My sister’s cat has this horrible habit of chewing on things, like shoelaces, pillows, and kneecaps.
While true, this statement wouldn’t have been as funny if I had mentioned kneecaps earlier in the sequence, and it definitely wouldn’t have been as funny if I had listed out what my sister’s cat likes to chomp on in a series of four, five, or more things.
And I think there’s a reason for that.
As I’ve set out to develop my wit to attract audiences, followers, and women of loose morals who only want me for my body, I’ve noticed a common approach that comedians, writers, and other purveyors of humor use to structure their words to whimsical effect. In the world of writing, grouping things into threes is unimaginatively referred to as the “Rule of Three”. However, in the world of comedy, it is unimaginatively referred to as the “Comic Triple”.
Now, lame labels aside until used later in this article, this formula – this literary ménage à trois – has been around for decades in comedy, and even longer in the history of language. For whatever reason, triplets just lend themselves to words, and are effective at engaging readers, crowds, and those women of loose morals mentioned earlier.
But because this method primarily consists of only three parts, it’s actually pretty simple to understand and apply to your own creative endeavors, whether you’re giving a commencement speech at Villanova, refining your stand-up comedy act, or ranting on a street corner.
The Use of the Triple in Language
Besides the obvious feature these phrases share – the use of three as their rhythm – what do they all have in common? Shut up and I’ll tell you. The first two parts in the series are connected, while the third part is the most surprising, resonant, or memorable portion. In these examples, the third “beat” is the most important of the sequence, and is intended to produce the biggest emotional reaction in the audience.
Another common feature of the “Rule of Three” is that the first two parts listed are concisely stated, while the third part is the longest, making its inclusion all the more rousing. However, this isn’t always the case.
Can I apply this form to the creation of humorous phrases? Spoiler alert: YOU can’t. But I confidently submit to you that after reading this blog post? Yeah, probably.
Yes, Comic Triples Can Be Used in Comedy, So Stop Asking
The three rhythm has many uses in humor, but we’ll focus on one in particular – creating a memorable, amusing sequence. When establishing anything in a series, the first two things are generic or predictable, but the third thing is the one that makes the audience laugh, that catches them off-guard, that elicits massive shits, giggles, and shiggles from the crowd. In short, it’s the punchline.
One of the great things about this technique is that it’s versatile and applicable across multiple media. Here are a few examples of how the Comic Triple is used in various contexts:
- Print: Report: Millennials More Open To Socialism, Touching Hot Stove, Sticking Face In Sack Full Of Badgers
- Stand-up comedy: “I can’t think of anything worse after a night of drinking than waking up next to someone and not being able to remember their name, or how you met, or why they’re dead.” – Laura Kightlinger
- Taglines: “Trapped in time. Surrounded by evil. Low on gas.” – Army of Darkness
By now you’re probably thinking, “I suck at words! I’ll never learn how to use the Comic Triple for my own degenerate purposes!” You’re right about the former, but may or may not be wrong about the latter. Just read on and find out why, dammit.
How to Create Your Own Comic Triples and Be More Like Your Idol, Joe Garza
There are several ways to utilize this formula for your own naughty uses. Below are a few ways to get started:
- Make the first two parts in the sequence broad, then make the last one specific:
- The types of people I hate the most are liars, cheaters, and Jimmy Fallon.
- Make the first two parts in the sequence specific, then make the last one broad:
- That’s it! I’ve officially declared war on Quebec, London, and pretty much all continental land masses!
- Make the last part completely unrelated to the first two:
- When I was kid, I always wanted to be either an astronaut, a secret agent, or an unlicensed gynecologist.
- Make the last part contradict or undermine the first two:
- All I need in life are friends, family, and alcoholism to shun them with.
- Restate a previously listed item
- I’m going to give a speech now, so shut up, listen, and shut up!
- Restate a previously listed item, but with a twist:
- Boys’ night out! I’ll bring the guns, the drugs, and the REALLY big guns!
Start Writing Your Own Comic Triples
Still need more intellectual handholding? Fine. Below are a few of those fill-in-the-blank exercises where I’ve already done about 90% of the work, and you get to do the bare minimum and proclaim yourself a satirical sage (spoiler alert: you’re not).
- Craigslist is a great place to buy used tools, furniture, and ____.
- Los Angeles is a fun place to visit, with plenty of nice restaurants, cool bars, and ____.
- The most important values to teach your children are tolerance, responsibility, and ____.
There! Now you’re pretty much a master of the English language. So next time you work on something that contains a series of details – whether they’re statements, ideas, or actions – think about how you can arrange them in this formula to wring a little extra humor out of your writing.
However, whichever method you employ to create your own comic triples, try to keep the first two items listed in the sequence as short as possible, as this will help make the reveal of the third item (which is usually longer than the previous two) more striking, and, therefore, more likely to provoke laughter. In William Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet, the character Lord Polonius states that “brevity is the soul of wit”, an aphorism that every humorist should live by.
Why the Comic Triple Works
Beginning a list with two related parts is enough to send the audience down one line of thinking, and one is just enough to completely derail it. Because the success of a joke, gag, or anecdote is based on its conciseness, expanding the sequence past three parts with the surprising bit at the end will test the audience’s patience, and can ruin the timing of a good line, and, consequently, your reputation as a humorist. Your boss will fire you, your friends will hate you, and your spouse will divorce you in a costly settlement. So whatever you do, don’t miss a beat in that triple rhythm, man.
And Here’s a Plug for Future Blog Posts!
Three parts is generally regarded to be the upper limit in comedy, but that doesn’t mean that organizing things in shorter sequences can’t work. Stay tuned, as I’ll also discuss how one liners and two-part formulas work in future blog posts. These will be separate posts, mostly because I need more clicks.
Got it? Good. Now get out there and wreak some triadic havoc on the world! (spoiler alert: you won’t.)