When I learned the meaning of the expression “breaking the fourth wall” (which Urban Dictionary surprisingly accurately describes as when “a character [acknowledges] the fact that they are fictional”), all those many years ago, I was ecstatic — “Hey, I know a smart movie and TV term…” — and extremely obnoxious — “…and I’m going to say it ALL THE TIME now.” And I probably did, because it’s something impossible not to notice when it’s happening, and it was nice finally having a term to peg to it.
Then you start noticing it everywhere, in every movie and on every sitcom. It’s what people call a “trope” (another smart person term, sort of!), and because of its numerous uses, writers and directors began to subvert it, playing off the audience’s expectations of what they believe is going to happen when a character looks directly into the camera or talks to an omnipresent narrator. Here are six of my favorite recent examples of this.
Scrubs, “My Jerks”
After seven seasons and 150 episodes, NBC decided to part ways with Scrubs, due to declining ratings and inclining Zach Braff smugness. (Half JK'ing.) ABC, then struggling to find a sitcom that people would actually want to watch (remember, this was before Modern Family and The Middle took off), picked it up. Early on in the first episode of season eight, “My Jerks,” J.D. points at the bottom of the screen, towards where the ABC logo hovers (no more Peacock!), and says, “Oh, that’s new.” A second later, we see that he’s actually looking at the Janitor’s watch. Hey, remember when Aziz and Eliza Coupe were on Scrubs? That was weird.
The Simpsons, “Who Shot Mr. Burns?”
The Simpsons, as per usual, brilliantly subverted the trope at the end of “Who Shot Mr. Burns Part I?” The residents of Springfield have just discovered Mr. Burns collapsed on the town sundial, after having been shot just moments earlier. Everyone in town has a reason to want him dead, making everyone a suspect. Doctor Hibbert says, “I couldn’t possibly solve this mystery. Can you?” He appears to be staring and pointing straight into the camera, as if he were directing the question to us, but it turns out he’s actually looking at Chief Wiggum, who replies, “I’ll give it a shot. I mean, y’know, it’s my job, right?”
How I Met Your Mother, “History vs. Mystery”
The most famous example of fourth-wall breaking in any medium is when its used in Annie Hall, in the scene where Woody Allen gets into an argument with someone while waiting in line to see a movie. They’re disputing the work of cultural theorist Marshall Mcluhan, and Woody turns to the audience to comment on how much of an idiot the guy he’s speaking to is. Then he literally pulls Mcluhan on-screen to prove his point, and says, “If only life were like this.” In the recent How I Met Your Mother episode “History vs. Mystery,” Ted’s talking to Robin about how people have been ripping off Allen’s fourth-wall technique for decades now (even though the trope preceded Annie Hall by years), when she looks at "us" and says, “Can you believe this guy?” Just like Woody.
30 Rock, “Somebody to Love”
To parody the recent uptick of not-so-subliminal product placements in TV shows and movies, 30 Rock went…whatever the opposite of subliminal is? Un-subliminal? After NBC and Verizon discussed how to integrate references to cell phones in presumably the most obnoxious meeting ever, it was decided to include some in 30 Rock. So, in the 2007 episode “Somebody to Love,” a totally in-character Jack says, "These Verizon Wireless phones are just so popular. I accidentally grabbed one belonging to an acquaintance,” and Liz responds, "Well, sure, that Verizon Wireless service is just unbeatable. If I saw a phone like that on TV, I would be like, 'Where is my nearest retailer so I can get one?’” She then looks at the camera and asks, “Can we have our money now?”
South Park, “Woodland Critter Christmas”
In the standout South Park episode “Woodland Critter Christmas,” Stan (referred to as the “boy in the red poof-ball hat” by the unseen narrator telling the story) comes across a group of adorable singing animals in the forest decorating a Christmas tree. That night, after helping them make a star for their tree, the bunnies and squirrels and bears and other cute critters come into his bedroom and ask Stan’s assistance in building a manger for Porcupiney, who’s pregnant with their savior. Things continue to get weirder and more Satany, and as they do, Stan begins to argue with the narrator, telling him that he won’t do what the story says he’s going to. The narrator, of course, wins, and Stan ends up taking three recently-orphaned cubs to the doctor to learn how to administer abortions. Amusingly, we find out at the end of the episode, after the narrator says everyone lived happily ever after…except for Kyle, who died of AIDS, that Cartman’s actually telling the story, a slight twist on the trope.
Saved by the Bell/Late Night with Jimmy Fallon
One of Saved by the Bell’s staples was to have Zack Morris, played by Mark-Paul Gosselaar, stop time in order to break the fourth wall and talk to the viewers at home, like you and me. If you stop and think about it, it’s kind of disturbing – on most other sitcoms, like Malcolm in the Middle for instance, the action behind Malcolm would continue to occur when he was talking to us; it’s just that no one could hear him. On Saved by the Bell, Zack was literally God, or at least a Clockstopper. In 2009, 16 years after Gosselaar left Bayside High, he appeared on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon as…Zack Morris. He was there to promote his new show, Raising the Bar, and revealed that Mark-Paul Gosselaar is his stage name. I’m still not sure what to believe: if he’s Zack or if he’s M-P. All I know is that Kelly Kapowski needs to solve this thing. Why her? Why not.
Josh Kurp wonders if walls can be broken on the Internet