Comedy Writing Secrets: Triple the Funny

Comedic author Mark Shatz shares in-depth instructions on one of the most popular humor-writing techniques: triples.
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The mystical power of the unit three, sometimes called “the holy trilogy,” has been known for centuries. The Bible is filled with triple designations: the three wise men, the Trinity, and the Hebrew forefathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Seminal documents and speeches often contain triples: Jefferson wrote, “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” and Lincoln penned, “Of the people, for the people, by the people.”

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Our childhoods were ruled by the magical three. It started with the A, B, Cs. We eventually met Goldilocks and the three bears, the three blind mice, the three little pigs, the three musketeers, and Huey, Dewey, and Louie. Even Ebenezer Scrooge was visited by three spirits.

It’s not a coincidence that we watched the Three Stooges, the Three Amigos, and Three Men and a Baby. People in the theater are so superstitious about numbers that actors will knock on stage doors three times and only three times.

Three may be an odd number in math, but its even da-da-Ta-da-da-Ta-da-da-Ta cadence makes it the most important number in comedy. Humorists and comedians have relied on the magical three for years.

Reader, suppose you were an idiot. And suppose you were a member of Congress. But I repeat myself. —Mark Twain

Let's explore humor’s favorite number and discuss the logic and constructions of the triple. And that’s (1) the truth, (2) the whole truth, and (3) nothing but the truth.

Snap, Crackle, and Laugh: Triple the Funny

Every joke structure has its devotees, but the triple is one format that all humorists use over and over and over. Featuring a grouping of three examples or a sequence of three actions, comments, or categories, the triple increases tension with its longer buildup.

I got my first bikini. It's a three piece: It's a top, a bottom, and a blindfold for you. —Wendy Liebman

The triple formula uses hostility, exaggeration, a buildup of tension, and a surprise ending that inflates the payoff. Most triples are short—two or three sentences—but longer triples can work if done correctly. The opening lines are logical setups and the final line is the most audacious.

Here's my marriage quiz: Your wife comes in and says, "Hey, do I look fat?" Do you say a) "Yeah, you could lose a few," b) "No honey, you've never looked better," or c) "Wait, let me get my protective head gear?"—Darrell Hammond

Triple Construction: The Power of Three

According to a comedic theory developed by author William Lang, there are only three parts to most comedic bits. We call these three elements humor’s SAP test.

  • S = Setup (preparation)
  • A = Anticipation (triple)
  • P = Punch line (story payoff)

Notice how SAP fits this example.

S = We were Pentecostal. A = When I was growing up we couldn’t go to movies, we couldn’t listen to rock music, we couldn’t wear makeup. P = That’s just a lightbulb and a car away from being Amish. —René Hicks

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Comedy Writing Secrets 3rd Edition by Mark Shatz and Mel Helitzer

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It’s possible, of course, to abbreviate the SAP formula by combining two of the elements in one sentence. In the following example, the third part of the triple also includes the punch line.

When you die there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. When my father dies, he’ll see the light, make his way toward it, and then flip it off to save electricity. —Harland Williams

Notice how the triple sequence in the next example sets up the value of the last line.

If you want to be seen—stand up!

If you want to be heard—speak up!

If you want to be appreciated—shut up!

The joke wouldn’t be as effective as a series of two. When we leave off the first line, the triple reads:

If you want to be heard—speak up!

If you want to be appreciated—shut up!

The humor is still there, but the punch is softer without the buildup of tension that the triple provides. If you were to add more lines to this joke, you would overstretch the sequence and make the audience impatient to get to the punch line.

If you want to be involved—show up!

If you want to be seen—stand up!

If you want to be heard—speak up!

If you want to be important—pay up!

If you want to be appreciated—shut up!

There’s no reason to give five examples when three accomplishes all the preparation that’s needed.

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The final element of SAP humor can include a reverse to make it sound fresher.

I was told to be accurate, be brief, and then be seated. So I promise I shall be brief as possible—no matter how long it takes me. —Willard Pearson

The trilogy is not a commandment; it’s a formula (which means it can be taught in schools). Although most series-based jokes are most effective when they contain three elements, the number of introductory setups in the series can be two, three, four, or as many as you wish—whatever it takes to build anticipation and a climax.

