When TV characters break the fourth wall, they make us aware of the fact that we’re watching a fictional show instead of real people. However, when used properly, self-referential humor can make audiences feel like they’re in on an inside joke. These five comedic TV moments were made even funnier by the inclusion of meta-humor.
Community – “Paradigms of Human Memory”
“Community” might be one of the most meta shows on TV, so picking only one moment to celebrate is so not streets ahead. However, if we have to choose just one, then this second season “clip” show would be our top pick.
Instead of showing actual clips from the show, the characters flashed back to adventures we never saw, running the TV-cliché gamut from Wild West hijinks to a haunted house mystery of Scooby-Doo proportions. The episode brought up the idea that TV characters are always getting into zany situations—even then we’re not there to watch.
Family Guy – “Back to the Pilot”
In this time travel story Brian and Stewie return to January 31,1999– the day that “Family Guy” first premiered. The show has never shied away from making meta-jokes, but watching the first episode through the eyes of a modern Brian and Stewie was a completely different experience.
To address how far the show has come since it has been on the air, new scenes were animated using the unpolished style of the first season. Brian and Stewie even go so far as to point out animation flaws and plot holes you may have never noticed before.
30 Rock – “Live Show”
Since “30 Rock” chronicles the backstage antics of a live comedy sketch show, a live episode was almost inevitable. And since “30 Rock” is known for dropping winks to the audience, it was almost inevitable that the live episode would be a meta-joke about live TV itself.
Tracy spent the episode trying to convince Liz to allow him to break character live on TV, while Julia Louis-Dreyfus stepped in as Liz Lemon during flashback cutaways. When asked by Jack why her flashback self looked better, Liz remarked that her flashback had “Seinfeld Money.” Speaking of which–
Seinfeld – “The Pitch”
“Seinfeld” was often touted as a “show about nothing,” because the comedy came from the character’s reactions to everyday situations, not the situations themselves. A great meta moment came in the fourth season when Jerry and George pitch a TV show “about nothing” to NBC executives.
George is a stand-in for series creator Larry David, who helped develop the series with the real-life Jerry Seinfeld. So when George freaks out at the NBC executives when they don’t understand his vision, you can’t help but wonder if some of the comedy borrows from real life. Speaking of Larry David…
Curb Your Enthusiasm – “Seinfeld”
“Curb Your Enthusiasm” is based on the meta-concept of Larry David playing a fictional version of himself. The meta-humor was in full swing for Season 7 when the plot revolved around Larry putting together a “Seinfeld” reunion.
Fans of “Seinfeld” had been waiting for a reunion for years, but unfortunately we don’t get to see the reunion episode in full. What clips we do see does give us an idea of what the characters are up to these days—which is nothing.