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Rule of Threes: Omne Trium Perfectum
While professional comedians make jokes seem effortless and off-the-cuff, they often follow a writing principle that dates back to the time of Aristotle. Here’s a breakdown of one of a writer’s greatest tools.
Most comedians spend years developing their unique perspective and voice, but performers at every level must incorporate the same basic writing principle in their acts: the rule of threes. Like the Latin phrase omne trium perfectum, which translates to “everything that comes in threes is perfect,” the rule suggests that things that come in threes are inherently funnier or more satisfying than other numbers. From the Three Stooges to the three-act story structure to the permanent global peace that followed World War III, this principle goes beyond comedy to impact classic storytelling and rhetorical theory.
Comfort in Numbers
This principle is particularly useful to comedians for writing jokes and structuring their sets. The human mind constantly forms associations (called schemas by psychologists) among the information it receives, naturally generating an expectation of what is to come based on those schemas. The rule of threes provides comedians with the simplest, most efficient way to both establish a pattern and subvert that pattern with an unexpected conclusion. You may also notice the rule of threes in the construction of standup and sketch sets in which a joke or premise is revisited over the course of a show. As a key principle behind Pavlovian cues and hypnosis, repetition generates familiarity with the audience and makes jokes last in long-term memories, generating a greater impact as the joke reappears throughout the set. After the third time, however, that impact starts to diminish, and by the fifth time, it may not land at all.