30 Rock absolutely loves metafictional jokes, and almost every episode is chock full of them. Everyone knows that Tracy Jordan is an exaggerated caricature of actor Tracy Morgan, who plays him, but did you know that John Lutz plays John Lutz and Grizz plays Grizz and Tina Fey’s real first name is Elizabeth? And that’s just the superficial stuff. The characters are constantly playing with the fourth wall and referring to NBC — consider the first lines of season four, when Jack welcomes you to Season Four… the restaurant. Or the very fact that a major plot line, NBC being sold to Kabletown, is probably based on NBC being sold to Comcast. There’s even an episode in which two janitors, Khonani and Subhas fight over the late night spot, mirroring the Conan/Jay Leno feud. Really, in order to do this justice, we’d have to recap every episode, so we’re just going to stop right there.
As Jeff might say, “Abed, stop being meta! Why do you always have to take whatever happens to us and shove it up its own ass?” With a combination of his encyclopedic knowledge of film and television, as well as his extreme Asperger’s, Abed singlehandedly turns everything that happens in the show into a double play — possibly because sometimes he believes he’s on a television show. In “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas,” when they walk through a valley of plants singing Christmas carols, Pierce asks him if it will be “expensive to walk through here,” and Abed says “no, these songs are all public domain.” He also directs a show called “The Community College Chronicles” which he can use, based on his knowledge of TV tropes, to figure out what will happen to the gang next. Oh, Abed.
Not only did the show introduce a series of books about the characters that figure both inside and outside of the show, but in one episode, Sam and Dean visit an alternate reality where they are actors Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles who star on a show called Supernatural. Which is in fact the reality. Ow, our heads.
Arrested Development is full of self-referential jokes, many of them perpetrated by the narrator. Voiced by Ron Howard, he sometimes makes references to his past gigs, or makes un-narrator-like comments on the action of the show. In several of the final episodes, they explicitly refer to the show’s struggle to stay on air, asking you to “tell your friends” and “Save Our Bluths.” There’s a whole section where each character is told why they are not relatable to “other people” — which is actually what the show’s producers were being told to fix. Thank goodness they didn’t.
This ’80s classic was always breaking the fourth wall, the characters constantly making reference to themselves as being characters on a television show. In one episode, they walk off the set and into the studio parking lot, but they continue to act in character, implying that their characters are their true personalities and that they’re playing themselves on the show. Or, there are always the one-liners, like when a guard yells, “You can’t burst in here like that!” and Dave responds, “Yeah? Tell it to the writers.”
In this show, Matt LeBlanc stars as a fictional version of himself, who executives pushed on the show’s creators to turn it into a LeBlanc comeback vehicle. Well, hey, it kind of worked, didn’t it?
It’s Garry Shandling’s Show
This show basically invented the complete lack of a fourth wall. Comedian Garry Shandling played comedian Garry Shandling, who was not only aware that he was on a sitcom, but had a studio audience in his house whom he would talk to, and whom visitors would address as well. If that’s not enough, just take the theme song, which went a little something like this: “This is the theme to Garry’s Show/ The theme to Garry’s show/ Garry called me up and asked if I would right his theme song/ I’m almost halfway finished/ How do you like it so far/ How do you like the theme to Garry’s Show…”
Saved by the Bell
Another show that messed with the fourth wall, this was a straight sitcom, except for the fact that Zach would not only periodically speak to the audience, but actually stop time and walk around in it while doing so. Which we always thought was pretty weird.
Again, the very premise of this show is Jerry Seinfeld playing a fictionalized version of himself, which makes it super meta from the get. Plus, there’s always the episode where Jerry and George pitch a TV show “about nothing” to NBC executives… guys, we think that show already exists.
The always-irreverent Family Guy is full of metafiction, and particularly refers to itself as an animated show — like when Peter is doing rather disturbing things until he looks up at the camera and shouts, “What are you looking at? It’s a cartoon!” Or when Meg starts talking about becoming a born-again Christian and Peter says “That’s right, folks, it’s gonna be a Meg episode, stick around for the fun… Here’s the clicker. No one would blame ya…” And many more — the format here is just begging for it, after all.