Speaking of last night’s 30 Rock, the B story, while lame (and there are few things lamer than a weak B story attached to a strong episode), did offer a cute bit of meta-humour about the show. Tracy and Jenna’s jealousy of Kenneth, who is more popular and getting bigger laughs from the elevator crowd than they are, was an obvious reference to the fact that Jack McBrayer’s character is more popular than these two higher-billed actors. He’s practically the Urkel of 30 Rock. So to comment on this issue without actually breaking the fourth wall, the show set up a parallel situation. We can choose to see it as a reference to the show, but the characters remain unaware that they’re on TV.
An extension of this technique is the kind of scene where the characters seem to be talking about the television show but the writers then throw in some reason why their remarks apply to the “real world” within the show. The first direct-to-DVD Futurama movie started with a long scene like this, where all the references to “the network” and “our many fans” were explained in some way. (I have to admit I found this another example of why Futurama is more coy and arch than actually funny.)
The other kind of meta-humour is just openly having people refer to themselves as TV characters. But there aren’t many shows that do that. Interestingly, it seems to work a lot better in shows that are hour-longs and aren’t strictly comedies, rather than half-hour comedies and cartoons. When a character on a sitcom or a cartoon talks to the audience, it can seem vaguely smug, like when Tina Fey asked for money after plugging Verizon on, well, 30 Rock. But when Moonlighting‘s David and Maddie (mostly David) started winking at the camera and declaring that they’d solved the mystery “during the commercial,” audiences loved it, and (at first anyway) it didn’t completely shatter their suspension of disbelief in the characters. (And the writers loved it because they could use the meta-stuff to excuse the holes in their weak plotting.) But once Boston Legal has its final episode on Dec. 8, we’ll lose a lot of references to “this episode” and complaints about ABC’s lack of promotion. (As well as another show that uses the fourth wall breaking to pre-empt complaints about the plots.) I don’t know who’s going to pick up the meta-slack — though if the characters of Grey’s Anatomy started apologizing directly to the audience for the whole dead-guy plot, that might be helpful.
It’s also possible to mix the two kinds of meta, like in the recent Boston Legal about the Crazy David Kelley Lawsuit™ against networks that discriminate against older viewers and older-skewing programs. Much of the episode was unconscious meta (we know it’s about the show we’re watching, but the characters don’t seem to), but at one point John Larroquette was going to name Boston Legal as an older-skewing show, then stopped himself because “then I’d be breaking the fourth wall.”
In the absence of an ending for this post, enjoy this semi-famous 1997 Pinky and the Brain episode, a classic “unconscious meta” episode: to make fun of network demands for the addition of a new character to the show, the writers did an episode about the network-imposed addition of a lame third-wheel character who adds nothing at all… but the characters are unaware that anything has changed. (I think the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode “Superstar” may have used this as the inspiration for the gimmick of changing the title sequence to accommodate the new star.)