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05/01/2006: Again with the Grilled Cheese
Remember what I did in that last post? I mentioned the grilled cheese sandwiches early on, and then I mentioned them again at the very end of the post. This is called a "callback." A callback is a reference to a joke earlier in the scene, or earlier in the script... or sometimes, earlier in the run of the series. The "We were on a break" callbacks between Ross and Rachael on Friends extended over a remarkable length of time. But usually, these will refer to something in the same episode.
I looked around online, and found some transcripts of Friends episodes, to find some good universal examples for you guys. They are, of course, all over the place. In one early episode, Chandler is appalled to see Joey lick a spoon clean and put it back in the silverware drawer. Later in the episode, when Joey has a chance to move out of their shared place, Chandler makes a joke about having to invite someone over to lick his spoons now that Joey won't be there. This is a callback. Then, even later, Chandler gives Joey a box of plastic spoons. At this point, this is a "comic runner." Less than a story, it's a series of non-adjacent jokes that follow from and build on each other. (By the way, if the first joke does not work, then none of the callbacks to that joke will work. A failed comic runner of this variety is called a Nakamura. Seriously, it is. I think the original reference was to a series of jokes about a Mr. Nakamura on some show -- the Bob Newhart show? I'm not sure. Anyway, the failure of the callbacks was so legendary that the name stands to this day.
Comedic dramas use this technique too. In my Buffy episode "Pangs," every time a new character saw that Angel had returned to Sunnydale, they assumed he had turned evil. This quickly formed into a comic runner.
Callbacks are especially useful as "blows" to a scene -- the last line of a scene. Because they require no additional set-up, they're fast and punchy, which is the best way to blow out of a scene. They also tie off the scene really neatly, by turning it back to an earlier point. If you ever watch comedy improv, you'll notice that the improvised scenes finish on a callback even more often than scripted material does. It's the simplest way to make a scene feel complete.
So, the next time you're watching tv, pay attention to the callbacks. You'll be amazed at how often they are the solution to the tricky how-to-get-the-hell-out-of-this-scene problem. If I'm in a writers' room and we're having trouble finding that last line, I will automatically start scouring the early part of the scene -- either looking for something to call back, or, if there's nothing useful there, looking for a new place to put a joke up there so that we CAN call it back at the end. It's not always the best solution, but the success rate is such that it should be one of the first ones you try.
Lunch: turkey meatballs from the South Beach Cookbook