Whenever a show makes a joke referencing itself, fans go crazy. Shows like Community formed their entire reputation off of self-referential humor. But what is it about being “meta” that viewers love so much?
Breaking the Wall
One reason we love “meta” moments is that it breaks the inherent artifice of the medium. We know we are watching television, the people making the show know we are watching, so why not make that connection? With the introduction of single-camera shows, there is more than ever a sense of connection with the characters; the absence of a studio audience (or, dare I say, laugh track) creates a more intimate viewing experience, as does the less-homogenized filming format.
Makes Us Feel Smart
When a viewer encounters a self-referential joke, there tends to be a certain pride in having “got the joke”. Not everyone can grasp “meta” humor, and not many people even look for it. It lets us run off to Reddit to chat with others who are in-the-know, and gives us something to explain to our friends when we watch it with them while they look at us like we’re freaks. We like to feel smart and like we understand an inside joke, so “meta” humor serves us well.
Connects Us to Characters
Meta humor that breaks the fourth wall can allow the characters to connect directly with the audience. It can be taken to such extremes as It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, the king of meta, where Shandling would directly address the audience (both in the studio and at home) for most of the episode. This allows us to feel like we’re interacting with the characters on the screen in front of us. It’s kind of like Dora the Explorer for adults.
Ultimately, meta humor has a certain appeal, especially among TV nerds like myself. And shows willing to experiment with it always seem to be rewarded.