The Rule of Three in Joke Writing

The rule of three is one of the most well-known joke writing techniques. It’s difficult to know who came up with this technique, but I’ve heard it discussed by many comedy writing teachers.

The rule of three goes like this: you establish a pattern by having two similar things and then the third thing is different, which, in theory, makes it surprising or funny. In Tony Allen’s book Attitude, he describes this as establish, reinforce, surprise.

You could establish a pattern with more than two similar things, and so you’ll occasionally see three similar things and then a joke, but by and large it sticks to just three things. This is a technique you’ll see used across different forms of comedy, including standup, screen comedy, and comedic writing.

As a (terrible) example a waiter could say our specials today are vegetable lasagna, spaghetti carbonara, and a dirty old shoe. Vegetable lasagna (establish), spaghetti carbonara (reinforce), and a dirty old shoe (surprise).

As you can see from the example, simply adding a random third item to a list does not result in a joke. Chris Head says that he used to give the example of ‘Monday, Tuesday, Banana’ and when he changed ‘Banana’ to another word, it stopped even getting a small, polite laugh.

When I give this example in my stand-up class there is usually a little chuckle on ‘banana’. Feeling that ‘banana’ is a bit of an obvious comic word, I changed it one day to “Monday, Tuesday, Norway.” While it still made the point it no longer got a laugh of any kind. I persisted with it for a couple more times at which point I reverted to ‘banana’. And this got a little chuckle again! This trivial example shows the importance of word choice. I wonder how “Monday, Tuesday, Trousers” would work? ‘Trousers’ is an amusing word but lacks punch. “Monday, Tuesday, knickers”? It’s widely believed the ‘k’ sound if funny so perhaps that could work?

I think they key to this is that while the third thing has to be surprising, it shouldn’t be completely random to work. It should still make sense in its own surprising way. For example, when a waitress in the The Dick Van Dyke Show was serving a bald man, she quipped, “Can I get you anything? Cup of coffee? Doughnut? Toupee?”

As mentioned, this technique can be used in other types of comedy besides standup. Here are some examples of it being used in TV and film.

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