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Prior to the advent of TV, cartoons were produced for theatrical release only. They were either run as shorts before the showing of the feature film, or shown on a weekend matinee.

As a result, there are a few No Fourth Wall jokes that appear in 1930s and 1940s vintage cartoons that would make absolutely no sense to a modern audience watching it on television or unaware of the history.

Nowadays, you'll mainly see them in Looney Tunes and Classic Disney Shorts, where they have been used for decades and remain through a sort of Grandfather Clause.

Most common include:

  • A character runs full tilt towards the edge of the screen, the camera follows them, and pans beyond the film itself into the blank white nothingness of an empty theater screen. The character realizes what has happened, and jumps back onto the film.
  • The hero is trapped, there's no possible escape, and just as it looks like them's about to get it, the film breaks. Cue blank white screen. The hero appears and explains that due to technical difficulties, the film cannot be finished, and may produce a pair of scissors and hint that it wasn't exactly an accident.
  • A black silhouette of a person scrolls across the bottom of the shot; the characters admonish the theater patron to "sit back down!"
  • An apparent hair caught on the film flutters around for a bit before the character on screen stops what he's doing, picks it up, and discards it.
  • Occasionally asking "Is there a doctor in the house?" in combination with Amusing Injuries.
  • The animation suddenly becomes partially inverted (swapping the top 50% of the image with the bottom 50%), jerky, and even shows the rows of pinholes on the sides, imitating a film jam or other problem with the theatrical projection camera. In extreme cases, the jammed film appears to melt and burn from the heat of the projector bulb—which is a separate trope, the Melting-Film Effect.

Subtrope of Format-Specific Joke.


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  • The Osamu Tezuka short Broken-Down Film is full of these type of gags, seeing as it is presented as a bad print of a silent-era cartoon set in the Old West. The characters are constantly interacting with the deteriorating film stock - wiping away the surface dust, for example, or escaping the villain while the film is misaligned.
  • Tenchi Masaki's near-death out-of-body experience in the 19th Tenchi Muyo! OVA episode was represented as the classic clattering of a malfunctioning projector and film sliding out of position. Never mind that it was made in the 21st century on computers for a DVD release.

    Comic Books 
  • Cinema Purgatorio: Played for horror in The Picture Palace Mystery. The "reels" are played in the wrong order, showing the beginning and end before skipping back to the middle after the credits. In the "middle" reel, the protagonists are menaced by a centipede-like creature resembling a stray hair in the corner of the screen. Things get worse for them as the film starts to disintigrate, with the kids watching in horror as it eats through the pavement (and unfortunately for poor Dick, him as well).

