In his “New in Town” standup comedy special, John Mulaney tells how, when he was 10, he was in love with his babysitter, who he thought was much older. But as an adult, he discovered she’d been only 13 at the time of his crush.

That his parents would have hired someone so young makes him indignant. “It would be like you’re going out of town for a week,” he says, “and you hire a horse to watch your dog.

Big laugh.

Much later in the show, he talks about going to a high school party where the host’s parents were gone and everybody drank too much and did risky things: “We were like dogs without horses!”

Huge laugh, followed by applause, even though the line, on its own, wouldn’t be especially funny or even clear.

Thus the power of the callback, which may be the standup comic’s most useful and dependable tool. Well-constructed callbacks elevate an ordinary observation to the level of hilarity, flatter the audience (always a good thing) for picking up on it, and provide a sense of continuity to the whole routine.

The device is mentioned in every guide to comedy. Less recognized is its value in all sorts of other forms of writing, fiction and non-fiction alike. One of my favorite theatrical callbacks is in Frank Loesser’s masterpiece “Guys and Dolls.” In the first act, gambler Sky Masterson and “mission doll” Sarah Brown have a duet in which both describe how “I’ll Know” when they have encountered their soulmate. When it’s Sky’s turn, he sings and Sarah interjects:

“Mine will come as a surprise to me.
Mine I lead to chance and chemistry.”

SARAH (spoken) Chemistry?
SKY (spoken) Yeah, chemistry.

By the end of the act – surprise! – Sarah has fallen for Sky and expresses it in her number “If I Were a Bell.” This time she sings and Sky interjects:

“Ask me how do I feel from this chemistry lesson I’m learning.”

SKY (spoken) Uh, chemistry?
SARAH (spoken) Yes, chemistry!

In movies, a great callback is in “Kramer vs. Kramer.”  A frustrated and exhausted wife, played by Meryl Streep, has just flown the coop, leaving her baffled husband, Ted (Dustin Hoffman) to care for their young son, Billy (Justin Henry). Dad resolves to make breakfast, but knows nothing from French toast. It is, of course, a disaster, with pans clanging, curses flying and egg-soaked bread burning. Months later, Billy is about to go live with his mother. It’s breakfast time again. Robert Benton’s screenplay says that Billy and Ted

stand side by side, like a surgeon and his assistant. Spread out on the counter in front of them are the makings of French toast. The following is done with great efficiency, in contrast to the first time we saw them go through the same ritual. They work in silence except for an occasional command.

As a director, Benton improved on his own screenplay. In the filmed scene, with Ted an expert short-order cook and Billy his sous chef, there isn’t even an “occasional command.” It’s my favorite silent scene is a sound movie.

Writers have known about the power of callbacks for a long time — at least since “Canterbury Tales,” where, as the writing guru Roy Peter Clark describes in his book “The Art of X-Ray Reading,” Chaucer deploys an elaborate one based on the Absolon’s previously established squeamishness regarding farting.

Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse-Five” may have more callbacks than any other single work. He returns to certain images and phrases again and again in different contexts: people nestled like spoons, “ivory and blue” feet, a bird going “Poo-tee-weet!” Vonnegut uses the repetition less for comedy than for emotional impact and thematic resonance. He is a character in and narrator of the novel, as well as its author, and on page 5, he says that late at night, “I get drunk, and I drive my wife away with a breath like mustard gas and roses.” He repeats the mustard-gas-and-roses line four pages later, just so we won’t forget it. It comes up again on page 92, this time in reference to the breath of a fictional character, Billy Pilgrim. The payoff comes on the second to last page, when Billy, at this point imprisoned by the Germans in World War II, is ordered to dig up the bodies of people killed in the bombing of Dresden. “The stink,” Vonnegut writes (and note how he signals significance by reversing the order of the terms), “was like roses and mustard gas.”

