Thursday, July 25, 2013

The comedy Rules-of-Threes

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 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.  


Phil In Phoenix said...

I suddenly feel an overwhelming urge to watch Johnny and Ed doing Carnac bits.

Phil In Phoenix said...

Then again, maybe I'll just read the blogs of Levine, Evanier, and Snooki.

chalmers said...

One of my favorites from is from “Homer the Heretic” after the fire is put out and Reverend Lovejoy tells Homer that there is goodwill in people of all faiths, “Whether they be:
(looking at Flanders) Christian,
(looking at Krusty) Jew, or…..
(looking at Apu) …Miscellaneous.”

Phillip B said...

Always fond of Bill Murray's inversion -

"human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria"

Anonymous said...

I'm living in a world of Bob Dylan, The Band, and Napalm Death. Wait, no good. I just met my soul-mate online. I told her I was a handy kind of guy; screwing on tables, nailing in bathrooms, and sticking my &^%% in her &^%%$. Wait, I don't go blue, that's the lazy man's comedy. Back to the drawing board, thanks for the lesson.

Barefoot Billy Aloha said...

Wonderful post!

Thank you, thank you, rutabaga.

Daniel said...

There's a joke on Friends that always bugs me--even though it's funny--because I keep waiting for a third example:

Joey: (to Ross) Hey, so how'd it go with Julie? Did you, did you break her heart?

Ross: Yes, it was horrible. She cried. I cried. She threw things, they hit me.

Covarr said...

"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 can work in some cases, just not so well in a rule-of-threes. One of my favorite things in comedy is when someone forms a sentence so stupid that it becomes difficult to properly identify individual problems with it. A lousy detective brings multiple misconceptions to a conclusion that is obviously wrong and wouldn't even be right if his misconceptions were true. A music fan runs up to Zooey Deschanel and shouts "Oh my gosh, it's Katy Perry! I loved your song Bad Romance!"

Joke-stacking is fine and dandy, it just needs to be used carefully.

Unknown said...

Here's a example from the Neil Simon:

“When its 100 degrees in New York, it's 72 in Los Angeles. When its 30 degrees in New York, in Los Angeles it's still 72. However, there are 6 million interesting people in New York, and only 72 in Los Angeles.”

Unknown said...

Oops, "an" example...

Larry said...

I thought The Simpsons had a nice topper to the Christian, Jew or miscellaneous line:

Apu: Hindu. There are 700 million of us.

Reverend Lovejoy: Aw, that's super.

Maybe some day you can do a post on toppers.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

The Stan Daniels turn is very, very familiar to me.

It's very interesting (and delicate) what makes comedy work or not work. There's a female comic whose every joke is a sentence with a turn at the end. While I love that when Douglas Adams does it - "hanging in the air in precisely the way that bricks don't" or "What's so bad about being drunk?" - "You ask a glass of water." - this particular comic has a particular rhythm to her turns that is so consistent that it makes me want to scream after 2-3 of them. From her intonation, it sounds like she expects the turn to be unexpected, but because of the consistent rhythm you know it's coming. I find it agony to listen to, even though the twists are clever.


BetterYeti said...

Your caveman comic line is spot on. It's a variation of the device in formal rhetoric called the "tricolon." It's older than Homer -- the blind poet, not Simpson.

The Mutt said...

I'm reminded of the Star Trek rule of threes:two recognizable references followed by a futuristic one.

Einstein, Hawkings and Surak of Vulcan.

Hitler, Stalin and Kurgiss of Kilingon.

BigTed said...

I do not like the rule of threes,
I do not think it’s clever;
But I like pickles, ducks and keys –
The rule of “k” forever!

Scooter Schechtman said...

I remember a comedian from the past (80s?) doing a bit about Star Trek's attempts at verisimilitude:
"You're familiar, of course, with the works of Homer, Shakespeare, and Brogak the Serpent Creature of Spica IV..."

benson said...

A Friday question that indirectly ties into today's post.

Can you comment on Carl Reiner's (and possibly Mel Brooks') opinion that 32 is the funniest number. :)

Paul Duca said...

Buddy Sorrell's triple to Mel Cooley: "Can I get you, donut, toupee?"

Craig L. said...

"Carl Reiner's (and possibly Mel Brooks') opinion that 32 is the funniest number. :)"
Interestingly, Kevin Smith and Bob Barker both would argue for 37.
The late, great Douglas Adams maid hay with 42.
Star Trek has a long running joke about 47.
DC Comics has laid claim to "The New 52".
Heinz has made "57 Sauce" for way more than 57 years.
And today I saw
"62 of the World's Most Beautiful Libraries" Is 62 the Next Big Thing?

Funny numbers: 37, 47 and 18,668,333,210,007 (total value of all companies on US stock markets + 7)

But I digress.

