Metareference, a metafiction technique, is a situation in a work of fiction whereby characters display an awareness that they are in such a work, such as a film, television show or book. Sometimes it may even just be a form of editing or film-making technique that comments on the programme/film/book itself. It is also sometimes known as "Breaking the Fourth Wall", in reference to the theatrical tradition of playing as if there were no audience, as if a wall existed between them and the actors.
Types of metareference
Metareference in fiction is jarring to the reader, but can be comical, such as in Jasper Fforde's novel Lost in a Good Book. The character Thursday Next remarks to her husband that she feels uncomfortable having sex in front of so many people; he is confused since they are alone in their bedroom, so she explains, "all the people reading us". There are several occasions of meta-reference in Fforde's work. In The Fourth Bear, two characters lament over a bad joke made by the author, saying, "I can't believe he gets away with that." Some novels with first person narration contain instances when the narrator addresses the reader directly, which is one form of metareference. Examples of this type of metareference can be seen in Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre, in Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, and in Philip Reeve's Larklight.
Peanuts occasionally acknowledges that the children are characters in a comic strip. Once Schroeder was practicing on his piano. He went to Charlie Brown and told him, "Hey, Charlie Brown! I've got perfect pitch!" Charlie Brown replied, "Who cares? The baseball season is over." Schroeder walked away, saying, "Sometimes I think I should put in a transfer to another comic strip!" Another time, Charlie Brown and Linus were very wordily talking about complaints. At the end, Linus says, "There have also been complaints about too much talking and too little action in the modern comic strip. What do you think?"
Metareference can be traced back to traditional asides to the audience in theatrical productions, a feature of dramatic presentation which dates back at least to the time of Aristophanes, whose comedy The Frogs has this dialogue in the underworld:
- Dionysus: But tell me, did you see the parricides / And perjured folk he mentioned?
- Xanthias: Didn't you?
- Dionsyus: Poseidon, yes. Why look! (points to the audience) I see them now.
These asides are an early form of the technique of "breaking the fourth wall", of which meta-reference is a major form. Several of Shakespeare's plays begin or end with references to the actors and the play itself, most famously A Midsummer Night's Dream, in which Puck concludes with a speech which includes the lines:
- If we shadows have offended, think but this and all is mended
- That you have but slumber'd here while these visions did appear.
One of the earliest metareferences in cinema is in the Marx Brothers' movie Animal Crackers, in which at one point Groucho speaks directly to the camera, saying, "Pardon me while I have a strange interlude." (This is a reference to the play of that title in which characters spoke their inner thoughts to the audience.)
A more recent example comes from Fight Club. A scene near the end of the movie returns to its opening scene, but instead of saying "I can't think of anything," the narrator now says, "I still can't think of anything," demonstrating that he is aware of having been subjected to a cinematic time-shift; another character responds sarcastically with "Ah, flashback humor."
Mel Brooks has made metareference a directorial trademark in several of his films. In Blazing Saddles, a fight within the movie spills over into the film studio where it is being filmed and the characters fight with those from other movies. Several of the main characters flee from the brouhaha to a movie theater to see how their own movie resolves itself. Brooks continued his brand of self-reference in Spaceballs as several characters attempt to figure out what to do next by watching a bootleg of the very movie in which they appear. Brooks continues in similar fashion in Robin Hood: Men in Tights during a scene in which the actors, unsure of the rules of an archery contest, check the movie's script. Later in the same film, Dave Chappelle's character references the plot of Blazing Saddles in his bid to become the new sheriff.
Meta-humor is prevalent in The Great Muppet Caper and Muppet Treasure Island. For example, in the former, Kermit the Frog critiques Miss Piggy's acting; in the latter, a tour group of rats take pictures of "the actual jungle location for the movie Muppet Treasure Island."
In The Simpsons Movie, Homer Simpson opines that everybody who watches movies in theaters is a giant sucker, turns to the audience, and says, "Especially you!" A similar reference is made in Kevin Smith's Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back when Ben Affleck's character, Holden McNeil, asks why anyone would pay to see a movie about Jay and Silent Bob and subsequently stares directly at the camera. Espionage-thriller spoof Top Secret! features a moment where the characters portrayed by Val Kilmer and Lucy Gutteridge remark to each other that the ridiculous situation they find themselves in is like something from a bad movie. Afterwards, they both turn their heads to face the audience.
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang has a main character who often references the situations he is in; he criticises the placement of two extras in a flashback scene, and at the end of the movie, in a hospital, various dead characters from earlier on in the movie (including Abraham Lincoln) reappear as the narrator criticises the Hollywood trend of miraculous recovery of certain characters presumed dead.
