Add a Callback (That’s Comedian Talk for Déjà Vu)

27.09.2020 |

Episode #10 of the course Humor boosters: Lighten and tighten your writing by Gay Merrill


Hooray! You’ve reached the last lesson of this course.

Back in Lesson 4, you learned the joke formula, which is not only foundational to comedy but also applies to different genres of writing.

This lesson’s humor boosting technique is the callback, which is a reference to or clever association with a point made earlier. The effect of the callback is a sense of familiarity or shared experience.

Do you know how you feel when someone tells an inside joke? You feel like you’re a part of a secret club that gets it.

Comedians use a callback to refer to a joke they made previously. Often they’ll add the callback at the end of their set.

The callback is like a déjà vu for the audience and makes them feel they are included in an inside joke: they’re sharing a laugh about a bit they heard before.

You can use callbacks in your writing by referring back to a punchline, person, event, notable point, or topic you wrote about earlier.

Let’s look at some examples.

Remember the dog with sunglasses back in Lesson 1 where I talked about a classmate’s answer to “What makes you laugh?” I added a photo in that lesson to call out the image. I also mentioned, “a cat wearing sunglasses would have been funnier than my answer”. In this lesson, I’ve opened with a callback to those comments with my image of cats wearing sunglasses.

In Lesson 3, I created a mini-story about Celeste’s grandmother. Then in Lesson 4, I wrote “Some people are easily offended (Celeste’s grandmother, for example)”. The reference to Celeste’s grandmother is a callback.

In several lessons, I’ve mentioned eye rolls and brought back the eye roll, in Lesson 8, with Jim Carrey’s quote “Behind every great man is a woman rolling her eyes.”

The callback is an easy technique to add a touch of humor to your writing.



1. As a final exercise for this course, test yourself on your ability to spot humor-boosting techniques. Back in Lesson 1, for exercise 2 I suggested you start a list of items that make you laugh (specific instances in sitcoms, books, movies, articles, blog posts, speeches, people, characters, and comedians). Go to your list (or start it now) and see if you can spot the techniques.

2. Read this HuffPost article, “Surviving Whole Foods”. Can you see how the writer has added humor? Which techniques do you recognize? Can you spot the callback? How might you edit this article to punch it up even more?


Total Recap

You made it to the end of the course. High five!

Wait, before you go get a refill of whatever you’re drinking (A ninth cup of Tim Horton’s coffee for me), here’s a recap of what you’ve covered:

Everyone has a different sense of humor. Figure out what makes you laugh and apply it to your brand.

Humor is all around you. Take note of everyday life and look for events to find funny bits. You can use what you observe in your writing to give it personality. Don’t let the funny moments get away. Keep a humor journal with you at all times.

Word choice matters. Choose specific words instead of vague or bland words. Choose funnier words, those containing the letters B, D, G, K, P, and T. Use odd numbers (they’re 99 times funnier).

The anatomy of a joke consists of a setup and punch (and optionally a tag). The setup creates an expectation and the punch delivers a surprise. The tag, which is optional, delivers an additional punch to extend the humor. Look for possible setups in your writing you can add a punch to, and always add the punch to the end of the sentence or paragraph.

Use the rule of three, two items that go together followed by a third item that is a comedic twist or surprise, to punch up a list or paragraph.

Exaggerate. Stretch the truth to absurdity.

Craft a comical comparison using an exaggerated simile—a comparison that uses words such as “like”, “as”, “than”, or “so”. Look at the word you want to compare and list images or concepts that are similar. Exaggerate the items on your list.

Take a well-known expression, idiom, piece of advice, or phrase and change the ending or replace words within the widely known sayings to add absurdity or surprise.

Edit your writing to eliminate adverbs, the word “that”, weasel words, thinking words, and empty filler words. Find a specific word to replace the word “thing” (and “something”).

Try a callback to remind readers of a funny bit you wrote earlier.

A light sprinkling of humor can go a long way to provide your reader with a bit of fun and a sense of your personality. Most importantly, adding humor to your writing will help your audience enjoy the experience, pay closer attention, absorb better, and remember you as a writer.


Tips to Give Your Writing a Humor Boost

1. Take the course quiz and note topics you may need to review.

2. Practice, practice, practice.

3. Once you’ve gained confidence with the technique, mix it up. Don’t rely on one technique. Use a variety.

4. Study other writers whose writing amuses you.

Your writing doesn’t have to ooze with humor. Think of it like Brylcreem hair gel. A few dabs will do ya.


Can I Have Your Feedback?

I’m developing additional materials related to this course and would appreciate your time to give me feedback. Your answers to this short feedback questionnaire will be a huge help.

Thank you for taking Humor Boosters. I created this course for people who value humor and would like to know how to use it to add some fun to their writing.

If you want to learn more about how to engage your readers, check out my Conversational Writing course.

Have fun writing,

Gay Merrill


Recommended book

Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style by Benjamin Dreyer


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