Print Edition: June 4, 2014
What is an inside joke? Usually inside jokes they’re not actually jokes, but references resulting in a small outbreak of sarcastic remarks and some chuckling among the few who get the punch line.
Here’s an example of what the formation of an inside joke might look like: two friends are walking late at night in a town they haven’t been in before. The first friend pulls out a map to find a nearby hotel when suddenly a gust of air rips the map out of his hands and sends it into the street, where it is trampled by a number of cars and destroyed. The two friends wander the streets to look for a store where they might get a new map. After searching a while and realizing every store is closed for the night, our two protagonists are forced to sleep sitting up against a storefront. The next morning, they are awoken by a grumpy storeowner who scolds them for loitering in front of his establishment and proceeds to walk into his … specialty map store. In the future, the two friends make a point of ensuring the other has a map, or occasionally point out map stores when they see them. To our map-deprived chums, both a map and any establishments in which they are sold, have now become the trigger they associate with that specific moment.
Nobody outside the in-group is going to think falling asleep in front of a map store without a map is very funny. In and of themselves, inside jokes are not so much funny as they are vaguely amusing to people who were there. Only a specific audience will see the meaning in them, but this doesn’t mean they’re deplorable as jokes. They’re not even really jokes — there’s no punch line, no set-up, and no narrative.
They are funny to those who are considered “in the loop,” and are totally valid as a form of entertainment. All this business about “the rest of the group” left in the dark can’t be helped. The rest of the group wasn’t there; they don’t have the prior knowledge needed to appreciate that specific inside joke.
Now, there is a small but significant caveat which can be used to mitigate this “whole group” situation: shut up! (I’m speaking to the inside-joke-teller here.) I don’t want to have a joke explained to me, you don’t want to explain a joke, and none of the people around you want to stand there waiting while you try. The easiest way to avoid both creating an awkward situation and looking like an ass is not to tell the joke in the first place.
Ultimately it’s up to you. But if the reason you are telling this joke is because certain people won’t understand it, what you’re really doing is purposely alienating people in the most smug way imaginable. Don’t do it.