Ethan Chandler: What we call a tall tale, darlin'.
Vanessa: Exceedingly tall.
Ethan: Vice of my nation. We're storytellers.
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 hunter's story, the war story, and the traveler's story. There's also significant overlap with the "Just So" Story, as many tall tales center on the origins of notable landmarks. Tall Tales are inherently related to Satire, although they are usually humorous and good-natured.
Some tall tales draw on myth or legend but while mythology may exaggerate the exploits of their heroes to make them more awesome, the Tall Tale is aware of its own absurdity and exaggerates so as to become ludicrous.
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 may also include fantastic creatures. In the USA, the Fearsome Critters of American Folklore are a traditional subject of tall tales. In Australia, expect to see Yowies and Bunyips and Drop Bears, Oh My.
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 Münchausen instead.
- Simple Samosa: One of Samosa's signature characteristics is his tendency to tell tall tales about some stuff he claims to have done (to give a random example, in the episode "Sumo Momo", while on the way to a wrestling match featuring the wrestler Sumo Momo, he brags that he once encountered not one, but two Sumo Momos and defeated them both). This does not go unnoticed by his friends (except perhaps Vada, who actually believes the aforementioned Sumo Momo story); Jalebi in particular calls out Samosa for being such a "bluff master" several times.
- Superman story The Living Legends Of Superman: The year 2199 sequence features an old snake oil salesman named Homer who is fond of telling outrageous and contradictory tales about his career as an astronaut.
- "Boots Who Made the Princess Say 'That's a Story!'" revolves about Boots telling scurrilous tales until the princess cries he is making up stuff.
- In The Adventures of Tintin (2011), Haddock tells the story of his ancestor battling the feared pirate Red Rackham. The events have clearly been exaggerated somewhat over the generations (and quite a few whiskey bottles).
- Melody Time has segments for Johnny Appleseed and Pecos Bill.
- The Adventures of Baron Munchausen by Terry Gilliam, based on the 18th century tall tales around Baron Munchhausen and the novel The Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchausen by R.E. Raspe.
- Big Fish, which is all about a man deciphering his father's tall tales. Lampshaded in an exchange between Edward and Josephine.
Edward: Will never told you? Ah, he wouldn't have told it right anyhow. All of the facts and none of the flavor.
Josephine: Ah, so this is a tall tale.
Edward: Well, it's not a short one.
- In The Hobbit Gandalf tells the story of how Bilbo's ancestor Bullroarer Took knocked the head off the orc chieftain Golfimbul and sent it down a rabbit hole, winning the battle and inventing the game of golf at the same time. Bilbo is skeptical.note
- 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.
- Arabian Nights is an ancient Arabic version, with a woman spinning fantastic tales in order to prevent her own execution and eventually win the heart of the king.
- The Cat Who... Series: Qwilleran collects various tall tales from around Moose County, and eventually publishes them.
- Grampy from Grass and Sky is fond of telling exaggerated stories about his family history, at one point claiming that Paul Bunyan stole credit for his great-great-grandfather's accomplishments.
- Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels combines political and social satire with the genre of the traveller's tall tale.
- Grampa Hercules from Robert McCloskey's Homer Price and Centerburg Tales is the town tall tale teller, spinning a wide variety of highly improbable yarns of his youth and his alleged ancestors.
- In the P. G. Wodehouse Mr Mulliner stories, the eponymous raconteur entertains his fellow pub-goers with tall tales about his numerous relatives.
- The Relativity story "The Legend of the Cheese Maidens" begins with Ravenswood telling the story of the time a bunch of cheerleaders (the "Cheese Maidens") saved the Earth from an alien invasion.
- In the Red Mars Trilogy, which is set on a future Mars that is being terraformed, people still tell stories of a Paul Bunyan-type figure called "Big Man," but they make him out as a The Trickster creator figure, not unlike Raven in Native American mythology. This is an In-Universe illustration of how tall tales can evolve into mythology.
