Breaking the fourth wall is when a character or the movie/TV show directly acknowledges the audience. It could be by speaking directly to the audience or having the characters recognise that they are in a movie or a TV show. Recently it has been used to great effect by Ryan Reynold’s Deadpool, who breaks the fourth wall to narrate his own adventure but also clearly realises he is in a movie, talking about studio budgets and which actor is playing Professor X.
It isn’t just a device used for comedy. It can often be a way of conveying a characters feelings, demonstrating the intelligence of one person above others or just a very clever way of involving the audience directly in the events of the show or movie. If done well it adds a level of intensity to drama or can lead to some of the funniest jokes in a comedy scene.
It is used effectively in many TV shows. The series making the most out of breaking the fourth wall is House of Cards. Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood often takes an aside and addresses the audience, outlining a plan or giving some context to his actions. In the more recent series, Underwood has played with this, going a whole episode without addressing the audience and then commenting in the final scene “thought I forgot about you?” or after a pretty disastrous decision snarling directly at the camera “what are you looking at.” You are complicit in his actions but never his friend.
Compare this to when it doesn’t work or offer anything fresh to the series. Breaking the fourth wall should never just a be clever substitute for narration. The first season of Sex and The City often had Sarah Jessica Parker breaking the fourth wall and expressing her inner thoughts. That is all this was though, just a stream of conscious thoughts, not an active involvement of the audience, meaning that it was dropped for the second season onwards and a traditional narration was adopted.
This is because breaking the foruth wall doesn’t have to be a constant device used in the series. It can be a one-off. Will Smith in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air could often break the fourth wall with a simple look to camera, like in the episode where Aunt Vivien was replaced by a new actress and everyone tried to play it cool. Classic breaking the fourth wall.
Comedy does it better than most because it can add an extra level of humour. Two of the best series to do this are The Office and Parks and Recreation. They are shot like a faux-documentary so often have direct-to-camera interviews. This means that characters get to directly address the camera and you get a clever insight into their thought-processes, often giving the best moments of the series. A current TV sitcom still utilising this is Modern Family. It isn’t a documentary but the interviews on the family sofa or the odd look directly to camera can sometimes be better than the more traditional jokes or scenes.
It isn’t just a TV trope though and movies have been utilising this device for a long time. Sometimes it can be a one-off, a moment that offers a good gag. The most famous is probably when Woody Allen has an argument with a amateur-movie critic in Annie Hall and then gets the subject of the argument involved in the conversation to completely undermine the would-be critic. In a less comedic sense you have scenes from movies like Fight Club. Both Edward Norton’s narrator and Brad Pitt’s Tyler Durden address the audience, the latter being at the height of Durden’s “influence.”
Breaking the fourth wall can also give a character added charm. Deadpool is a great example I’ve already mentioned but it was done way before then by characters like Matthew Broderick in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. You were on the teenagers side from the beginning as he offered life lessons or eventually chastised the audience for still watching after the credits.
More recent and used perfectly was Leonardo Di Caprio addressing the audience to offer his master-plans in The Wolf of Wall Street. The character of Jordan Belfort is not one to like, he is a manipulative, greedy and nasty piece of work but you can’t help but be on his side because he has involved the audience and used them to complicity explain his plan.
Another Oscar-winning movie uses fourth wall breaking but this time to help explain complicated plot points and terms. The Big Short has Margot Robbie in a bath to help explain sub-prime mortgages. She isn’t a character in the movie but it is a clever way to get across an unfamiliar phrase (plus Margot Robbie is in a bath so you are bound to listen!)
Overall, breaking the fourth wall can be a very effective device to help your movie flow, your TV show stand-out or a character be more affable with the audience. If done well it can be a character trait which helps them stand-out or offer a very good gag in a simple way. Other times it can help your story flow. It should be used sparingly but if done well can be the best aspects of a show or film.