Sunday, July 16, 2017

The Comedy "Rule of 3's

This has been one of the staple of comedy for years. (It’s also been called the Comic Triple, which is different from when Prince Fielder gets a three-base-hit, like he miraculously did in the All-Star Game).

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."
Don’t make your set up too convoluted.

“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 our audience is putting in a Blu-Ray.

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's formula, and it often works, but I'd avoid it. 

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.)

21 comments :

Ralph C. said...

“Our fresh fish today is halibut, salmon, and Abe Vigoda.” Like this Ken?

Jeff Alexander said...

Mister Levine: Good column on the "comedy in threes."
A classic example that I recalled instantly came from the Dick Van Dyke Show, as you probably very well recall.
I'm sorry that I can't remember the exact words used or the episode it was in, but it went something like this:
Buddy (to Mel): "Mel, can we get you something? Coffee, doughnut .... toupee?"
Mel Brooks also used it in History of the World Part I when a vendor called out, "shampoo, shave ... bloodletting???"
Just wanted to throw my two cents worth in!

VP81955 said...

After last night's near-fiasco in Cincinnati (eerily reminiscent of a near-disaster in Oakland earlier this season), someone please come up with a "rule of 3" where the punchline is the Nationals' bullpen.

Anonymous said...

Maybe now is the time to acknowledge Bill Dana, a comedian to be sure, but an even better comedy writer.
He died recently.
He came up with the "Would you believe" routine for Don Adams - which is the quintessential "rule of threes".
He also wrote one of, if not the most famous television comedy episodes of the 1970's - Sammy Davis Jr. kissing Archie on All in The Family.

Peter said...

The new Dr Who is a woman. Misogynists will not be happy. The internet is in danger of meltdown from all their spittle flecked fury!

cale Blalock said...

I know in star trek they would do this a lot. Except they would refer to things like the studies of Einstein Hawkins and who ever alien from what ever planet to establish a pattern.

Powerhouse Salter said...

Regarding the Three Stooges: Top-billing actually went to Moe on studio contracts and in opening credits for their comedy shorts, yet people invariably say Larry's name first when discussing the team. Any thoughts on why the Larry-first pronunciation and rhythm is more appealing? (If it were simply a matter of character popularity, there seems no doubt that Curly would be named first.)

Wendy M. Grossman said...

My favorite groups of three are the "irregular verbs" from YES, MINISTER. For example: I give confidential press briefings; you leak; he's been charged under the Official Secrets Act. Or: I have an independent mind; you are an eccentric; he is round the twist.

Unfortunately, I can't remember a third offhand, but I know there were more of these.

wg

Mike Barer said...

You should do a shout out for the new Dave Niehaus book "My Oh My" because the author speaks quite extensively of your time with the ball club.

D. McEwan said...

"Anonymous Peter said...
The new Dr Who is a woman. Misogynists will not be happy. The internet is in danger of meltdown from all their spittle flecked fury!"


And this has what to do with The Rule of 3? And why not wait for the backlash actually to happen before critiquing it? This is pre-criticism.

Speaking of sci-fi and The Rule of Three, Star Trek and Doctor Who both use it for historical references, always two true events and one made-up one. "The Battle of Britain, the massacre of Masada, and the attack of the Bee People from Theta-Five." "The most beautiful women are found in America, Italy and Hydrox VII." "The worst monsters in history were Caligula, Hitler and the Dalek Emperor." Etc.

Pat Reeder said...

It's odd how "Larry, Moe and Shemp" sounds funnier than "Larry, Moe and Curly," when in reality, it's so not.

Over my years of writing the Comedy Wire radio service, I had a lot of young writers ask to contribute topical one-liners, and the two biggest problems they had were brevity and specificity.

Getting to the punchline in the fewest words was not only beneficial to the joke, it was also a necessity during the days when we were a pay-by-the-page fax broadcast service, and I was constantly trying to switch two-syllable words to one syllable, just to reduce a sentence from one-and-a-fraction lines to one line. And many of them would give me lines that contained a decent idea, but the language was too vague. I tried to teach them how much funnier it would be if they could come up with the perfect word - the word that doesn't just sound funny but that creates an instant, hilarious image in people's minds -- instead of just a generalized concept. My go-to examples of that usually came from the master, Woody Allen (the early, funny Woody Allen).

Diane D said...

Perhaps D McEwan didn't notice that Peter's elegantly crafted comment was in three parts, illustrating that the Rule of Three abounds in all written communication, and at the same time sharing some information he thought would be of interest to Ken and others. Of course the opportunity to use the delicious phrase "spittle flecked fury" would also be irresistible, I would think.

I tremble to think what your reply might be, but don't be too mean, I just ordered your book.

McAlvie said...

I would argue that in context canned tuna is funnier. You could say, "Our fresh fish of the day is canned tuna." and that's funny because its kind of sarcastic, and everyone knows what tuna is and everyone knows that canned isn't fresh. Whereas gefilte is a funny sounding word, but a big chunk of your audience isn't going to get the joke.

I wonder if the rule of three, or the turn, work so well because the are anticipated? Isn't half the successful telling of a joke in the priming of the audience? It's something that is often missing in comedy today, the patience to woo your audience instead of hitting them over the head.

WOKcreativeWritings said...

I like watching for the running gag in sets of three. Not big enough to be a B story and usually a bit abstract like something about a dish washing machine, for example (on Home Improvement)...
How many different ways can or should the rule of three be used?

Mike Doran said...

Euphony is everything, especially in groups of three.
You are all aware that Curly Howard's real first name was Jerry - you are, aren't you?
Moe, Larry, and Jerry.
Jerry, Moe, and Larry.
Larry, Moe, and Jerry.
Jerry, Larry, and Moe ...
Maybe I'm wrong here ...

All these are almost ordinary names, whereas Shemp isn't a name you likely grew up with in school.

Fun Fact:
After Larry Fine's stroke knocked him out of the act, he was going to be replaced by the group's longtime foil, Emil Sitka.
As part of the deal, reportedly, Sitka's character was going to be called - Harry.
Make of that what you will ...

Peter said...

Thank you, Diane. :-)

And Doug, I still like you, so no hard feelings.

Mark P. said...

I wonder if a list of three things is funny for the same reason limericks have 3 feet of 3 syllables each on the 1st (and 4th and 5th) line. "A rabbi, a monk, and a priest".

Anonymous said...

The rule of three is also a rhetorical device often employed in many of what's considered great American speeches, such as "The Gettysburg Address."

Orleanas

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Anonymous: Not just American. It's a pretty much standard rhetorical trope. Something about the way humans think.

wg

D. McEwan said...

"Anonymous Diane D said...
Perhaps D McEwan didn't notice that Peter's elegantly crafted comment was in three parts, illustrating that the Rule of Three abounds in all written communication, and at the same time sharing some information he thought would be of interest to Ken and others. Of course the opportunity to use the delicious phrase 'spittle flecked fury' would also be irresistible, I would think.

I tremble to think what your reply might be, but don't be too mean, I just ordered your book."


Well, if you've just ordered one of my two new books, you are clearly a woman of taste and refinement, and I'm about $8 richer. (Which one did you order? Asking for a friend.)

Charles H Bryan said...

The new FEMA Director warns that we're not prepared for the worst types of disasters - floods, wildfires, The Nationals' bullpen.

I did what I could.