A callback, in terms of comedy, is a joke that refers to one previously told in the set. It is also known as an internal allusion, a literary device that helps give structure to the piece of writing. Callbacks are usually saved for later, towards the end of a set, the result is usually a much bigger laugh the second time as the audience is much more surprised the longer it's held back. The main principle behind the callback is to make the audience feel a sense of familiarity with the subject material, as well as with the comedian. It helps to create audience rapport. When the second joke is told, it induces a feeling similar to that of being told a personal or in-joke.
In television, the term callback has come to mean a joke or line that refers to a previous episode (or sometimes, in rare cases, movies). Particularly in earlier sitcoms—though even until the early 1990s—callbacks were rare and often frowned upon by networks, because they threaten to alienate a viewer who is new to the series, or who has missed episodes, particularly if the callback is tied to previous episodes (this is especially a threat to a show's syndication value, as shows in which the episodes are self-contained, and thus can be rerun out of order, can fetch a higher sale price than shows that must be run in sequence).
Seinfeld, a show built around stand-up comedy, was one of the first sitcoms to regularly use callbacks in its scripts, although on a level that would often be missed or disregarded by viewers; its use of the strategy commonly kept the callbacks confined to events in the same episodes, having the effect of bringing the episode full-circle or creating an ironic twist ending. A more recent series, 30 Rock, employs callbacks to reference fictitious movies and television programs created within the show. Arrested Development became well known by fans for its regular use of callbacks throughout all of its episodes.
- Flynn, Gillian (2008-07-18). "TV shows on the big screen | Arrested Development". Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved 2009-05-11.