    Films — Animated 
  • Disney's Fantasia includes several short 'bumpers' in between the main sequences. In one of them, the sound track is invited to come into the picture and show off how it produces sounds. (In the technology of the time, the sound track was recorded on the same film as the picture, as a stripe of varying width, just out of sight past the edge of the frame.)
  • At the end of Aladdin, the Genie actually lifts up the film and says, "Made you look!" This one is based on early reactions to test screenings; after test audiences started leaving the film early during a cut with a reprise of "Arabian Nights," the animators replaced it with the Genie-as-the-moon laughing, causing anyone who's leaving early to turn back wondering if there's more of the film left.
  • At the end of The Thief and the Cobbler, the thief removes the film from the projector and absconds with it. Talk about a scene stealer!
  • The melting film gag is used on Monsters vs. Aliens to transition from the black-and-white (and, on the 3-D version, flat) version of the DreamWorks Animation logo and into the film proper.
  • At the end of Despicable Me some of the minions try to reach into the audience. One flies right into the camera, the film breaks and suddenly he's silhouetted against a blank screen, the implication being that he's flown right into the projection room. Given that the film was released in 3-D, such a gag was pretty much mandatory.
  • During The Emperor's New Groove, the film stops and Kuzco appears to point out that the story is about him, not Pacha, even drawing on the film frame with a marker to make his point. Interestingly, this gag is reused on The Series.
    • In Kronk's New Groove, Kuzco again interrupts to point out that this one is about Kronk and not him, actually bringing out the films' posters.
  • In The Simpsons Movie, Homer addresses (and insults) the audience. There's also a sign gag in front of the church which says "Thou shalt silence thy cell phone!", which isn't an issue if you're watching it at home.
  • The framing device from The Lion King 1 ; Timon and Pumbaa are watching the film at home, and frequently pause it to provide color commentary. At one point, it changes to QVC when Pumbaa accidentally sits on the remote.note 
  • The Twelve Tasks of Asterix gleefully employs this. The narrator at the start of the film asks the audience if anyone is unfamiliar with the cast of characters, and a forest of raised hands in silhouette obscures the film, to glares of annoyance from the cast.
  • In Yellow Submarine, leaving Nowhere Land involved crossing a film sprocket line. (Unless that got remastered out...) During the Beatles' live action cameo John reports the sighting of Blue Meanies within the vicinity of this very theatre.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Fight Club: Tyler Durden moonlights as a projectionist, so there are a few meta gags about cinema.
    • He points out a cue mark (called, inaccurately, a "cigarette burn").
    • In the story, Tyler inserts one frame of pornography into the reels of family movies. In the movie itself, there are a few instances of Tyler Durden's image (and in one instance his penis) appearing for one frame.
    • During his "You Are Not Your Things" monologue, whether through fear or sheer force of personality, Tyler makes the film reel itself become unstable, shaking about and showing the pinholes on the reel.
  • Scrooged ends with Frank Cross Breaking the Fourth Wall to address the theatrical audience directly, even asking them to sing along to the closing credits — first the people on the right, then the people on the left...
  • Groucho Marx talked to the audience a lot (most likely carried over from the Marx Brothers' vaudeville days) - in Horse Feathers, as Chico starts a piano routine, Groucho looks at us and says "I've gotta stay here but there's no reason you folks shouldn't go to the lobby 'til this blows over!"
  • Road to ... movies. As Crosby gets ready to sing a song, Hope turns to the camera and says, "OK, folks, now's the time to go get some more popcorn from the lobby."
  • In the theatrical and DVD versions of Gremlins 2: The New Batch, there comes a point where there seems to be a problem with the projector and the film breaks, leaving a blank white screen. It turns out to be gremlins in the projection booth, who wickedly decide to replace the film with a naturism film, and an usher calls upon Hulk Hogan to restore order, brother. The VHS release and novelization replace this with a gag appropriate to their mediums: the former has the gremlins messing around with your VCR, changing movies until they switch to a Western film where they are gunned down by (a Fake Shemped) John Wayne, while the latter has a gag sequence where the "Brain" Gremlin (the one who can talk, voiced by Tony Randall in the film) locks the author of the novelization in another room while he types up his own contribution until the author breaks out with an axe.
  • A trailer for Pink Panther 2 running in theaters in the Summer of 2008 showed Inspector Clouseau sneaking into a movie theater; after the screen switches to a generic "please turn off cell phones and pagers" display, there is a ripping sound and Clouseau appears to cut a hole in the movie screen and step through. Upon discovering the audience watching him, though, he sheepishly steps back through the hole and ineptly tries to repair it with duct tape. The screen then becomes "rear illuminated" to show the movie logo and to highlight the silhouette of Clouseau tiptoeing behind it... followed by the silhouette of the Pink Panther himself.
  • Blazing Saddles: The climax takes place in a theater showing Blazing Saddles.
  • In The Great Race, the Retraux opening credit slides have one slide get stuck and melt in the projector. A fly lands on another slide, and is swatted at with a stick, and the bulb goes out temporary, requiring a lit candle to be substituted until it's replaced.
  • 200 Motels: The Dental Hygiene Dilemma Film Within a Film starts with reels that move up and down, as if a new film has been put in the projector.
  • The famous Paddleball Shot used to show off the 3-D effects in the 1953 film House of Wax ends with one of these. The paddleball guy, who's been swatting his paddleball at various people entering the exhibit, turns to look straight at the camera, says "There's someone with a bag of popcorn!", and swats his paddleball right at the viewer.
  • At one point in the very strange Ingmar Bergman film Persona, the film cracks mid-scene. Then it melts.
  • One Wonderful Sunday: At a particularly sad moment for protagonist couple Masako and Yuzo, Masako turns and looks at the camera. She addresses the "ladies and gentlemen" who are watching them, asking the audience to Clap Your Hands If You Believe.
  • Volga-Volga: When singing the big group song at the end, the cast starts by telling the audience "Do not go rushing out of the theater."
  • In The Mask, an audience silhouette stands up and applauds during The Mask's overdone "death" scene. Given that Stanley Ipkiss is clearly a fan of old-school animation, this makes sense as an homage.

