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.