It isn’t something we think about much while we’re watching the characters in a film, a play, or on TV. They might be interacting in a living room, bedroom, office, or other indoor setting, but we are essentially viewing them through an invisible “fourth wall.” After all, if every production set retained all four walls, as they would in a real life home or building, 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. However, there have been films and programs featuring characters who would break the fourth wall, however briefly, by turning to the audience directly to share exactly what he or she is thinking at that moment. They might do so by expressing a thought verbally, or with a raised eyebrow, frown, or weary look.
Breaking the fourth wall isn’t used often in comedy, but it can create a stronger affinity with the character who briefly acknowledges us. A handful of the most popular film comedies in the past few decades (the Airplane! and Naked Gun films, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) have indulged in the practice, 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 for sympathy to the camera/audience, 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 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 become 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 he delivers 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 vie for co-star Thelma Todd’s affections,
Groucho must wait his turn while Chico flirts with Todd at the piano. Finally, Groucho gets up, strides to the camera, and says, “I’ve got to stay 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 snack 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 the fourth wall surfaced in the early television age, 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 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 on occasion, turns to us, and says something 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 Burns 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 hopes, frustrations, and questions of the day.
Comedian Garry Shandling revived the technique in his 1980s cable sitcom It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, and the technique 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 viewers 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 begin with, and therefore no 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 has come with Modern Family, winner of five consecutive Emmys for Best Sitcom (and topic of a future blog here). 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 at the camera, much to the same hilarious effect Oliver Hardy achieved 80 years earlier. The show has always walked a 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 remark on the action within that scene, but he or she often does so during an abrupt cutaway to their sofa interview). To me, it’s television bliss.
There’s likely to be still more wall-breaking in future films and TV shows, so here’s hoping they’ll continue the line of innovation established by their comic predecessors.