The three wishes joke is a form of joke in which the protagonist is given three wishes by a supernatural being, and fails to make the best use of them. Common scenarios include releasing a genie from confinement – perhaps finding an old oil lamp and rubbing it; catching and agreeing to release a mermaid or magical fish; or crossing paths with the devil.
The protagonist of the joke makes their first two wishes and finds that all is well. Often, the third wish is either misinterpreted, or intentionally granted in an awkwardly literal fashion, and cannot be reversed because it is the final wish, resulting in the punchline of the joke. Alternatively, the wishes are split between three people, with the last person inadvertently or intentionally messing up or undoing the wishes of the others with their wish to form the punchline.
An example of the three wishes joke runs as follows:
Three men are stranded on a desert island, when a bottle washes up on the shore. When they uncork the bottle, a genie appears and offers three wishes. The first wishes to be taken to Paris. The genie snaps his fingers, and the man suddenly finds himself standing in front of the Eiffel Tower. The second man wishes that he were in Hollywood, and with a snap of the genie’s fingers, he finds himself on a Tinseltown movie set. The third man, now alone on the island, looks around and says, ‘I wish my friends were back.’
One variation on the theme has the protagonist turning the tables on the genie, who for some contrived reason has placed a condition on the wishes that would result in an opponent of the protagonist also benefiting from the wishes. An example of this joke was used in ‘The Simpsons’ episode, ‘Homer Simpson, This Is Your Wife.’ There, a character tells Marge Simpson a joke in which a genie promises to grant a man whatever he wishes, with the caveat that the man’s wife’s lover gets double whatever the man gets. After first wishing for a house and a car, the man wishes to be beaten “half to death” — which Marge doesn’t understand.
A very early version of the joke is found in an 1875 book of Scottish anecdotes. There, a Scottish highlander is asked what his three wishes would be. He first wishes for a lake full of whisky. His second wish is for a similar quantity of good food. When asked for his third wish, after a moment of indecision, he asks for a second lake full of whisky. Still another variation has the confused protagonist suddenly finding himself in the presence of the genie, who informs him that he has one wish left; he has just used the second wish to completely undo the effect of the first, including his own memory of making it. Undaunted, the protagonist makes his third wish, only to have the genie comment wryly (just before disappearing) that he wished for the same thing the first time.
Yet another variation is the one where the first wishes go wrong and through the last one, the protagonist(s) end up exactly the way they were from the beginning. An example of this is the following, taken from Charles Perrault’s story ‘The Ridiculous Wishes’: A poor starving peasant couple are granted three wishes and the woman, just taking the first thing that comes to her mind, wishes for one sausage, which she receives immediately. Her husband, pointing out that she could have wished for immense wealth or food to last them a lifetime, becomes angry with her for making such a stupid wish and, not thinking, wishes the sausage were stuck on her nose. Sure enough, the sausage is stuck in the middle of her face, and then they have to use the third wish to make it go away, upon which it disappears completely.
The format is not always used for humor. In ‘The Monkey’s Paw,’ a horror short story by author W. W. Jacobs, the paw of a dead monkey is a talisman that grants its possessor three wishes, but the wishes come with an enormous price.