Why are "callbacks" funny?

I’ve been re-watching the wonderful Arrested Development series. That show used a lot of interesting comic techniques, and one of the most prevalent was the callback. That is, referencing the same joke multiple times after it first appears. Too many in that show to begin listing them.

But here’s an easier example from Back to the Future, which was pretty much one big callback. Marty keeps using the word “heavy” to indicate unusual or mind-blowing. Doc Brown takes it literally, at one point asking if in the future there is a problem with the Earth’s gravitational pull. Whereas Doc frequently exclaims, “Great Scott!”

This happens several times until in the final film when, upon making a terrible discovery Marty wearily says, “Great Scott.” And Doc mutters, “This is heavy…”

Two questions:

  1. Why do we find callbacks funny?

Even if the original joke isn’t especially hilarious, somehow it’s funnier when it’s referenced later on. What’s the psychology behind this type of humor?

  1. What’s the difference between a callback and a running gag? Is there a difference at all?

Seems to me it’s variation. Changing the joke slightly, as opposed to doing it the same way ever time in a running gag.


I’ve never heard it called a callback, but Arrested Development had a lot of Running Jokes/Gags.

Also, WRT, Back to the Future, I think that’s a poor example. I’m not sure how old you are, but in the 80’s ‘heavy’ was a pretty common term to mean just what you said. It was as common as bitchin’ or rad/radical. Hearing Marty say it throughout the movie (in the 80’s) didn’t seem anymore out of place then seeing him do a guitar solo squirming across the stage on his back like he was the lead guitarist in a hair band. In BTTF, it wasn’t so much a running gag as it was a long setup for Doc’s gravitation pull joke.

As for why we find them funny, I’m not sure. Perhaps because it gives the viewer a reward for having watched more then just the one episode. Especially if the joke is done well and is also funny, or at least makes sense without the prior knowledge. It may make a movie better because it references earlier scenes so when you finish there’s better chance that even the earlier parts are still fresh in your mind.

I did have a hard time thinking of a good example…

Here’s one from standup comedy rather than film. The comedian Dom Irrera did a bit where about how some people feel they can obviate any bad things they’ve said to a person by adding, “I don’t mean that in a bad way…” He gave several funny examples of this, then moved on.

Much later in the act he purposely did something to invite heckling from the audience. As soon as someone did he berated the person severely, paused and added, “I don’t mean that in a bad way…”

Geez, it’s hard to make that sound funny when typing it. Anyway, I think that’s a better example of a callback. It’s clever, and it shows forethought. Is that why it’s funny?

I don’t know why it’s funny, but I was just saying to my sister that I love it when people do that, in sitcoms and stand up.

Just 36 hours ago I said the same thing

Also, if you look at the Wikipedia entries for episodes of Arrested Development, there is usually a section labeled “Callbacks / Running Jokes”. Example here.

Same reason inside jokes are funny. They make you feel connected with the show/comedian.

I’m not sure, but this morning for no particular reason I was thinking about the Bluth family’s various chicken imitations. By far the funniest call back/running gag of that very funny show (except for maybe the Cornballer). Like family in-jokes, they just stick with me for a long time.

“Koo koo ka cha”
“Cha chi cha chi cha”
“A doodle oodle oo”
“Has anyone in this family ever SEEN a chicken?”

Maybe they’re there to add a sense of reward to repeat viewers. Even if I have to have them pointed out to me (Lucile = “loose seal” that ate Buster’s hand) I see them as signs that the creators really cared for their project, instead of just cranking something out. I’m not sure if they’re always meant more for the audience or as inside jokes among the cast and crew, but I’m glad they’re there.

One of my favorite things about Jaws is when Quint passes by a life preserver during the shark’s final attack on the boat. He pauses for a beat then moves on. This is a call back to his *USS Indianapolis *story where he mentions “I’ll never put on a life jacket again.” I like that it wasn’t super obvious, but that these two scenes were definitely linked. Not a comedic call back, but as a kid, picking up on that connection made the movie even more special to me.

Rhythm (or timing) is a very important part of humor, and repetition probably has a similar effect. It’s also always seemed to me like a way of drawing the viewer in. It’s like the writers are saying, “Remember this? We know you’ve been paying attention, and here’s a little something to help make you feel like an insider, like we’re all in this together.”

