Governor Rick Perry And The Rule Of Three

Someone glibly said they were “having a Rick Perry moment” when they started to list three things and couldn’t remember the last one.  Who was it? Len Lipner? Mike Cohen? …Someone else I can’t remember?

Well, you get the idea.  My friend Jason, a copywriter who’s never done stand-up comedy in his life, constantly repeats that the key to good comedy is the “Rule Of Three”:  Things occur in threes – even in marketing copy.  You see it all the time – and if I were going to prove it right now, I’d rattle off three things to back myself up and not appear to be making a blanket statement – and also because two is unimpressive.  I mean, it’s only two!  Since Jason’s also a copywriter, it’s really no surprise that he sees this Rule Of Three showing up everywhere like it’s some kind of Masonic symbol.

Governor Rick Perry tried to follow the Rule Of Three during the Republican presidential debate when he said he would eliminate three departments if elected – and famously forgot his third one.  I feel like we’ve all been having Rick Perry Moments forever.  Either we forget our Third Thing, or we leave space for a Third Thing that never quite comes to us in time, leaving us to lamely trail off with a “and…yeah.”. But now this moment belongs to him.

I want to tell Jason that he’s wrong! There’s way more to comedy than a set of rules.  I learned it through trial and error.  If that was all there was to comedy, then computers could auto-generate stand-up routines, and make us laugh in other genuinely funny and enjoyable ways.  Let’s see if I can write a post without the magic of threes.  Well, one thing I can’t do is make unfounded, wild, [modifier deleted] statements that require proof!

Imagine if I wrote a computer program that went through and deleted all third items from a speech or a piece of text.  Would it be less inspiring? Would it seem less erudite? [Third question deleted].

But there is a chance that he’s right, and we’re all too preconditioned to notice it.  We are unwitting slaves to conventions.  Conventions of language we can easiliy call out as “jargon”.  Conventions of style we can recognize as “industry talk”, or make fun of as “business-speak”.

But (and this, I realize, is a third thing), conventions of rhythm and pattern are harder to recognize.  I’m sure that we can find threes in all the great speeches – from “Ask Not” and “I Have A Dream” to “Morning In America” and “Yes We Can”.  

Not to mention “Of, By, And For The People” and “All Of The People All Of The Time”. Yep, looks like Lincoln was big into threes, too.  But I think (though I haven’t researched this) that he was just riffing off of The Constitution.

Or The Declaration Of Independence.

Or something.


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