    Live-Action TV 
  • In an animated link in episode 28 of Monty Python's Flying Circus, a skeleton steps out of a medical poster and walks off. Ignoring warning signs and voices, it wanders so far as to fall off the edge of the film.
  • Joel Hodgson said that the movie segments in Mystery Science Theater 3000 were inspired by the silhouettes in this trope, specifically when it was used in the Warner Bros. shorts.
    • Hodgson has also attributed the idea to the artwork for the Elton John song I've Seen That Movie Too in the album Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.
  • Roundhouse (an obscure Nickelodeon Sketch Comedy) definitely had this going on, with No Fourth Wall and craziness galore.

    Web Animation 
  • The side effects of the Virus from the Strong Bad Email "virus" from Homestar Runner, particularly the scene where Strong Bad accidentally leaps off the screen and cannot jump back in, and at the same time, Homestar Runner (whom, as a result of him being affected by the Virus, has The Homestar Runner's torso) detaching his own head and using it to pick up certain icons on the navbar on the bottom of the screen. Then several windows resembling pop-up windows show up on the screen, one of them being an actual pop-up browser window, which most modern browsers will often block.

    Western Animation 
  • Tex Avery MGM Cartoons:
    • "Lucky Ducky" had a pair of hunters chasing a duckling. In mid chase, the film suddenly turns from color to black and white. The characters stop and notice they have run past a tiny sign that says "Technicolor ends here". Technicolor is the name of the company that developed colored movie camera film in the early 1930s.
    • In "Billy Boy", a farmer is trying to rid himself of a goat who's eating everything he owns. One attempt to get rid of the goat fails when he eats the entire lower half of the frame, including the chain the farmer was going to tie him up with, leaving behind the blank white nothingness of the screen.
    • Magical Maestro included an animated 'hair' caught in the projector gate that was so realistic it drove projectionists crazy...until the action suddenly stops and one of the characters plucks it and throws it away.
    • "The Early Bird Dood It" has a scene of the bird chasing the worm suddenly stopping in front of a movie billboard and examining the lobby card of the very cartoon they're in.
    Bird: Hey! I hear that's a pretty funny cartoon.
    Worm: Well, I sure hope it's funnier than this one!
    • In "King Size Canary" a mouse warns a cat not to eat him because he'll save his life later on. He knows because he's already seen the cartoon before!
    • "Who Killed Who?" includes one of these gags just as the cop enters the house. After he warns "Nobody move!", a silhouetted audience member gets up and shuffles across the bottom of the screen. The cop sees him and bashes the poor guy with his nightstick, before shouting "That goes for you too, bub!".
  • Woody Woodpecker has pulled this once or twice. For example, in Who's Cookin Who?, when Woody is starving, he asks "Could somebody go to the lobby and get me a candy bar?" Also pulled in the short The Screwdriver, in which Woody is quizzing a cop, and reminds us "No coaching from the audience, please!"
  • Looney Tunes:
    • The Bugs Bunny cartoon Hare Tonic has Bugs convincing Elmer that he has "the dreaded disease rabbititis." When Elmer catches on and chases Bugs out of the house, Bugs tells him that the audience is coming down with rabbititis. As Elmer runs back inside, Bugs reassures the audience that they're just fine, because if they were sick, they would see red and yellow spots before their eyes, and they would start swirling around until everything went dark. Sure enough, red and yellow spots appear on the screen and swirl around until the screen fades to black... after which we hear Bugs snickering.
    • "The Ducksters", featuring Daffy as a sadistic game show host; he shoots a member of the 'audience' for warning Porky. Also- "Have you got a doctor in the balcony, lady?!"
    • In the Porky Pig cartoon "The Case of the Stuttering Pig", the villain gloats about his evil plan and tells the audience that there's nothing they can do about it, and singles out "the guy in the third row" as a "softie". At the climax, he suddenly got clocked with a flying theater seat courtesy of "the guy in the third row".
