Meta Humor Makes or Breaks Shows

Breaking the Fourth Wall

GRAPHIC | Tara Espinoza

With the recent scathing hate of the new show written by Mindy Kaling called “Velma,” A spin-off of the Scooby Doo franchise, I found it best to complain about a specific part that irritated me. This, of course, is the fourth wall breaks and meta-humor found within.

Meta Humor is an interesting beast to conquer. It rides on the coattails of modern American humor, and its dry delivery can either make or break a punchline. As of late, Meta humor is all the rage within the context of episodic show writing, likely due to the commercial success of shows that rely on it, like “Rick and Morty.”

Meta humor, or self-referential humor, is often seen as making jokes about jokes. This is when characters reference directly to an audience or self-reference to an element of a medium the character should not know. This could be seen in several ways, such as alternate punchlines to known jokes with a severe or nonsensical alternative, Anti-humor, which is subverting expectations by delivering a punchline that is unfunny or lacking in meaning, with the humor being in the surprise factor, or breaking the fourth wall.

I think it is best to compare “Velma” with a show that uses meta humor very effectively, a Cartoon Network original known as “Chowder.”

“Chowder” employs meta humor constantly in the style of breaking the fourth wall. At least once an episode, one of the brilliantly written characters makes a reference to the fact that they are knowingly in a cartoon, and does it to significant effect.

An excellent example of this is episode 16 of season one, Titled “Brain Grub,” Chowder is outed by his chef and mentor, Mung Daal, for being scatterbrained. To conquer this issue, he eats food to improve his brain capacity. Only this results in him becoming too bright, resulting in Chowder going on a rant about how the show he is featured in is too goofy. Using his brain, he briefly switches the show with a parody of a boring science channel show. This all comes to a conclusion with Mung Daal explaining to Chowder that he was wrong, that it is okay to be a little scatterbrained sometimes, and that they should ditch the boring science show in favor of the silly, goofy animated cooking show.

We could compare this exciting and creative writing with the pilot episode of “Velma,” which opens with reference to the fact that pilot episodes always have to be very sexual and feature naked women to garner views. This would be an exciting and poignant social commentary, only it goes on for far too long and makes several references to how terrible the show is about to be.

Jokes like that can be employed correctly, but it is almost painful in this context. They are trying to make poignant social commentary about the world as a whole, but it falls flat because they aren’t really saying anything. The writers are merely perpetuating the same tired tropes found in all terrible media, all the while saying, “look at us, We are aware of these tired tropes, but it’s different because we are talking about it while we are doing it! So it’s okay and funny now!” I find this style of humor to be tired, boring, and unfunny.

What’s worse is that this style of joke is copied and pasted into almost every scene. Not only this, the jokes come off as hateful and irate for no reason. The fun about meta humor is using the joke in jest, but it feels like the writers are being scathed for no reason.

A good example is Velma’s constant snarky remarks to everyone, whether it be attacking the trope of the “pregnant trashy waitress stepmother” or “bitchy high school girl,” the writer’s commentary feels very rude and lacks understanding into complex socioeconomic archetypes, and instead opts to compartmentalize these issues into tight packages, perfect for horribly executed fourth-wall breaks.

This commentary is coming from a man who never dabbled in the intricate nature of episodic show writing, but as a creator, it would be more cathartic to write jokes that employ fourth wall breaks in a better way. The tired song-and-dance of “owning” someone based on preconceived notions seems far less fun than poking fun at the fact that the character is in a silly show.