The Best of Breaking the Fourth Wall
Breaking the Fourth Wall has become such a common literary trope for the simple fact that when it is done well, it is pretty memorable. The idea of breaking the Fourth Wall originated in theatre, but has become far more common place in more modern media such as telelvision, movies, and video games.
Breaking the fourth wall can include addressing the audience directly, characters being aware of their fictional status, playing to the audience while maintaining the fiction of the situation, and in more recent years, the inclusion of self-referenential meta humor. For this list I have chosen to focus on Breaking the Fourth Wall in visual media as it is easier to express in a posting like this, and disqualifying instances of a brief one-off line or wink to the audience.
Mel Brooks' classic western spoof is full of fourth wall breaking, with characters regularly addressing the audience, but it is the final fight that makes it to this list. As the citizens of Rock Ridge are fighting off Hedley Lamar's gang, the camera pulls back to reaveal the backlot studio the film is being shot on, then zooming in on another film being shot on a near by set which is quickly overrun by the western battle. Though the film is a comedy and full of referential humor, it maintained itself as a Western up until this point, where the fight spills out into the "real world" in a transition that has been immitated since, but never duplicated.
Those not familiar with the exploits the of the Winchester brothers may look at 'Supernatural' and write it off as another sci-fi/horror television show. But the fans actually know this show to be a regular geekfest, with in-jokes and references to geek culture while maintaining a serious supernatural tone. But in the show's 6th season they came up with the episode 'The French Mistake', a title reference to the above scene from 'Blazing Saddles', where Sam and Dean literally break through the fourth wall of a house and end up in our world on the set of 'Supernatural', taking the places of Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki and encountering real world situations like filming in Canada, Misha Collins' regular on-set Tweeting, and Jared Padalecki's wife being an actress who played a major villain on the show.
For the film ‘Wayne’s World’, breaking the fourth wall was a necessity because of its source material. Originating as the classic SNL sketch, the premise was two guys playing directly to the audience, so it was only natural for the movie to include Wayne and Garth addressing the audience even while not doing their show. But unlike other films where the narrator is the lead character, ‘Wayne’s World’ pulls no punches and Wayne regularly accepts that they are addressing a camera and are in a movie.
'It's Garry Shandling's Show' was a revolutionary show, built on the premise of breaking the fourth wall, with Garry not only addressing the audience, but actively engaging the audience and bringing them into the episode at times. This was a show where the characters knew they were on a sitcom, not as actors playing roles, but as characters who operate with the understanding that their daily life includes being watched by an audience.
'Ferris Bueller’s Day Off' is the perfect example of a narrator being the lead character. Many films have tried to recreate this narrative style since, but none have matched the tone of Bueller. Bueller addresses the audience without actually acknowledging them as a movie audience, at least until the post credit scene where he tells the audience to go home. Ferris’ lines to the audience, though comedic, are taken completely serious in this world. To Cameron and Sloan, Ferris’ monologues either go unnoticed or are accepted parts of Ferris’ world. Later interpretations of this trope include secondary characters wondering who the narrator is talking to.
Though considered a sitcom, ‘M*A*S*H’ was also known for terrific dramatic stories as well and unique narratives, such as a single episode that covers the seasons of an entire year, a collection of the dreams of the staff, following the ghost of a fallen soldier, and an episode done in real time with a running clock on the bottom corner showing the audience how much time the doctors have to finish the operation. One such unique episode came in the 7th season, ‘Point of View’, and made use of the fourth wall without actually breaking it. The entire episode is done through the view of a soldier wounded in combat and brought to the 4077th M*A*S*H. Every character addresses the camera directly, but not the audience, maintaining the complete fictional world while still stretching the fourth wall.
Since 'Saints Row the Third', the 'Saints Row' series has banked on referential jokes and extreme situations to create one of the funniest and most fun video game franchises in the market today. 'Enter the Dominatrix' was scheduled to be Downloadable Content (DLC) for 'Saints Row the Third' before it was decided to switch gears and redirect several ideas from the DLC into the next full game, 'Saints Row IV'. 'Enter the Dominatrix' has since been released as DLC for 'Saints Row IV' and plays as a fake documentary chronicling why the DLC was cut from the third game, interviewing the characters about their role in the DLC and why it was cut, characters providing behind-the-scenes commentary during gameplay, and filling in "incomplete" scenes with storyboards and clay models.
