What is the Rule of 3 in Humor?
“A Jew, a Hindu, and a Christian walk into a bar–” Sound familiar?
For some reason, human beings like to hear things in groups of three.
Rhetorically speaking, this is sometimes called the Rule of Three, and it is just as powerful in a serious context as it is in humor.
Consider the United States Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Can you feel the rhythm in the language? It is produced by the three — three phrases each starting with the word “that.” The effect is powerful and profound.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt used the Rule of Three in his often quoted bit of advice to public speakers, “Be sincere, be brief, be seated.” Clever, no?
The Rule of Three abounds in the realm of fairy tales too. Genies grant three wishes. Princes face three challenges. The Three Little Pigs build three houses and Goldilocks met three bears.
Let’s analyze the Three Little Pigs. Three pigs in each of their three houses, is confronted by the big, bad wolf (a three word description) who demands to be let in. Each pig replies, “Not by the hair of my chinny, chin chin” (a three word response). The wolf replies, “Then I will huff, and I’ll puff and I’ll blow your house down” (a list of three actions).
Goldilocks is even more dependent on the Rule of Three. In the bears’ house, Goldilocks interacts with three of each of the following three items: chairs, bowls of porridge, and beds. The bears come home and notice the affect Goldilocks has had on each of the three items in each of the three groups.
Three syllables, three words, three items, three interactions. All of this threeness! … But three is a most pleasing number of examples to the human psyche. All this repetition sets up a delightful repeating rhythm, like music.
Variations on a Theme
Notice that none of the three items in the examples is exactly symmetrical. On the third item, something is different.
In FDR’s quote, we get adjective, adjective, verb! In the Declaration, the last phrase contains its own list of three, “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The wolf blows down the first two houses, but fails on the third. Goldilocks breaks the third chair, eats all of the third bowl of porridge, and falls asleep in the last bed.
Again like music, the human psyche enjoys variations on a theme. Give your material rhythm. Make it seem to dance by using The Rule of Three.
And if you go to a bar with two friends and you don’t want to be the butt of the joke, make sure that you’re not the last one through the door!