Before his cartoons hit the silver screen in films like Dream of a Rarebit Fiend (1906), cartoonist Windsor McCay practiced cinematic techniques on paper in his comics. One example can be seen in the “Little Sammy Sneeze” comic that we analyzed in class. The borders of the panels are strong and dark, forming a windowpane or sheet of glass. Sammy sneezes and shatters the glass, quite literally destroying the fourth wall, a “physical” barrier between reader and subject. The fourth wall is a conceptual space that separates us, the readers or viewers, from actors and characters on paper and on screen. Breaking the fourth wall occurs when a character becomes aware that they are just that: a character. The world in which they live becomes fictional. Following the glass breaking and crumbling on top of him, Sammy looks “into the camera,” directly at the reader, taking a step further in breaking the fourth wall. This is the point in which the cartoon becomes self-aware, establishing that it is part of a comic.
For years, breaking the fourth wall was regarded as taboo in the world of film and television for taking you out of the story and forcing you to acknowledge it as fictional. However, when utilized properly, it has potential to land a comedic hit or establish a punch line. In fact, breaking the fourth wall is starting to become normalized, especially in television, more specifically “talking heads” sitcoms like “The Office” and “Parks and Recreation.” These shows in particular rely heavily on breaking the fourth wall for their punch lines and catalyzing an emotional response in the viewer. For some reason, a technique that used to be criticized is now embraced; our favorite moments are when Jim Halpert looks dead into the camera and we know exactly how much he hates Dwight Schrute, or when Andy Dwyer excitedly engages with the “cameramen” as chaos ensues in the background. It allows us to feel like we’re connecting with these characters, which is something we also experience here with “Little Sammy Sneeze.”
What are some other things that breaking the fourth wall does for us as an audience, negative or positive?
5 comments on "Breaking the Fourth Wall"
I love the office and I totally understand the reference (actor staring directly into camera). For some reason breaking the fourth wall I see as more artistic than comical in comic but in television I find it hilarious. “Little Sammy Sneeze” for example did not make me laugh but it did make me think about the artistry and revolutionary effects of “breaking the fourth wall” while The Office just makes me laugh when characters look into the camera.
I’d agree that breaking the fourth wall serves very different purposes in television versus in comics and especially in “Little Sammy Sneeze.” That being said, I think it largely depends on the purpose behind breaking the fourth wall. Usually in sitcoms it’s to draw attention to the ridiculousness of the situation whereas in “Little Sammy Sneeze” I think it was more playful with the form itself rather than directly with the reader. That being said, even comics can use breaking the fourth wall for comedic effect such as in the Deadpool series.
Going off of agernio’s mentioning of Deadpool, one of my favorite comics ever is Deadpool Kills the Marvel Universe. In this comic, after a failed attempt at therapy activates a(nother) murderous voice in his head, Deadpool goes and kills off every other character in the MU. This would be an interesting enough plot for a comic, but the last few pages of the comic show Deadpool entering the “real” world, directly drawing attention to the fact that the reader and Deadpool are in different worlds. In what is probably the most interesting fourth wall break that I have ever read, the last page shows the writers of the comic writing Deadpool’s actions as he comes to kill them. While Deadpool often makes reference to the fact that he is in a comic, this takes it to a whole new level. While it isn’t breaking sixteen walls like he describes in the movie, this scene describes a part of what the creation of comic books is like. One of the writers says “Whatever this team is working on, it’s a comic book masterpiece! (And we’ll bold masterpiece just so the readers get the gravitas of that sentence”. The point of this scene is supposed to be humorous, but it also comments on the metaphysics of comics as a whole. The writer describe Deadpool noticing “some otherworldly force watching him”, to which Deadpool turns to the reader and says “Hey…I see you out there…watching”. This direct address to the reader is strange, even for Deadpool, who much prefers to comment about his own existence. The comic even ends with the ominous line: “I’ll find you soon enough”.
“The world in which they live becomes fictional.” This statement made me think about how a break in the fourth wall also seems to break our immersion in the comic/other media. We are very good at suspending disbelief and putting ourselves in the world of the comic, but when the fourth wall breaks it’s almost as if the world of the character breaks as well. I think that helps it to be a comedic effect, when you are essentially kicked out of the world of the comic and are forced to see it as just that, a comic.
I think fourth wall breaks can have both negative and positive effects for the audience, it depends on how its used and if its used well. For example, in the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, the breaking of the fourth wall is very effective as it is a stylistic choice that enhances, not disturbs, the viewing experience. The same can be said for the franchise Deadpool, where the lovable anti-hero frequently breaks the fourth wall. In Deadpool, the fourth wall breaking enhances the character’s anti-hero persona and adds to the franchise’s desire to deviate from the norm of super hero narratives. Sometimes, however, 4th-wall breaking doesn’t contribute to the stylistic or thematic qualities of a story but detracts from it. This usually is because the fourth wall break is random or misplaced, pulling the reader out of the experience. In other words, when the 4th wall is broken out of context, it can ruin the immersion for the viewer. I think examples such as the Sammy’s Sneeze comment use the 4th wall break well since it is ingrained and enhances the content.