- The characters in the Fantasy Midwest setting of The Sharing Knife entertain themselves with tall tales a few times; old boatman Bo is particularly good at it. Hero Dag, however, finds himself at a disadvantage, as the many improbable stories he has to tell are actually true.
- 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 Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchausen, by Erich Rudolph Raspe (1785-1789 and 1792) and Gottfried August Bürger (1788), wherein Munchausen loves bragging about riding cannonballs and performing even more preposterous deeds.
- Arthur C. Clarke's short-story collection Tales from the White Hart consists of a number of science-fictiony tall tales told by an odd fellow in the titular Fleet Street pub.
- 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.
- The Worst Shots in the West is sub-titled as being a tall-tale; although that's quite obvious when reading it.
- The Bush Tucker Man mentions a story told in Northern Territory, Australia about a mosquito that was so big it landed at Darwin airport and was filled with 100 gallons of fuel before anyone realised it wasn't a mosquito. The host Les Hiddins is skeptical. "I've never seen a mosquito that big. Ninety gallons, but not a hundred."
- Chau from Off Centre did this once about the story of Euan and Liz.
- The page quote is from Showtime's Gothic Horror series Penny Dreadful. In it, Ethan Chandler is the star of a traveling Wild West Show, so as expected, he spins some tall tales. He even gets called out on it. (His skill with a six-gun, however, is not exaggerated.)
- An episode of The Twilight Zone (1959) ("Hocus-Pocus and Frisby") features a backwoods man named Frisby who continually tells tall tales. When he tells the townsfolk he was abducted by aliens, they believe he is just Crying Wolf—even though for once, he's telling the truth! (The whole episode could be a tall tale... from Rod Serling's point of view.)
- "Derby Ram" is about a comically-large ram whose more notable details include horns that reach the moon, eyes as big as soccer balls and a tail that could be used as a church bell clapper.
- "The Irish Rover" is about a ship sailing from Cork to New York. In addition to details like the ship having 27 masts and the voyage lasting several years, the description of the cargo gets ever more outlandish with each verse ("five million hogs, six million dogs, seven million barrels of porter..."). The song also conveniently ends with the narrator as the sole survivor of the wrecked ship.
- Peter, Paul and Mary's "Autumn to May" is about several outlandish animals which the narrator allegedly possessed, namely a dog with fourteen-yard-long legs and ears they could ride on, a clothed talking frog that went sailing in a shoe, flying sheep which delivered gold and candy and a swan which hatched an oyster shell.
- Steam Powered Giraffe's song "Rex Marksley" is about an old West gunslinger in the vein of Pecos Bill.
- Tales based on fictional characters:
- Paul Bunyan, the giant lumberjack, who cut timber all across the continental United States with his blue ox Babe. He is the Ur-Example, many of the below figures are considered to be imitators.
- Pecos Bill, the archetypal cowboy, and the love of his life Slue-Foot Sue. Raised by coyotes, rode a cougar, and had a live snake for a lasso.
- Alfred Bulltop Stormalong, a giant merchant seaman, who sailed around the world in a clipper so large it nearly scraped the sun and moon.
- "Windwagon" Smith, a former sea captain who blew into the town of Westport, MO in a sail-powered Conestoga wagon. Amusingly, though Smith was pure fiction, wind wagons were and are real.
- Rip Van Winkle, who drank and played ninepins with The Fair Folk and wound up falling asleep for twenty years.
- Annie Christmas, former slave, giantess, keel boat pilot, and strongest woman on the Mississippi.
- Crooked Mick, a Australian Paul Bunyan, a swagman and shearernote often associated with the Speewah, a sheep station where everything is unnaturally huge.
- Bowleg Bill, a Wyoming cowboy who became a sailor and rode tunas and whales, basically a cross between Pecos Bill and Stormalong.
- Joe Magarac, a Croatian born steelworker in Pittsburgh who worked nonstop and was actually made of steel.
