“A _____, a ______, and a _______ walk into a bar . . .”
We know this joke format. Three characters face some common circumstance and deal with it differently.
The first two characters—let’s call them A and B—will establish some pattern that sets up an expectation of what happens to the third character, C.
- A does something.
- B does something like it but a little different.
- C does something even more different. The success of the punch line rests on whether or not what happens to C feels surprising.
A and B are basically two versions of the same thing, which highlights the contrast of C, the character whose story ignites the laugh.
It's interesting to note the importance of B, squished in the middle and therefore likely to be the hardest to remember. B’s storyline varies from A’s but in a way that suggests a similarity between A and B and establishes a trajectory that sets our expectations for C. The trajectory is the crucial bit of misdirection on which the punch line relies.
This is yet another illustration of how variation, in this case B, draws us away from what came before it but in a way that serves to deepen our understanding of the original, A.
Thank you for reading.