Breaking the fourth wall is a technique you've probably seen in many great movies, from the epic intro monologue in Ferris Bueller's Day Off, to Jordan Belfort explaining his illegal activities in The Wolf Of Wall Street. It is a technique that, if done well, has great comedic effect, bringing us closer to a character and delivering a punchline to a joke in an unexpected way.
Mel Brooks and Charlie Chaplin's movies are perhaps some of the best examples of how to break fourth wall done; however, here we will be focusing on eight TV shows that are great examples of breaking the fourth wall done right.
The idea of breaking the fourth wall dates back to theater, when box sets were used to form three physical walls, with an invisible "fourth wall" separating the auditorium from the set. Breaking the fourth wall consists of anything that reminds the audience of the fictionality of whatever they are watching. This can include: talking directly into the camera, sharing a knowing look with the audience, or just mentioning things that reference the play, movie, TV show's fictionality. Basically, if it reminds you that what you are watching is fictional, the fourth wall has been broken.
1. The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air
The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air was really good at reminding us that it was a TV show, with constant references to the actors' real lives, Will Smith reciting the lyrics of the show's theme song to a judge in one episode, and his one-sided conversations with the audience. We even got to see the set a couple of times, just in case all of that wasn't enough.
One of the funniest moments was probably with Will Smith's comment of "if we so rich, why we can't afford no ceiling?" which was followed by the camera panning up to the non-existent ceiling, instead filled with the copious lights used for filming on the set. Check it out below.
Another fantastic fourth-wall breaking scene was when Carlton quite literally ran around the entire set, even running past the audience. This show surpassed breaking the fourth wall,— it broke every single wall within its existence.
2. Saved By The Bell
Saved By The Bell, one of my childhood favorites, focused on a group of friends and their everyday lives at Bayside High School. Zack Morris constantly addresses the audience throughout the show, talking about himself (well, mostly himself). He also has the power to freeze time by saying the magic words "time out."
Zack often uses his "time out" abilities in order to get out of difficult situations, which fits his personality perfectly, considering he is always getting into trouble and trying to find an escape. His time-stopping abilities allow for many funny scenes, even allowing him to avoid almost being punched.
3. Shameless (US)
Shameless does not exactly contain your typical fourth-wall breaking scenes; rather, it breaks the fourth wall when the main characters take turns to swear at you and tell you what you missed last episode at the beginning of each new episode. There's just something about Frank Gallagher, the drunken father who only cares about himself, telling us to "pay fucking attention," that is oh-so satisfying, and goes very well with the tone of the show.
4. The Office (US)
The Office, an adaptation of the UK TV series of the same name, is a fourth-wall break within itself, considering it is a mockumentary in which the characters know they are being filmed, often talking to and looking directly into the camera.
Jim Halpert's bemused looks into the camera and Michael Scott's offensive jokes are a perfect representation of breaking the fourth wall, used to deliver the punchline of a joke and bring us closer to the characters. The ultimate fourth-wall break occurred when the sound guy stepped away from recording in order to comfort Pam. This may be cheating slightly, since the film crew used here are also characters, but it still reminds us of how the show is fictional.
5. House Of Cards
House of Cards' Frank Underwood has many monologues throughout the show, which give us a lot of insight into his character. Frank's first ever monologue of the show introduces his character and tells us so much about him in just under a minute. It is a perfect way to introduce the show, which uses a combination of breaking the fourth wall paired together with brilliant writing. See for yourself below.
Miranda and her best friend Stevie work at a joke shop. Miranda addresses the audience at the start of every episode, discussing the awkward and embarrassing situations she has gotten herself into, and asking the audience how they're doing. Whenever Miranda does something to embarrass herself, or finds something awkward or funny — particularly relating to anything sexual or concerning her dating life (or lack thereof — she looks into the camera and makes a funny face. Miranda also often tells us (the audience), if she lies about something, coming up with intricate stories and then shaking her head at the camera or whispering to say it never happened.
Supernatural follows two brothers: Sam (Jared Padalecki) and Dean Winchester (Jensen Ackles), as they hunt all things supernatural — from ghosts to demons, even meeting the devil himself. The show breaks the fourth wall several times, however the following three are probably the best and most genius.
In Season 2, Episode 18 ("Hollywood Babylon"), the Winchesters are on a tour of Hollywood, in which the tour guide makes a reference to Stars Hollow, the fictional town in which the TV show Gilmore Girls is set, and says that if the people on the tour are lucky, they may even get to see one of the stars. This earns a slightly worried look from Sam, who starred in Gilmore Girls as a character named Dean.
In Season 5, Episode 8 ("Changing Channels"), the brothers are sent through various TV show parodies in which they have to play along with or be stuck in forever. One of these is Supernatural as a sitcom, which pokes fun at the show, adds an over-the-top-laugh track and over-exaggerates the characters — it's hilarious.
As if that wasn't enough, Season 6, Episode 15 ("The French Mistake") itself is a fourth-wall break: Sam and Dean are transported to an alternate reality where they're in a TV show called Supernatural. This episode doesn't just break the fourth wall, it probably breaks some dimensions too, and what makes it even more funny is the fact that Sam and Dean are terrible actors here, basically making fun out of themselves. You can check out this masterpiece of an episode below:
I'm just saying we - we've landed in some dimension where you're Jensen Ackles, and I'm something called a "Jared Padalecki." — Sam.
Scrubs does a killer job at being hyper self-aware of itself, breaking the fourth wall and making fun out of itself, as well as pointing out the copious tropes within sitcoms. Scrubs also makes many references to Grey's Anatomy, bashing it slightly, which is great if you've seen both Scrubs and Grey's Anatomy.
A good example of this happens when Dr. Cox talks about how he hates how Grey's Anatomy ends episodes with cheesy voiceovers that wrap up all the storylines — exactly like they do in Scrubs. Elliot responds to this by saying she likes the voiceovers, apart from when they're "really vague and generic." J.D. then comes along and we hear a vague and generic voiceover of him speaking.
While this may be a bit of a stretch — considering the characters are not directly talking to the camera or showing that they are aware of the show — it does point out specific techniques used in the show and demonstrates them right after, thus showing that the show is self-aware and fictional. Additionally, there are plenty of other times when the fourth wall is broken throughout the show.
What's your favorite fourth-wall break?