    • In "Rabbit Every Monday" Yosemite Sam threatens a silhouetted person with his gun and tells him to sit back down, which the person does while yelping a meek "Yes Sir!" He then turns to the audience and declares "That goes for the rest a' ya!note "
    • The Bugs Bunny cartoon Rabbit Punch ends with Bugs Bunny about to be run over by a train. As the train barrels toward Bugs, the film breaks. Bugs walks onto a blank screen and announces, "Ladies and gentlemen, due to circumstances beyond our control, we are unable to continue with this picture. And, uh, confidentially," he adds, holding up a pair of scissors, "the film didn't exactly break."
    • Similar ending to the Daffy Duck cartoon My Favorite Duck, where the film breaks while Porky Pig is chasing Daffy Duck with a gun. Daffy then appears and offers to finish the cartoon as a narrative and gives a brief and inflated description of him beating Porky with his bare hands leaving him "groveling at my feet!" Only to have Porky sneak up behind him and club him over the head to end the cartoon.
    • In the short Daffy Duck and Egghead, after several silhouette interruptions, the annoyed character on screen shoots the patron who falls dead.
    • In Duck Amuck, the film appears to slip in the projector, resulting in a top-bottom frame reversal. The two Daffy's from each frame then start arguing with each other: "If you wasn't me, I'd smack you right in the puss!"
    • The best "doctor in the house" moment came in "Hair-Raising Hare": chased by a monster, Bugs Bunny runs through a door, slams it shut, leans up against it panting and begs of the audience, "Is there a doctor in the house?" A silhouette stands up and raises a hand: "I'm a doctor." Bugs pushes off from the door, pulls out a carrot, and gives his Catchphrase: "Eh, what's up, doc?"
    • "Look, out there in the audience..." "PEOPLE! AAAAAAAAAH!" In that same cartoon, Bugs Bunny disposed of Gossamer the big orange monster by frightening him into running out through the back wall of the theater, and through numerous other walls behind it, leaving behind a tunnel of Impact Silhouettes.
    • In the Bugs Bunny cartoon "High Diving Hare", Yosemite Sam is pounding on a door shouting "Open the door!" - he then turns to us and says "Ya notice I didn't say 'Richard'!" before resuming pounding. "Open the Door, Richard" was an old vaudeville routine (later a popular song).
    • In "Thugs With Dirty Mugs", an audience member steps up in silhouette and tries to leave, telling the Killer "this is where I came in." Killer makes him sit back down, thinking the guy is going to squeal to the police that the Killer and his gang is going to rob the safe of Lotta Jewels. Cross-dissolve to the police chief. The audience member steps up again and tells the chief of the Killer's plan.
    Chief: Thanks! (leaves; suddenly re-enters) You little tattletale! (leaves again)
    • Killer even stops counting his ill-gotten gains to do an imitation of Fred Allen for us.
    • Speedy Gonzales runs past a cat, and the cat then explodes. Speedy then turns to the audience, apologizes for running too fast for the audience to follow and shows the previous scene again in slow motion. The slow motion shot involves Speedy pulling another mouse out of the cat's mouth, and replacing the mouse with a lit stick of TNT.
    • Guided Muscle: At the end, after the Coyote falls for the Roadrunner's last trick and gets blown up by his own dynamite trap, he puts up a sign saying "Wanted: One gullible Coyote. Apply to manager of this theater."
    • In another, Wile E has once again fallen off a cliff and as he plummets he holds up a sign asking "Can we end this cartoon before I hit the ground?" Cue Iris Out and Wile E flipping the sign over to reveal the other side reads "Thank You"
  • Tiny Toon Adventures:
