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Meta-reference, a metafiction technique, is a situation in a work of fiction whereby fictional 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 was no audience, as if a wall existed between them and the actors. Also, an intentionally blank page makes a meta-reference to itself when it states, "This page is intentionally left blank," which would also be a pseudo-reference.


Types of meta-reference


See Metatheatre

Meta-reference 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, who in his comedy "The Frogs", has a place where, in the underworld, the following dialogue takes place;

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.


See Metafilm

The oldest use of meta-reference in cinema is possibly 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." 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". The Mel Brooks comedy Spaceballs features some extremely overt meta-reference: one scene consists of several characters figuring out what to do next by watching a bootleg of the very movie in which they appear. Brooks also makes use of Meta-Reference 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. Similarly, in the Emperor's New Groove, Kuzco stops the film to address the audience directly. 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 reappear (including Abraham Lincoln) as the narrator criticises the Hollywood trend of miraculous recovery of certain characters presumed dead. The movie adaptation of the Hitman game series, finds Agent 47 crashing through a hotel room window only to discover 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...

Large use of meta-references is made in Last Action Hero, where the 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.


Many jokes in the Warner Bros. animated series Tiny Toon Adventures, Animaniacs, Freakazoid!, and Histeria! were meta-references.

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 & Allen" TV show, 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 audience

The comedy show Monty Python's Flying Circus prominently featured meta-references. Meta-references in Flying Circus 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 man wants to be a lion tamer but confuses lions with anteaters. His interviewer describes a lion and a clip of a lion plays causing the would-be tamer to scream in terror.
  • 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
  • A female character who frets because something she said was upsetting but "It's my only line!"
  • References to "it's the end of the series, they couldn't make up something funnier"
  • Repeated incidents where the characters will reference the script because they don't remember their lines or are unsure about what is happening next.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Meta-reference" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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