My kid was obsessed with Sesame Street when he was younger. I only say “was” because we have tried in recent years to move him along to more age-appropriate obsessions. If he had his choice, our house would still be “Happy-tapping with Elmo” 24-7. When he was a toddler, we had a bunch of Sesame Street VHS tapes that he literally wore out from watching countless times.
One oft-repeated Elmo’s World episode included a campy cartoon on “The History of the Telephone.” This cartoon features a guy who keeps trying to reach his girlfriend – calling to her by beating on drums, using cans-and-string, and finally connecting by telephone – but in each case, he resorts to screaming out her name: Stella!?!
This joke is just the kind of thing that makes my kid laugh. Show him people doing something unexpected, and he will giggle. Offer him some over-the-top physical slapstick comedy, and he will want to see more. Give him anyone yelling crazily in an exaggerated fashion? That’s gold.
Even so, this joke didn’t seem to stick with my kid the way some other scenes did. Long after those videos were gone, our auditory landscape was still filled with song lyrics and disconnected phrases from those shows repeated by my son at random points throughout the day: “Elmo has a question for, for, for, for…YOU!” … “Look out for the giant cookie!” … “Now THAT was silly!” But the Stella! bit didn’t seem at first to have made a great impact.
Fast forward five years or so. We are at an outdoor “Movie in the Park” night in our neighborhood, sitting on blankets, watching Over the Hedge on a big screen set up at one end of the park’s amphitheatre. Well, my husband and I are watching the movie. My child is barely paying attention, or so I think, half under a blanket, playing with a couple of glow-sticks and cramming movie snacks into his mouth with the speed of someone convinced his mother will at any moment change her mind about allowing all of these treats. He rarely shows interest in a movie he hasn’t already seen 500 times, so this is how we enjoy family movie night – movie for us, snacks and fidgets for him.
But, if you know Over the Hedge, you may anticipate what happens next….
I am thinking that my kid has maybe even fallen asleep because his reaction to the movie up to this point has been zero – but at the instant the cat yells for his new girlfriend [the skunk dressed as a cat], my son bursts out in a spontaneous and uncontrollable fit of giggles. STELLA!!! HaHAHahaha!! I can see the genuine look of shock on his face, and it seems clear to me that his laughter is a gut reaction to hearing that old, familiar joke in this unexpected context.
And there it was – an exaggerated scream from an animated cat, and suddenly we are sharing an inside joke. It was an amazing epiphany for me. [Warning – I’m about to risk ruining a perfectly good laugh by reading too much into that giggle and analyzing its meaning.] I rarely, if ever, get a chance to talk with my child about what he remembers, or what he understands about the things he experiences. Yet, here was proof that my son is listening (and not just to this movie), and that he is capable of holding onto memories, and of connecting past and present in meaningful ways…..
OK, mostly though, it was a beautiful, connected laugh. We laughed together – sharing a memory of that old silly video. I simply live for moments like that.
That wasn’t the end of our Stella! story, either. As comedy writers know, running gags reach their peak effectiveness when they appear at least three times. So, it wasn’t until a few months later that I think Stella! officially gained favored status in our family’s inside joke repertoire.
We were at our local playground, running around on the equipment with about a dozen random strangers from our community. I felt bad for the woman standing next to my son at the swing set who turned to call to her daughter across the playing field. How was she to know that her unfortunate choice of a name for her daughter would send both my kid and me into gales of laughter?
Since then, when someone around here needs a bit of a pick-me-up, a little “STELLA!!” goes a long way.