From Bob Mankoff’s How About Never …  (see here), p. 255, on Mankoff’s effort to give “aspiring cartoonists feedback” by “developing a mini course in cartoon fundamentals and the psychology of humor.” One course topic: “things are funnier in threes”.

1. Triplets. From p. 256:

things are funnier in threes because you need a sequence of at least two to create the right surprise. Without surprise, there is no joke. Surprise requires a setup sequence to work most effectively. Usually what’s called a “triplet” is involved, with two items leading to a third, which functions as a punch line.

(Triplets are a common feature of jokes in general, not just those that have been turned into cartoons. And they are also a common feature of a type of non-joke story — the princess chooses from the suitors that present themselves one after another, for instance.)

A triplet from Mankoff’s own pen (published 1/28/85):

(This one’s captionless, but a triplet can be located in a caption as well.)

2. The X3 snowclone. Sets of three come up in a great many contexts. In particular, there is a conventional formula involving a three-way repetition: what I’ve called the x3 snowclone.

X3: The three most important Xs in Y are: Z, Z, Z. (conveying something like ‘the only really important X in Y is Z’).

(For example: the three most important considerations in real estate are location, location, location. Conveying that location is the only important thing in real estate.)

For discussion, see my Language Log posting of 11/27/04, “Twos and threes”. What’s crucial here is that not any three-way repetition counts as an instance of the snowclone — there are immense numbers of such things (“what I tell you three times is true”; “I divorce thee, I divorce thee, I divorce thee” and so on) — but the link between form and semantics/pragmatics in X3 is both conventional and very specific. More of this in my Language Log posting.

Mankoff’s triples and the X3 snowclone both make use of the magic number 3, but in very different ways and for very different reasons. Well, for that matter, all Gaul is divided into three parts, but that has nothing to do with either triples or X3.

One Response to “Threesies”

  1. John Baker Says:

    There is an odd thing about the public reaction to Mankoff’s book: Most of it has ignored the fact that he isn’t a funny guy. I haven’t read his book, but I’ve read The New Yorker for many years, and if you take out the work of Roz Chast then actual humor in the cartoons is pretty rare. There was a much higher level of hilarity in the old New Yorkers, when cartoonists like James Thurber and Chas. Addams were regularly featured.

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