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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.
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 Munchausen instead.
- 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.
- 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 Stanislaw 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.
- 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
- Tales based on fictional characters:
- Actual historical characters that have tall tales built around them:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- The Heterodyne Boys tales in Girl Genius are these.
- In The Adventures of The League of STEAM 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.
- 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").
- Captain Bluebear'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.