Also, there’s a certain twist to it, most of the time, as in the examples already mentioned. People might be expecting exactly the same joke, but when it arrives in a slightly different form, that can make the humor more effective.

Running gags and callbacks start with something that’s funny the first time. Then they can be funny because it’s a surprise the joke is repeating itself. And finally you find yourself anticipating that it will be repeated without knowing how it’s going to happen. I’d say that’s the general principle. The OP’s example might not qualify exactly - I’d call it a reference - but I think of “His excellency’s car!” from Duck Soup as a classic example.

The Wikipedia entries on these topics are good. Based on those I’d say the difference is that a running gag involves setup - after a couple of times you see it coming, and that’s part of the humor. A callback is more like repeating the punchline. In the case of TV they add that it’s often used to refer to a joke in a prior episode.

Terry Pratchett and his million to one chances comes immediately to mind. It’s a call back the spans several books in the Discworld series.

Based on the theory that humor is intrinsically a reaction to overcoming fear, I would imagine that the idea would be that this is based on the pack instinct.

Humans are pack animals, and we tend to adopt our own lingo when we spend a lot of time among a particular group. But if someone is consciously feeding us a particular “lingo”, we feel a particular fear that we need to keep up on it. So when someone drops something that we realize we’re supposed to catch, we suffer a momentary panic, then realize that we do actually recognize the thing and we are over the panic in an instant, with a laugh.

(Note that I just made that up, and I’m not sure whether fear is actually the best explanation for humor, but it does seem to work as an explanation every time I think over a question like this.)

Terry Pratchett had a great one where in a couple of books the line “eyes like gimlets” was used, and each time it was responded by “What, you mean that dwarf who runs the delicatessen in Cable St?” Then in a later book, Gimlet the dwarf, delicatessen owner, appears as a character.

There was a similar development of a story of a Witch misspelling Gold as “Glod,” and later a dwarf named Glod Glodsson was introduced.

I would say that running jokes, callbacks, and lingo are comedic devices designed to draw the viewer into the show’s universe and make you feel closer to the characters.

Even better then Loose Seal and Lucille was there extreme clever and even more extreme subtle use of the C-word (you’ll have to ignore the McCain’s not sure why they’re there) and, well, I can’t find a picture, but sometimes the boat said “Seaword” and there was a lot of play on that, but the only time you ever noticed it was when they would mention something about the old Seaword and Lucille would get think they were talking to her.

The boat was actually called the “C-Word” and not “Seaward” ? Somehow that’s not as funny.

I thought it *was *called Seaward.
I love when MST3K used callbacks to previous movies they had made fun of. It makes you feel like you are in a little club when they make a joke that you had to see the previous movies just to get.

I’m pretty sure the boat always said Seaword, until towards the end when we saw that image as part of the running joke. But that was the only picture of the boat I could find, period.

I tend to think of a callback as a repeated punchline of a previous joke, possibly in a different context that adds layer and meaning. A running joke, on the other hand, is something that’s only genuinely funny when repeated. Someone viewing only one isolated instance of a running joke probably wouldn’t find it funny.

Why are they funny? Context. When you change the context of the punchline, it adds a different meaning to it. This is why some running jokes aren’t all that funny, like the chicken fight in Family Guy. Of course, that one is almost deliberately unfunny, by happening for no reason, providing no context, and going on far too long.

Callbacks aren’t only used for comedic effect. They, or something very much like them, are used in novels, movies, symphonies, etc. to add unity and depth to the work.

But, here’s my theory of why callbacks are funny: a callback is like a joke with an exceptionally long lag between the setup and the punchline, which (at least potentially) makes that punchline funnier because it’s less expected.

Jokes, at least some sorts of jokes, work by the principle of unexpected appropriateness. You think a story or situation or whatever is going one way, or you’re expecting one kind of answer, but then you get something completely different, something which, nevertheless, makes sense in its own way. In the case of the callback, the earlier appearance is what provides the “appropriateness” (it’s why the joke “makes sense”); the gap between that earlier appearance and the callback provides the unexpectedness.