    • While not actually produced for theaters (it's a TV show, after all), at least three gags invoked it. One of these occurrences had Hamton J. Pig joyriding in the Batmobile, and upon making a big swerve to dodge a building, he briefly flies out of the film strip. Another episode had Hamton threatening an anthropomorphic fire, and the camera pans out to reveal that the scene is being played out on a film strip. The fire proceeds to burn the strip, comically reducing Hamton into a roasted pig. The Whole-Plot Reference Christmas special had Buster at the edge of a film reel, contemplating suicide ala George Bailey. He later does jump out... in joy, and lands right back in the "film" (this is after he is granted a second chance at life).
    • There's also the one with Plucky and Hamton breaking into Warner Bros. Studio through the sewers with a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reference. This being the nineties, everyone in the "audience" is vocal about having seen that one coming.
  • Popeye:
    • In the cartoon How Green is My Spinach, Bluto creates a formula that wipes out all the spinach in the world, including Popeye's. As Bluto sweeps the floor with Popeye (literally), the narratornote  asks, "Can this be the end of our hero? Can't anybody save him? Is there a can of spinach in the house?!" The short abruptly goes from a color cartoon to black & white live-action, showing people watching the cartoon (still in color) in a movie theater. A worried boy pulls out a can of spinach from a grocery bag, yells, "Here, Popeye, catch!", and tosses it to the screen. You can probably guess the rest.
    • The cartoon "Goonland" climaxes with Popeye and his Pappy fighting dozens of Goons - the violent action ends up snapping the film itself, and the Goons plummet off the screen. As the audience stomps and whistles, a realistic pair of hands mend the film and it resumes with our heroes saved.
    • In the cartoon "The Hungry Goat", Popeye's commanding officer leaves for a day at the movie theater, and warns him not to harm the goat. Later, as Popeye is about to throttle the goat for eating the boat, the goat warns that the admiral could be watching them right now — and sure enough, he is seen silhouetted against the screen, taking his seat. At the end of the cartoon, the admiral sees the damage being done to his ship and runs back. He asks Popeye where the goat went, and we see the goat sitting in the audience, laughing.
    Boy in audience: Aw, why doesn't Popeye eat his spinach and sock him one?
    • In that same cartoon at the start, the goat tells the projectionist to run the film backwards so he can re-examine the title card.
    • In "A Date to Skate", Olive Oyl is careening out of control on a pair of roller skates and Popeye reaches into his shirt for his Spinach can...only to find it missing. After patting himself down for a few seconds and declaring, "Now don't tell me I left it at home!", he finally shouts, "Is there any spinach in the audience?" A shadow of an audience member emerges from the bottom of the screen, lobbing a spinach can toward Popeye who catches it, eats, and goes to rescue Olive.
    • In "Me Musical Nephews", Popeye can't sleep because his nephews' musical rehearsals are keeping him awake. He pulls the iris out within the screen, pulls his bed in then shuts the iris. Does no good as his music-playing nephews have followed him.
  • The Simpsons do it at least twice (could be more): in one of the Couch Gags the whole family runs off the film.
  • At least twice, Foghorn Leghorn stretched out the closing iris that ended the cartoon because he wasn't finished talking. This gradually stopped as his gimmick became playing practical jokes instead of being a Motor Mouth.
  • My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic: This joke has since been inherited, and used at least twice, by Pinkie Pie.
  • The very meta Taz-Mania episode "Retakes Not Included" starts with Bull and Axl running off the edge of the animation and finding themselves standing on a blank page. This is the first of Bull's many complaints about the shoddy production values of this particular episode. At the end of the episode, the traditional 'end-of-reel' markings flash up the screen while the characters continue to bicker.
  • The 2013 Mickey Mouse short Get a Horse has Mickey and the rest of the characters go through the movie screen from their 2D black-and-white world and coming out in 3D color.

Alternative Title(s): Born In The Theater