Skip to content. | Skip to navigation

Personal tools

Commentaries on this Media!

Direct Address in TV Comedy

by Jeremy Butler

Much of early television bore the legacy of vaudeville. Musical variety programs—mixing vaudevillesque music, acrobatics, ventriloquism, and comic skits—dominated early television. The Milton Berle Show (1948–67), The Ed Sullivan Show (1948–71) and The Jackie Gleason Show (1952–70) are just three of the long-running variety programs that were popular during that time. In each, a host spoke directly to the viewer, introducing the short performances that constituted the weekly show. And the performances themselves were also directly presented to the viewer. Even the comic narrative pieces featured the performer looking directly at the camera (a taboo in dramatic television) and implicitly or explicitly addressing the viewer. An example of explicit address of the audience in a narrative program comes from The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show (1950–58), one of television’s early successes. Before the story begins, Burns comes out and, speaking in front of a curtain as if in a theater, he talks to the in-studio audience and, by extension, to the audience viewing at home. He shatters the suspension of disbelief and the fourth wall by explaining, “For the benefit for those who have never seen me before, I am what is known in show business as a straight man. Know what a straight man is? I’ll tell you. After the comedian gets through with a joke, I look at the comedian and then I look at the audience. Like this. [He demonstrates.]” Then, later in the show, we can see this vaudevillian technique in action during the narrative.

In the 1970s the musical variety program fell from favor with the U.S. audience, but vaudeville-style performance continues in programs such as Saturday Night Live (1975–) and in comic monologues such as those that begin late-night talk shows and are presented in stand-up comic programs on cable television. And Burns’ mix of vaudeville with the sitcom can still be found in comic remarks made directly to the viewer by characters on Moonlighting (1985–89), Malcolm in the Middle (2000–06), and The Bernie Mac Show (2001–06) and in the voiceover narration of My Name Is Earl (2005–09). 

The Omniscient Narrator

by Jeremy Butler

Speech in narrative television most commonly takes the form of dialogue among characters. Dialogue does not typically address viewers. It is as if they were eavesdropping on a conversation. Characters speak to each other as if we were not listening. In some comic situations, however, a character will break this convention of the “fourth wall” and speak directly to the camera. It was done as early as The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show (1950–58) and continues into twenty-first-century television with Malcolm in the Middle (2000–06) and The Bernie Mac Show (2001–06). These direct addresses of the viewer are from an intriguing, narratively ambiguous space. When Malcolm talks to us, he clearly does so from within the diegetic space—as a character, not the actor, Frankie Muniz. But when George Burns and Bernie Mac speak to us, it is as the actors, Burns and Mac, but they’re still embedded in the fiction, in the diegetic space. Although Burns was actually married to Gracie Allen, he wasn’t really friends with the characters in the show. And Mac was a comic in real life and on the show, but he wasn’t actually married to Kellita Smith, the actress who played his wife. When Burns and Mac look us in the “eye” and talk to us, they are doing so both as actors and as characters. The programs deliberately blur the distinction for humorous effect. Other programs do not put the character on screen when he or she addresses us. Through narration or voiceover, in which a character’s or omniscient narrator’s voice is heard over an image, a character can speak directly to the viewer. For example, the adult Kevin Arnold talks to the viewer about his younger self in The Wonder Years (1988–93) and an unidentified narrator (Ron Howard) comments on the hapless Bluth family in Arrested Development (2003–06).2 (Note the difference between “narration,” which refers to a voice speaking over an image, and “narrative,” which we use more generally to refer to some sort of story or fiction.) 

Direct Address in "Malcolm in the Middle"

Malcolm addresses the camera directly.

from Malcolm in the Middle (2000)
Creator: Twentieth Century-Fox
Distributor: Fox
Posted by Jeremy Butler