The inside joke is like a circle: it includes and excludes. Thus, with regards to a circle of friends, it establishes a boundary: those who ‘get’ the inside joke, and those that don’t. The more defined this boundary is, that is to say, the more high-context the joke is, the stronger the bond is between the friends who are privy to it. This can even be seen within a single group of friends. Imagine circle of seven friends. They have many inside jokes that are understood by all seven of them. But if another bond should begin to grow between only three of these seven friends, they will begin, in time, to have their own higher-context inside jokes between themselves, thus establishing a triangle-shaped boundary within this circle of friends. One may wonder: “Can the smooth boundary of the circle withstand the sharp corners of the triangle?” – but that’s another topic…
Now, the sign of a good, strong bond is the constant generation of inside jokes. Like a healthy head of hair, when the life of an inside joke has run its course, the friends understand this instinctively and freely let it fall quite naturally. Montaigne writes in his essay ‘On Friendship’: “Friendship…is enjoyed to the extent that it’s desired; it isn’t fostered, isn’t nourished, doesn’t grow except in the enjoyment of it, since it’s of the mind and the mind is refined by constant use.” The inside joke shows to what extent a friendship is enjoyed and, therefore, how strong it is. And since the inside joke is of the mind and the mind is refined by constant use, so friendship is enjoyed and the bond is strengthened by constant generation of inside jokes.
Think of all of the acquaintances in your life: the people you work with that you make small talk with on the elevator or in the hallway, the lover of one of your true friends, a roommate who is nothing more than that, etc. I doubt that you share many inside jokes with these people – nowhere near the amount you share with your true friends, at least. At most, there are a few weak inside jokes that are used as a social lubrication when you have to interact for too long: merely tools to dampen deafening awkward silences – you don’t actively come up with new inside jokes and strengthen your acquaintanceship. Compare this to even a text strand between true friends: inside jokes come and go like pop songs in America, always something new.
The fact that inside jokes in a strong friendship are constantly being generated does not necessarily mean that they all have a short life span, but it is important to know when their life is over. Think of the healthy head of hair: a hair must vacate the follicle in order to allow the new one to grow – shedding is healthy and natural. An inside joke that has run its course but is kept alive drains the circle of friends: it becomes mere repetition; the mind is not refined by constant use; the inside jokes suffer as well as the quality of the friendship because the enjoyment of generation has been hindered and the friendship loses strength. The dead weight must go, be it the inside joke or the friend carrying its disease-ridden corpse along with him.
The question now poses itself: why would a friend behave like this? For the sake of simplicity, I will offer only two suggestions as to why (there are more, but they move into a more speculative, psychological realm): conscious or unconscious sabotage. A similar thing happens with the intentional killing of an inside joke through overuse, but this sabotage is a particularly sadistic practice as it turns the love and creation of the circle of friends back on itself and uses it as a weapon. The circle of friends loses strength like a man under a pile of beautiful women all trying to have sex with him at the same time.
Another tendency I’ve noticed that goes along with the saboteur described above is perhaps more forgivable. This is when the saboteur broadcasts the inside jokes to the public. This is a lesser offence because the motive is most likely to simply display his friendship bond to the world. This can be risky however. An inside joke has mystery, allure. Eventually the broadcasting saboteur may be asked to, or worse, feel compelled to explain the inside joke. This could be the beginning of the end for the circle of friends. For the revealing of the mysteries of an inside joke acts as an initiation into the circle of friends. The weaker the boundary is that was established by the inside joke, the more people are included; the more people that are included, the weaker the original bond. This is basically why it is generally inadvisable to have threesomes in romantic relationships (a more intense bond different from friendship, but still an illustrative analogy). Now, if the broadcasting saboteur has good judgement, this needn’t be much of a problem, but if he hasn’t, he may reveal the mysteries to people deemed unworthy by the other members of the group, thus earning their ire and possibly being removed from the circle entirely after too many repeated offences.
Friends, cherish your inside jokes and maintain their mystery. If you are blessed enough to have true friends, bask in the flow of the constant generation of inside jokes, but meddle with their life cycle at your peril: don’t try to shove a shed hair back into the follicle.