Thursday, March 20, 2014

A Serious Look at Comedy, Part V

V. Once, Twice, Three Times a Comedian

Do you remember that graph we talked about last time? If you don't, I'll wait a second for you to go back and look at it. I'll wait right here until you return. Finished? Okay.

In review, that graph represents a setup along a certain train of thought and then does a surprise, 90 degree twist at the end. Well, a simple way to utilize this graph is with the rule of three.

The rule of three is used in many ways. It could be a group of three characters (Harry, Ron, and Hermione; Larry, Moe, and Curly), it could be three obstacles a character faces, or three parts of a joke. Even in our fairy tales, a pattern of three is often used (how many bears did Goldilocks face?). I've even encountered it in jazz improvisation, where it's a common technique to state a musical idea two times to set up an expectation and on the third repetition, change it to surprise the listener. In comedy writing, it is sometimes called the comic triple and can be used in several ways.

One method is to make a list of three things. The first two set up the expectation, then the third one breaks it. Here is a classic example from Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure:

Beethoven's favorite works include Mozart's Requiem, Handel's Messiah, and Bon Jovi's Slippery When Wet.”

We can use this trick in our novels, too. For instance, here's a little snippet from an upcoming Delroy story I have coming out in a few weeks on Big World Network:

     Several hours later, after a good nap and some quality self-loathing, the door to my makeshift prison clicked and opened. Captain Rob entered with Marv the Malicious and Typhoid Larry close behind. “How's it going, Del?” Rob asked with a wide smile.
     “Great,” I answered. “While I've been waiting, I developed a better way to travel faster than light, came up with a solution for galaxy hunger, and invented a new device to painlessly shave back hair.”

When I was in high school, I used this technique without realizing it. My class was asked to come up with a phrase to describe myself and draw a picture of it so that it could be put on display in the school district offices. This was what I came up with: I am like a pasture; smooth, easy going, and full of B.S. For some reason, the school administration opted to not put it on display.

Of course, the rule of three doesn't just apply to lists. Sometimes it entails three different people or groups responding to a situation. Take the example from the last installment with the three presidents. Now, think about all those obnoxious jokes you've heard over the years. Things like, “A priest, a rabbi, and a Mormon walk into a bar…” 

Sometimes the pattern comes out during a conversation, like someone making a statement, another person asking a question about it, and then a response. This might be a more natural way to have the rule of three in your novels. Here's an example:

“My uncle ran for Senate last year.”
“Really? What does he do now?”
“Nothing. He got elected.”

These types of conversations often happen in real life. For instance, one time I posted on facebook, “The reason why I give the dog treats all the time is because she at least acts excited when I walk into the room.” My daughter responded, “Well, maybe we'd get more excited, too, if you gave us treats.” I replied, “Okay, but I didn't think you liked Milkbones.”

Now, is this a hard and fast rule without variation? Of course not. But often, only one segment to set up the twist isn't enough, and more than two can make it feel too long. Use your common sense, but most of the time, three is enough.

Next week, I'll sock it to you.

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