The Inside Joke: When It Works, When It Doesn't

One of my favorite scenes from Stargate: Atlantis occurs in the pilot. Our intrepid (but cautious, as Sheppard would say) interglactic explorers have arrived on Atlantis. They decide to send a reconnaissance team through the wormhole. Rodney McKay begins to dial the gate; he engages the first "chevron" ("number" for a gate address) and announces, "Chevron 1 encoded!"

And everybody looks at him, and he shrugs and quickly punches in the rest of the address.

Now, in order for the joke to make sense, the viewer would have to be familiar with the show SG-1 in which each part (chevron) of the gate address is announced separately as the gate turns. This makes sense since the gate in SG-1 engages relatively slowly and a failure to announce each chevron could lead to an accident. And it also sounds really cool: "Chevron 1 encoded! Chevron 2 encoded!"

But this announcement is completely unnecessary on Atlantis where dialing the gate is, really, all the difference between dial-up and DSL or Roadrunner.

So the joke is implicit. I happen to think it works, however, since McKay is exactly the kind of guy who would like to announce each part of the dial-up process in a dramatic way and, also, because it catches the viewer off-guard. Like McKay, the viewer--presumably a Stargate fan--is familiar with the "old way" of doing things. For the viewer, it is natural for McKay to announce the first chevron since, well, isn't that the way people always dial the gate?

To summarize, I think the joke works for three reasons: it plays on an assumed preconception by the viewer; it underscores character development; and it works naturally into the plot.

Likewise, the constant (and hilarious) banter on Psych comes across as completely natural although I only pick up about a quarter of the references the first time through an episode and only understand about half (some websites have taken to explaining the references for each episode: cliffnotes for cable!).

Despite the obscurity of some of the references, I think they work because they create such believable dialog. These types of allusions are common between two close friends. In fact, if you listen to the commentary, this is exactly the way Roday and the script writers tend to talk. Also, although the banter assumes knowledge on the part of the audience, knowledge is not required to understand the plot. Again, the banter underscores the characters' personalities.

On the other hand, I thought the inside jokes for Ocean's Twelve (not Eleven, which used pop culture references excellently, or Thirteen, which concentrated on other stuff) were pathetic. Julia Roberts getting excited about Julia Roberts did not make me laugh. It actually made me feel rather sad: all these Hollywood actors caught in their tiny bubble of reality. Yes, there are people who get hysterical about Julia Roberts, but the fact is, a large majority of Americans just don't care. And many of those same people do watch movies.

It reminds me of the Ocean's Eleven commentary where Brad Pitt informs the listener that sure, out in the lobby all the fans are screaming about George Clooney and Julia (and me, he didn't say) but behind the scenes, the actors with real weight are folks like Elliott Gould.

Well, yeah, that doesn't surprise me, but his awe made me a bit sad. But then, if you were a movie star, and you were on Oprah every two months, and your face was plastered on magazines at the newsstand every week, I suppose you would start to believe in your own omnipresence.

It doesn't make for a good inside joke though. It becomes important in and of itself rather than a natural component of the plot.

Good inside jokes? Bad inside jokes? If you have 'em, share 'em!


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