Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Atop the Fourth Wall

No, not a post concerning the inimitable Linkara - though his comic-based webseries is awesome and I urge any fans of the medium to check it out.

Anyway, I was recently thinking about the use of fourth wall-breaking comedy in comics and animation, and how there's only so much of it I can take before it becomes annoying. Moments where the characters directly address the audience, refer to their artificial surroundings, or otherwise step out of their role and remind the viewer that what they're watching is not real, can be very funny if it's done right and very annoying if it's done wrong. The old Looney Tunes cartoons always seemed to get it right, because they never took themselves seriously. When Bugs Bunny cuts the film at the end of "Rabbit Punch" to get out of his predicament, or Yosemite Sam threatens to shoot a guy in the audience in "Rabbit Every Monday", or when Daffy Duck flusters with his sadistic animator all throughout "Duck Amuck", nobody gets taken out of the story because the whole thing is in the spirit of fun. There's no complex narrative there, it's just gag after gag.

But when there's an actual attempt at a real story going on, a fourth-wall gag feels out of place to me. The American dub of "Pokémon" has had a long history of doing this - stuff like Meowth pointing out that he wasn't drawn with a nose in "Pokémon Scent-sation" or Jessie rationalizing her padding-filled plot with the offhand remark of "We have to fill a half-hour" in "Hypno's Naptime" just comes out of nowhere and rubs me the wrong way. (For the record, the Japanese version of "Pokémon" takes itself a little more seriously and generally doesn't do stuff like this.)

Basically what it boils down to is that fourth wall humor works best when there's no real focus on story, or when the show or whatever in question is going strictly for laughs. I rarely use fourth wall humor when I'm telling a story because I want my readers to feel that my characters and their situations are real; having them turn to the reader and say "Ridiculous, isn't it?" would ruin that illusion. That's why I don't do any fourth wall gags in "Forever 16" - those characters feel very real to me, and I hope to elicit that same reaction from my audience.


  1. Linkara, along with the crew of TGWTG, is awesome. That webcomic, "Lightbringer," that he created with art by CR (Chad Rocco) is pretty bad-ass, too.

    Fourth wall gags are always funny, but for me half the time, it makes me wonder if the creators of a cartoon that constantly breaks the fourth wall are either trying to say that it's their own personal way of poking fun at their show and themselves, or if they're pointing out the flaws of their own cartoon. You're right, though, Jesse- it's all for laughs, and that's what really matters when go for absurd humor in a cartoon.

    Now that I think about it, I'm very tempted to do it with Quacklad and Tyrra in "Quacktown" sometime.

  2. Breaking a fourth wall is pretty risky business, as sometimes it will backfire the quality of the show...

    There's another way writers are breaking it recently, which is breaking it ironically, meaning they are unaware of the audience, but strongly hint at them. The most simple form is the character being places in an awkward/embarrasing situation and having them mutter something like "Phew, I'm glad nobody can see me like this..."

    They've used that sort of humour in games, too. I seem to recall a talk between two Sims in one of their games, one asking "Do you think it's possible that we could be just controlled by some higher power?" and the other telling his mate not to be ridiculous.

    Personally, I find this far better than other fourth-wall breakings, because sometimes I feel the characters getting way too buddy-buddy to the audience (Frankie Muniz, Malcom in the Middle, I'm looking in your direction. Yeah, hang your head in shame).

    In the end, I suppose if, and only if, a show is deemed "fourth wall breakage worthy" (that's a new term I've just invented, go me) then the show should stick to a certain style of it, and only use it when necessary.

  3. It's only good to do it and wacky comedy cartoons, Chowder does it so often it's not really that funny anymore.
    What you do with your characters in Forever 16 is good. No side glances to the audience.

  4. Yeah, that's the thing with breaking the fourth wall. To me, it's probably best you be clever about it or not make it a big deal (like the examples you mention) so it'll probably won't overstay its' welcome. Do it like a sudden "Screwy, isn't it"/"Don't try this at home" every time will be jarring, unless there's something unique about it.

    Kinda like comedy as a whole if you think about it.

  5. It works for some concepts and doesn't work for others. Bill Watterson tried it in some sample "Calvin and Hobbes" strips when he was shopping it around, and it REALLY didn't work there.

  6. By the way, I thought the fourth-wall Team Rocket stuff in Season 1 was great, sue me.

  7. Oh man, I love Linkara & The Nostalgia Critic! Both are very funny!

    But yeah, you have some pretty good points there. Maybe that's why that "This is why Superman works alone" line in Batman & Robin somewhat falls flat in an already crappy movie full of stupidity. If I were to do that in action shows with a plot, I'd make sure the show itself doesn't take itself very seriously at all, like a parody style. In fact, I think that certain parodies are perfect for that break-the-fourth-wall humor, like Spaceballs. Bottom line: it would probably work best to use fourth wall humor in something that doesn't take itself too seriously, like in parodies or in zany, Looney Tunes-style cartoons.