The Rule of Three in Humor


Stealing a joke.

A little girl was walking through the park when she saw three dogs lying by the pathway. Being an animal lover, she approached the dogs and proceeded to pet one of the dogs on the head.

She said to the dog, “How are you? Are you happy? I wish you could tell me your name.”

The dog suddenly spoke up, “My name is Moe and I had a great day going in and out of puddles.”

The girl was amazed and said, “You can talk?! Do your friends talk too?”

The second dog also spoke up, “My name is Larry and I had a great day going in and out of puddles.”

The girl was pleasantly surprised to hear two dogs speaking to her so she approached the third dog and said, “Now let me guess – your name is Curly and you had a great day going in and out of puddles?”

“No,” the third dog said. “My name is Puddles and I had a lousy day.”

I recently went to a free lecture on humor in writing, and the guy talked about the rule of three. Basically, lists are funny if it’s kept to three.

He wondered if it was tied to three-act structure, giving a joke a beginning, middle and end.

I think it’s the right way to suggest a pattern, without taking too long to make the joke. It can be a list of three funny things, or a subversion of a pattern that’s already been established.

This has been written about elsewhere.

It keeps thinks brisk, useful for speeches.

According to an old New Yorker article, it’s an established part of a comedian’s repertoire.

There is a long-standing tradition—Leo McCarey, who directed the early Laurel and Hardy films, called it “almost an unwritten rule”—that jokes work best when there are two straightforward examples, to establish a pattern, and then a third, to shatter it. (“My favorite books are ‘Moby Dick‘, ‘Great Expectations‘ and ‘Rock Hard Abs In Thirty Days‘.”) The “rule of three” also holds that a running gag should be called back three times. The joke begins losing its savor the fourth time (and then, according to “comedy torture theory,” becomes funny again about the seventh time, as the audience realizes that the performer is being deliberately exasperating.)

“Del’s theory was that we have three brains,” Halpern said. “The joke is got first by our reptile brain, which appreciates slapstick, then by our mammalian brain,” which, Close believed, handles our wants and needs. (The few documented instances of animal humor are physical in nature. The researcher Roger Fouts reported in 1997 that Washoe , a chimpanzee he had taught to sign, once urinated on him while he was riding on his shoulders, then signed “Funny”—touching its nose—and snorted.) Finally, Halpern continued, “the joke reaches the humans neocortex,” which in Close’s view, was in charge of manners and customs.



About Thomas Mets

I’m a comic book fan, wannabe writer, politics buff and New Yorker. I don’t actually follow baseball. In the Estonian language, “Mets” simply means forest, or lousy sports team. You can email me at
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