breaking the fourth wall
pp. When a fictional character shows awareness of both the medium in which they “exist“ and the audience watching (or reading) that medium. —n.

Example Citation:
The voice-overs, by Grant and Hoult, are a change from "High Fidelity," in which Cusack spoke directly to the camera.

"We didn't think that the breaking the fourth wall in 'High Fidelity' worked particularly well," Chris said. "It threw people out of the movie."
—Mark Caro, "Bye-bye 'American Pie'," Chicago Tribune, May 21, 2002

Earliest Citation:
[He'll] have a buddy to listen to his laments but, he adds that if the series comes off as he plans, it will be the kind of comedy in which Shandling addresses the audience via the camera, what he calls ``breaking the fourth wall, with me playing my character the way George Burns and Jack Benny play their characters."
—John Voorhees, "Shandling is playing Shandling — for laughs," The Seattle Times, July 14, 1986

Notes:
This phrase originated in theatrical circles where the fourth wall is the imaginary wall that separates the actors and the audience.

Reader Martha Mountain writes:

"Breaking the fourth wall" is a theatre phrase that predates 1986 by a number of years — at least 60, I think. I would suggest that you check out Oscar Brockett's theatre history text, and see if that leads you to Antonin Artaud's writings or perhaps even earlier. The idea comes from the movements that were reactions against the excesses of Naturalism. The practice predates the 20th century a lot — oh say, the Romans in western theatre — but since there wasn't the convention of the proscenium being an impermeable barrier there was no reason to "break" it. It is interesting that you are citing the movies, since the movies are a much better vehicle for Naturalism than live theatre.

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