Have you seen a comedian, or comedy troupe, repeat a bit over, and over, and over, until the blatant unfunniness was painful to watch? In recent years, that’s become almost the norm, especially on shows like “Saturday Night Live.” If the comedy writers had known about the Rule of Three, and better yet had followed it, they could have avoided the problem and actually had the funny skit that they had intended.
In short, the Rule of Three is: don’t repeat a bit of comedy more than three times. When done right, the first time can be funny, the second time funnier, and the third time can build up to a crescendo of comedy. A fourth time, however, and it’s the comedy equivalent of beating a dead horse — the horse doesn’t react, and neither does the audience — at least not in a good way.
Think of the great comedians of the past — whether you think of individuals like Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Red Skelton, W. C. Fields and Jimmy Durante, or comedy teams like the Three Stooges, the Marx Brothers, Abbott and Costello or Laurel and Hardy — can you think of them “beating a horse” in that way? No; it was something that they learned the hard way, performing in front of live audiences and adjusting their humor based on the audience’s reactions.
This doesn’t mean that a comedian, humorist, speaker or clown can’t repeat a mannerism more than three times — obvious examples are Jack Benny’s slow, elongated, “Well!” or Baron Munchausen’s “Was you there, Charlie?” which they repeated hundreds of times during their careers — but rarely more than 3 times in a given performance, if that many.
Variety is the spice of life, but the old saying that “brevity is the soul of wit” still rings true. It doesn’t matter if it’s performing in front of children or adults, in front of a Rotary Club or national television, the Rule of Three still holds true.
It should also be mentioned that the Rule of Three isn’t limited to verbal humor. If you’re doing slapstick comedy — anything from throwing or receiving a pie in the face, or a kick in the posterior like Charlie Chaplin, or even the Three Stooges’ patented eye-poke routine — the Rule of Three still applies. How long would a Three Stooges short film be funny if Moe began poking Curly in the eye, then Larry, then Curly again, then Larry again… on and on for fifteen minutes?
In summary, everyone needs to apply the Rule of Three to keep their humor short, funny, and memorable!