‘The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show’ in ‘The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show’; ‘The African Queen’ in ‘The Road to Bali’

The idea of the fourth wall is commonly thought to have originated with the French philosopher Denis Diderot, though he didn’t give it a number. Diderot wrote in 1758: “When you write or act, think no more of the audience than if it had never existed. Imagine a huge wall across the front of the stage, separating you from the audience, and behave exactly as if the curtain had never risen.”

Today, when the fourth wall is invoked, it’s usually in reference to “breaking” it — that is, writers or characters who disobey Diderot, acknowledge the audience’s existence, and directly speak to it. And it’s invoked a lot, as we live in a very meta age, where art both high (Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lighness of Being) and low (virtually every episode of Family Guy) are concerned.

Even before it had a name, fourth-wall-breaking had a long history — Chaucer and Shakespeare do it, to name two luminaries — but in the middle decades of the twentieth century, it had a very special province in American comedy (plus Monty Python). Early on, it served anarchic, transgressive ends, for example in Marx Brothers movies. As Arts & Popular Culture describes, “In their 1932 film Horse Feathers … when Chico sits down at a piano to begin a musical interlude, Groucho turns to the camera and deadpans ‘I’ve got to stay here, but there’s no reason why you folks shouldn’t go out into the lobby until this thing blows over.'”

In the truly weird Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1942), W.C. Fields, playing himself, unsuccessfully tries to sell a script to a movie executive named Mr. Pangborn, played by Franklin Pangborn. He goes to an ice cream parlor to drown his sorrows and talks directly to the camera: “This scene is supposed to be in a saloon, but the censor cut it out.” And Warner Brothers cartoons are full of moments when Bugs Bunny and other characters make wisecracks intended solely for us, the audience.

The fourth wall got pretty much obliterated in the television series The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show. In the early years of its 1950-’58 run, when it was filmed live, Burns (playing comedian George Burns) would stand to the side and comment to the audience about the action. Through 1953, Fred Clark played the part of Harry Morton. In an espisode that year, Wikipedia says:

George walks on-stage and freezes the scene just before Harry’s entrance and explains that Clark has left the show to perform on Broadway. He introduces Larry Keating, who enters, and then calls over Bea Benaderet to introduce the two saying, “This is Larry Keating and he is going to be your husband now”. The pair greet and chat briefly, complimenting each other on their previous work. George remarks that if they are going to be so nice to each other, no one will believe they are married. Burns then gives a cue, Blanche resumes her position, and the scene continues where it stopped as if nothing had happened.

In the later years of the series, in a rather eerie Big Brother move, George would repair to his study and spy on the other characters on a TV screen.

 

The insult-the-wife’s-cooking humor hasn’t aged well. (By the way, that’s Larry Keating as Harry.) Later in the scene, George switches to another channel in an effort to locate his wife, Gracie.

 

Part of the humor is that the audience knew — or at least knew the shtick — that Benny was a cheapskate, and that he and Burns were buddies.

This sort of insider knowledge — more comfortable than Marxian comic iconoclasm — is the basis for a lot of the many instances of wall-breaking in the seven “Road” movies Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, and Dorothy Lamour made between 1940 and 1962. One or the other of the boys is constantly looking at the camera and joking about Crosby’s golf playing, Hope’s inability to win an Oscar, and the studio that produced all but one of the pictures, Paramount. Arts & Popular culture notes:

In Road to Utopia, they are traveling across frozen land on dogsled, when a mountain appears. Hope says, “Get a load of that bread and butter!” Crosby remarks, “Bread and butter? That’s a mountain!” Then the words “Paramount Pictures” appear on the mountain and Hope comments, “It may be a mountain to you, but it’s bread and butter to me!”

In Road to Bali (1952), directed by Hal Walker, as some music starts to play, Hope looks at the camera and says, “He’s gonna sing, folks. Now’s the time to go out and get the popcorn.” Later, the trio are shipwrecked on a desert island when all of a sudden a guy in white-hunter outfit and pith helmet strolls in, raises a shotgun, fires it, and walks away. Crosby remarks, “That’s my brother Bob. I promised him a shot in my next picture.” Then,

 

It’s actually a clip from Bogart in The African Queen, which won the Best Picture Academy Award the previous year. Bogie clearly was a good sport, allowing his image to appear not only here but in the Bugs Bunny classic Slick Hare (1947).

slick-hare

‘Three’s Company’ in ‘Friends’

This scene appeared in 1994, in the second episode (the first, if you don’t count the pilot) of the NBC sitcom Friends.

