Breaking the 4th Wall for Writers

C’mon, just between us, didja ever break the fourth wall? Felt great, didn’t it? Here are some creative biggies who’ve done it too, just to prove that we’re never alone:

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by Michael Maher

Breaking the 4th wall is a metafictional technique that dates back to the theater in the 1700s. Denis Diderot, a French philosopher and dramatist, is usually credited as the founder of the concept. In a traditional three-wall theater, thefourth wall refers to an imaginary wall at the front of the stage. It’s similar to a window the audience looks through to see the world of the play.

In terms of television and film, breaking the fourth wall refers to a character staring directly into the camera to talk to the audience. Before diving in, let’s take a look at this great 4th wall supercut from Now You See It.

One of the earliest uses of this technique in film comes from comedic geniuses, the Marx Brothers. Their 1930 film, Animal Crackers, was an adaptation of their 1928 theater show. It was the perfect way to crossover the use of the technique. Groucho breaks the 4th wall at the 2:30 mark in this clip. He begins with, “Pardon me while I have a strange interlude.”

The films of the 1970s are most associated with breaking the 4th wall. The supercut at the beginning of this piece featured both the 1971 musical Fiddler on the Roof and the 1977 hit Annie Hall.

Comedian Michael Palin would coin the term meta comment while writing Monty Python’s Flying Circus. He used the term to refer to a character that would speak about the situation they were in.

Monty Python would often use this technique, like in this clip from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. They would break the 4th wall repeatedly in several shots, as multiple characters shouted to “get on with it” and get back to the film.

As popular as Monty Python was, breaking the fourth wall is most associated with director Mel Brooks. Brooks would make an entire career out of unexpected comedy. Perhaps the finest example was in his 1974 film Blazing Saddles.

The movie is absolutely full of these meta jokes, from the characters entering a movie theater to watch themselves to a major fight sequences that breaks out of the set and spills into the movie studio lot. The fight scene actually broke through several walls, not just the fourth. The scene moves sideways and breaks into other movies.

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