There are many areas where the “rule of three” comes into play. There are plenty of them in storytelling.
Fairy Tales and Fables are full of threes, of course, with Three Little Pigs, Three Bears, Three Wishes, and on and on - the first unit sets things up, the second reinforces, and the third is where the twist or turn takes place and ends the story.
It shows up in comedy of course - the first and second events set up and reinforce how things are supposed to go, and the third event is the surprise that upends expectations and hopefully gets a laugh. This shows up in a million standard jokes and a million comedic scenes, either with dialogue, characters or action.
Of course, three are not always required…
A fun moment in “Hot Fuzz” plays out when Supercop Sargent Angel runs across a series of fenced back yards, leaping and somersaulting over fences. His partner, Butterman, excitedly follows his lead and, of course, crashes through the first fence and falls on his face. Well executed, funny, kind of predictable but it worked, and didn't require two setups before that payoff. There is plenty of comedy that can be set up just fine with one event.
A more ambitious approach to comedy is to defy expectations without that setup - I remember a Simpsons joke that took place at some kind of Civil War fair that set up a flimsy guard tower, sitting right in front of a loaded cannon that was pointed directly at the bottom of the tower. The guard up top was surely in grave danger. When a car (actually a school bus) came skidding up to the cannon and bumped it - nothing happened. Very very funny, but a “riskier” kind of comedy that required the viewer to understand the meta thing that was going on behind it. The elaborateness of the setup leading to nothing really hits the comedic spot for some people (I like that kind of thing), but it's not going to be everyone's cup o' soup.
In that case the joke is the upending of expectations that exist outside of the scene or story itself. It counts on the viewer already understanding the usual expectations of story, or comedy, or TV in general and subverting that. Monty Python and I'd say early David Letterman were pioneers in this area on TV back in the day.
All right, that's more than enough of me. See you next time!
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Banes at 12:00AM, June 8, 2023
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