Jokes: Rule of 3 can be hilarious (or hurtful)

This entry is part 2 of 5 in the series Jokes

Famous Movie Comedy TriosA Note from Dr. Wayne Baker: On this week spanning two years, please welcome back contributing columnist Terry Gallagher. Here is the second part of Terry’s latest series on—Jokes.

You might have heard this one before.

A priest, a minister and a rabbi walk into a bar.

The bartender looks up and says, “What is this, some kind of joke?”

That formula is based on the well-known “rule of three,” the idea that things are more comprehensible and satisfying if they come in groups of three.

Not to mention funnier, too. There’s a reason they weren’t the 4 Stooges. (And before you start objecting—sure, there were more than 3 Stooges, but at any given time they performed as a trio. The Howard brothers learned that from the Marx Brothers. Who even remembers their dud of a brother Zeppo?)

The Rule of Three is as old as Aristotle, and it doesn’t only work for jokes. This season, we remember that Scrooge was visited by three ghosts, Christmas Past, Christmas Present and Christmas Yet to Come.

One of the ways it works in jokes is to have the first two parts follow logically, then to have the third part break the pattern.

Readers who are as old as I am remember Buddy on the Dick van Dyke show, always making fun of Mel’s bald head. “Can I get you anything,” Buddy asked Mel one time. “Coffee? Doughnut? Toupee?”

A joke like that on a classic television show, no harm done. The coffee and the doughnut just let us know the punch line is coming.

But that’s also the pattern of a hurtful joke, the one based on mockery and disdain. When someone wants to tell you the one about the Irishman, the Englishman and the Italian all arriving at St. Peter’s Gate at the same moment, you just know the Italian will be catching hell.

Okay, maybe the Italians can take it.

But what if he was Polish?
Or a blonde woman?
Or black?
Or gay?

When does the joke stop being funny?

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