This past Sunday night, my housemate Rachel and I stayed up late watching a quaint made-for-TV mystery movie series instead of completing the various readings we each had to do. We were so deep in procrastination, it seemed, that we were actively doing something we really didn’t want to do instead. The heroine’s name was Aurora Teagarden, if that gives any indication. (There is no word that can aptly describe the experience of watching a Hallmark Movies and Mysteries “Aurora Teagarden” adaptation at midnight—no word that can encompass the experience of watching a spunky, blonde librarian somehow outsmart the entire police force of her town, solve murders where the body is never actually shown, and interact with her sorta-boyfriend as though she were not, in fact, a grown thirty-something woman, but instead a middleschooler with a crush. All set to a bizarrely inappropriate light-hearted soundtrack. Yet we watched on.)
We were on the second Aurora Teagarden mystery when what I can only call delirium set in. Some background is necessary, though; during the snow day the previous Tuesday, the same friend and I had spent the day off having an extended movie night. I chose my favorite ridiculous high school-summer blockbuster (Pacific Rim), our other friend chose the bizarre 2008 Wachowski siblings’ Speed Racer, and Rachel chose Fifty Shades Darker. (The fact that it was the clean cut of the last one only added to the experience, as did the fact that the stream had obviously been filmed in a movie theater and people in the audience kept standing up and blocking the screen.)
But the delirium. The movies were all fresh in our minds, which may explain it, as may madness brought on by over-exposure to Ms. Teagarden’s twee charms, or simply being over-tired, but somehow we ended up spending the next two hours photoshopping lines of poetry over screenshots of Speed Racer and Fifty Shades via a “Meme Generator” and laughing until we couldn’t breathe. The results are, objectively, not funny to anyone but the two of us. Examples follow:
It wasn’t until I had begun to edit Byron over a screencap of Charlie Day’s character mind-melding with a giant alien in Pacific Rim, and Rachel continued our Ginsberg trend but now over the plucky Aurora Teagarden, that she stopped, looked at me, and said “This is would be totally incomprehensible to anyone but us. It’s like a secret spy code.” I’d spent most of my childhood wanting to be a spy, and now I was finally getting my wish granted through lines of verse and Jamie Dornan’s brooding looks into the distance. It was poetic.
But the code part is not the part that struck me; it was what she said about our bad edits being incomprehensible to literally anyone else. She was right. They were incredibly niche; absurd. Not only was it necessary to have seen the movies, but it was also necessary to have seen them enough to associate feelings with the certain scenes that could then be summarized in lines of famous poetry. (And recognition of the poetry itself was also required for the full experience.) In short, it was a standard “inside joke” experience.
It got me thinking about humor on the larger scale, particularly the kind we’ve been discussing in class lately. When we read the Sedaris essays, we talked a lot about relatability and the need to have some sort of emotional understanding of the situation in order to find it truly funny. The same could be said for Don’t Make a Black Woman Take Off Her Earrings; at times “Madea” commented on how you needed be black to fully understand what she was talking about (and if you weren’t, to go ask one of your black friends). I don’t presume to inflate a mutual fascination with a movie to the scale of actual life experiences, of course, but there is the same underlying idea throughout: you must have a basic understanding, if not a basic relationship, with the stuff that makes up the humor.
I think the same could be said for a lot of the humor in Eat, Pray, Love as well. As a sophomore in college, I haven’t gone through nearly as much as Gilbert has. I haven’t been married for eight years and subsequently gone through a bitter divorce, been a published author, been outside the country, or lived in New York City. I’m also nineteen as opposed to her mid-thirties status in the memoir. There are some aspects of Eat, Pray, Love, I feel, that require this shared understanding in order to be funny. For example—I couldn’t fully grasp the homesickness that Gilbert discussed in regard to NYC while she was abroad, nor her helplessness and ennui when she felt trapped in her marriage and the expectations for her to have a baby. Gilbert discussed, and ultimately joked, about both, and they both seemed like occasions in which an experience of the situation (or a similar one) was necessary to fully understand. However—on the other hand, so much of what Gilbert talked about was universally relatable. While what is most likely a very small portion of us have traveled to India to find a solution for it, nearly everyone has struggled with finding peace with themselves. Nearly everyone has struggled with loneliness, or depression, or heartbreak; nearly everyone has struggled with the nature, or existence, of a higher power. It’s the emotional experiences Gilbert describes with a humorous tone, not necessarily the physical ones, which can make the book relatable. It’s a shared understanding.
So it is like an inside joke, in that sense. Things can, of course, still be funny even if you don’t necessarily understand or relate to every single aspect behind it. I’ve never meditated or been to the Ashram, but Gilbert’s humorous description of her struggle with this experience still made me laugh occasionally; I’m not black, but I still thought that Don’t Make A Black Woman Take Off Her Earrings was funny; likewise, you don’t have to watch Speed Racer to realize that there’s something inherently absurd in applying works of literary merit to it. You can still recognize the humor in something even if it doesn’t directly appeal to some physical or emotional experience you’ve had, or an aspect of your identity—but it certainly adds to the experience of the humor if you do.