In the movie adaptation of the Hitman game series, Agent 47 crashes through a hotel room window and finds two children playing the Hitman game itself on a game console. With a bemused expression on his face, he then makes a hasty exit.
Michael Palin coined the term meta comment during the writing of Monty Python's Flying Circus. It refers to a moment of commentary or dialogue spoken by an actor referring to the situation that character is in. For example in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, following Sir Galahad's discovery of the Castle Anthrax – Dingo is telling the sad tale of her life... she turns to the camera:
Oh, wicked, bad, naughty, evil Zoot! She is a bad person and must pay the penalty... Do you think this scene should have been cut? We were so worried when the boys were writing it, but now, we're glad. It's better than some of the previous scenes, I think...
Metareference is used heavily in Last Action Hero, whose plot revolves around an action film fan, who is magically transferred into the movie he is watching. There he tries to convince the lead actor that he is, indeed, an action film hero, not a real-life police officer, by pointing out the extravagant cars, office spaces, and female extras, which only ever appear this way in movies, but not in real life, or by asking the lead to pronounce a written word he can't utter, because the movie is rated PG-13. Once convinced, the hero complains about being subjected to a series of – to him real – ordeals "only as a form of entertainment". During the course of the movie, the movie villains learn how to transfer from the movie into real life and the film culminates in a showdown featuring actors meeting roles they have played, Death from Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal walking the streets, and the hero being saved from a deadly wound sustained in real life by being transferred back into his movie, where it is – naturally – only a flesh wound.
The long-running 1950s and 1960s radio comedy series The Goons frequently made use of meta-reference. In one episode, for example, Eccles reported that he never appeared in a scene with Moriarty because both characters were played by the same actor. The series' announcer, Wallace Greenslade, and musicians Max Geldray and Ray Ellington were occasionally called upon to act as minor characters, and their efforts were often derided on air by the other characters.
Frankie Howerd was famous for his remarks to the audience, especially in the show Up Pompeii! in which he would speak to the camera, feigning innocence about an obvious and risqué double entendre while mockingly censuring the audience for finding it funny.
George Burns started talking to his audience early on in his TV show. In his radio show, Burns would occasionally beg the audience for laughs "Please laugh, folks — that's the only line I got." Later on toward the end of The Burns and Allen Show on TV, George Burns brought in a television set and literally "watched" the characters on his TV show as if he were at home, and not in the studio.
Rocky and Bullwinkle makes frequent meta-references. These include several instances in which the characters speak directly to the audience, or the narrator, and speak about the show in which they are players. One such example included when Rocky protested being eaten by cannibals because the network did not approve. The cannibals say they just intend to roast him and not eat him, which is acceptable. This incident is a reference to the network complaining about Rocky and Bullwinkle being nearly eaten by human cannibals in a previous episode. Another example features Bullwinkle buying a plane ticket to China and wondering whether the audience ever gets curious how they pay for all their travel.
The comedy show Monty Python's Flying Circus prominently featured meta-references; examples include:
- A group of people lost in a jungle, who are rescued when they realize someone is filming them
- Characters who think the sketch they are playing is silly and decide to stop
- A TV host who experiences repeatedly shown film clips as déjà vu
- A judge who warns, "If there is any more stock footage of ladies applauding I shall clear the court!"
- Members of the Spanish Inquisition who are in a hurry, because the credits are rolling and the show is about to end
- One character remarks that a joke was weak; the other wails, "But it's my only line!"
- A comment that "It's the end of the series, they couldn't make up something funnier"
- Characters consulting the script because they are unsure about what ought to happen next
- A sequence in which characters are aware that exterior shots are on 16mm film and interior shots are videotaped.
Meta-references are frequently used on The Simpsons. Though the fourth wall is not directly broken, characters often mention the Fox Network or refer obliquely to the show, the writers, known continuity errors, or popular memes pertaining to the show as a form of self-parody.
In the South Park episode "More Crap", a trophy appears at the bottom of the screen to announce the fact that South Park won an Emmy for "Make Love Not Warcraft". At the end of "More Crap", Randy is awarded said trophy.
In the South Park episode "Red Man's Greed", a new character named Alex Glick is introduced without explanation. Glick had won a charity auction at an AIDS benefit held by Elton John in which South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker offered a one-time guest spot on the show. Glick makes periodic appearances throughout the episode and serves seemingly no purpose in the plot. He is ignored by the other boys until the end of the episode, when he pontificates on the lessons to be learned from the recent events. Stan asks him, "Dude, who the hell are you?", to which he responds, "I'm Alex Glick. I got to come on and do the voice thingy." Kyle tells him "What?! Get the hell out of here!", and Alex leaves after saying "Hi Mom! Hi Dad! Hi Joe!"
