Sean Nolan’s Joke Manifesto: Ideals & Systems of Value for Stand Up Comedy

The Edinburgh Fringe starts officially in six – actually in four – days time. Comedians are desperate for attention. I received an e-mail this morning. It read:

Sean Nolan, young Irish comedian

Sean Nolan, young Irish comedian

Hi John, this is Sean Nolan I’m a comedian performing at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe, my show is entitled and informed by THE JOKE MANIFESTO a document I wrote over the past year outlining logical and universally applicable ideals and systems of value for stand up comedy.

I just thought since reviewers and judges of stand up don’t possess or make evident a consistent and transparent criteria for quality, I might propose to you my model as a solution.

Sean is Irish and last year won RTE’s New Comedy Awards (You can see a clip on YouTube.)

Sean’s agent’s website says “his first gig was on January the 27th of 2012 at the age of 23”.

On 8th July this year, Sean posted on his Facebook page:

BBC and all the papers keep going on about how it’s been 77 years since a British man won Wimbledon so I wanted to find out when one would win it again, so I wrote down all the years a British man had won Wimbledon and then changed the years to sequential numbers like the first British player won it in 1877 so that’s number 1 then again in 1878 that’s number 2 and then after 30 straight wins there was a few years gap so 33 and so on anyway Murray ended up being 137, and then I put the sequence into an online sequence calculator to see what the next number in the sequence would be and in what year the next British winner would be, after like a half a second it came up my sequence then a few dots while it calculated what the next number would be, more dots then it just flashed up FALSE!
I can only assume this means there will be no more British champions, sorry GB enjoy this while it lasts.

Sean has posted his Joke Manifesto online. I re-post it in its entirety below, even though there is no mention of knob gags nor of Asperger’s Syndrome, surely two comedy ‘bankers’.


But will he be wearing a beard at the Fringe?

But will Sean have a beard at the Fringe?

1 How to value stand up comedy?

1.1 The function of the stand up comedian is to make the audience laugh.

1.2 But laughter is subjective and conditional and such an inaccurate measure of value.

1.3 Laughter is only the final measure of value and must be considered on an average of performances.

1.4 If laughter is the last measure of value, how to value stand up before it is performed? What is the first measure of value?

2 When the comedian first writes or thinks of an idea, the first measure of value is originality. Is the idea new? (new at the time of writing at least – it is impossible for the comedian to be aware of every joke previously written, although it is ultimately beneficial to strive for this.)

2.1 If Originality is the first measure of value, everything new has value at the moment of writing, and so everything of no value i.e. everything unoriginal, must be removed from the writing – obviously jokes that already exist, which should also include all old hat comedic tricks and mechanics. i.e. the rule of 3, exaggeration, repetition, juxtaposition etc. (It is understood that a comedian has a knowledge of these almost universally repeated mechanisms.)  As such no improvisation should be planned or performed if the comedian can at all help it; in the moment of improvised performance it is impossible to always come up with original ideas.

2.2 Once everything unoriginal has been removed the comedian is left with new ideas, new potential jokes (bearing in mind the end goal of making the audience laugh).

3 So now the question changes from how to value stand up comedy to how to value these new ideas (potential jokes )

3.1 To measure the true value of a joke, all embellishments on the joke (anything that would alter the value of the joke later on) must be removed – i.e. unnecessary language or performative elements.

3.12 Language should remain simple and efficient whenever possible, unless the rhythm or specificity of the joke demands it. The cleverness should be in the idea of the joke not in the words used to describe it. Sometimes the most efficient or immediate way of communicating the idea will not be words at all i.e. drawing or prop.

3.13 Performative elements can only be added if they are specifically relevant to the individual joke.

3.4 If the comedian continues to remove all unnecessary performative elements, ultimately the comedian may disappear from the performance, his/her jokes presented with less and less of the writer present.

4 But they are his/her jokes and as such there is an honesty, an honest pride or at least an honest ownership. The comedian wants to stand in front of his/her jokes and receive the response from the audience. This prevents the comedian from disappearing.

4.1 Unless the comedian is performing jokes they did not write themselves, then there is no honesty of pride or ownership and they should disappear

4.2 Now established that honesty is key, it should come into all aspects of the performance i.e. the comedian should deliver the jokes in an honest way i.e. not with a false enthusiasm or faux conversational style or as if the jokes were somehow coming off the top of his/her head and the performance wasn’t a highly written considered recital. As such the comedian can read his/her jokes off a piece of paper, notebook, hand etc if they choose. The comedian should not be judged on his/her lack of memory.

4.3 With an honest delivery a joke will develop a natural unforced rhythm and cadence, depending on how many times it has been performed, from the nervy first tellings, to the peak of its value when the comedian has organically and perhaps subconsciously figured out the best way to tell it, and finally to the decline and ultimate death of a joke when the comedian has told it too many times and is tired of saying it and this comes across in the delivery. This honesty in the delivery shows the audience the natural lifespan of jokes, the comedian’s feelings towards each one at a given time, and creates a more honest connection with the audience. The comedian is showing each performance can and will be slightly different, not just tricking them into thinking so.

4.4 With the comedian on stage in front of his/her jokes there is now an internal discourse concerning which jokes the comedian is comfortable telling – i.e. potentially offensive, sexual or self deprecating – which would not be present if the jokes were presented with no trail back to their creator. The comedian should not be trying to offend anyone although that can be an acceptable byproduct of a successful joke. In terms of ironically offensive jokes, some members of the audience may not perceive it ironically and get offended or laugh cause they are prejudiced in some way. The comedian cannot be responsible for how his/her jokes are perceived, as long as there is an honest attempt to be funny first.

5 Now the Ideal for stand up comedy is established: the honest delivery of original unembellished ideas or (potential jokes).

5.1 But how to value the individual joke? Again originality is used as the initial measure of value. Ideas that are more original are valued higher i.e. ideas that if given the object (the thing the joke is about) of the joke the least amount of comedic writers (with Twitter, the audience is now a potential comedic writer) would come up with.

5.2 I have created a 3-tiered system of value based on the uniqueness of view needed to write a successful joke (meaning the set up and punchline are as intrinsically linked as they can be i.e. the joke is truly about the object of the joke).

5.3 System of value for jokes

5.3.1 (the lowest tier)  The word based joke. The hinge of the joke is based around the words or name of the object of the joke. i.e. if you were to write a joke about an arm, arm being the object of the joke, the word and sound arm is the first thing that comes to mind. The lowest form of word based joke (again requiring the least thought) is the pun. The word has two meanings. As such you already have the hinge and just have to contrive a way to utilize both. The next level of word based joke is the rhyme (or similar sounding words). A slight increase in thought is needed to get a possible hinge for a joke. The highest level of a word based joke is a rearrangement of letters. Again there is less immediacy and it requires more thought to come up with a possible hinge.

5.3.2 (The middle tier) The sensual joke. After the word the next type of information that would come to the comedic writer would be sensual: what the object looks like, sounds like, feels like etc. (There is an overlap with tier one in terms of what the word looks like i.e. the word shark looks like a shark, onomatopoeia etc.)

5.3.3 (The highest tier) The functional joke, observing and studying how the object works, what it does and how it interacts with other objects, successful jokes created at this level can be aphorisms or truisms. The level of thought needed in order come up with a hinge for a joke is at it’s highest.

That is Sean’s Joke Manifesto and self-evidently (even with the absence of knob gags) how you successfully publicise an Edinburgh Fringe show.


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