In last week’s “30 Rock” finale, as she was about to tell Liz (Tina Fey) another crazy story about her alleged ex-boyfriend Mickey Rourke, Jenna (Jane Krakowski) trailed off mid-line, turned to the camera and confessed “I can’t do this anymore. I’ve never met Mickey Rourke.” It wasn’t the first time the series had broken the fourth wall — remember the Verizon product placement bit? — but it was a memorable nod to viewers who’ve kept up with the nutty mythology about Jenna’s relationship with Rourke that the show had built up over the years (it also let Rourke off the hook).
Even at its most meta, “30 Rock” has nothing on “House of Cards,” in which Kevin Spacey’s Francis Underwood regularly directly addresses the audience, letting loose insights into what he actually thinks of what’s going on around him. Like Francis Urquhart, his predecessor in the UK miniseries that inspired the Netflix drama, Underwood’s more honest in his asides to us than he is with anyone else on screen. A consummate politician, he offers up a calculating smile to everyone while seeming to want only to shake the world apart on the inside.
Having a character speak to or acknowledge the camera may not be the most stylistically subtle touch, but it can be an effective one when used for comedy, as a self-referencing wink or a structural shortcut, which is why it has such a long history on the small screen. Here’s a look at some notable fourth wall breakers.
Zack Morris, “Saved by the Bell” (1989–1993)
Who didn’t envy Zack Morris (Mark-Paul Gosselaar) — his ability to put the world on hold while he offered up his opinion on the latest developments at Bayside High? All he needed to do was signal for a time out and everyone would freeze while he stepped forward to the camera to deliver a soliloquy. Those time outs did inspire the occasional metaphysical question — as when Zack walked away from A.C. Slater’s (Mario Lopez) punch during one of them, calling a time in after he was out of range, suggesting that this wasn’t just a symbolic device but… some kind of superpower?
George Burns, “The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show” (1950–1958)
When this show first moved from radio to television when the form was still young, George Burns, Gracie Allen and the rest of their cast performed it live in front of an audience, with Burns taking breaks between scenes to stand outside the proscenium arch with his cigar and talk to the crowd about his life with Allen and what had just happened on stage, stand-up style. When the show made the transition to being filmed in its third season, Burns kept up the device, talking directly to the camera instead. The series was prone to breaking the fourth wall for other reasons as well — Burns famously froze the action (decades before Zack Morris) to tell viewers that Fred Clark would be leaving the show to star in a Broadway play, bringing on Larry Keating to take Clark’s place after he exited.
Maddie Hayes and David Addison Jr., “Moonlighting” (1985-1989)
Bruce Willis and Cybill Shepherd would sometimes appear in character as David and Maddie in the cold opens of this show to talk to the audience — the most directly fourth wall-breaking aspect of a comedy that got a lot of mileage out of calling attention to its own nature (like having a prop guy take away the villain’s gun in season two finale “Camille”). It was a handy trick for the producers of the show to pad on air time after the quick-talking leads would end up pacing an episode faster than planned — a fact they freely admit in the first instance in which this happens, in season two premiere “Brother, Can You Spare a Blonde?”
Bernie Mac, “The Bernie Mac Show” (2001–2006)
As the title character on his Fox sitcom, a fictionalized version of himself, the late Bernie Mac played a married comedian who ended up taking in his sister’s kids while she was in rehab and becoming a surrogate father to them. The more typical sitcom material was punctuated scenes of Mac in his man cave “sanctuary” talking to “America,” the audience, directly. It allowed Mac to both comment on the action and to offer up material that was closely tied to his stand-up act — he essentially monolgued the way he would on stage, only to the camera. Christopher Titus’ “Titus,” which also ran on Fox during that era from 2000-2002, similarly punctuated its far darker dysfunctional comedy with stand-up style monologues from its star in a black and white “neutral space” lit by a single light bulb.
Everyone, “Modern Family” (2009–present)
When “Modern Family” was first conceived, it was as an “Office”-style mockumentary — but by the time it made it to screen, the explanation of who was there filming and why was removed. “Modern Family” is shot in a loose, documentary style, and the characters have reality show style confessional interviews, but they’re not talking to anyone but us, the viewers. The show uses the visual language of unscripted television to offer what are basically asides to the camera in a less abrupted stylized fashion.
Ellery Queen, “Ellery Queen” (1975-1976)
This deliberately nostalgic NBC detective series, based on the series of mystery novels about the title character, never failed to offer the audience a chance to guess who done it. As in the books, before the final reveal Queen would turn to the camera and run through all the evidence and clues, leaving the viewers to mull over who the culprit was before reconvening after the commercial break to reveal the culprit.
Belle/Hannah, “Secret Diary of a Call Girl” (2007–2011)
It wasn’t just this Showtime comedy’s frank, female-centric attitude toward sex that earned it comparisons to “Sex and the City.” Like Carrie Bradshaw in the first season of HBO show, Hannah Baxter (Billie Piper), aka Belle, didn’t just narrate the series, she talked directly to the camera about her life as a high-class escort. It was as much an example of the character’s relative isolation due to her lifestyle as it was a device to allow her to explain her decisions — as she fought to keep her prostitution separate from her normal life as a girl supposedly working at a law firm, the audience ended up being the only ones let in on both sides of her existence.
Dobie Gillis, “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis” (1959-1963)
In the early days of this CBS sitcom, at least, Dobie Gillis (Dwayne Hickman) often began and closed out episodes speaking directly to the camera about what was on his mind. To reinforce this fact, Dobie did this while sitting next to a reproduction of “The Thinker,” though given that he was generally consumed with getting girls and making money, his musings were generally not as profound as his character seemed to believe they were.
Thomas Magnum, “Magnum, P.I.” (1980-1988)
The Skipper used to look to the camera whenever his first mate did something ridiculous on “Gilligan’s Island,” and George Reeves used to wink at the audience at the end of episodes of “Adventures of Superman,” but no one acknowledged the camera like Tom Selleck on “Magnum, P.I.” Playing Oahu private detective Thomas Magnum, Selleck’s signature move was to deliver a smirk to the audience that seemed intended as a self-acknowledgment of his mustachioed existence — of course, people are following along at home. John Hillerman’s Jonathan Quayle Higgins III also got some glances to the camera, but they were more of the “can you believe this guy?” variety.
Garry Shandling, “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show” (1986–1990)
Garry Shandling’s Showtime comedy showcased an unique type of self-awareness — Shandling, playing himself, was perfectly aware that he was a sitcom character, frequently addressing the audience and starting episodes off with monologues. “I think of you as more than viewers — I think of you as friends,” he explained to the camera and studio audience in the first episode while laying out the premise, kicking off something that was both a throwback to shows like “The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show” and surreally ahead of its time.