Why a Great Sense of Humour Comes in Threes

If you are a resident of the British isles, there’s every chance that you have been taking advantage of the relaxing of restrictions of late and exercising your freedom to visit a pub. A cold drink on a hot day is a summer tick box item for most Brits, an extension of the key role the pub has long played in British culture.

For many years the pub or bar was also a common setting for a seam of humour which ran deep in the days before memes and questions about identity politics. It was a joke which at one time was as prominent amongst the adult British population as the innocuous ‘knock, knock’ joke was for children. It involved an Englishman, a Scotsman and an Irishman, each displaying stereotypical national characteristics.

While researching the history of this joke, I discovered this three way national tussle is actually an international phenomenon; in Scandinavia, for example, the joke involves a Dane, a Swede and a Norwegian while in China it involves a Chinese, a Japanese and an American… While these types of jokes are no longer very common (in the UK) and their very set up now seems antiquated bordering on offensive, they nevertheless serve as an example of a humour device which will endure until the end of humour itself!

This device is the rule of 3. In the written word, and certainly in the spoken word, the rule of 3 throws gasoline on the fire of any subject matter and creates a shooting flame that sears deep into the audience’s consciousness.  This is because ‘three’ (or a trio) has been shown to provide the magic when it comes to audience satisfaction, whether within the device of a gag, joke or funny dialogue or within the device of character dynamics within a comedic play or a sitcom.

Much has been made of the Friends Reunion (aka The One Where They Get Back Together), which has managed to unite a cross generational audience in excitement at the return of Rachel, Monica, Phoebe, Joey, Chandler and Ross to the small screen. Much of the enduring success of the show relies on the rule of 3. “But there are six of them!” I hear you cry. Yes, there are, but in this 90s comedy classic, six is just 2 x 3 (I forgot to mention that the model is scalable) and many of the series’ most memorable scenes revolve around three characters or the full complement of six.

The power of 3 is also ruthlessly effective in word play and underpins many of the funniest comedy scripts. The Richard Curtis and Rowan Atkinson creation, Blackadder, is widely perceived as British comedic par excellence, and much of this has to do with the slickness of the scripts and the cunning behind the setup in the storytelling. Atkinson’s Blackadder frequently fires off the power of three in a succession of staccato deliveries, from standalone lines such as when opining about the three great universities,  – Oxford, Cambridge and Hull – to the succession of putdowns of his long serving (and suffering) assistant, Baldrick.

The following delightful one liner, from Blackadder the Third, illustrates the rule of 3 perfectly: “Give the likes of Baldrick the vote and we’ll be back to cavorting druids, death by stoning and dung for dinner,” he quips.  Take out ‘dung for dinner’ for a moment and one can almost predict the difference in the audience’s laugh-o-meter. Put it back in (and look at the rhythm it creates too) and we can see how it delivers on the set up of the other two mentions in order to bring the joke to a crescendo. In effect, the rule of three provides a beginning a middle and an end for an audience to latch on to and this is why it provides an audience with such a pleasurable conclusion.

Thus, if you want to play around with a proven effective presentation device, I can suggest following a relaxing summer’s afternoon or evening session at a pub with some classic comedy – preferably shot in front a of a live audience – to do some rule of 3 watching and reflect on how this device delivers audience impact. In the meantime, I’d like to leave you with a wonderful little story from an Indian Chai shop involving a Sardarji, a Bihari and a Bengali….