Blurring the Fourth Wall

By Hannah Robinson

In a 2013 article, television critic Hank Stuever blamed the marked decline of Saturday Night Live on sketches that spent too much time “being self-referential and nostalgic.” Stuever argued that “the only audience the cast members are playing to is themselves.”  However, self-reference has been a key element of this primetime sketch comedy since its inception. Self-referentiality, metareference, and fourth-wall breaking is an essential element of recent popular television comedies. From the ironic observations of The Office’s Jim Halpert to the ruminations of family life by the characters of Modern Family, television comedians have adapted self-reference to the post-millennial era. 

Self-reference is a tactic used by artists today for a variety of reasons. Human communication is understood primarily in terms of content yet the act of communication is an essential element. In stylistic entertainment, such as literature, plays, and television, the audience expects a seamless combination of content and communication. However, an artist can draw attention to the communication process, forcing content into a vehicle for the artist’s self-broadcasting, breaking the boundary of viewer and performer. This action is referred to as self-referentiality. Artists employ self-referentiality to deliberately highlight their work, calling attention to the artificial nature of their performance. Self-referentiality is incredibly prevalent in twentieth-century American popular culture and this paper examines the research of popular culture scholars who examine the various purposes of this method. 

The research examined in this essay primarily focuses on the television medium. First, Joann Gardner studies 1950s television comedians use of self-referentiality to justify artistic integrity as they transitioned from the vaudeville stage to the television screen. Next, Michael Dunne examines self-referentiality across a wide spectrum of entertainment mediums, arguing that this tactic is not highbrow but rather for the masses, concluding that American society is not passive but in control of cultural messages. Finally, Eric Detweiler surveys the use of irony, self-reference, and paradox in post-millennial comedies. Gardner, Dunne, and Detweiler question the purpose of self-reference in television and ask how metareference methods allow American popular culture consumers to control mass entertainment. 

In the 1988 article “Self-Referentiality in Art: A Look at Three Television Situation-Comedies of the 1950s,” English scholar Joann Gardner examines the use of self-referentiality in three 1950s television situation comedies. Gardner focuses on this barrier-breaking technique from the perspective of the performers, rather than the audience. The star actors from the George Burns and Gracie Allen Show and the Jack Benny Program transitioned from the vaudeville stage to the small screen. Gardner proposes that the comedy actors carried insecurities from vaudeville, which the public often criticized as a non-legitimate form of entertainment. The actors occasionally violated traditional television conventions and used self-referentiality to examine their own new attitudes about the fledgling television profession while also encouraging the audience to do the same. Gardner examines metareference and self-referentiality in the George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, the Jack Benny Program, and I Love Lucy to show both the difficulties of television as an art form and the ways in which comedians grappled with self-expression. 

Self-referentiality requires a certain degree of literary sophistication from the audience and the success of such a tactic in twentieth-century American television shows a deep interest in the artificial. Normally a viewer remains separate, watching the presentation, but when an actor addresses the audience directly or refers to their “real world” selves on the screen, the illusion of physical separation is broken, boundaries fade, and the viewer becomes part of the art. In the Burns and Allen Show insecurities about the legitimacy of stage performers is reflected in the main characters’ social relationships with outsiders. For example, in one episode Gracie visits a scientist’s lab and is mistaken for a new lab assistant. She looks into a microscope and asks, “What channel is this, CBS?” Responding to the question “Do you know anything at all about radioactivity?” she replies, “Oh yes. We’ve been in it for years.”  The humor of this exchange depends entirely on the viewer’s knowledge of Allen’s career and also questions Gracie’s authenticity as a fictional character. The main characters use self-referentiality as a device to blur life and art, engaging the audience by questioning the true identity of Gracie and George. For the majority of the show, the characters hide their genius but self-referentiality questions the true intelligence of the characters and the actors themselves. Self-referentiality highlights the status of the performer and examines the identity of the middle-class American being portrayed. 

Similarly to the actors on the Burns and Allen Show, Jack Benny also suffered from the same difficulties transitioning from vaudeville, to radio, to television. Every episode of the show followed a usual pattern with the characters playing some form of their real selves. This balance between the real and unreal urged the audience to question the identity of Jack Benny in the program. Various situations forced the viewer to directly consider the barrier, or fourth wall, separating the real world from the art world. Unlike the Burns and Allen Show and the Jack Benny Program, I Love Lucy does not break the fourth wall. However the actors are very similar to their fictional characters. Gardner argues that this less obvious use of self-referentiality is directly related the origin of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz’s career: radio, not vaudeville. She proposes that actors transitioned easier from radio to television and did not create the same kind of self-consciousness. 

Gardner’s study of 1950s television primarily focuses on the actor’s reasons for using self-referentiality: self-consciousness and insecurity in a new medium. Her 1989 article paved the way for further studies of this dramatic and literary device. Gardner’s conclusions are intriguing as one of the first scholars to tackle the self-referentiality topic. She convincingly argues her thesis and proposes interesting points about middle-class American culture and escapism, but these arguments could have been explored better. Gardner also attempts to explain the continuing use of these tactics, proposing that advancement in technology in the later twentieth-century causes social anxieties similar to that of the vaudeville to television transition. 

While Gardner examined a small subsection of television, English scholar Michael Dunne explores self-referentiality in television, film, rock and country music, music videos, and comic strips in his 1992 monograph Metapop. Dunne builds on the work of Gardner and expands the study of self-referential techniques. Dunne proposes that self-referentiality in all mediums of popular culture is used for similar reasons. Dunne refutes the common opinion that television creates a passive audience and a passive American society. He argues that the prevalence of self-referentiality in multiple sources of entertainment proves that audiences are knowledgeable. Since self-referentiality requires both actor and viewer to participate, the viewer holds a degree of control over the cultural messages delivered through popular culture. In brief, an overview of Dunne’s thesis and a discussion on the “Saturday Night Live and SCTV” chapter follows.

