Breaking the Fourth Wall (in comedy)

No, we’re not talking about house remodeling here, but rather something most of us don’t think about as we watch the characters in a film, play, or on TV. Whether we’re watching them interact in a living room, bedroom, office, or other setting, we are essentially viewing them through an invisible “fourth wall.” After all, if every production set retained all four walls, we wouldn’t be afforded a very good view of the action, would we? Moreover, since we’re following the characters within a fictional story, we certainly don’t expect them to acknowledge us, the audience, as we sit in a theatre or on a sofa at home. But there have been a number of films and programs featuring one or more characters who would break the fourth wall by turning to the audience directly to share exactly what he or she is thinking at that moment — perhaps by expressing the thought verbally, or with just a raised eyebrow, frown, or weary look (and we won’t be including examples of voiceover narration here, just to be clear).

Breaking the fourth wall isn’t used often in comedy, but it can create a stronger affinity with the character who briefly acknowledges us and invites us into his/her world. Bob Hope, Woody Allen, and Mel Brooks indulged in some wall-breaking in their day, and a handful of the most popular feature film comedies of the past few decades have used it as well ( Airplane!, The Naked Gun, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off).

But the gag hearkens back to a much earlier era.

Oliver Hardy is most commonly credited for being the first film comedian to break the fourth wall, via his exasperated looks and silent pleas to the camera/audience for sympathy, in response to a ridiculous comment or inept action by his pal Stan Laurel. Ollie perfected the look in their silent films, and carried it into the sound era (however, he didn’t actually speak directly to the audience).

On a more verbal level of wall-breaking, Groucho Marx habitually spoke to his audience from the screen, beginning with the Marx Brothers’ first film, The Cocoanuts (1929). His asides became increasingly brazen in the brothers’ second feature, Animal Crackers, released in 1930 (both films were adapted from their Broadway hits), In one Animal Crackers scene, after delivering a weak pun, Groucho turns to the camera and admits, “Well all the jokes can’t be good, you’ve got to expect that once in a while!”

This practice reaches an apex of sorts in Horsefeathers (1932). During a scene in which Groucho, Harpo, and Chico clumsily vie for co-star Thelma Todd’s affections, Groucho must wait his turn while Chico flirts with Todd at the piano. Finally, he gets up, strides to the camera, and says, “I’ve got to say here. But there’s no reason you folks shouldn’t go out to the lobby until this thing blows over.”

W.C. Fields, known for his delightful way of muttering now-classic lines to himself throughout most of his films, takes a casual turn to the camera in Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941). Awaiting an ice cream soda at a lunch counter, he informs us, “This was supposed to take place in a saloon, but the censor cut it out. It’ll play just as well.”

Breaking of the fourth wall also surfaced in early television, most notably on The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, which premiered in 1950. In each episode, Burns takes periodic opportunities to offer his comments on that week’s plot before returning to the action; or, he would turn to the camera in mid-scene to register a look of skepticism on the proceedings. In addition, he often retreats to his den, with the idea along the lines of, “Let’s see how Gracie’s going to handle the vacuum cleaner salesman,” before switching on his TV to watch Gracie and the other characters in conversation within the story — thus allowing George to both retain and break the fourth wall at the same time!

Other sitcoms have featured characters known to take a moment to speak to us directly. In The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, thoughtful teenager Dobie (often seen mimicking the pose of Rodin’s The Thinker) keeps us apprised of each new dilemma, perhaps with an idea of how to deal with the situation and its consequences.

The 1965 season brought us Gidget, another smartly-written sitcom, following the life of California teen Frances “Gidget” Lawrence. Like Dobie, Gidget, in her moments alone, often takes time to share with us her teenage hopes, frustrations, and questions of the day.

In the 1980s, comedian Garry Shandling revived the technique on his cable sitcom It’s Garry Shandling’s Show. The practice also worked well for the 1990s children’s sitcom Clarissa Explains It All, starring Melissa Joan Hart. In each episode, clever pre-teen Clarissa speaks to her peers much in the same manner as Gidget had a generation before.

