The Comedy Rule of Three is a structure for setting up a punchline: you give two straight lines to establish your meaning is going in one direction, and then the third line is a joke or ironic twist going in another. There’s a musicality and rhythm in listing three that always works better than two or four. For example, when renting a video game I’ve approached the person at the desk with, “My kid loves video games based on movies. Where’s your section on movie-based video games like Ironman, Transformers, or When Harry Met Sally?”
I enjoy keeping a straight face while suggesting terrible video and board games that nobody would ever want to play, so you can imagine my excitement when I found a Nintendo NES version of The Great Gatsby:
Gatsby may not seem an obvious candidate for video game enshrinement, but it’s my favorite book, and if there were a system for judging ironic video games, I’d award this one four gold hats.
It’s the subtle strokes that a true Gatsby fan will find clever, like when you meet the character called Owl Eyes, so named for his ‘enormous owl-eyed spectacles’. He’s not a central character in the book and only wins mention in three short scenes:
- During Nick’s first Gatsby party when he and Jordan search for Gatsby and pop into the library, finding Owl Eyes staring at the books in amazement because he’d expected them to be fake. He turns to face them, stating, “Absolutely real – have pages and everything.”
- The same night, Owl Eyes is the passenger in a minor car accident in front of Gatsby’s house; thereby blocking guests trying to leave the party.
- He attends Gatsby’s funeral, owning the distinction as the only former party guest to attend, and only the fourth to attend after Nick, Gatsby’s father, and the minister.
Owl Eyes seems a fool at the party, barely standing out from the procession of eccentric guests, and when he arrives at the funeral the reader would be unlikely to remember him if he had been given a real name instead of the visual tag connected to his glasses. But he elicits our sympathy by taking the pulse of the sparsely-attended funeral with his inexpensive observation:
“Why, my God! they used to go there by the hundreds.’
He took off his glasses and wiped them again, outside and in.
“The poor son-of-a-bitch,” he said.
In the Gatsby game you meet Owl Eyes and his dialogue box reads, “IT’S A BONA-FIDE PIECE OF PRINTED MATTER. IT FOOLED ME. THIS FELLA’S A REGULAR BELASCO. IT’S A TRIUMPH. WHAT THOROUGHNESS! WHAT REALISM! KNEW WHEN TO STOP, TOO—DIDN’T CUT THE PAGES. BUT WHAT DO YOU WANT? WHAT DO YOU EXPECT?”
This long excerpt from the book serves no real purpose in advancing the plot of the game…and that’s why it wins my admiration.
One background object I’d hoped but failed to find was Klipspringer’s shoes. Klipspringer was Gatsby’s Kato Kaelin, a professional houseguest. Living at Gatsby’s mansion, the only thing Gatsby ever asked of him was to play the piano and sing after he had shown Daisy the house and they retired to sit solemnly side-by-side in the dark of the music-room. Klipspringer stopped and started the music repeatedly, complaining of how he was out of practice, unintentionally doing everything to spoil the romantic mood, obtusely missing every indication that Gatsby only required a little atmospheric noise to break the awkward silence until Gatsby tells him:
“Don’t talk so much Old Sport.”
The only other Klipspringer reference is when he calls Nick the night before Gatsby’s funeral and instead of agreeing to come, he asks if anyone has seen the tennis shoes he’d left at Gatsby’s, and whether someone could send them over to the new house he was staying at. I like to pretend the shoes were significant and reference it in conversation when I meet someone who’s read Gatsby and we inevitably discuss the frequently dissected symbols:
- The green light at the end of Daisy’s dock.
- The oculist advertisement featuring the giant eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg.
- And then I employ the Comedy Rule of Three and seamlessly transition to a straight-faced thesis on Klipspringer’s shoes, as though they were a frequent topic of discussion among scholars, the symbolic equivalent of Citizen Kane’s snow sled, Rosebud. I build my case with a rapid-fire string of foot metaphors, a fictional account of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s boyhood apprenticeship in a shoe sweatshop, a peppering of out-of-context quotes, and conclude with a bold declaration that the entire heart of the book lies in the mystery of Klipspringer’s Shoes, and only when we ascertain how they disappear will we discover Fitzgerald’s true meaning.
Not once did I get a laugh. Not even a smile. Each listener nodded his head like it was a serious viewpoint, leading me to consider one of the following:
- The Comedy Rule of Threes is not as infallible as claimed by its ancient creator, Bartholomew, aka the Funny Apostle, and lending more credibility to Pope Clement VIII’s decision to excise Bartholew’s contribution from the Bible: The Book of Bartholomew: Revelations…in hilarity!
- This is mildly funny, but the listener worries even a small laugh would encourage me to keep going.
- This is not funny at all, so I should stop saying it.
- It is funny, but I need better friends.
Check back tomorrow for Part 2!
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