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Callbacks in Stand-Up Comedy

Callbacks are a type of “device” that is, in fact, known to performers; the term is not introduced theoretically from an outsider’s point of view. Now the term may also be a cover term that refers to different types of techniques, and some of the implications of the use of such (a) technique(s) need to be delved into.

What Are “Callbacks ”?

As was just said, callbacks may constitute one device or perhaps a family of devices. A number of websites and books written for would-be or professional comedians openly mention callbacks as being one of the ways in which a heterogeneous routine can be made to function as a whole:

A callback is a reference a comedian makes to an earlier joke in a set. Callbacks are usually made in a different context and remind the audience of an earlier joke, creating multiple layers and building more than one laugh from a single joke. When used at the end of a set, callbacks can bring a comic’s routine full circle and give closure to the set. Also Known As: call back Callbacks, Glossary of Comedy by Patrick Bromley, Comedians Expert, About: Entertainment,

Callback — A punchline that refers, or “calls back,” to a joke or premise from earlier in the performance [...]. One of the most reliable comedy tricks, a callback can elevate a marginal joke to legendary. “And then he closed strong by tying it all together with a callback to his opening joke about lupus."

Callbacks. A callback is when you call back, or mention again, something you brought up earlier in the act. (Carter 2001)

Call Back. An invaluable trick of the comedian’s trade is the “callback.” Imagine a guest coming out later in Conan O’Brien’s show wearing Google Glass; the host could get big laughs by miming a punch. The writer’s version of a callback is a glancing reference to a detail, metaphor or phrasing from earlier in the piece. The device flatters readers and adds to the continuity of the work, so give it a try. Please. things-writers-can-learn-from-stand-up-comedians/#.VVjZemtnBo

The call back. A callback is a reference to something said earlier in a routine or sketch. The reference is usually a previous joke, but stand-up comics often use callbacks after interacting with the audience -an audience member’s name will be inserted into a later joke. For a callback to work, the time between the original reference and the callback must be relatively brief. Repeated callbacks can be used (but never more than three times, of course11). (Helitzer and Shatz 2005: 247) [1]

Reincorporation. A routine - also known in the U.S. as callbacks12- in which a comedian does a couple of gags about a certain subject, then moves on to another subject, and then goes back to the initial subject intermittently. (Ritchie 2012: 12)

The authors of those practical guidelines say that callbacks create continuity. They also often emphasize another function -they are supposed to produce laughter because they build a connection with the audience (our bold characters):

Audiences like callbacks because repeated references cause them to feel as if they are part of a shared experience. (Helitzer and Shatz 2005 : 247)

This gives the routine cohesion and involves the audience, who have to work out what the comedian is on about. (Ritchie 2012: 12)

It is a clever and inclusive strategy which makes the audience feel more involved in the show because they have to work it out. (Ritchie 2012: 121)

A slightly different explanation is mentioned in the following quotation, as it is assumed that callbacks create a bond with the audience because they are thought to

be clever:

The laughter [.] comes from [.] the fact that the audience are kept on their toes, realising and appreciating the cleverness of the set structure and the fact that the comedian has kept the joke going over a prolonged period of time. (Ritchie 2012: 121)

Despite the heterogeneous nature of shows, many practitioners do try to build in some sort of structure. One of the ways they try to do that consciously is to use the callback technique, which is supposed to be a good, or refined way of structuring a show.

  • [1] The author’s are probably thinking of the “rule of three” (three is linked to good rhythm) oftendiscussed by comedians. This will not be developed here.
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