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You Lookin’ at Me? Breaking the Fourth Wall

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There’s no better way to add some zing to a TV show or movie than to have a character suddenly turn and talk to the audience. Sure, it’s cheating. But if the character happens to have some charisma, it’s also fun. Here’s a toast to the best instances of breaking down that fourth wall.

IT’S GARRY SHANDLING’S SHOW

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In his innovative 1980s comedy series, Garry Shandling made breaking the fourth wall the centerpiece of the whole show. He’d ask the audience questions and solicit their advice. The other characters on the show also were in on the trick. Garry treated the sitcom as the artificial absurdity that it is, but always with his trademark light touch. Even his theme song, “This is the Theme to Garry’s Show,” acknowledged the audience.

HIGH FIDELITY

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This was one of John Cusack’s best roles, and it worked precisely because of his interaction with viewers. Every eye roll, aside and bit of rage revealed that this guy wasn’t just a sarcastic slacker. He had depth.

THE BERNIE MAC SHOW

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Bernie Mac didn’t just talk to his sitcom viewers, whom he simply called, “America.” He cajoled them. He persuaded them. It allowed him to be as gruff as he wanted to be in the rest of his scenes. We still knew he was a pushover.

GROUCHO MARX, IN EVERYTHING

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Quite possibly the most devastating comedian who ever lived. Groucho was a verbal master, slicing up his conversational victims with glee. He had so many great lines, there were always extras to be tossed right at the camera. Here’s one from “Animal Crackers”: “This would be a better world for children if the parents had to eat the spinach.”

FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF

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“Ferris Bueller” is a cultural touchstone of the 1980s – something it owes to both Matthew Broderick and the way he made his case directly to moviegoers. It was like having lunch at the cool kids’ table, all day long.

HOUSE OF CARDS

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The current king of this category is Kevin Spacey in “House of Cards,” hands-down. He absolutely commands the TV screen, spinning his intricate web of politics and power. When he turns to the camera, you know you’re about to hear something hideous AND hilarious.

ANNIE HALL

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In “Annie Hall,” you have Woody Allen at the top of his game. At various points, chosen very shrewdly, he tells the audience what he thinks about relationships, therapy and the work of Marshall McLuhan.

MOONLIGHTING

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“Moonlighting,” the popular TV romantic comedy of the 1980s, spent almost as much time beyond the fourth wall as it did in its own world. Cybill Shepherd and Bruce Willis were naturals at it. I loved when they took a few moments to answer their viewer mail.

30 ROCK

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Tina Fey and Co. broke the fourth wall a bunch of times, but one particular instance was sublime. It’s from the Season Four premiere, when the show aired just before Jay Leno’s ill-fated 10 p.m. variety show. Liz Lemon and Jack Donaghy are watching a crass promo for “Tennis Night in America,” when Donaghy says, “There’s nothing wrong with being fun and popular and just giving people what they want.” Then he stares into the camera and purrs, “Ladies and gentlemen, Jay Leno.”

SLEEPWALK WITH ME

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Mike Birbiglia perfectly blends his comic persona with the needs of a feature film by personally narrating key portions of “Sleepwalk With Me,” which is based on his own life. One of his best quips is, “I know! I’m in the future also!”

MALCOLM IN THE MIDDLE

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Young Malcolm, the genius child in a family of nutjobs, constantly sought comfort by talking with his TV fans. It was a way of saying, “Is it just me, or are these people crazy?”

JFK

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This example is brief, but powerful. It comes at the end of the film, as Kevin Costner’s prosecutor character tries to make a jury believe there was a hidden conspiracy at work in the Kennedy assassination. With one final move of the camera, the audience suddenly becomes Costner’s jury.

THE TWILIGHT ZONE

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Perhaps this isn’t appropriate, since I’m not including other TV hosts on the List. Oh, hell. I simply have to mention the great Rod Serling. He wasn’t just a host – he was our guide, giving us fair warning about the weird stuff heading our way.

ALFIE

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For me, there’s never been a better fourth wall breakdown than Michael Caine in “Alfie.” With his cold stare and heavy eyelids, Caine is a predator in search of sexual conquest. His confessions to the camera show us his cruelty, his self-delusions and his failure as a human being. It’s brilliant.