The fifteen-second sequence suggests some of the things I like, and don’t like, about Friends. On the like side: the reference to Three’s Company is canny. That comedy, which aired from 1977 till 1984, was also about a coed group of young people who lived in proximity to each other (Friends doubled the number to six) and relied a lot on sex jokes and innuendo. But with this early scene, Friends’ creators — David Crane and Marta Kauffman — signaled that this was a new era. Their show would be less broad, smarter, and (I hesitate to use the word) more realistic.

On the don’t-like side: Friends relied way too much on Chandler’s sarcastic wisecracks, and often they weren’t great wisecracks. Like this one: “I think this is the episode of Three’s Company where there’s some kind of misunderstanding.” It’s well-crafted, I grant it that — although it would have been better if the writers had respected our intelligence a bit and left out the words “of Three’s Company.

More of a problem is that even in 1994, it was a tired joke. I remember going to comedy clubs in the early ’80s and hearing comedians talk about being in hotel rooms and turning on Gilligan’s Island — “It was the episode where they almost get off the island.” Beyond that, Chandler’s line isn’t specific to Three’s Company. Probably three quarters of all sitcoms, at least before the ’80s, revolved around some kind of misunderstanding.

Of course, Friends doesn’t need my approval. It’s been voted as the greatest sitcom by IMDB and Ranker, and Netflix just paid $100 million for the rights to keep airing it. It even has become the means by which just almost all Spanish-speaking baseball players attempt to learn English.

But that doesn’t mean I have to like it.

‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ (and a lot more) in ‘The Sopranos’

In an online discussion of movies-in-movies, the critic Tim Page brought up HBO’s The Sopranos (1999-2007). I didn’t watch the series when it was on, but the more I looked into it, the more I realized Mr. Page had opened up a can of worms. In his book The Sopranos: Born Under a Bad Sign, Franco Ricci talks about the show’s rich use of background images, objects, and actions to provide almost a counterpoint narrative to the main one: “Contemporary pop posters or recognizable artworks surge to the fore and proffer unexpected commentary behind the characters, a television dialogue playing on a distant TV set may fill in the blank spaces of silence in character dialogue.”

The stuff on the TV set is obviously to the point here. Ricci notes that series creator David Chase and the other writers depict the characters, especially Tony Soprano, as forever watching  TV, and choose carefully what they’re watching. He writes that what’s on the screen “often faithfully mirror the actions that transpire in that particular episode. Or, they may contradict information previously revealed in the episode and may portend an uncomfortable, unresolved end.”

Looming over the entire series are The Godfather and its sequels. Tony and his boys are obsessed with them, always aspiring to the Corleone family’s style and stature, always aware of how their exploits fall short. In this scene, the guys settle in to watch a bootleg copy of Godfather II, even as Tony says, “I can’t watch this again.”

I can’t decide whether the technical difficulties Chase concocted were because he thought literally seeing the movie would somehow undercut its metaphorical significance, or because he didn’t want to pay Paramount for the rights.

Ricci has an appendix in his book where he itemizes all examples of TVs playing recognizable programs in The Sopranos. There are an astonishing forty-two of them (and that’s not even including cases where commercials or news programs are on), from Tony watching his beloved History Channel in season 1 through Tony and his wife Carmella watching a rerun of Dick Cavett interviewing Katharine Hepburn in one of the last episodes of the final season.

One of the most TV-besotted episodes, if not the most, is “Where’s Johnny?”, from the fifth season in 2004. In the course of the fifty-four minutes running time, characters watch This Old House, a nature documentary about prairie dogs (nature docs are to Uncle Junior what the History Channel is to Tony), a Tony Robbins infomercial (which includes a spurious Henry James quote, “It’s time to start living the life you’ve imagined”), an unintelligible talk show, and a scene from the movie His Girl Friday which we don’t see but from which we hear a snatch of dialogue between Abner Biberman, who plays a small-time thug, and Rosalind Russell, as reporter Hildy Johnson: “Hi, Hildy. / Oh, hello, Louie. How’s the big slot-machine king? / Oh, I ain’t doin’ that no more; I’m retired.”

The implicit video commentary is so incessant that at one point, when we glimpse an unturned-on TV set, it’s shocking.

