The Power of Three in Humor

3 Stooges

Three is the smallest, and most memorable, number of items that forms a pattern. We find series of three everywhere: in titles like Planes, Trains, and Automobiles; in expressions like “lights, camera, action”; and in classic jokes like the Englishman, Irishman, and Canadian (fooled you, eh). In my classic joke list, I set you up to expect Scotsman and added a twist by replacing Scotsman with someone unexpected, a Canadian (Canadians actually are funny. Think John Candy, Russell Peters, and the Great White North’s McKenzie Brothers).

How it works

The setup and punch is the formula comedians use in creating jokes, and this formula can work in the same way with a list of three. You start with two straight items (the setup) and add a third item that is a comedic twist (the punchline). The effect of the twist is a surprise which can result in a smirk, a giggle, or (in my writing) an eye roll. What happens with this technique is that people are expecting a certain pattern which gets thrown off track when we break the pattern. It’s the build up of expectation followed by the element of surprise which releases the tension and allows people to find the humor.

How to use it

You can use the power of three (a.k.a. The Rule of Three) anywhere:

  • In your bio

John Cleese – “writer, actor, and tall person”

  • In your tagline

Mother Reader – “The heart of a mother. The soul of a reader. The mouth of a smartass.”

  • In your personal phone message

“Sorry, I can’t answer the phone right now. I’m either writing the great Canadian novel, signing autographs, or meeting with my employment counselor.”

  • In a list

Chicago, Paris, and Moosejaw

Larry, Curly, and Rob

The Catcher in the Rye, Wuthering Heights, and Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader

The key to using this humor writing technique is to break the pattern with an absurd ending to your list. You can extend the rule of three to include sentences as your list items. Start with two straight sentences and make sure the last sentence has an element of surprise.

Keep an eye out for other examples that use the power of three to add a touch of humor to writing. Use this technique in your own writing to make it more engaging, add a sense of fun, and outwit Uncle John.