Thursday, July 25, 2013
The comedy Rules-of-Threes
But how does it work?
The Rule-of-Threes establishes a pattern and then ends with something unexpected.
Lame example: “We serve lasagna, spaghetti, and poi.”
Usually two items are sufficient to establish the pattern. Three is overkill.
“We serve lasagna, spaghetti, linguini, and poi.”
We get it with two. And we’re now so conditioned to the rhythm of threes that anything more seems wrong.
But there are some traps.
You must be very careful that the two first items clearly establishes the pattern you’re setting up. You don’t want the audience to have to work to make the connection.
Lame bad example: “The Giants, Detroit, and the Teamsters.”
Better would be “The Giants, the Tigers, and the Teamsters.”
In both cases you’re setting up major league baseball teams but the second version is clearer.
Another lame bad example: “The Reds, the Blues, and the Teamsters.”
Reds and Blues could be referring to how states line up politically, they could be two professional sports teams, they could be two drugs. Eliminate any confusion.
You hurt the punchline if one of the setups is funny.
“Linda, Moon Unit, and Mother Teresa.”
Some call that a joke-on-a-joke and while proponents argue it’s a laugh-on-a-laugh, more often the two jokes cancel each other out. It’s okay that the set up be straight. Save the funny for the payoff.
"Larry, Moe, and Shemp."
“Women who work as nannies for children 10 years of age or younger on the Upper East during Tuesday mornings, men who lost their jobs in the recession and must get part time jobs teaching children 10 years of age or younger, and astronauts.”
By the time you get to the punchline you’re more lost than first ten minutes of CLOUD ATLAS.
Think rhythm, think timing. This is comedy.
Okay, the set up is right, now for the punchline.
The payoff has to break the pattern but not so much so that it’s a non-sequitor.
“The Giants, the Tigers, and poi.”
Huh? At least the Teamsters were a group of some kind. The punchline has to connect to the pattern. It’s not that it doesn’t belong, it’s that you don't expect it. But something has to tie together.
Comedy writer Bob Ellison was in a late night rewrite once and pitched a joke. The showrunner said, “Too corny, too obvious” and Bob replied, tapping his wristwatch, “Two thirty.”
The list doesn't have to be objects or names. It can be words... like two.
The danger with the Rule-of-Threes is that it’s such a familiar form that audiences see it coming. Blame cavemen comedians. They overused the device to death. So extra pressure is now placed on your punchline. Try to find the best version of your payoff.
What’s funnier? “Our fresh fish today is halibut, salmon, or canned tuna” or “Our fresh fish today is halibut, salmon, and gefilte.” Gefilte is a funny word, and it’s not really a fish at all – it’s a jumble of different fish.
The more specific in comedy the better.
However, I will caution you that you need to know your audience. If you’re not Jewish you might never have heard of gefilte fish. First off, you’re lucky, but secondly, it’s a fallacy that funny words alone are enough to get a laugh. They may in some cases but don’t rely it.
And finally, I’ll leave you with a variation of the Rule-of-Threes. It’s the Stan Daniels’ Turn. Stan Daniels was a longtime writer on the MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, TAXI, and at least a thousand others. He would pitch a form of joke so often that it stuck to him like an “Arnold Palmer.” His thing was that the punchline was the exact opposite of the first two.
“She’s hateful, she’s despicable, I’m in love.”
Yes, it may seem formula but it works!
So that's the Rule-of-Threes in comedy. There’s also a “Rules-of-Threes” for survival, photography, and celebrity deaths, but those are for later posts. (See what I did there? I also could have used thoracic spines but went with celebrity deaths.)
This is the kind of territory I cover in my SITCOM ROOM seminar, the weekend of October 26/27 in Los Angeles. Registration will open soon. Here's where you go for details.