The Rule of Three: Part 1 of 3

As I mentioned in the last post, this weekend was the Samuel French Off Off Broadway festival finals. One of the lucky plays selected for Publication is a “scathing comedy” about child beauty pageants called Skin Deep, written by Mary Lynn Dobson. This hysterical one act shows stage moms and life-long beauty pageant hosts obsessing and repeating the same points over and over.  So much of the comedy came from the repetition of bits that I started to pay careful attention to Mary Lynn Dobson handled the joke repeated.

Most people in theatre have already heard of the rule of 3. Wikipedia lists the generally agreed upon definition as: ” a principle in English writing that suggests that things that come in threes are inherently funnier, more satisfying, or more effective than other numbers of things.”  And “the third iteration is the most pleasing or most effective.”  SO sure, I mean, how often have I heard that the third time a joke happens is the funniest?

However, in this play I can remember two occasions when Ms. Mary Lynn told the same joke 4 times each(!). In these cases she was still able to keep the joke fresh by tweeking it for that fourth and final run. For example: In a very funny scene one of the overly excited, raspy, fidgety, old pageant judges explains that she’s looking for a young lady who has that special somethin’, a young lady that just says (bellowed:) “LOOK AT ME! look! HEY! Look at me LOOK AT ME!”  The actress was terrific and sold really sold this moment as a crazy old lady. Then she sold it again twice more: LOOK AT ME! look! HEY! Look at me LOOK AT ME!”.  and each time people laughed because it was so absurd that this woman would continually come back and yell this line during the same interview.

After the third delivery of the line I waited carefully to see if the writer would break the rule of three- and she did. She took here time, there was a nice break from the earlier jokes and then it came, in the middle explaining the “no-guns” policy, because if a 5 year old beauty queen points a loaded rifle at you and says “LOOK AT ME! look! HEY! Look at me LOOK AT ME!….then you’re gonna look.”

So this got me thinking that there has to be a a way to extend a joke. if slight changes keep it fresh then we should be able to go beyond three repetitions with some new rules…. SO I offer the rule of 6. A guide to comic gestures or phrases repeated in performance:

first time: it happens. it’s either funny, or not funny.

Second time: it remains funny or it becomes funny because it happened again.

Third time: it’s so damn funny! this shit has happened three times!

Fourth time: it’s funny because you tweeked it.  the punchline answers a different set-up, or the person doing the gesture is now in drag, or perhaps the line was changed into Spanish?

Fifth Time: (this gets tricky) It Doesn’t Happen-  and it’s funny because of it.  Imagine: everything is set up for the person to say it, but they don’t. Maybe their trying to think of an example for someone, and the repeated punchline is perfect… but they just… can’t…remember anything right now….  It’ll still be funny because to the audience can remember. And the audience loves getting the understated joke.

Sixth Time: It just happens again. In it’s simple form. After the 4th time and 5th time which changed it up there is space to bring back the classic version, and it satisfies immensely.

I have yet to actively identify steps 5 or 6 in anything- but they sound nice don’t they? Now, string of repititions has to stop at around six, otherwise it becomes something else: The Overly Long Gag. I’ll discuss this tomorrow in Rule of Three: Part II.

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