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In Norwegian, we have a standard template of children's jokes called "Svensken, dansken og nordmannen" ("The Swede, the Dane and the Norwegian"). The template is as follows:

  1. A setup of the situation including three people
  2. The three people have a go at something, one at a time
  3. The outcome for the first two follow a similar pattern
  4. The outcome for the last one subverts this pattern in some way

As an example, consider the following horrible translation of a classic:

A Swede, a Dane and a Norwegian stand outside a barn with a pig inside. The Swede goes in, but the pig farts and the Swede can't handle the smell, so he runs out. The Dane goes in, but the pig farts and the Dane can't handle the smell, so he runs out. Then the Norwegian goes in, and he farts so bad that the pig can't handle the smell, and the pig runs out.

Is this a type of joke that is told by children in the English-speaking part of the world? And if so, who are the people usually involved?

I realize that this might be geographically and culturally specific, and I am mostly interested in answers that are relevant for American English and the USA. But information from other parts of the world would also be interesting.

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    The English practically invented this joke format! Here are any number of written instances of an Englishman a Scotsman and an Irishman [walked into a pub...] - almost all of which will be jokes poking fun at the Irishman in the punchline. Or an Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman... to poke fun at the Scotsman. The last one mentioned (rarely the Englishman) is nearly always the "target". Commented May 25, 2023 at 12:58
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    The "rule of three" is well-known in storytelling and jokes in English!
    – stangdon
    Commented May 25, 2023 at 13:03
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    @FumbleFingers Part of learning a language is learning standard joke formats. Questions about the traditional format of "Knock-knock" jokes or even "Yo mama" jokes would be on topic here. Whether they're offensive or not only affects whether parts of the question need to be redacted.
    – gotube
    Commented May 25, 2023 at 16:27
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    @gotube: There are 4 potential nationalities in the British version (English, Scottish, Irish, Welsh), and I've no doubt even though OP didn't mention Finns, Scandinavians will perm any 3 from their 4 (Finn, Swede, Norwegian, Dane) for theirs (because of "the rule of 3" you'd almost never hear a joke involving all 4). But that's down to our national circumstances. There's no equivalent in American English, because Americans don't have an obvious single set of 4 (or even 3) clearly identified, easily stereotyped subgroups. It's a matter of culture / geography / history, not language. Commented May 25, 2023 at 17:36
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    In Italy, we typically use “An Italian, a French and a German/Swiss/English…” Commented May 25, 2023 at 21:44

3 Answers 3

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The "three people" format is alive and well here in the US. In my experience, the three are typically defined as/by:

  • religious figures ("a priest, a rabbi, and an imam walk into a bar")
  • professions ("a physicist, a mathematician, and an engineer")
  • racial/ethnic stereotypes ("a white guy, a Black guy, and a Mexican") - note that AmE very strongly implies that the Mexican is also a guy here
  • hair color ("a blonde, a brunette, and a redhead") - note that referring to someone by their hair color alone ("a blonde") universally refers to a woman (vs. using "a blond man")
  • state of residence ("a Minnesotan, an Iowan, and a Wisconsinite")

It's not unheard of for the setup to use countries of origin, with Poland (IME) usually being the butt of the joke, but those are (again, IME) much less common than the other setups.

It is worth noting that these jokes do seem to be falling out of favor, especially the ones that rely heavily on stereotypes (the example in Peter Jennings' answer about a physicist, mathematician, and engineer measuring the height of a building would be fine in any circle I can think of). They can come off quite well, but they're more than a bit risky. It's probably safer to avoid such jokes, but flipping the script and having the presumed butt succeed because of their stereotype (possibly by intentionally playing it up) is often a good option.

Peter Jennings' answer's joke, in case it gets deleted/lost:

A physicist, a mathematician and an engineer were were each given a theodolite and told to measure the height of Senate House (for many years the tallest building in London, belonging to the University). The Mathematician, knowing his trigonometry, sets up the theodolite, triangulates the building and calculates the height. The Physicist, not being quite so good at maths, swings the theodolite as a pendulum from the top and calculates the height from the time period. The engineer goes down to the Public Records Office and looks up the height, pawns the theodolite and buys drinks for all of them with the proceeds.

It's also not terribly uncommon to mix groups: Peter Jennings' joke could be re-done as "a physicist, a mathematician, and a blonde", with the blonde (who are stereotyped as being some combination of ditzy, air-heads, and dumb; Legally Blonde plays with this pretty well IMO) having the clever idea to go look up the height.

Source: I was born and have lived wholly in the US, mostly in Minnesota.