The Red Dwarf special "Red Dwarf: Back to Earth" is mostly based on a meta-reference premise whereby the characters enter the "real" (although equally fictional) world in which they are characters in a work of fiction, and meet the actors who portray them.
In an episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air in which the Banks family accompanies Will Smith's character on a visit to his childhood neighborhood in Philadelphia, Smith refers to a bully that he had fought with as "the dude spinning me around on his shoulders in the opening credits."
Malcolm in the Middle regularly breaks the fourth wall to provide narration, indicating that an audience exists for Malcolm at least, if not for the other characters.
30 Rock frequently uses metahumor; Liz Lemon and other characters often directly address or wink at the camera. Its live episode continued with this type of humor, referencing (in its show within a show, The Girlie Show) a common flaw of live televised events, "breaking", when actors will laugh unintentionally while they are onscreen. Also, in the season 6 episode "Grandmentor", Tracy Morgan's character Tracy Jordan screams "We're on a show within a show, my real name is Tracy Morgan!" after he stops taking his medication.
In season 4 of Seinfeld, Jerry Seinfeld's character is asked by NBC executives to pitch them an idea for a TV series. Jerry and George conceive and pitch an idea for a "show about nothing" in a storyline that closely mirrors the premise of Seinfeld and the development of the idea for the show by Seinfeld and Larry David. A similar gag occurs in the series finale of Arrested Development: a character pitches the premise of the series to Ron Howard (narrator of the series) as a TV series, and he replies that it would work better as a movie.
In the science fiction show Supernatural season 6 episode 15 "The French Mistake" (a reference to Blazing Saddles mentioned above), Sam and Dean are sent into an alternate reality where they are actors Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles who star on a show called Supernatural. Also appearing is Misha Collins who plays the angel Castiel and Jared's real world wife Genevieve Padalecki, who used to play the demon Ruby in season 4 of the show.[clarification needed].
Also in Supernatural, there exists a series of books entitled "Supernatural", introduced in "The Monster at the End of This Book (season 4, episode 18) which describe the life (series episodes) of the main characters Sam and Dean. In this episode, the book series author Chuck refers to some of the less popular TV show episodes (aka. his books) and apologises to Sam and Dean for being forced "to live bad writing". Additionally, in "The Real Ghostbusters" (season 5 episode 9), a "Supernatural" convention is held, which Sam and Dean attend.
This use of meta in Supernatural is once more continued in the episode "Fan Fiction" (season 10, episode 5), where a school puts on a musical based on the "Supernatural" books. Both Sam and Dean attend the musical, unaware that the book's author Chuck is also present. There is a moment in the episode in which Dean breaks the Fourth Wall and looks directly into the camera as a reaction to a character referencing the non-canon "Destiel", a fan invented queer relationship. 
Boston Legal frequently used meta-humor, with characters often acknowledging their status as fictional characters. In one instance, Alan Shore greets Denny Crane by saying "I've hardly seen you this episode!" In another, Denny mentions to Alan "I once captained my own spaceship" as a reference to his Star Trek character Captain Kirk. Other notable nods to fans can be found here.
In a 1993 commercial for Doritos, actor Chevy Chase is seen trying to save an old lady in danger. Suddenly, a director yells "Cut!" and an advertising executive informs Chase that his Doritos advertising campaign has been cancelled due to poor ratings. Chase remarks, "Tough year. Good chip." The gag is also a reference to the abrupt cancellation of Chase's short-lived late night talk show.
In season 18, episode 17 of Saturday Night Live, an episode of the recurring Hub's Gyros skit ends in a rare meta-reference. After several gags involving variations of the skit's "you like-a the juice, huh?" catchphrase, a customer played by David Spade asks for the sketch to end. Hub replies, "You like-a the sketch to end, huh? Same thing over and over? Getting very boring, huh?" The customer asks for the camera to pan over to "the blond guy with the guitar", to which Hub replies, "You like-a the blond guy with the guitar, huh? I show you the blond guy with the guitar" and points to the band off stage as the sketch ends.
Hospital sitcom Scrubs frequently uses meta-references; characters frequently comment on protagonist J.D.'s habit of daydreaming and frequent narration of his own life, the primary narration technique of the show.
The NBC sitcom Community derives much of its humor from the use of meta-reference; the character Abed often comments on how an episode's plot relates to popular tropes from television and film.