Then there is The Office, created in the U.K. by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, using the “mockumentary” style of filming. Gervais’ character, David Brent, and others in the fictional office of a paper company, go about their day while being followed and interviewed by a documentary crew. With this style, of course, there is no fourth wall to break (but the sideways glances Gervais gives the camera are priceless nonetheless).

Perhaps the most interesting way of breaking the fourth wall on TV came with Modern Family, winner of five consecutive Emmys for Best Sitcom. The members of the extended Pritchett/Dunphy family are also subjects of a documentary crew, and, when not being filmed in their daily activities, periodically take part in brief interview segments, as they sit on their respective living room sofas and speak to the camera about the events we’ve either just witnessed, or are most likely to see shortly. And, during the “action” scenes, they treat us to the same kind of sideways glances and/or mortified stares the camera, much to the same hilarious effect Oliver Hardy achieved 80 years earlier.

The show always walked the razor-thin line of having the characters aware of being filmed, but without overindulging in the conceit (i.e. a character never turns to the camera mid-scene to comment on the action within that scene, but the show often does so during an abrupt cutaway to their sofa interview). It’s television bliss.

As of this writing, a current sitcom also breaks the fourth wall, but has unfortunately squandered many opportunities that were used by the program that inspired it. Call Me Kat, starring Mayim Bialik, is based on the daffy British sitcom Miranda, created by and starring Miranda Hart, and which ran from 2009–2013 (plus specials).

But whereas Miranda indulged in slapstick, pratfalls, Hart’s frequent turns to the camera, and the cast breaking character for a good-bye wave under each episode’s closing credits, such bits of business as incorporated into the first few episodes of Call Me Kat apparently baffled reviewers, who couldn’t seem to wrap their heads around the slapstick and wall-breaking that had made Miranda such a treat.

Consequently, Call Me Kat quickly became a severely watered-down version, dropping most of the wall-breaking asides (just one or two per episode now), and virtually eliminating Miranda’s slapstick, at which Hart and her co-star Sarah Hadland were so adept. The result of the show chickening out: Call Me Kat is a pale — and not very funny — adaptation, with painfully sitcom-y dialogue and uninteresting characters. Bialik’s own talent and appeal provide the show’s only saving grace.

Anyway, the practice of breaking the fourth wall — be it in films, TV, or even onstage — deserves to live on, if only occasionally. After all, too much of a good thing isn’t…good. So here’s hoping that any future wall-breaking efforts will succeed in continuing the line of innovation established by their comedic predecessors.

Until next time…

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Read my previous articles about comedy history at the links below:

“Whatever Happened to Comedy Teams?” https://medium.com/@garryberman/whatever-happened-to-comedy-teams-7e243b5c9d45

“Stars For a Cause: The Navy Relief Show of 1942” https://garryberman.medium.com/stars-for-a-cause-the-navy-relief-show-of-march-1942-af2ff6edf8d9

“Mary Kay and Johnny: Television’s First Sitcom” https://garryberman.medium.com/mary-kay-and-johnny-televisions-first-sitcom-835fec303b5e

“Buck Privates: An Appreciation”
https://garryberman.medium.com/buck-privates-an-appreciation-da7b7d645f

“A Tribute To Our Funniest Sitcom Moms” https://garryberman.medium.com/a-tribute-to-our-funniest-sitcom-moms-ed3f5757fe73

“Pie in Your Eye: A History of the Pie-in-the-face Gag” https://garryberman.medium.com/pie-in-your-eye-a-history-of-the-pie-in-the-face-gag-4dd8c31286a0

“Fifty Years of ‘The Odd Couple’ on TV (part 1)” https://medium.com/@garryberman/fifty-years-of-the-odd-couple-on-tv-part-i-62a0eac93520

And more!

Please visit www.GarryBerman.com to read synopses and reviews of my books (including The Funniest Decade: A Celebration of American Comedy in the 1930s, and For the First Time on Television) and order them via the links to Amazon.com.

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