How do you feel when a movie breaks the fourth wall? Betrayed? Humored? Confused? Meta-comedy is responsible for such approaches to the genre. What makes it so interesting is that there isn’t really another genre of comedy quite like it. It forces the viewer to step back and confront the fact that what he or she is viewing is a performance and that none of it is actually real. Classic examples include the work of Woody Allen and Shakespeare, where characters constantly step out of the action of the plot to talk to the audience about their current state or future plans, or even just to make a joke.
Meta-comedy really reached its height with the movies of Mel Brooks, who went out of his way to not only break the fourth wall but to absolutely destroy that wall and never look back. In the climax of Brooks’s Blazing Saddles, the characters literally bust through the wall onto another Hollywood set and continue the action there. It was his taste for meta that drove most of Brooks’s films into the iconic statuses they hold today; movies such as Spaceballs, Young Frankenstein, and The Producers are brimming with meta-comedy and are considered some of the staples of the comedy genre.
So with all of the promise and cleverness that meta-comedy can provide, why is it that instances of it in film and TV are now few and far between? I’m hard-pressed to find examples of clever meta-comedy nowadays, and I can’t understand why. Perhaps with the current state of the country, with all of the political fervor and clashing ideologies, people want to escape to the alternative worlds that TV and film have to offer more than ever.
Or perhaps people feel that meta-comedy is old news and that topical humor is the only way to bring in the views, and they’re not wrong. Saturday Night Live’s take on the first presidential debate currently has close to 18 million views on YouTube, while the debate itself only has 12.5 million. It has become easy for comedians to joke about both sides of the political spectrum because it’s pretty hard to turn on the news and not see something about either Clinton or Trump.
But with so much of the current political discussion revolving around transparency (whether it be email servers or tax returns), why not bring some transparency to our entertainment? Enter Dan Harmon, producer of such shows as Rick and Morty and Community, which are helping to revitalize the niche of meta-comedy. Harmon wants to make it incredibly clear to the audience that what they are watching is a TV show and that real issues are happening out in the real world. Characters in Community even make reference to this, saying that life isn’t a TV show where everything wraps up nicely. Harmon shakes us back into the real world with his cleverly written meta-comedy, and I hope his work brings about a second life for the long-forgotten genre.
We are living in a constantly-changing world where it can be easy to escape into the worlds of TV and film to get away. As Mel Brooks even said, “Humor is just another defense against the universe.” What I hope is that, like Brooks, comedians begin to use humor not as a defense against the universe, but as a way to tell us to look at it.
This article was written by Alex Gurasich. Click here to see more of Alex’s work.