I’m aware that the most famous repetition in “Slaughterhouse-Five” is the phrase “So it goes,” which is intoned whenever there is a reference to death. And this might be a good time to sort out some different techniques related to or included in what I’ve been calling the callback. Vonnegut’s “So it goes” is a refrain, as you would find in a song’s chorus. Foreshadowing is a hint at what’s in store — for example, the witches’ prophecies in “Macbeth,” and the terrible weather in “Great Expectations” portending bad things ahead for Pip. “Chekhov’s gun” refers to a story element that more or less promises a callback. Anton Chekhov expressed this idea in different phrasing on several occasions, for example: “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off.” In the opening of Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery,” we’re placed in what appears to be an idyllic New England village on a lovely June day. In the second paragraph, Jackson introduces us to some kids, one of whom, Bobby Martin, “had already stuffed his pockets full of stones, and the other boys soon followed his example, selecting the smoothest and roundest stones.” Those stones are a bunch of veritable Chekhov’s guns, and they very definitely go off in the last line of the story.

Read a “Why’s This So Good” essay about McPhee’s “Archdruid” written for Storyboard by author and UC Berkeley professor Adam Hochschild.

For feature and narrative journalists, a popular kicker, or ending, calls back to something that was mentioned earlier, often in the opening lines. Author and New Yorker contributor John McPhee is especially fond of this kind of circularity, and uses it to good effect in a chapter of his book “Encounters with the Archdruid” that profiles a U.S. land official named Floyd Dominy. From our first meeting with him, Dominy is almost always pictured with a cigar, in the manner of an opera character’s leitmotif or the objects held by saints in religious paintings. And it suits Dominy, suggesting some of his large personality bordering on arrogance, in his total assurance that damming up rivers is a good thing. McPhee takes us with him on a Colorado River rafting trip, and through one rapids, Dominy’s cigar improbably stays lit. But then the raft enters the very big and very alarming Lava Falls. In a calm moment, Dominy hubristically lights up. The waters pound and engulf the raft, then deposit it in calm water. McPhee’s kicker:

Dominy said nothing. He just sat there, drawing on a wet, dead cigar. Ten minutes later, however, in the dry and baking Arizona air, he struck a match and lighted the cigar again.

Wally Lamb deploys a lovely long-game callback in his 1992 novel “She’s Come Undone.” The main character, the damaged Elaine, takes to expressing herself through drawings on an Etch-a-Sketch. Roughly two-thirds of the way through the book, a psychic suggests she make a picture of “whatever might make you happy.” She draws a guy, a really big guy: “I covered his head with loops of curly hair and added eyes, a beard, linear eyeglasses—wire rims.” She decides it’s an image of her future husband. It’s not mentioned again for a 110 pages. Then Elaine, who’s taking a college writing class, tells her friend about a guy in the class who’s “so huge he couldn’t even fit in the desks.” Five pages after that, we learn that he has “a mopful of blond curls.” They start dating, and — boom! — on the second-to-last page of the second-to-last chapter, he shows up with new glasses. Wire rims.

Game over.

That’s good stuff. However, I would like to say a word for writers who — like standup comics — employ callbacks in the middle. The effect is more subtle and less expected. When the longtime New York Times sports columnist Dave Anderson died last year, his colleague George Vecsey reminisced:

I always whined about schlepping over from Long Island to New Jersey for Sunday football games, which Dave loved. The roads were confusing. The signs were misleading. The fans were drunk — on their way to the game! And traffic back home Sunday evening was inhuman.

Dave told his petulant colleague: Didn’t you know enough to get off at Route 46 and take the local road through Fort Lee to the bridge?

A few paragraphs later, Vecsey writes that Anderson’s wife, Maureen, had died a few years before her husband:

When I drove over for her wake, he needled me at the funeral parlor: Wow, I cared enough to brave New Jersey traffic. In a sad hour, we all laughed.

Straight to the heart.

Anne Fadiman’s “The Wine-Lover’s Daughter,” a memoir of her father, Clifton Fadiman, has so many recurring notions and phrasing that when I was reading it, I started making a list. They include her parents’ old-fashioned reference to themselves as “the Clifton Fadimans” and some favorite terms of her father, including “hotsy-totsy,” “meatball,” and “oakling.” I emailed Fadiman about it, and she responded by confirming that she was partial to the technique but unfamiliar with the term “callback:”

I’ve always thought of them as seeds planted early and harvested later. But that metaphor isn’t as good … since a seed can’t bear fruit until it’s harvested, whereas ‘callback’ implies that the performance holds meaning on the first go as well, and that’s important. The first mention needs to work on its own; it should never have a sign over its head that says I’M BEING PLANTED.