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    This is basically what I was looking for. I have realized that I was a bit unclear in my question, but I meant in particular a recurring trio where their defining characteristics don't really play into the joke (the mathematician, physicist and engineer measuring the height of a building, their defining traits are actually relevant to the task and how they approach it), and it didn't have to be about where they came from.
    – Arthur
    Commented May 26, 2023 at 14:11
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    Even in our Norwegian jokes, Swedes are traditionally the "stupid" ones (and in Sweden, it's us Norwegians who carry that burden), but not in these particular trio jokes, so they don't really play into classic joke stereotypes that way. Or at least they don't have to. To me, it just seems like a recurring trio with assigned roles, but without playing too much into external stereotypes.
    – Arthur
    Commented May 26, 2023 at 14:16
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    There are also jokes where it's just "the first guy, the second guy, the third guy." But there, often "the third guy" is the clever one.
    – Tim Grant
    Commented May 26, 2023 at 14:38
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    The version of that joke that I heard, it was Richard Feynmann who came up with all the solutions for measuring the height of the building, from dropping the measurement instrument (a barometer, in this version) off the roof and measuring how long it takes to fall, to trading the instrument to the building superintendent for the information. (The idea being he was asked the question as some kind of school test and preferred to subvert expectations rather than give the expected answer).
    – The Photon
    Commented May 26, 2023 at 15:15
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    @CarySwoveland A similar joke (spherical cow) shows physicists are not averse to simplificatons
    – Jimmy
    Commented May 26, 2023 at 18:24
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Yes there are many such jokes in UK English and I'm sure our American cousins share the setup. Many of them start "Three men go into a bar ..." In the UK it might also start "a Scotsman, a Welshman and an Englishman ..." followed by some similar story how each responds to a particular situation.
It can also be used to poke fun at particular professions, for example

A physicist, a mathematician and an engineer were were each given a theodolite and told to measure the height of Senate House (for many years the tallest building in London, belonging to the University). The Mathematician, knowing [their] trigonometry, sets up the theodolite, triangulates the building and calculates the height. The Physicist, not being quite so good at maths, swings the theodolite as a pendulum from the top and calculates the height from the time period. The engineer goes down to the Public Records Office and looks up the height, pawns the theodolite and buys drinks for all of them with the proceeds.

I could quote many more, but they are a common form of humour. You just have to be careful because some of the older ones contained stereotypes which make them unacceptable today. For example "A priest, a rabbi and an imman ..."

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    My favourite is the three statisticians that go duck-hunting for the first time. The first misses the duck by ten metres to the left. The second misses the duck by ten metres to the right. The third shouts "I got him!"
    – Richard
    Commented May 25, 2023 at 21:43
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    In American English, at least in my local culture, I think it's most common to tell this joke format with professions rather than nationalities, because we just don't have anything directly comparable. (I suspect there are places where people tell this joke format using stereotypes about the way we divide "races" here, e.g. Black/Hispanic/Asian/White. But I don't think I've ever heard such a thing and you'd definitely never tell one in polite company.) Commented May 25, 2023 at 21:52
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    Using three religious leaders is popular, and I don't think it's beyond the bounds of politeness as long as the stereotypes used in the joke aren't otherwise horribly offensive. Personally my favorites are "a physicist, a mathematician, and an engineer", which is a popular trio when nerds or academics are telling them. Commented May 25, 2023 at 21:54
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    A priest, a rabbi and an imam walk into a bar. The bartender asks: "Is this some kind of a joke?"
    – Mark
    Commented May 25, 2023 at 22:51
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    A priest, a rabbit, and an imam walk into a bar. The barman says "I think that's a typo".
    – OrangeDog
    Commented May 26, 2023 at 12:29
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In the UK,

  • It's typically Englishman, Scotsman, Irishman

  • To a lesser extent, Welshman may be one of the three

  • In the UK, it's common that any of the three involved may be the "last man" point of the joke, there isn't sort of a standard "last man" as you imply is the case in the Scandinavian trio.

In the USA,

  • There's really no such trio of nationalities and no such "trio of nationalities joke format".

As others have explained, tyhere are any number of other "trio" formats (eg, three religious figures).

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    Your final (4th) bullet points is wrong. We do have trio of nationalities jokes in the US. We just tell them about dozens of different nationalities: An Englishman, a German and an Italian; An American, a Canadian, and a Mexican; An American, a Chinese, and a Japanese; ... The possibilities are endless.
    – The Photon
    Commented May 26, 2023 at 15:19
  • @ThePhoton that's a great point. In the US, "any world countries" are used depending on the nature of the joke. My mind was on the idea that OP's example is really about "three specific" countries (fitting in nicely with Scandinavia).
    – Fattie
    Commented May 26, 2023 at 16:35
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    I haven't heard one based on nationality in years because we're very sensitive to that now, but when I was a kid they were very common.
    – The Photon
    Commented May 26, 2023 at 16:44
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    My favourite (note Canadian spelling...): A Russian , an American, and a Canadian are arguing about Communications systems they invented. The Russian points out that if you dig 100 ft below ground in Russia, you'll find Copper, which indicates that they had copper wire telephony a hundred years ago. The american says that if you dig down 200 ft in the States, you'll find Silica, which means they had fibre optic cables 200 years ago. The Canadian boasts that if you dig down 300 ft in Canada, you'll find nothing, which means we invented Wireless Networking !!!
    – erict
    Commented May 27, 2023 at 20:59
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    Trio of nationalities is well known. Less known, but funnier uses four. "In heaven you have a German car, a French cook, an Italian lover, and an English butler. In hell you have a French car, a German lover, an Italian butler, and an English cook." Stereotypes of course, but shows each in as much positive as negative light... Commented May 28, 2023 at 3:47

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