In the most notable use of video, Uncle Junior (Dominic Chianese), who in a subsequent scene proudly declares, “I have cable,” sits down to watch television. Tommy di Palma, who’s looking after him as his dementia worsens, clicks the channels, briefly alighting on a reality show featuring “glass-house couples” and an unidentifiable (by me) black and white film noir. He lands on “The Doll,” an episode of the HBO comedy Curb Your Enthusiasm. (Uncle Junior doesn’t only have cable, he has premium cable.) Junior gets some strange notions about what he’s watching.

 

A couple of ironies, or at least interesting connections, here. First is that the Curb scene is also about uncertain identity. And second, Junior really does look like Larry David, and Bobby really does look like Jeff.

Writing posts on each of the other forty-one TV-in-TV Sopranos scenes for this blog obviously isn’t a smart idea, but I definitely will pick my spots and return to the show from time to time.

 

 

“The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show” in “The Simpsons”

Poochie
Poochie

As viewers of The Simpsons know, The Itchy & Scratchy Show is a cartoon often watched by Bart, Lisa, and their friends; it’s about a mouse who finds ever more baroque ways to maim and/or kill a cat. The cartoon-within-a-cartoon first appeared in 1988, when the characters who would become The Simpsons were a feature of The Tracey Ullman Show, and, according to the Simpsons Wiki, has been featured eighty-seven times on The Simpsons proper.

“The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show” (1998) was a milestone for The Simpsons: with it, the show passed The Flintstones for the most episodes produced for a prime-time animated series. Probably not coincidentally, the episode provides a deliciously meta look at the problems confronted by a long-running show. You see, ratings for The Krusty the Clown show are plummeting whenever Itchy and Scratchy comes on, and Krusty isn’t happy. “But Itchy & Scratchy is critically acclaimed!” the cartoon’s producer, Roger Meyers Jr., tells him. “Acclaimed?” the clown snorts. “I oughta replace it right now with that Chinese cartoon where the robots turn into blingwads!”

The attempts to get Itchy & Scratchy back on its feet were surely taken from The Simpsons’ staff’s own experiences, from the self-contradictory focus groups (“So you want a realistic, down-to-earth show that’s completely off-the-wall and swarming with magic robots?”) to the notes from network execs. They’re sure the show needs a new character–a dog. “We at the network want a dog with attitude,” one suit says. “He’s edgy. He’s in your face. You’ve heard the expression ‘let’s get busy’? Well, this is a dog who gets ‘biz-zay.'” (Remember, this episode appeared in 1998, when the “let’s get biz-zay” Arsenio Hall Show had already been off the air for four years.)

The ploy doesn’t, of course, fool Lisa: “Adding a new character is often a desperate attempt to boost low ratings,” she confides to Bart. Magically and without explanation, a new kid appears in the Simpsons household, Roy; like Poochie, he wears shades and a backwards baseball cat. Á la The Fonz, he calls Homer and Marge “Mr. and Mrs. S.”

Improbably, Homer is hired to provide the voice of the cartoon dog, Poochie. He appears with “June Bellamy,” who does Itchy’s and Scratchy’s voices, at a fan event. And that gives the episode’s writer, David X. Cohen, a chance to skewer the bulletin-board-lurking obsessives The Simpsons had already begun to attract. One of them, Doug, pushes up his glasses and asks a question.

In episode 2F09, when Itchy plays Scratchy’s skeleton like a xylophone, he strikes the same rib in succession, yet he produces two clearly different tones. I mean, what are we to believe, that this is a magic xylophone, or something? Ha ha, boy, I really hope somebody got fired for that blunder.

Homer: I’ll field that one. Let me ask *you* a question. Why would a grown man whose shirt says “Genius at Work” spend all of his time watching a children’s cartoon show?

[embarrassed pause]

Doug: I withdraw my question.

[starts eating a candy bar]

Everybody gathers at the Simpsons house to watch the episode.

Nelson’s right, it stunk. As usual, Lisa has the sharpest take: “It’s just that Poochie was a soulless by-product of committee thinking. You can’t be cool just by spouting a bunch of worn-out buzzwords.

To which Bart inevitably replies, “Don’t have a cow, Lise.”

Cohen gets in more jab at the “fans.”

Comic Book Guy: Rest assured I was on the internet within minutes registering my disgust throughout the world.

Bart: Hey, I know it wasn’t great, but what right do you have to complain?

Comic Book Guy: As a loyal viewer, I feel they owe me.

Bart: What? They’re giving you thousands of hours of entertainment for free. What could they possibly owe you? If anything, you owe them.

Comic Book Guy responds with the first iteration of what would become one of The Simpsons’ own greatest buzzwords: “Worst. Episode. Ever.”