O, Hey There!
How are you? Are you there? Have you ever heard of the fourth wall? Because I just broke it. If you haven’t heard the term, you’ve probably seen it broken before. If you’ve heard of guys like Ferris Bueller, Michael Scott, or Frank Underwood then you’ve definitely seen it broken. The fourth wall is a term for a performance convention where an imagined wall separates the audience from the actors. This wall is invisible to the audience, but it shields the actors from ever being able to see or interact with the them. The fourth wall is the reason actors are never supposed to look directly at the camera or speak to the audience. When an actor chooses to speak to or interact with the audience directly, it’s known as “breaking the fourth wall” because it destroys the barrier between the audience and the actors. From playwrights, like Shakespeare, to directors, like Woody Allen, breaking the fourth wall has been a tool used briefly and carefully throughout history in an attempt to engage the audience in unexpected ways. Here’s a clip from Woody Allen’s Annie Hall. Annie Hall is considered one of the first modern, successful films to blatantly break the fourth wall, and he breaks it multiple times throughout the film. This is risky because most agree that breaking the fourth wall loses its effect with repetition.
This scene in Annie Hall breaks the fourth wall to bring comic relief to the audience. Woody Allen is still able to deliver his overall message of life not always working out the way that it may in the movies. In addressing the audience directly, we naturally become more emotionally involved in the film. It’s effective in blurring the separation between reality and performance. He talks about his life not working out like the movies, when he is part of a movie. That’s something we’ve all felt. We all wish things could magically go our way or that we could have the resources to make an obnoxious person look stupid. It rarely works out for us. This is wildly powerful in asserting Annie Hall’s authenticity as a story and the legitimacy and relatability of its actors’ feelings and intentions.
Annie Hall changed a kind of stigma around repeatedly breaking the fourth wall. When it’s done well, frequent use can do everything individual use does and more. It has been a technique used repeatedly and with regularity among modern hit TV shows and movies ranging from comedies to dramas to superhero thrillers. Breaking the fourth wall has become a phenomenon in the entertainment industry. Across all genres, it keeps the audience engaged while bringing a light heartedness to the story and its characters.
The Big Short is a drama that uses comedy to maintain our interest through boring but necessary parts of the film. Here’s a clip of The Big Short breaking the fourth wall to do just that.
The Big Short breaks the fourth wall effectively in employing Margot Robbie as an adjunct bathtub professor. Obviously we have to understand finance to understand the financial crisis, but no one wants to spend their Saturday night feeling like an idiot for never getting their MBA. So, Director Adam Mckay brings out celebrities, like Margot Robbie, to explain the topics in a funny, relatable way. It’s always more fun watching Margot Robbie do anything. She’s beautiful, and she’s teaching us crucial information from a bathtub while drinking wine. All Mckay needs to do is hold his audience’s attention. It would have been very easy to lose your audience during important, but uninteresting scenes like this. By breaking the fourth wall, Mckay makes it almost impossible to leave your seat and give up on the movie.
Many modern hit sitcoms have built their entire show around the idea of breaking the fourth wall. The Office was the first to do it and did it unapologetically. Characters are constantly making faces directly into the camera and even verbally acknowledging its presence. Jim Halpert won over a nation with his signature smirk and shrug into the camera. As the series progresses, The Office continues to break different levels of the fourth wall. It begins as subtle acknowledgements of the camera and audience, but it turns into the crew’s presence on the show itself. Here’s a clip of from an episode of the show’s ninth and final season.
This scene was kind of a gift to the audience. For eight seasons they had been breaking the fourth wall but never like this. Doing it any earlier would’ve been a huge risk for the show. The subtle breaking of the fourth wall was what made the show charming and clever; it gave the show a lot of heart. They really didn’t have anything to lose by revealing the documentary crew in one of the final episodes, and the audience had never had a completely solid idea of who was filming them before this. The Office completely committed to breaking the fourth wall. They broke the fourth wall in the first episode and never looked back, becoming progressively more obvious with it as the show matured.
The hit sitcom Modern Family has also built their show around breaking the fourth wall, but has been much less committed to the idea than The Office has. Like The Office, Modern Family began with characters speaking directly to the camera and occasionally acknowledging its presence, but hasn’t evolved in any way. They have stuck to the idea of subtly breaking the fourth wall. They never tell the audience why exactly the actors are speaking directly to the audience and the cameras. Here’s a clip that shows the extent that Modern Family breaks the fourth wall.
Phil Dunphy explaining his tactics directly to the audience while he miserably screws it up in the actual scene is hilarious. Modern Family breaks the fourth wall to give us a sense of Phil’s internal monologue, cleverly telling family stories while weaving in these conversational interviews.
There are few characters that break the fourth wall earlier and more often than Deadpool does. The movie was released less than a year ago, but the comic book character has been breaking the fourth wall for about 25 years. He would often grab his word bubbles and was very aware that he was in a comic book. When the movie was released, it was clear they would take the same approach with the character. It seems like a tall order to make a superhero relatable, funny, vulgar, and altogether likeable. It’s Deadpool’s breaking the fourth wall that makes it possible. Here’s a clip of one of the opening scenes of Deadpool. Yea, he breaks the fourth wall in the very beginning of the movie.
I’m sorry, but I really can’t talk about breaking the fourth wall without talking about Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. If you’re familiar with the movie, you know Ferris Bueller isn’t exactly a model character. He’s lying, cheating, and stealing throughout the movie. We do seem to get the truth out of Bueller when he’s talking directly to us, though. That’s actually probably the only time that Bueller is being honest. Bueller breaks the fourth wall in the opening scene of the movie to basically tell us all his life mantras and tips. They’re all pretty funny but also pretty true. In the next few monologues when Ferris breaks the fourth wall, he tells us a lot about his friend Cameron. Ferris is the only one who breaks the fourth wall in the movie, but he reveals a lot about other characters that would be wildly uncomfortable for them to reveal themselves. Here’s the clip of Ferris Bueller breaking the fourth wall in the opening scene of the movie, probably the most famous instance of breaking the fourth wall of all time.
Whether it’s an isolated acknowledgment of the camera or repeated monologues directed at the audience, breaking the fourth wall can change the audience’s perception of a movie and its actors.
Annie Hall. Dir. Woody Allen. United Artists, 1977. Youtube. Web. 5 Dec. 2016. <https://youtu.be/sXJ8tKRlW3E?t=1m30s>.
The Big Short. Dir. Adam McKay. Perf. Margot Robbie. Paramount Pictures, 2015. Youtube. Web. 5 Dec. 2016. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=anSPG0TPf84>.
Deadpool. Dir. Tim Miller. Perf. Ryan Reynolds. 20th Century Fox, 2016. Youtube. Web. 5 Dec. 2016. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YI-yMivF9X0>.
Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Dir. John Hughes. Perf. Matthew Broderick. Paramount Pictures, 1986. Youtube. Web. 5 Dec. 2016. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0KFVLWX7eEY>.<https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QRJ38y4Jn6k>.
Modern Family. Dir. Christopher Lloyd. Perf. Ty Burrell. 20th Century Fox Television, n.d. Youtube. Web. 5 Dec. 2016. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V_CmBsi17_0>.
The Office. Dir. Greg Daniels. NBC Universal, 2013. Youtube. Web. 5 Dec. 2016. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wHicPSz3D7U>.