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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). 

This Commentary is related to the following Clips:
Direct Address in "Malcolm in the Middle" by Twentieth Century-Fox (2000) Malcolm addresses the camera directly.