- Febold Feboldson, a Swedish rain maker in Nebraska
- Johnny Kaw, a giant farmer whose plowing formed the Kansas landscape
- Actual historical characters that have tall tales built around them:
- Johnny Appleseed
- John Henry, a steel driver and former slave, said to have been born with a hammer in his hand and died after beating a machine.
- Casey Jones, a train engineer who miraculously stopped his train, saving the passengers but getting killed in the process.
- Mike Fink, a combative keel boat captain
- Daniel Boone, legendary frontiersman
- Davy Crockett
- 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.
- 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.
- The "Living Legend" monster is a Tall Tale character that spontaneously comes to life as a result of the ambient magic, which can (and, considering the Crapsack World, usually does) have tragic occurrences. Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill are explicitly statted up as examples of the forms taken by the Living Legend.
- John Henry is a real character in the Deadlands version of the Wild West. In fact, his hammer has become a magical artifact, and the man himself has returned from the grave as an undead monster called a Harrowed.
- 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.
- The entire point of Call of Juarez: Gunslinger: The over-the-top violence so typical in First Person Shooters is justified in-story by the manner how said story is presented by Silas, who is both Character Narrator and protagonist—namely, as a Tall Tale to entertain random pub patrons.
- In the beginning of Dragon Age II, the Character 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).
- Rarely in Tomodachi Life, a Traveler the player receives via Streetpass may exclaim that a Mii on the player's island was interested in their "stories" and they want the traveler to visit their apartment and tell more. The extreme number of Pictorial Speech Bubbles that appear strongly suggest that they're Tall Tales due to the over the top natures of some of them (which include being attacked by an octopus, swept up in a tornado, riding in a kangaroo's pouch, or finding a group of Lilliputians), and the player's Mii believes every word they say.
- Your goal in Where the Water Tastes Like Wine is to collect stories of the common folk of America, and then to tell them to other people, planting the seeds for tall tales to grow.
- The World of Warcraft quest series "The Day that Deathwing Came" features three adventurers with their own stories of how they defeated the dragon, whether it's punching him in the face, throwing him across the ocean, or beating him in a knife fight.
- The Heterodyne Boys tales in Girl Genius are these.
- Downright invoked in the forty-eighth chapter of Gunnerkrigg Court, of which it is the title, where a bipedal pink frog tells another creature of the forest about the alleged achievements of the new forest medium, with stories increasingly unbelievable. Wait 'til you hear what she did next !
- The SCP Foundation has one such example in SCP-5634, which is heavily inspired by the legend of Paul Bunyan.
- 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.
- 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 MST fodder for his three very skeptical grandkids.
- Classic Disneyshorts: Disney has made shorts based on Paul Bunyan and John Henry.
- The Grim Adventures of Billy & Mandy: The episode "Short Tall Tales" revolves around Grim telling the fractured tall tales of Pecos Billy, Paula Bunyan (Mandy) and John Henry (Irwin), and how he played a part in each of them.
- 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 folk hero. However, the resulting tall tale ended with other folk heroes 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.
- 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.
- The Simpsons did "Simpsons Tall Tales", featuring Homer as Paul Bunyan, Lisa as Connie Appleseed, and Bart and Nelson as Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.
- Teen Titans Go!: The episode "Tall Titan Tales" has Robin trying to get his teammates into Tall Tales, only for them to tell their own versions. First, Raven as Paul Bunyan suffering from a painful bunion due to having shoes too small for her and her talking green socks (played by Beast Boy). Next, Cyborg as John Henry, who buys the steam drill after losing to it and goes off into space to fight aliens with a Combining Mecha. And finally, Starfire as Johnny Appleseed who harvests the apples so they can be thrown at the forest animals bullying a skunk for its smell, before giving the skunk its stripes to show it's under protection.
- The World of Commander McBragg, loosely based on Baron Munchausen, consisted of the eponymous McBragg telling ridiculous tall tales about himself, including digging the Grand Canyon, building the Great Pyramid and digging the Panama Canal. Or so says the brag of McBragg.