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?