In an improv show, I once got a laugh from saying “we’ve known each other for eight years.” Like a big laugh.
I know what you’re thinking: that’s not funny. Why would the audience laugh at that? Were they drunk or something.
Well…actually, yeah, they probably were. But that’s beside the point.
It’s because earlier in that set it was established that every time one character said “we’ve known each other for eight years” to another character, he or she then confessed to be madly in love with that character and the two would passionately make out.
Alright, maybe you had to be there. The important thing is, the audience laughed because they were experiencing the magic of something known as a callback. A callback is simply calling back to something earlier. Many times, the reference itself is not that funny. But it takes us back to something funny or memorable, so it becomes funny by association.
It is essentially an inside joke. Your friend Phil makes a comment while watching The Lion King that he finds the female lion kind of attractive (and, I mean, who could blame him, right!), which makes everyone laugh. Later, when a group of mixed company is at the zoo, and one of them remarks, “look, there’s Phil’s girlfriend,” and the people who were present for Phil’s comment laugh, while the others need it explained.
It’s not that it just reminds the people of Phil’s weird remark. It bonds everyone who was there to hear it together. The joke is much funnier when you have to be on the inside to get it because it’s a feeling of belonging that’s mixed in with the funny and amplifying it.
And callbacks work in exactly the same way. It’s an inside joke you’re sharing with the audience.
The Family Guy chicken.
People who know what I am talking about might laugh at the mere mention of that, and people who don’t know what I’m talking about are probably wondering why I’d type a sentence like that. Others who get it might have not laughed at all because it’s too popular or overused (more on that later), or you just don’t find it funny.
But for those who don’t know the reference at all, it’s a recurring joke in the show Family Guy, where every so often in an episode, a giant chicken will show up, and it will have an epic 3-5 minute fight with Peter, the main character. It has nothing to do with the story and the plot of the episode has to actually be put on hold every time it happens. But it functions as something that will make regular watchers feel more on the inside whenever they see it, which makes them enjoy it even more.
TV shows and movies with sequels will sometimes refer to older episodes or movies all the time. People call it “fan service,” but it serves the same purpose.
And catchphrases, are steamed in callbacks. If you laughed at one of these, you’ve definitely fallen victim to the charm of callbacks:
I’ve made a huge mistake.
Hasta La Vista Baby!
How you doing?
Oh my God! They killed Kenny!
If you smell what the Rock is cooking.
Whatcha talkin ‘bout Willis?
Get er done!
Did I do that?
I am serious. And don’t call me Shirley.
How to Use Callbacks
Alright. These things are apparently magic because of the effect they have on an audience. But how do we use them? Can anything be a callback?
There is a big dichotomy that must happen for a callback to actually work: it must be memorable, and it must be forgotten about.
1. It Must be Memorable
If the audience can’t remember the callback it’s not going to do much good. It’s not an inside joke if no one is on the inside but you. If something gets a big laugh, it’s a pretty good sign that it will be remembered.
But believe it or not, it doesn’t have to be funny to be a callback joke. Sometimes groan-reactions can work. In the "Cape Fear" episode of The Simpsons, there was an extended sequence where Sideshow Bob, kept stepping on rakes and hitting himself in the face. The camera pulls back to show he’s walking on a circle of rakes, just constantly hitting himself. It was dumb, it didn’t make any sense, and people hated it.
So did The Simpsons writers try to pretend it never happened? Nope! The opposite! They repeated the rake joke whenever Sideshow Bob was in an episode again. It soon became something that people loved. Maybe even more so because they got it and no one else did.
Reactions are an easy thing to notice on stage because you’re getting laughs (or in some cases lots of groans). But when you are writing, you don’t have that immediate audience reaction telling you if something hits, and if it is therefore remembered. You can remedy this by seeing other people’s reactions to your work. This means getting a friend to look at it. Or if you’re writing something episodic, finding out what stood out to people by looking at comments. Good or bad, you can tell what got a reaction from people, and those are the things you know will probably work as callbacks.
Trusting your own instincts too is powerful. Don’t underestimate that.
2. It Must be Forgotten
The keyword in callback is “back.” You can’t go back home if you never leave it.
I’ll see improv groups do a callback right after they do a joke, and it doesn’t land. They’ll do a hit scene about clown sex. And then they’ll immediately do another clown sex scene to fewer laughs. And then another one to silence. They leave frustrated, wondering why the audience didn’t keep loving it.
You have to be patient with your callbacks. You have to hit that perfect balance of making the audience lose sight of the joke, but be instantly taken back to it when you mention it again.
In the beginning of the movie Airplane!, a passenger enters a taxi. The driver tells him to wait and that he’ll be right back, and he then runs into the airport. However, the driver winds up getting on a plane on not coming back. The movie strategically picks moments where we’ve forgotten all about the passenger to cut back and show him still waiting.
This comes right after the closing credits:
This distance can be tough to judge, but usually the longer you wait, the better. As long as you know the audience will remember it.
So you probably see now how great callbacks are! You want to use them now! You’re like a lion ready to pounce (just watch out for Phil). Before you do, there are a couple risks you should be aware of.
Risk #1: You Might Alienate an Audience
This isn’t really a risk if it’s a stand-alone movie or a show, where the audience is going to be there from beginning to end, but if you’re doing some sort of series or podcast where an audience might jump into the middle of it, you do risk making a joke that’s going to leave some of the audience scratching their heads.
It then becomes imperative that the callback joke is either also funny on its own, or it’s not overly distracting.
Risk #2: You Might Kill the Joke
How do you react if someone says to you in an Austin Powers voice “Yahhhh Baby!” It depends. You might like it. You might have never seen the movie. Or you might hate it because it’s way too played out.
This is what happens if an inside joke becomes so popular that it’s no longer on the inside.
South Park stopped regularly doing the “Oh my God, you killed Kenny” bit, partly because they got tired of doing it, but partly because it became so popular. The expression was being said by people everywhere—even people who hadn’t seen the show, and it was on TV shirts and being referenced on other shows. The sad destiny of all popular catchphrases.
It’s also why repeating an inside joke too much can lead to its funeral. Sometimes I’ll see an improv class have patience with a joke, but they still use it too many damn times, and it just sucks all the fun out of it.
So this again requires patience.
But if you have this kind of patience, callbacks can be one of the best tools you have in comedy. Every time you hit that callback, you are building a little community within your audience. You are making them feel like they’re part of the joke too and like they belong too.
Create that special bond with the audience, and make them feel like they’ve known you for eight years.
Check out the LOL Formula for more tips on creating comedy.