Most traditionally however, the fourth wall is a method of conveying a particular branch of meta-fiction, known as ‘meta-humour.’ Meta-humour can be defined as those jokes in which part of the comedy value is actually the joke itself.
“A priest, a rabbi and an imam walk into a bar – the bartender looks up and says “what is this, some kind of joke?” is a ‘meta-joke.’ One of Deadpool’s most famous characteristics is his meta-humour, commenting – for example – to an adversary in A+X #8 who has wrongly identified he and Hawkeye as ‘Ninja Spider-Man and Purple Arrow’ that their “respective [comic book] series’ haven’t been out all that long: It’s understandable.”
Then, of course, there’s the famous X-Men: Origins reference used in the teaser trailer, which states that Marvel studios “inexplicably sewed his f—ing mouth shut the first time.”
Community’s constant pop-culture references and in-house spoofs are all examples of meta-humour. Wet Hot American Summer is currently smashing Hulk sized holes in the fourth wall by making references to the now ridiculous age gap between the actors and their characters, showing how some of the original movie’s characters became who they are in the movie, and by bringing back some of the movie’s most bizarre but memorably cult-inducing features (a talking can of vegetables. Who knew.)
Incidentally, attempting to define meta-humour is no joke…
But the fourth wall does not always just involve the characters sharing a joke with the audience. Breaking the fourth wall is actually a remarkably flexible device, and it has been appearing in movies in a variety of ways for a very long time. Admittedly, it is most often used for comedic effect, but it can also be used for shock factor, character-to-audience secrecy, sympathy, repulsion, social commentary, education, and occasionally as the movie’s wrap up (there was no sensible – or affordable way – to end King Arthur’s battle with the French in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, so the police show up just as the fighting begins, disperse the crowds, and knock the camera over. Problem solved.)
The following is a list of ways in which the fourth wall has been broken or used over the years, featuring a collection of movies that range in genre from romantic comedy to indie drama, and including everyone from James Bond to Homer Simpson. The list is by no means totally inclusive, and there have had to be some sad omissions from the titles used (although there is a ‘lucky dip’ section at the end which attempts to make up for this to some extent).
But those featured have been chosen for the fact that taken all together they give a fairly comprehensive tour through the hilarious, sad, audacious, and endlessly surprising world beyond the mysterious thing that is the fourth wall.
Forget going to the movies –the movies are coming to you.