"...the blogs of Levine, Evanier, and Snooki."

Now that's VERY funny IF you know all three names. Too many people only know the third, but it's still kinda funny if you set it up as "the most informative blogs".

You also have...
the Most Dangerous Government Agencies: the NSA, the IRS and the DMV (a classic punchline even without setup).
the Worst Companies: Goldman Sachs, Halliburton and Fred's Bait & Tackle in Avila Beach (seriously, their live worms... aren't).
the Most Influential People: President Obama, Pope Francis and Baby Prince George (wait... that's actually accurate).

Pete Grossman said...

And there's of course Woody Allen from his stand-up days:

"We were married by a reformed rabbi in Long Island. A very reformed rabbi. A Nazi."

benson said...

@Craig L

Can't be 42. That number's been permanently retired. (except for Mariano Rivera.)

Pete Grossman said...

And a Woody Allen bonus:

Upon taking a live moose to a costume party -

"The moose mingles. Did very well. Scored."

D. McEwan said...

I see The Mutt has already brought up Star Trek's long-established rule of three: Greta Garbo, Marilyn Monroe and The High Gornifess of Vulcan.

Back when I did stand up (Before Noah's Flood. There are no written records nor survivors), my opening joke was a rule of three joke with longer phrases, which nonetheless always worked (Which was why it remained my opener):

"Throughout all the History of Mankind, there have been three essential questions. Every human being who has ever lived has asked themselves these questions and had to find for themselves and answer. These questions are:

1. Is there a God?
2. What is the meaning of Life? And
3. Do you know anyone who would like a kitten?" [Over laugh] "They're six weeks old, real cute. Hey, they're free!"

Wayne said...

As George Carlin might say, the Rule of Three is as simple as 1, 2, C.

It's as easy as A,B,3.

Wayne said...

Superman stood for Truth, Justice and Wearing Your Underwear on the Outside.

DBenson said...

A variant: Connecting the list with a repeated word.

Recently saw an old clip of Mel Brooks talking up "Young Frankenstein" with Carson. He rattled through a list of films: Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, House of Frankenstein, and Frankenstein's Friend Murray.

DBenson said...

And of course,

"I'm Larry, this is my brother Darryl, and this is my other brother Darryl."

One episode opened with just two of them walking in: "I'm Larry, and this is my other brother Darryl."
Beautiful moment of Newhart knowing he had to ask the obvious question, like it or not.

Carol said...

This is totally random, but I'm sitting in my lounge just now watching a re-run of MASH, and it's the POV one where we see the episode through the eyes of a wounded soldier, which is one of my favorites and then didn't your name pop up in the writing credits. for a great episode!

Chris said...

Is there a name for when a character says something and someone else unknowingly repeats it verbatim? For example, in Married...with Children:

Hot Teacher: Class dismissed. Except for you, mr.Bundy, can we have a word?

Bud (in his head): What could this be? I hope she didn't notice me staring obsessively at her legs.

Teacher:Mr. Bundy, I've noticed you staring obsessively at my legs.

It's been done countless times. They usually do it as:

Jack: I hope something terrible doesn't happen.
Sam (entering the room): Jack, something terrible has just happened.

Greg Ehrbar said...

Just make the third thing "Regis" and you're done.

Mike Doran said...

Dick Cavett is a stickler for the correct wording of a joke; he feels that the word order and emphasis can make all the difference between a laugh and a shrug from the audience.

Here's the Neil Simon NY/LA comparison joke as I heard him do it on a talk show:

"Well, in New York in the summer it's 100 degrees, and in Los Angeles it's 72.
" ...and in the winter in New York it's 20 degrees, and in Los Angeles, 72.
" ... and in New York you've got eight million interesting people, and in Los Angeles, 72."

My all-time favorite compound Rule-Of-3 is from England's Two Ronnies.
Caution: This involves knowledge of Cockney Rhyming Slang.

Ronnie Barker (the heavy-set grey-haired one) is doing the fake newscast:
Today in the High Courts, a case was brought against the National Health by a man who complained of being rushed about to various locations for different medical procedures.
He had a hand operation in Neasden, and a knee operation in Handsworth.
He had a heart transplant in Liverpool, and a liver transplant in Hartlepool.
He had a hair transplant in Littlehampton, and when he arrived in Harefield he fainted."
(Explanation on request.)

Mark said...

Frasier: Roz, listen to me, for God's sake. If you've got the tiniest shred of sense or dignity left, remember what this woman did to you this afternoon and renounce her. She has no scruples, no ethics, and no reflection.

Adam said...

Here's my favorite example of the rule of three, from an early episode of Sports Night:

Dana: Natalie's my second in command, she's the only one I told.
Natalie: Jeremy's my boyfriend, he's the only one I told!
Jeremy: ... I told many, many people.