Dunne begins his study of self-referentiality with television because he argues that self-referentiality is inseparable from television due to the audience’s relationship with television. Americans bring televisions into their homes, unlike plays and movies where the viewer must physically go to a theater. This physical closeness to the television set directly influences and alters the viewer’s relationship to the medium, this makes the connection between viewer and television different than any other medium. Dunne proposes that plays and movies are uninterrupted allowing for an easier suspension of disbelief. On the other hand, television is constantly interrupted by commercials, news tickers, and weather reports. Dunne argues that since the content of television is so varied and that so much is being communicated, the viewer grows more aware of the methods of communication, allowing for the prevalent use of self-referentiality. Dunne agrees with Gardner and expands her argument by proposing that television comedies have increasingly employed self-referentiality into the 1990s. 

Monty Python’s Circus, Saturday Night Live, and Second City Television (SCTV) radicalized the formulas for television comedy established by forerunners like Jack Benny, Gracie Allen, and George Burns. In Dunne’s examples artists used self-referentiality in parody to engage the audience in a conversation about the medium of television itself. For example, in the 1976 Saturday Night Live episode “The Last Voyage of the Starship Enterprise,” the cast-mates break character and self-reference on multiple levels.  At the end of the sketch, John Belushi playing William Shatner playing Captain Kirk remains in character as the set is dismantled around him and dictates the captain’s log, “We have tried to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before. And except for one television network, we have found intelligent life everywhere in the galaxy.”  The understanding of the joke requires the viewer to be knowledgeable about Star Trek characters and stars, Nielsen ratings, and television production. Throughout the chapter Dunne shows how comedians reference their work and bring the audience into a mediated debate about the nature and purpose of television. Dunne’s other examples of self-referentiality similarly support his thesis about viewer’s recognition of the artificial nature of popular culture. He proves that American audiences have a familiarity with historical television conventions and hold agency in the consumption and creation of popular culture.

In a 2012 article “‘I Was Just Doing a Little Joke There’: Irony and the Paradoxes of the Sitcom in The Office,” English scholar Eric Detweiler examines the evolution of television comedy and self-reference in the new millennium. Detweiler argues that post-millennial comedies differ fundamentally from 1990s comedies. For example, the jokes in Seinfeld were often critiques on character’s situational conditions. So the comedy resulted from the gap between “what’s said and what’s meant.”  Alternatively, in a post-millennial comedy like NBC’s The Office the comedy blooms from the divide between “what’s seen and what’s seen” or “what’s said and what’s said.”  For example, Jim Halpert totally destroys the fourth wall speaking directly to the audience and serving as ironic escort to the world of Dunder Mifflin. Detweiler’s thesis in this article has two points. First, he argues that The Office invents new television conventions by using irony in a way not previously seen in sitcoms. Second, he proposes that the show creates a new hybrid of “ridicule as… the mode of social intercourse and those old commercial virtues of authority” creating a form of entertainment that both undermines and reinforces the ideals of the American middle class.  

Detweiler surveys The Office as an example of shifting methods of television comedy presentation. The primary way that The Office contributes to a metanarrative and solidly breaks the fourth wall is through the mock documentary set up. Characters, such as Jim Halpert, speak one-on-one to the camera and this serves the purpose of explaining ironical jokes to the audience. The tactic also makes Jim more trustworthy and sympathetic to the viewer. The show uses Jim’s direct conversations with the viewer to both reinforce traditional television conventions and question other expectations of the viewer. For example, Jim, a lower rung white collar worker, is often are frustrated with and perplexed by the idiocy of his boss Michael Scott. Since the show establishes an emotional connection between the viewer and Jim, this relationship places the thousands of American viewers firmly on the side of the worker in an uneven capitalist society. While the show often uses irony to reference societal issues, the mockumentary formula which breaks the fourth wall enhances the viewer’s understanding of The Office’s cultural critiques. Detweiler points out that television comedies will continue to be adapted and mediated by the audience through techniques such as irony, sentiment, and self-reference. 

Scholars have been fascinated by the blurring of the fourth wall through self-reference and most watchers of comedy television have expected self-referential jokes since the 1950s. This brief overview of the scholarship indicates how actors adapted self-reference to their generation and also how scholars have approached the study of self-reference. Gardner focuses on the actor, arguing that self-reference served to justify comedians’ shift from vaudeville to television. On the other hand, Dunne highlights the power of the audience by demonstrating the mediated nature of self-reference jokes. Finally, Detweiler incorporates a complicated discussion of class in American society and the ways in which fourth-wall-breaking irony can both disrupt and inculcate mainstream ideals of class and culture. While these scholars have broken ground on a subject important to the history of popular culture, the study of self-reference in twentieth-century television is understudied. This topic is in strong need of a historical perspective to examine how instances of self-reference in television comedy can illustrate larger social, economic, and cultural forces.

Sources:

Detweiler, Eric. “‘I Was Just Doing a Little Joke There’: Irony and the Paradoxes of the Sitcom in The Office.” The Journal of Popular Culture 45, no. 4 (August 1, 2012): 727–48. 

Dunne, Michael. Metapop: Self-Referentiality in Contemporary American Popular Culture. Studies in Popular Culture. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1992.

Gardner, Joann. “Self-Referentiality in Art: A Look at Three Television Situation-Comedies of the 1950s.” Studies in Popular Culture 11, no. 1 (January 1, 1988): 35–50.

Stuever, Hank. “‘Saturday Night Live,’ No Stranger to Slump Seasons, Begins to Recover.” The Washington Post, December 18, 2013.