You ever wake up in the middle of the night, and you roll over and look at your mate, and the moonlight catches them just right, and you just want to gingerly reach over and smack the crap out of them? —Rondell Sheridan

Comic Bill Dana once explained why a ranch with eleven names (Bar Nine, Circle Z, Rocking O, Flying W, Lazy R, Crazy Eight, Bar Seven, Happy Tow, Flying Nun, Lazy Six, and Bar Five) had no cattle: because none could make it through branding. Erma Bombeck preferred to use four, five, and sometimes six in a series. The length of a series is not what’s critical—it’s the anticipation created by the series.

I called my friend Bernie in Miami and asked how he was feeling.

“Not well,” he said. “I’ve got cataracts in both eyes, my hearing is almost totally gone, my memory is so bad I can’t remember where I put anything, and my hands shake all the time.”

“That’s terrible,” I said. “Any good news?”

“Yes,” he said, “I still have my Florida driver’s license.”

It’s no surprise that there are three 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.

  • Never use more than three jokes about one subject in a monologue.
  • Three minutes is the ideal length for a skit.
  • Don’t exceed three themes in an article.
Comedy Writing Secrets: Triple the Funny

Triple Variations: Triple the Triple

A common variation on the SAP formula is to set up a joke with a triple—in other words, to include the triple not in the A (anticipation) part of the formula, but in the first P (preparation). The second element of the joke then refers to something unrelated to the triple. Finally, in the punch line, the answer to the question references the triple in the setup. Once you learn this formula, the variations multiply.

Waitress, in hoarse voice: For dessert, we got ice cream—vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry.

Customer: You got laryngitis?

Waitress: No, just vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry.

Triples can easily be combined with other joke formats. For example, you can start with a triple and add a takeoff.

The thing about being a professor is that if you can make just one student successful, if you can make just one student see the light, if you can make just one ready for the outside world, then you’re still stuck with nineteen failures. —Mel Helitzer

Another very popular combination of techniques is to start with a triple, then switch to a reverse. The reverse can supplement or replace the third element in the triple.

If you think about the animals we do eat, we only eat the dumb ones. Our three main meats are what? Cows, fish, chickens—all animals, I'm pretty sure, if they could talk, you could trick them into killing themselves. —Jimmie Roulette

You can also combine a triple with another triple.

I remember my first sexual experience: backseat of my dad's car. I was young; I was in love; I was alone. No, not quite—Dad was driving. He was pissed. It's a small car, and the top was down.—Louis Ramey

A common variation of a triple is an anecdote—a short 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.

A minister comes home to his apartment early and finds his wife nude in bed and the room filled with cigar smoke. He looks down from his tenth-story window and sees a man smoking a big cigar just leaving the building. Enraged, he picks up his refrigerator and throws it out the window, killing the man instantly.

Why did you do that?” someone yelled from the street. “You killed my priest.”

The minister was so distraught that he threw himself out of the window.

A few moments later, three men—a priest, a minister, and a rabbi—approach heaven’s gate and an angel asks each how he died.

I don’t know,” says the priest, “except suddenly a refrigerator smashed me into the ground.”

The minister says, “I threw it. But I was so filled with remorse, I jumped out of the window and killed myself.”

What about you, rabbi?” asks the angel.

You got me. All I know was I was minding my own business, sitting in a refrigerator …”

Humor takes even more literary effort than the average editorial story because the climax must be powerful enough to cause an immediate physical reaction in the audience. Your goal is to tell an anecdote in the fewest possible words. But sometimes cutting words can lessen the effect of a joke. Consider the following example.

Three sons, with their wives, were celebrating their parents’ 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 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 I 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 the father, “and cheap ones, too!”

You can tell the same 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 the dad, “and a cheap one, too!”

The elimination of the triple decreased the suspense and minimized the buildup of hostility that makes the father’s retort so funny. It isn’t that one example isn’t funny; it’s just that ridiculing three is more pleasurable.

Recap

The concept of a triple is simple. Whenever you have a sequence of actions, comments, or categories, the magical number is three. By listing a series of three conditions, the triple builds tensions and increases the funny. The key is to make sure the funniest item appears at the end. Simple as one, two, three.

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If you want to learn how to write a story, but aren’t quite ready yet to hunker down and write 10,000 words or so a week, this is the course for you. Build Your Novel Scene by Scene will offer you the impetus, the guidance, the support, and the deadline you need to finally stop talking, start writing, and, ultimately, complete that novel you always said you wanted to write.

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