of Euan and Liz.
  • April 25, 2012
    LordGro
    Crooked Mick, a traditional Tall Tale character from Australia.
  • April 25, 2012
    Arivne
    A number of examples of these are on the Oral Tradition page.
  • April 26, 2012
    JonnyB
    Hats, anyone? :)
  • April 26, 2012
    LordGro
    Not to be a killjoy, but I just noticed that most of the description is copied from Wikipedia. I think that's strongly discouraged.

    Do you mind if I do some rewriting on the description?
  • April 26, 2012
    JonnyB
    I don't mind, and I can probably do some myself. It's actually only the first two paragraphs that were copied. I just reworked them to make them a bit more paraphrasical.
  • April 27, 2012
    JonnyB
    Does the rewording/paraphrase work ok?
  • April 29, 2012
    LordGro
    I rewrote much of the description. Do you think it is OK? Or could it use a bit of shortening?

    Edit: Also, should this become an index?
  • April 29, 2012
    Koveras
    Too lazy to compare the write-up to Wikipedia, but since you already have five hats, Just Launch It Already.

    And no, this cannot be an index, since indices are only used for trope lists and genres.
  • April 29, 2012
    LordGro
    ^But Tall Tales are a genre.

    Edit: The Wikipedia text is gone; my concern is that the description has become more (maybe too) wordy.

    As JonnyB is the original sponsor, waiting for his feedback before launching.
  • April 29, 2012
    Koveras
    Then you should make a list of works in this genre first, because most of the examples currently listed above are tall tales told within stories in other genres.
  • April 29, 2012
    LordGro
    Granted, there are too few works for an index. (A section on Small Genres And Unclassified Literature might be warranted, though.)
  • April 29, 2012
    JonnyB
    Ok, let me read the new description and perhaps do some editing (as someone complained it might be too long). Then I'll launch it.

    And no, I don't think it should be an index. An index would have other tropes listed under this; this clearly is a trope in itself.
  • April 29, 2012
    JonnyB
    After reading and doing a couple of minor edits, I have one small problem with the new description. I think it would suffice to say they are braggy exaggerations, not "spoofs" of such exaggerations. I don't really think that parody enters into the tall tale at all, although perhaps the parody and the tall tale are cut from the same cloth. Discuss?
  • April 30, 2012
    LordGro
    ^^I was thinking about a works index.

    ^That sentence refers to the origins of the tall tale genre. I don't think a tall tale (as opposed to a fish story or cock-and-bull-story) is a bragging exaggeration in itself, because the narrator doesn't honestly believe his audience to believe him, and also not every narrator inserts himself into the story.

    It doesn't mean that tall tales are generally parodies (though some of them probably are), but it's a substantial part of their humour that they take things an exaggerating braggart might say, and exaggerate them even further, so as to make them ridiculous.

    Edit: Another point -- I thought about this some time, but I really fail to see the special relationship of the Tall Tale to the Shaggy Dog Story and the Ghost Story. Probably they can overlap, but so can most other genres. I think that should be cut.
  • April 30, 2012
    JonnyB
    In some places in the US, Tall Tales are called Shaggy Dog stories (as the shaggy dog story is considered a tall tale). The Ghost Story however is a tenuous link, I'll admit.

    I don't really think "parody" is really the word for it though, A tall tale certainly enters the realm of the ridiculous and absurd, but I don't think of it as parody. (Although it's also entirely unrelated to Absurdism.)
  • April 30, 2012
    LordGro
    Hm, I think I get it. Tall Tales in its broadest possible sense is used for every story that isn't true, isn't it? Just like Fairy Tale mentions "tall tale" as a possible synonym for fairy tale, which I also didn't 'get' (until now). In this broad sense, Shaggy Dog Stories and Ghost Stories, and even Fairy Tales, are all Tall Tales.

    While in its narrower sense, Tall Tale is a humorous, often satirical story that tries his best to be unbelievable, for comedic effect (which is quite distinct from Shaggy Dog Story, Ghost Story or your typical Fairy Tale).

    Altogether, I think this trope is for the second kind of tall tale. We might drop a sentence or two on the varying usages of the name, though. But the way it is currently written, the relationship to Shaggy Dog Story and Ghost Story comes across somewhat Non Sequitur-ish.

    About the parody/spoof issue: I still think that there is an element of parody humour in Tall Tales. But I won't fight for it, if you want it gone.
  • April 30, 2012
    JonnyB
    Ok I removed the word spoof and reworded that sentence a bit, also removed ghost story and made it clearer the relationship between the tall tale and the shaggy dog story. I think it's launchable now, yes?
  • May 1, 2012
    LordGro
    The problem with the shaggy dog story reference is that Shaggy Dog Story, as a trope on this wiki, is clearly defined as a story having a lot of build-up, but ending in an anticlimax. If you go by this definition, then it is quite distinct from our definition of Tall Tale.

    Edited the paragraph again and even put back the "campfire Ghost Story". If you think I got it right, then I approve launching.
  • May 1, 2012
    JonnyB
    It's not perfect, but it'll do. Thanks for the help.
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