Comedy is often described as an art form. I’ve heard people liken stand-up comedy to jazz music. In many ways, comedy is like jazz: often boring and increasingly irrelevant. The largest commonality that comedy and jazz have between them is that despite being considered an art form, there are very basic formulas in place to ensure a successful frame work. In jazz, if you want to create a dark tone, then you’d better play something in a minor scale. In comedy, if you want to tell a joke with progressively funny punchlines, then you’d better stick to the “Rule of Three.”
The rule of three is a writing principle that suggests that jokes that come in threes are inherently funnier. It’s been around forever too. Think about every “An German, a Pollock and a Mexican walk into a bar” joke that you’ve ever heard.
I had accepted the rule of three as some sort of Holy fact. A mysterious but immutable law of life. Eventually, physicists would find that the rule of three is somehow connected to the Higgs-Boson and the way quarks spin. I never really thought too much about why it works.
Cue Wikipedia. In two very concise sentences, the online Encyclopedia blew my mind and clarified a rule that I thought had been unexplainable.
“A series of three often creates a progression in which the tension is created, built up, and finally released.”
“Two is the smallest number of points needed to establish a pattern, and comedians exploit the way people’s minds perceive expected patterns to throw the audience off track (and make them laugh) with the third element.”
I can’t explain it any better than that. So like a high-school student scrambling to finish his Senior Thesis, I thought I’d just copy and paste.
Building tension is everything in comedy. You set the trap then you hit the switch. Laughter. Big laughs usually come from a release of large amounts of tension (great set-up) or an incredibly powerful switch (great punchline).
So then why didn’t my joke last night where I used the rule of three work? Is it possible that it’s a poorly written joke? Or that the concept isn’t relatable? Or that I just don’t have the “it” factor? Maybe. But I’d rather blame it on something besides myself.
I’m going to embark on an experiment over the next few weeks. I’m going to take a few of my jokes that I wrote using the “Rule of Three” and cut out the middle man. My hypothesis is the less distance an audience has to travel to the punchline, the more satisfying it will be.
Let the testing begin.
I wonder if I can get any grant money…