In the Canadian sitcom Corner Gas, an episode in the third season entitled "Physical Credit" features characters Wanda and Brent talking about films with poor production values when a boom microphone drops into the shot and hits Wanda on the head.
Meta-references are sometimes included in songs, despite not being works of fiction themselves. In Salt N Pepa's 1991 single "Let's Talk About Sex", there is a spoken-word section which says "I don't think this song's going to be played on the radio" due to the repeated use of the word sex. This was a pre-empt to avoid its banning and the song was played on the radio and became a hit.
At the end of the Electric Light Orchestra song "Mr Blue Sky", a vocoder-treated voice says "please turn me over". This is an instruction to the listener to turn the record over as it is the last song on Side Three of the Out of the Blue album.
There are sometimes voiced instructions to the studio personnel which are left in songs. Erasure's Andy Bell can be heard saying "turn it down a bit" in "River Deep Mountain High" on the The Innocents album after a particularly loud section. More explicitly, singer Rachel Stevens says "Can you turn down the track a little bit please" in the song "Negotiate With Love". When it appeared on her Come and Get It album the instruction was included as part of the lyrics to the song.
Metareference across Media: Theory and Case Studies. Dedicated to Walter Bernhart on the Occasion of his Retirement. Wolf, Werner (Ed.), Katharina Bantleon and Jeff Thoss (Collaborators). Amsterdam/New York, NY, 2009.
Preface / Introduction by Werner Wolf: Metareference across Media: The Concept, its Transmedial Potentials and Problems, Main Forms and Functions.
Theoretical Aspects of Metareference, Illustrated with Examples from Various Media:
Winfried Nöth: Metareference from a Semiotic Perspective / Andreas Mahler: The Case is ‘this’: Metareference in Magritte and Ashbery / Irina O. Rajewsky: Beyond ‘Metanarration’: Form-Based Metareference as a Transgeneric and Transmedial Phenomenon / Sonja Klimek: Metalepsis and Its (Anti-)Illusionist Effects in the Arts, Media and Role-Playing Games
Metareference in Music:
Hermann Danuser: Generic Titles: On Paratextual Metareference in Music / Tobias Janz: “Music about Music”: Metaization and Intertextuality in Beethoven’s Prometheus Variations op. 35 / René Michaelsen: Exploring Metareference in Instrumental Music – The Case of Robert Schumann / David Francis Urrows: Phantasmic Metareference: The Pastiche ‘Operas’ in Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera / Jörg-Peter Mittmann: Intramedial Reference and Metareference in Contemporary Music / Martin Butler: “Please Play This Song on the Radio”: Forms and Functions of Metareference in Popular Music
Metareference in the Visual Arts:
Henry Keazor : “L’architecture n’est pas un art rigoureux”: Jean Nouvel, Postmodernism and Meta-Architecture / Katharina Bantleon, Jasmin Haselsteiner-Scharner: Of Museums, Beholders, Artworks and Photography: Metareferential Elements in Thomas Struth’s Photographic Projects Museum Photographs and Making Time /
Metareference in Film/Cinema:
Jean-Marc Limoges: The Gradable Effects of Self-Reflexivity on Aesthetic Illusion in Cinema / Barbara Pfeifer: Novel in/and Film: Transgeneric and Transmedial Metareference in Stranger than Fiction
Metareference in Literature:
Hans Ulrich Seeber: Narrative Fiction and the Fascination with the New Media Gramophone, Photography and Film: Metafictional and Media-Comparative Aspects of H. G. Wells’ A Modern Utopia and Beryl Bainbridge’s Master Georgie / Daniella Jancsó: Metareference and Intermedial Reference: William Carlos Williams’ Poetological Poems
Metareference in Various Individual Media:
Ingrid Pfandl-Buchegger, Gudrun Rottensteiner: Metareferentiality in Early Dance: The Jacobean Antimasque / Karin Kukkonen: Textworlds and Metareference in Comics / Doris Mader: Metareference in the Audio-/Radioliterary Soundscape / Fotis Jannidis: Metareference in Computer Games
Metareference in More than One Medium:
Janine Hauthal: When Metadrama Is Turned into Metafilm: A Media-Comparative Approach to Metareference / Andreas Böhn: Quotation of Forms as a Strategy of Metareference / Erika Greber: ‘The Media as Such’: Meta-Reflection in Russian Futurism – A Case Study of Vladimir Mayakovsky’s Poetry, Paintings, Theatre, and Films
Notes on Contributors / Index
- alt.tv.simpsons list of Meta References in The Simpsons
- Harris, Matthew,Metafiction in New Zealand. Massey University, 2011.