The Rule of Threes

Here is a scene my iO team, Whiskey Rebellion, improvised during the Kalamazoo Improv Festival.

That scene works for lots of reasons.  Let’s break it down.

The initiation is great.  Ryan calls Tim “Sisyphus.”  We all know the story of Sisyphus, so Tim knows exactly what Ryan wants him to do.

Rather than fight the initiation, Tim accepts the gift.  Yes, he will be Sisyphus.  And more than that, he’ll be an annoyed Sisyphus.  Whatever Ryan is trying to say, it will have to wait until Tim gets that boulder to the top of the hill.

Even if the scene didn’t have much else to it, it’s off to a great start.  Both players are on the same page and the audience is on board.  They know what’s going to happen and they want to see it happen.  But they also expect a comedic twist.

At this point, you can break the scene into three beats.  This is an illustration of a time-honored comedy tradition called “the triple” or sometimes, “The Rule of Threes.”  There is a theory that things are funnier in threes.  Here’s my theory on why that works.

The first time you do something, it’s novel.  It doesn’t necessarily follow any pattern or predict any future behavior.  The second time you do it, it’s a deliberate callback.  We’ve established that this character will behave a certain way in a certain situation.  The audience sees the pattern and projects that it will happen again.  When it does, the pattern is confirmed and the audience has a laugh of recognition.  They crave the completion of the pattern.  It’s something very primitive and ingrained in our reptile brains.

The Rule of Threes also applies to verbal lists as well.  You can see this on almost every comedy television show.  The list will contain Object A, Similar Object B and Odd/Tangentially Related Object C.

Check it out in the classic SNL Matt Foley sketch: “First off, I am 35 years old.  I am divorced.  And I live in a van down by the river!”

Foley Fact #1 – 35 years old.  (Nothing weird about that.)
Foley Fact #2 – Divorced.  (Nothing weird.  Fits the pattern of biographical facts.)
Foley Fact #3 – Lives in a van down by the river.  (Vaguely fits the pattern, but it is really, really weird.)

You’ll notice that third bit of information gets a laugh because it shakes the pattern of mundane facts and adds a curveball.

Watch that scene closely and you’ll notice that the third time Farley says, “van down by the river,” it gets the biggest laugh of any time he says it.  Beyond that, it still gets a laugh, but it’s smaller.

Monty Python used to eschew this convention by repeating things far more than three times.  In many scenes, they’d repeat something so often, it would become funny, then become annoying, then go back to being funny.  Not a tactic I’d recommend in an improv show, but noteworthy nonetheless.

But even Python used the Rule of Threes from time to time.  Consider the bridge encounter in “Holy Grail.”  The bridge keeper asks each knight three questions…

1. “What is your name?”
2. “What is your quest?”
3. Out-of-context question – “What is your favorite color?” or “What is the capital of Assyria?” or “What is the air-speed velocity of an unladen swallow?”

Python was very good at establishing patterns, then flaunting them, then re-establishing them.

Back to our Whiskey Rebellion scene and how we employ the Rule of Threes.  As Tim pushes the boulder near the top of the hill, Ben Johnson demonstrates it rolling backward.  It flattens Ryan.  (End of the first beat.)

Tim pushes it back up the hill.  Ryan pops up and tells Tim he’ll never be finished.  Tim acts annoyed.  Karisa demonstrates the boulder rolling backward.  It flattens Ryan.  (End of second beat.)  It’s very important that Karisa mimics the first beat exactly.  Yes, she could have the boulder go crazy or get stuck or explode, but she’s a savvy enough improviser to set up the pattern for the flip in the third beat.  Sometimes it’s hard to do the “boring” thing that’s been established.  As improvisers, we seek laughs.  But by following the first beat rigidly, she sacrifices a small immediate laugh for a bigger payoff down the line.

For a third time, Tim pushes the boulder.  Ryan pops up.  He tells Tim he’ll never be finished.  And then, I act as the boulder rolling back for a third time.

Ryan, knowing that something different must happen to follow the Rule of Threes, jumps out of the way of the boulder.  Great!  The pattern is broken!

But where does the scene go from there?  Ryan dodging the boulder isn’t enough of a punchline.  That’s when I decide the boulder will hunt Ryan down and crush him.  The third time around, things are sufficiently different that they work as a punchline, and the audience responds accordingly.

Consider the larger context of the scene, too.  Sisyphus is a story about a man doomed to repeat the same thing over and over.  It’s inevitable.  And there’s something very funny about Sisyphus’ friend, doomed to be crushed by the same boulder over and over.  Even when he thinks he’s evaded fate, it still hunts him down.

And we also have to give credit to Gina for recognizing that the scene had run its course.  There’s no place to go beyond that.  We’d reached our third beat.  So she steps in to edit.

This is as clean an improv scene as you will ever see.  Sure, you might see something funnier, but this works because all the pieces work.

We have…

1. A clean, clear initiation.
2. Recognition and amplification of that gift.
3. A pattern started.
4. A pattern reaffirmed.
5. A pattern flaunted.
6. A theme concluded.
7. A timely edit.

If any of those elements were missing, the scene would have fallen flat.  What if Tim’s Sisyphus didn’t feel like pushing the boulder?  That robs the audience of their craving to see it.  What if the pattern wasn’t followed correctly the second time?  That would pop the balloon before it was fully inflated.  What if Ryan allowed himself to get smushed a third time?  That’s not funny, that’s redundant.  And what if Ryan managed to beat Sisyphus’ fate?  That’s no fun either.  Sisyphus must push that rock forever.  And apparently, Ryan must get flattened forever, no matter how hard he tries to dodge it.

Need further proof that this is a good scene?  Watch Ben Johnson in the wings as Ryan thinks he’s beaten the bolder, only to be chased down.  Ben jumps with happiness.  And if you can make your teammates laugh or physically react to a scene, that’s a good sign.

Obviously, not every scene will follow this template.  But when you find yourself doing something in a scene, make a conscious effort to do it again, and then put a twist on it the third time it occurs.  Your audience will love you.

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