Deadpool is a unique entry to this list, not being a show or movie, but being a character that is a walking breakage of the fourth wall. Deadpool is a sarcastic mercenary who knows full well that he’s a comic book character and therefore knows he will survive crazy situations as he’s in his comic book and won’t be killed off. Deadpool regularly addresses the reader, but also talks with the disembodied narrator bubbles and his own thought bubbles. When Deadpool makes the jump to video games, he talks to the player, uses other characters’ special moves, reads the game guide, makes cracks about other interpretations of characters (like Magneto’s poorly translated line “Welcome to die!” and Spider-Man’s Broadway musical), and even uses the life and special bars to beat up his opponent. When Deadpool got his own action video game the first level is Deadpool walking around his apartment while reading the script to the game, negotiating the budget with the studio, calling the voice actor who performs his voice, and deleting emails from Ryan Reynolds, who kinda played Deadpool in “X-Men Origins: Wolverine”.
The 'Metal Gear Solid' series, going back to the first game on the original Playstation, has been known for being a serious high-tech espionage story, but with the regular breaks of the fourth wall. The player can call Solid Snake's master over the codex in the original to get information about the mission, but calling him repeatedly results in the master advising that you take a pee break before the next cut scene begins. While Snake battles the psychic Psycho Mantis, Mantis actually speaks to the player instead of Snake, showing his supernatural abilities by reading your "mind" (memory card) and telling you what you've been playing lately, as well as inviting the player to set the controller down so Mantis can move it with his mind (using the rumble control). In fact, the only way to defeat Mantis is for the player to plug their controller into the second controller port so Mantis isn't able to anticipate the player's moves. And in the recent 'Metal Gear Solid 4', Snake's ally Otocon informs Snake that he has to switch to disc #2 (an instruction from the original multi-disc Playstation game) before realizing that the game is on the Playstation 3 which uses dual layer blu ray discs and no switching of discs is necessary, a shot at the competing X-Box 360.
Mel Brooks is one of the comedic masters of breaking the fourth wall, though his later films use it as more of the one off jokes instead of a unique progression to the story. While his films like ‘Robin Hood: Men in Tights’ are just collections of looks to the audience or references to other films, ‘Spaceballs’ broke the fourth wall with a referential joke that was unique, progressed the story, and became one of the most beloved scenes in the film. While Dark Helmet is searching for Captain Lonestar, his second-in-command gets the idea of making use of the VHS copy of ‘Spaceballs’ to find out where they are, with Helmet confused at the idea as they are still in the middle of making the movie.
At first, breaking the fourth wall on ‘The Fresh Prince of Bel Air’ seems like the one-off lines and nods to the audience that are otherwise disqualified from the list. But such jokes became a regular occurrence that it turned into a staple of the series. Jokes included Will responding to a conversation about how rich they are by asking why they can’t afford a ceiling and showing the top of the set, Jazz being confused at the switching of actresses playing Vivian and the character of Nicky going from a baby to a 5-year-old over the course of the summer, and Carlton overreacting so much that he runs from set to set.
Spider-Man is ventured into the role of a fourth wall breaking narrator in the current series ‘The Ultimate Spider-Man’, but it was during his 1990s series, ‘Spider-Man: The Animated Series’, where Spider-Man pulled a French Mistake and broke into the real world and not only met the actor playing him on the television show, but also met the famous creator of Spider-Man, Stan Lee.
Disney’s ‘George of the Jungle’ does nothing truly unique with breaking the fourth wall, but gets on the list for just having a good time doing it. The characters go the route of Deadpool and directly interact with the narrator, the narrator directly affects the characters when they upset him, and characters address the audience directly and even point out classic movie tropes that are coming up. But it wasn’t until the terrible sequel were they use the best joke, with the narrator accusing the new actor of not being George who then replies that he’s the new George because the studio was too cheap to get Brendan Fraser back.
Beginning the trend of live-action Saturday morning shows in a time where cartoons ruled the schedule, ‘Saved By The Bell’ played as an ensemble cast, but we never forgot that this was Zack Morris’ world. Zack would regularly talk to the audience about his feelings for Kelly, what scheme he’s trying to pull off, or what lesson he’s learned over the course of the episode. Also, Zack would show a cartoon-like omnipotent control over his surroundings with his patented “Time Out”, freezing the episode to address the audience or sneak out of an unfavorable situation. They would also make use of an occasional self-referential joke, with then-NBC President Brandon Tartikoff appeared as himself on an episode to record an anti-drug PSA and later toying with the idea of making a show about high school students.
In the tone of other famous mockumentaries like ‘This Is Spinal Tap’, ‘The Office’ brings this unique portrayal to the small screen, first in the UK and then in an extremely successful American spin-off. The characters maintain the fictional status of their world and stories, but are regularly playing to the audience during normal scenes and interview segments. Unfortunately, with the original UK version, a long run in the States, and other spin-offs in Germany and China, the novelty has worn off, still being funny but nothing we haven’t seen before.