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The Rule of Three and the Comic Triple -- by Jjeffries

It is really hard to develop a logical process to create humor. The only sure-fire process I’ve discovered so far is to go through middle school as a bookish, clumsy, awkward introvert with early onset acne. Humor becomes a matter of survival. But one element that does seem to be consistently successful is the Rule of Three or the Comic Triple. Mankind seems to dig groups of three – The Three Little Pigs, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, My Three Sons; you get the idea. The Comic Triple takes this natural affinity and turns it on its head. The biggest part of humor is surprise. A list of three is the fewest number of words necessary to establish a pattern and tumble it on its head to create the surprise. For example, the next bit of dialogue comes from our Five-Minute Shakespeare play, Hamlet.

POLICEMAN 1: What a mess. Better get to work. You outline the bodies.

POLICEMAN 2: I’m going to need more chalk. Have you ever seen a crime scene like this before?

POLICEMAN 1: Yep. It’s the work of a serial killer.

POLICEMAN 2: Vlad the Impaler? Jack the Ripper?

POLICEMAN 1: Shakespeare the playwright.

Vlad the Impaler and Jack the Ripper set up the pattern of historical serial killers. Using Shakespeare takes the concept and twists it a bit, since he killed off so many characters in his Histories and Tragedies. He makes George R.R. Martin look like a romance writer. I’ll give you another example from our play Alice in Blunderland. Not that another example is necessary, but I do so want to shamelessly plug our plays.

MAD HATTER: Yes, a quest. It’s the preferred method in Blunderland of getting rid of troublemakers.

ALICE: But, I’m no troublemaker.

MAD HATTER: Your quest is to, uhm . . .

MARCH HARE: Follow the yellow brick road?

DORMOUSE: Destroy the ring of power?

MARCH HARE: Raid the lost Ark?

MAD HATTER: No, those have been done to death. I know. You must dethrone the Queen of Hearts.

ALICE: Queen of Hearts?

DORMOUSE: Quite the character.

MARCH HARE: She’s such a card.

MAD HATTER: The Queen of Hearts is quite mad —


MAD HATTER: And she wants to rule all of Blunderland. You must stop her.


MAD HATTER: The usual. Go on a journey. Gather quirky companions. Lop off her head with an ax.

ALICE: I can’t do that!

MARCH HARE: (To MAD HATTER & DORMOUSE.) She refuses to cut the cards.

DORMOUSE: Maybe she can just deck the Queen.

MAD HATTER: If you don’t stop her, she will destroy Blunderland. No more rainbows.

MARCH HARE: Or unicorns.

DORMOUSE: Or universal health care.

We used the comic triple a couple of times that passage, bringing the grand total of comic triples in this blog to three. I don’t know, but for some reason I find that very satisfying. I’m hoping this blog gets lots of responses, because there are so many funnier writers than I here on Critique Circle. I just love to steal their ideas. I mean, permanently borrow their ideas. I mean, flatter them.

Jim and Jane Jeffries have been writing and producing madrigal dinner scripts for Jest Scripts since 1995. They write each script as a team. Jim has the more important job of carefully crafting each quip, pun, and gag. Jane takes care of such minor details as plot, character development, story-line, setting, and making sure that the plays “make sense.” Visit their site at

Posted by Jjeffries 21 Jun 2014 at 01:52
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Responses to this blog

Rellrod 21 Jun 2014 at 17:01  
Good point (and good examples!)

TV Tropes actually has a page for the Rule of Three — and, more specifically for comedy, The Triple (with another classic example from The Dick Van Dyke Show).

Fairchild 21 Jun 2014 at 17:55  
Ha! I have noticed this technique before. Great blog. I'd love to hear more from comedic writers, especially for prose, as what works in plays (live action) doesn't always transfer well to narrative stories. I mean, imagine having to put "said Mad Hatter" "said Dormouse" "Alice said" or some beat on all that snappy dialogue. It would destroy the rhythm. Yet without some identification in the narrative you'd get confused as to who is speaking.
Petesdiner 21 Jun 2014 at 18:27  
Neat post, Jim. Great fun.
Jjeffries 21 Jun 2014 at 19:33  

It's a simple matter to transfer it to novels. You just have the triple said by one person, or keep the patter going between two speakers with no need for "he said" since the paragraphs set off who is speaking. Jim Butcher uses the triple quite a bit in his Dresden Files.

Rick, you always one-up me with better examples. I love it! But hey, maybe you missed the bit about shameless self-promotion? Next time, use examples from some of my plays.

Pete, I'm glad you approve. Will this bit be on the menu at the diner? Triple Espresso maybe?
Peterwood 5 Jul 2014 at 12:49  
Nice. But one must also consider (and perhaps deferr to) Borges and his hexagons.

Ranch, please.

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