She said most of the callbacks in “The Wine Lover’s Daughter” were at least partly humorous, but

‘Blessings’ — what my nonreligious father always said when he bade farewell to a family member — is introduced on page 80 and then recurs on page 234, when my father is on his deathbed.

Fadiman is matched and probably surpassed on the callback front by British novelist Kate Atkinson, notably in her most recent book, “Transcription.” I emailed Atkinson, too, and told her I had covered both sides of a sheet of paper with all the callbacks in that book. Here’s a partial list of phrases, words, or names that come up in the life of the main character, Juliet, that Atkinson returns to again and again:

  • “Can I tempt you?”
  • “An eye … Two, even.”
  • Shostakovich
  • “We must finish her off, I’m afraid.
  • Father a fishmonger.
  • Elizabeth David
  • Pink hydrangea
  • “My girl”
  • “This England”

What makes this work especially well in “Transcription” is that it relates to Juliet’s discursive cast of mind. She worries, we’re told at one point, that she may “think herself to death.”

Atkinson responded that she, like Atkinson, hadn’t heard of “callbacks,” but the term struck her as “quite descriptive,” and something she used not in many of her novels:

“Life After Life” is, structurally, one big callback. “God in Ruins” circles around one event all the time (the last flight). I was probably influenced there by both “Catch-22” and “Slaughterhouse-Five.”

For me, a novel is a very textural thing.  It’s not a stream of unregulated words, it’s something that has been put together like an artifact and it often needs a lot of ‘pinning’ (callbacks, I guess) to make sure it makes sense and that it’s poetic in some way (I can’t think of another word, so poetic will have to do for now). It gives a novel depth and heft. (Plus it gives me considerable pleasure.) A lot of this you don’t always notice on one reading (I think) but it’s still there knitting everything together, making the whole thing more than a sum of its parts, giving the reader a sense of cohesiveness (I hope!).

A lot of this you don’t always notice on one reading.

That comment by Atkinson is a good lead-in to the limitations of callbacks. They demand attentiveness, and not all readers are attentive, especially in the distracting noises of the 21st century. As Anne Fadiman wrote me:

It occurs to me that when writers use callbacks, they assume the reader will start on page 1 rather than dipping in here and there. I wonder if callbacks will be part of the collateral damage as readers’ attention spans get shorter and shorter and they become less and less likely to read in the sequence intended by the author.

The takeaway is that a callback should not depend on the reader or viewer remembering the first mention: The line or scene shouldn’t puzzle or mystify her or him, but should function on its own in the piece. And that’s true of all the examples in this essay, with the exception of John Mulaney’s dogs-and-horses line.

Moreover, while I hope I’ve shown that first-rate writers use callbacks, callbacks are not a prerequisite for first-rate writing. It’s the sort of thing that lapidary stylists like McPhee, Fadiman, and Atkinson are drawn to. But there’s a whole other category of wonderful writers — the Dostoyevskys and Dickenses and Saul Bellows and David Foster Wallaces — who just plow ahead and never look back.

Finally, it’s possible to take this idea too far — larding a piece of writing or cinema with endless references to itself, so that it ends up feeling self-indulgent and navel-gazey. That’s especially a danger with “intertextuality,” a literary-critical term meaning a reference in one work to another. Probably 50 percent of country songs, 75 percent of  hip-hop songs, and every movie in the Marvel “universe” are intertextual. This can be fun but it fairly quickly becomes self-congratulatory and exclusionary, calling to mind fanboys bragging about finding a secret message in a “Simpsons” cel.

The relevant, mildly derisive term for this is “fan service,” which originally referred to the insertion of irrelevant titillating or soft-core images in Japanese anime. Now, more generally, it means any fan-pandering feature that doesn’t serve the story, such as breaking the fourth wall, gratuitous callbacks, or abundant “Easter eggs,” a term derived from computer games and programs that now refers to hidden treats or references.

With those caveats stipulated, the comedian’s callback is a potentially very effective technique for writers and artists of all kinds. It adds energy and kick, through a powerful chemistry.

Yeah, chemistry.

Most popular articles from Nieman Storyboard

Show comments / Leave a comment