There are a number of rules specifically geared to the number three. Tension is important in humor structure and a triple helps build tension, but be wary of too much of a good thing.
1. Never tell more than three jokes about one subject at any one time.
2. Don't spend more than three minutes on any one theme.
3. Three themes of about three minutes each are optimum for a ten minute stand-up monologue.
4. Three minutes is the best length for a skit.
5. Don't use more than three voices in a radio skit or commercial.
The following story is also an example of how the triple can be personalized by the substitution of a local name for the third designation:
I had a terrible dream last night. Three of our leaders suddenly passed away. St. Peter took each to his new chambers, an ugly, foul-smelling cell. The first one was for Saddam Hussein, and as he entered he noticed a huge gorilla, and then a deep voice intoned, "Suddam Hussein, because of all your sins, you will spend the rest of your life making love to this female gorilla." St. Peter then showed Senator Kennedy his cell, which also had a gorilla tied up, and as he entered the same deep voice intoned, "Senator Kennedy, because of all your sins, you will spend the rest of your life making love to this female gorilla." Then [add local name] was shown to his cell, and inside was Dolly Parton tied up. I was aghast, until I heard the deep voice say, "Dolly Parton, because of all your sins "
Humor writing is a lesson in word economy. An anecdote is not a short story. It's a small story told in the fewest possible words. That's why, even in a long triple, you need to give just enough information to set up the payoff line. Humor takes even more literary effort than the average editorial story because the climax must cause an immediate physical reaction in the audience.
Three sons, with their wives, were celebrating their parent's fiftieth anniversary. At the dinner, the first son stood up and said, "Dad. Mom. I'd have brought you a present, but Suzy and I spent the summer in Europe, so we're kinda broke, but we do wish you the very best." The second son said, "My dear parents. I, too, would have brought a present, but I just bought Nancy a diamond necklace, and we're short right now." And the third said, "Folks, we purchased a powerboat which left us strapped, but we wish you good health and love for years to come." "That's okay, sons," said the father. "I know how it feels to be broke. I never told you this but when your mother and 1 decided to get married fifty years ago, we didn't even have the money for a license, so we never had a ceremony." One of the sons burst out, "My god, Dad. You know what that makes us?" "Yes, I do," said dad, "and cheap ones, too!"
We can tell the story without a triple in half the words:
A son attends a fiftieth anniversary dinner for his parents. He apologizes that because of personal luxury expenses he couldn't afford a present. The father sympathizes, "We know how it is. When mother and I were courting we were so poor we couldn't afford a license, so we never got married." "My god," says the son, "do you know what that makes me?" "Yes," says dad, "and a cheap one, too!"
We cut the words and even eliminated two sons (so much for family planning), but the elimination of the triple decreased the suspense and minimized the buildup of hostility against three selfish sons. It isn't that one example isn't funny; it's just that ridiculing three is more pleasurable.
By listing a series of three conditions the triple is just one structure of a joke. Then, as in the pay-off technique with clichés, it must be concluded with an audacious and surprising climax.
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