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Lesson 17: Rule Of Three, Callbacks & Anachronisms

Updated: Dec 3, 2021

Twenty five is a nice neat number isn’t it? It’d be a shame if it were ‘27’ lessons – hence me combining these three topics. I think I can justify the combination though as the first two, rule-of-three and callbacks are the two most common technical phrases comedians use. And, er, the third one ‘anachronisms’ makes it three topics in the blog, so it is in itself manifesting rule-of-three. Right, that increasingly weak justification out of the way, here we go…

Rule-of-three manifests in many areas. In the political speech it is seen in phrases like 'education, education, education.' In comedy we often find jokes in batches of three, the first introducing the comic idea, the second developing it, and the third taking it to an extreme.

The classic rule-of-three is defined by Tony Allen in his influential book Attitude as: ‘establish, reinforce, surprise.’ The first two establish a pattern which the third subverts. I always describe this kind of rule-of-three gag as, “Monday, Tuesday, Banana”. The first two, which create the expectation, are the set-up and the third is the payoff. The reason it's three is that two is the minimum you need to establish a pattern that the third can then disrupt—“Monday, banana” doesn’t work. And comedy is always economical and you simply don’t need “Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Banana.”

When I give this example in my stand-up class there is usually a little chuckle on ‘banana’. Feeling that ‘banana’ is a bit of an obvious comic word, I changed it one day to “Monday, Tuesday, Norway.” While it still made the point it no longer got a laugh of any kind. I persisted with it for a couple more times at which point I reverted to ‘banana’. And this got a little chuckle again! This trivial example shows the importance of word choice. I wonder how “Monday, Tuesday, Trousers” would work? ‘Trousers’ is an amusing word but lacks punch. “Monday, Tuesday, knickers”? It’s widely believed the ‘k’ sound if funny so perhaps that could work?

There are thousands of examples of rule-of-three, but this one comes to mind. In Bill Bailey’s take on the Christmas story he anachronistically has Mary and Joseph staying in a Biblical inn with all the mod cons of modern day hotel. At the end, Bailey describes the nativity scene as involving a “mini bar, trouser press, baby Jesus in a bidet.” Rule-of-three. This kind of comic anachronism where modern day details, information or attitudes are introduced into historical settings is a staple of comedy set in history – for example in Eddie Izzard’s routine about Stone Henge: “I wish the Roman’s would hurry up and get here, we need some straight roads”.

Now for callbacks. Handily there’s one in this very routine that will serve as an example. Bill Bailey has Mary and Joseph get to the inn really fast as their donkey had been snorting cocaine. Thus, they get a room and the whole story is changed. Later on, when giving directions around his establishment, the hotelier says: “Go past the donkey with the nose bleed”.

The reference to the nose bleeding donkey is indeed a call-back, a very well-known comic device where the stand-up unexpectedly brings back something from earlier in the set. (But you probably knew that already). Often used as an ending (as we will discuss at the end of this e-book appropriately), it is a simple and reliable laugh. All comedians will do it once in a while, and in his stand-up Harry Hill does it all the time. His whole set is typically a brilliantly structured web of call-backs.

It’s always good to be able to find call-backs in your own set. Keep alert to anything you’ve referred to previously that can bring back in a new context. In a club gig, you can even call back to things other comics have said and things that have happened in the room earlier in the night. And I assume that dealers selling cocaine in first century Palestine is also an anachronism. At any rate I don’t remember this detail from Sunday school.


The rule-of-three homework is simple to follow up on. Watch out for whenever you have a list in your material. In my experience new comics will quite often put an unfunny, straight forward list into their routine. If you find you’ve done that, make it three in length with the third one a curve ball.

As for callbacks, when you have put a set together, see if you can bring back in a new context. For example, if you talked about your expensive new socks near the start, and at the end you are talking about wanting a pay rise, you could reveal you need the money to feed your sock habit.

The anachronism one is more substantial. Take a historical period you’d like to talk about and bring in modern day details, information or attitudes. Part of the funniness might be that you believe what you’re saying is accurate. Or as with Bill Bailey’s Christmas story it might be a ‘what if’. The whole piece began with the idea of donkeys giving holiday makers rides on Blackpool beach whilst coked up to make them more fun and faster. He then imagines the such a donkey was in the Christmas story.

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