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Meta-reference, 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, and possibly that they are being observed by an audience. Sometimes it may even just be a form of editing or film-making technique that comments on the programme/film/book itself.




Meta-reference in fiction can sometimes be jarring to the reader and sometimes 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 metareference 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.


Aspects of a play that draw attention to its nature as drama or theatre, or to the circumstances of its performance, can be called instances of metatheatre or metadrama.

These may include: the direct address of the audience (especially in soliloquies, asides, prologues, and epilogues); expression of an awareness of the presence of the audience (whether they are addressed directly or not); an acknowledgement of the fact that the people performing are actors (and not actually the characters they are playing); an element whose meaning depends on the difference between the represented time and place of the drama (the fictional world) and the time and place of its theatrical presentation (the reality of the theatre event); plays-within-plays (or masques, spectacles, or other forms of performance within the drama); references to acting, theatre, dramatic writing, spectatorship, and the frequently employed metaphor according to which "all the world's a stage" (Theatrum mundi); scenes involving eavesdropping or other situations in which one or several characters observe another or others, such that the former relate to the behaviour of the latter as if it were a staged performance for their benefit.

Metatheatricality has been a dimension of drama ever since its invention in the theatre of classical Greece 2,500 years ago. In the modern era, the rise of realism and naturalism lead to the development a performance convention known as the "fourth wall". The metaphor suggests a relationship to the mise-en-scène behind a proscenium arch. When a scene is set indoors and three of the walls of its room are presented onstage, the "fourth" of them would run along the line dividing the room from the auditorium (technically called the "proscenium"). The fourth wall is thus an invisible, imagined wall that separates the actors from the audience. While the audience can see through this "wall", the convention assumes, the actors act as if they cannot. In this sense, the "fourth wall" is a convention of acting, rather than of set design, and can be created regardless of the presence of any actual walls in the set or the physical arrangement of the theatre building or performance space. "Breaking the fourth wall", in the strict sense of the phrase, is any instance in which this performance convention, having been adopted more generally in the drama, is disregarded. The temporary suspension of the convention in this way draws attention to its use in the rest of the performance. This act of drawing attention to a play's performance conventions is metatheatrical. A similar effect of metareference is achieved when the performance convention of avoiding direct contact with the camera, generally used by actors in a television drama or film, is temporarily suspended. The phrase "breaking the fourth wall" is used to describe such effects in those media.


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.) Later, after a somewhat feeble joke, Groucho again speaks to the camera, saying, "All the jokes can't be good! You have to expect that once in awhile."

In the Road to... films of the 1940s, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby frequently spoke to the audience and made references to the studio, the movie, and the actors.

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.

After the closing credits of Ferris Bueller's Day Off (and presumably after most patrons have left the theater), Ferris (Matthew Broderick) steps out and chides those remaining with, "You're still here? It's over. Go home." [There are numerous occasions of Ferris addressing the audience throughout the film.]. This scene was parodied in a post-credits scene of the 2016 film Deadpool, which also makes extensive use of meta humor throughout the film.

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.

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...


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.


It's Garry Shandling's Show starred Garry Shandling as, more or less, himself: a neurotic, somewhat self-obsessed stand-up comedian, who just happens to be aware he is a TV sitcom character. Garry spent just as much time interacting with the studio audience as he did the regular cast members. All the supporting characters also knew they were on a TV show, not just Garry, and the studio audience was often in the storyline. Even the show's theme song lyrics are self-referencing, explaining how the song came to be ("Garry called me up and asked if I would write his theme song") and asking what the listener thinks of it.

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.

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 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.

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.

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.

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 episode entitled Football, Feminism and You (season 1, episode 6) Abed, observing Jeff and Annie, comments to himself "Will they or won't they? Sexual tension" to which Jeff turns to him and says "Abed, it makes the group uncomfortable when you talk about us like we're characters in a show you're watching." Abed responds "Well, that's sort of my gimmick. But we did lean on it pretty hard last week. I can lay low for an episode."


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 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.

Video gamesEdit

In the Elder Scrolls series, a recurring character known as "M'aiq the Liar" frequently references the graphics, gameplay, and other technical aspects of the games.

In the opening sequence of Fallout: New Vegas, which is viewed from the first person perspective, Benny looks the player in the eye and says "Truth is, game was rigged from the start" before shooting the player in the head.

During an early cutscene in Sonic Colors, Sonic comments to the screen, "Yeah, I'm just gonna stick with 'aliens' if that's okay with everyone."

Undertale is also notable for its breaking of the fourth wall, in particular examining the player's ability to create, delete, alter and manipulate the game's save files, describing these actions in a similar way to time travel and timelines. If the player wipes the save file after playing a complete run through any of the game's three routes, some of the characters show signs that they remember the player from the previous save file. Flowey directly addresses the player at several points through the game, and in the climactic battle of the Neutral Route, reveals that he too can save and load files of his own.

In Fable II, the banshees would say "Think about all the endless hours you've wasted playing this game. And for what? Nothing!"

In the Max Payne series, there are times when the protagonist Max Payne believes he is part of a video game. In Max Payne, Max is forcibly injected with a designer drug that makes him hallucinate or realize he is in a video game. From seeing his weapons displayed on the heads up display, to seeing his life being told in graphic novel style cutscenes, which are elements of the gameplay. Similar events and references occur in the sequels, Max Payne 2 and Max Payne 3.

See alsoEdit


Further readingEdit

  • 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.
  • 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
  • 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
  • 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 /
  • 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
  • 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
  • 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
  • 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

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