Of course, this is a mere sampling of great examples. You also have “Airplane,” “Animal House” and so many others. What are your favorites?

A Cavalcade of Movie Cameos

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A well-executed movie cameo is a beautiful thing. It jump-starts an ordinary film and propels a good film to greatness. These are some of my favorites.

TOM CRUISE IN “TROPIC THUNDER” (2008)

Cruise is stunning in this cameo – and totally unrecognizable as studio mogul Les Grossman. His end-of-the-movie dance scene? Crazily hypnotic. I’m not kidding.

WILL FERRELL IN “WEDDING CRASHERS” (2005)

There’s a high degree of difficulty to Ferrell’s cameo in “Wedding Crashers.” His character is mentioned several times in larger-than-life terms, and you don’t really expect to see him. When we do see him at the end of the film, Ferrell makes him one notch wilder than anyone else. He’s the right guy for the job.

ALEC BALDWIN IN “GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS” (1992)

So here’s the Cameo King. Baldwin delivers an electrifying motivational speech from Hell in “Glengarry Glen Ross.” It’s the kind of performance that elevates an entire career. It’s also a performance I’ve quoted from for years. Just hope that Mitch & Murray from Downtown never send this guy to your office.

ALFRED HITCHCOCK IN “NORTH BY NORTHWEST” (1959)

As many fans are aware, Hitchcock loved to make a cameo appearance in films he directed. My favorite was in the title sequence of “North by Northwest,” where he is trying to catch a bus. Rather than just being funny or odd, these cameos added a sinister sense that things are not what they seem to be.

DREW BARRYMORE IN “SCREAM” (1996)

Barrymore sets a terrific tone for the movie. She’s having fun with the role AND she’s taking it seriously, by screaming her little heart out.

TIM ROBBINS, BEN STILLER, LUKE WILSON IN “ANCHORMAN” (2004)

I absolutely love this scene. A bunch of TV people from rival San Diego stations go all “Gangs of New York” on Will Ferrell in “Anchorman.” Watch out for Tim Robbins as a hoodlum from PBS.

THE THREE STOOGES IN “IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD” (1963)

This cameo is perfect because it understands you don’t even have to have the Three Stooges say anything. Just give the audience a chance to see them full-on and pause the camera a couple of seconds.

BILL MURRAY IN “ZOMBIELAND” (2009)

Murray is sheer heaven playing himself – playing a zombie. Like all great cameos, it comes straight out of the blue, like finding money in the street. And get this: Bill makes comments on his actual movie career, while playing a version of himself pretending to be a zombie.

GENE HACKMAN IN “YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN” (1974)

With his long gray beard, it’s hard to tell this is Hackman playing a blind man opposite Peter Boyle’s monster. Hackman handles the scene’s simple shtick with superb comic timing.

ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER IN “TERMINATOR: SALVATION” (2009)

Just when you think a “Terminator” movie can’t offer any more surprises, along comes a digital effect that places a young Arnold back into the futuristic saga. Truly amazing.

CLINT EASTWOOD IN “CASPER” (1995)

You mean you didn’t see the 1995 movie version of Casper the Friendly Ghost? Don’t worry – it’ll be on cable several times this month for Halloween. Look for Clint to pop up in a wonderfully silly scene in a mirror.

TOM CRUISE, GWYNETH PALTROW, DANNY DEVITO, JOHN TRAVOLTA IN “AUSTIN POWERS IN GOLDMEMBER” (2002)

Mike Myers cast his movie-within-a-movie brilliantly. It seems as if Cruise, Paltrow & company enjoyed themselves as much as the audience.

RICHARD BURTON IN “WHAT’S NEW PUSSYCAT?” (1965)

Burton’s cameo is so fleeting I couldn’t even find a picture of it. This was a 60s hipster cameo in a hipster movie from a hipster era. Burton is on the screen only a moment, rubbing elbows with pal Peter O’Toole in a strip club. O’Toole yells out, “Say hello to what’s her name!” It’s a reference to Burton’s wife, Elizabeth Taylor.

MIKE TYSON IN “THE HANGOVER” (2009)

Casting Tyson was inspired. I think it works particularly well because Iron Mike isn’t even the second or third strangest twist in the plot. Events are so far out of control that Tyson is able to play it low-key, making it ever so cool.

BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN IN “HIGH FIDELITY” (2000)

Springsteen’s appearance here is a classic, fantasy cameo. He shows up to offer John Cusack some soulful, sage advice.

BRUCE WILLIS IN “OCEANS TWELVE” (2004)

Willis has a tricky job to do in this cameo. He’s playing himself, while pretending the movie stars all around him are ordinary crooks. Some viewers found it too forced; I thought it worked.

SEAN CONNERY IN “ROBIN HOOD: PRINCE OF THIEVES” (1991)

Some cameos, like this one, are intended to add a bit of pedigree to a movie. Connery rides in as King Richard to Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood here. The chemistry between them isn’t great (unlike “The Untouchables”), but I’m always happy to see Connery. He’s movie royalty.

BILLY CRYSTAL AND CAROL KANE IN “THE PRINCESS BRIDE” (1987)

My favorite cameo ever. Crystal and Kane played an old wizard and his wife, bickering their way into film greatness in “The Princess Bride.” They are hilarious. Puts me in the mood for a mutton, lettuce and tomato sandwich – with the mutton nice and lean.

So many cameos, so little time. Please tell me your own favorites!

Live from New York – SNL’s Best Hosts

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Hard to believe, but this weekend marks the start of the 37th season of “Saturday Night Live.” It’s seen good casts and bad casts, times of national relevance and times when it seemed out of sync. Through it all, the key ingredient that elevated an episode to brilliance was the host. Here’s a look at the best ones.

STEVE MARTIN

I’m not sure SNL would have survived beyond the first few years without Steve Martin as a frequent host, great as that early cast was. Martin’s popularity was phenomenal, and his appearances on the show were electric. He was one of the Wild and Crazy guys, Theodoric of York and, of course, King Tut.

JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE

NBC would do well to pay this guy whatever it takes to keep him hosting an episode every season. He’s that good. Here’s a recording and film star who’s willing to dress like a cup of soup and an omelette and then just nail a sketch. That’s when he’s not doing a spot-on Robin Gibb impersonation, filling in as the musical guest and starring in digital shorts such asĀ  “D**K in a Box.”

CHRISTOPHER WALKEN

Walken is sublime when he hosts. In some sketches, such as “The Continental,” all you have to do is point the camera directly at him and let him work. My goodness – “Cowbell,” “The Census Taker,” “The Walken Family Reunion” – just amazing.

CANDICE BERGEN

Bergen set the perfect tone for the 1970s version of SNL. She was comfortable in her own skin, yet more than willing to be controversial. Most viewers remember her as the intrepid host of “Consumer Probe” opposite Dan Aykroyd’s Irwin Mainway, and for the endearing way she dissolved into laughter during a sketch with Gilda Radner.

TOM HANKS

He actually could have been a cast member of the show, judging by the way he consistently commits to his characters in sketches. On SNL he’s gone from “Mr. Short Term Memory,” to parodies of stand-up comedians and nerds to doing a hilariously dumb version of himself in a “Jeopardy” sketch.

DANE COOK

Speaking of stand-up comics, the much maligned Dane Cook has given SNL a couple of jolts of needed energy in recent years. Cook’s absolute exuberance, plus his ability to turn the opening monologue into a comedy gem, earn him a spot on the List.

JOHN GOODMAN

Kind of an unsung hero of the show. Goodman was the perfect team player when he hosted, as well as when he appeared in cameo bits on other episodes. My favorite Goodman SNL sketches? His impersonations of Linda Tripp (during the 1990s Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky scandal), of course, and his obnoxious businessman from the “Bill Brasky” sketches.

BUCK HENRY

Buck Henry was this absurd, intense, subversive force packaged in the body of a little guy with glasses. He didn’t have to do funny voices when he hosted SNL; he just delivered cutting, intelligent lines amid the craziness of skits such as John Belushi’s “Samurai” epics. For a while, it was customary for Henry to host the last show of the season. As for the last person on this List, it’s…

ALEC BALDWIN

He’s the King of All Hosts. Baldwin has headlined the show more than anyone else (this weekend’s opener is his 16th appearance as host), and he clearly loves it. His work in the “Canteen Boy” and “Schweddy Balls” sketches is classic, but I think I laughed just as hard at Baldwin’s crazy impression of Charles Nelson Reilly. Bravo, sir.

Enjoy the new season, everyone.