Andy Warhol once extolled the virtues of Coke, saying that it’s a unique experience in that no matter what your station, there’s only one Coke and when you drink it, you place yourself on the same level as the president or Elizabeth Taylor. Little did he know that’s there’s a special coke for super rich people hand crafted in a mine by street urchins. I swear you can taste the difference.
But we’re all familiar with a kind of universal modern-western-entertainment-experience, whether it’s Netflix or The Superbowl or a Seth Rogan comedy. In this way we all should be familiar with the concepts I want to talk about.
There’s a unique piece of entertainment called ‘the live show’ that switches back and forth between the viewer/listener being the audience and observing the audience. I’m sure you’ve witnessed it yourself. You’re listening to a live standup show, and at some point a joke is told that gets a far bigger laugh than should be possible and you realize that something has happened on stage that you can’t see. Or when watching a late night show and the host references a joke made outside the taping of the show. If the fourth wall is the invisible barrier between a piece of art and its intended audience, the wall between the live show itself and the remote time-shifted viewer could be called the fifth wall, and it only sometimes exists.
The fifth wall exists when whatever you’re consuming becomes recontextualized by the sudden and unintentional recognition of the medium. It’s not a conscious act. One minute you’re listening to a live podcast, completely immersed and then something happens onstage that you as a listener miss out on. You’re now paying attention to both the comedian and the audience. The audience is no longer just white noise, but a part of the medium. And this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. When an actor breaks and loses his shit, the audience then follows suit and this is something that can be enjoyed uniquely on your level of abstraction. It’s funny laughing at the audience laughing at a comedian laughing at himself.
Even a recorded live performance that you’ve attended has this benefit, because you’re not only watching it, but remembering when you watched it for the first time in person.
The fifth wall reminds us about the self and the other. Normally we feel like a part of the audience, and why not? If a show is recorded to be consumed later, we are—in a sense—the intended audience. The studio audience just provides the context clues of what is funny, or that we’re watching something that isn’t meant to be taken seriously. A serious cop drama, even if it were possible, logistically speaking, would never have a studio audience that we’d be aware of. This helps cultivate a sense of intimacy, and also requires more from the writers and filmmakers. The sitcom set includes the studio audience. That’s why we’re very forgiving of the fact that a group of symmetrically diverse New Yorkers (3 men, 3 women, each with a black person a white person and an Asian. Also an Eskimo. Because Eskimo) can afford apartments with 2000 square foot kitchens. Think of how erie Two and a Half Men would be without the studio audience. Actually, this might improve most tv shows by turning them into absurdist performance art.
The dynamic nature of the fifth wall helps think about what makes us feel like us. Not personal identity, but when the very idea of inclusion makes for such a stark contrast. We become aware of the group most acutely when we’re not a part of it. When the studio audience is “in” on a joke, we feel like “the other” and our consumption of this art becomes one step removed.
On the flip side, we never feel more on the level of the audience. We think to ourselves ‘if only I had been there’ in a very real way. This is a wish that is within the realm of possibility. Which means we are aware of the very complex system of content delivery. Someone made a plan to have a live show, they set up the venue, they recorded it, they edited and mastered it, they put it on netflix, you signed up for an internet provider and used your credit card—another system in and of itself—to subscribe to netflix and made a conscious decision to watch that instead of Sharknado 2. You can pick that apart and have a very specific desire to place yourself into a step in that chain, and it feels completely reasonable in a way that wishing to be Louis C.K. is not.
Now, this whole ‘I’m a part of modern capitalism’ isn’t an active thought, but what I’ve just described, you understand. The modern world is so complex that you can’t understand it all, but just knowing it’s there should give you some kind of comfort. Systems upon systems upon systems, but at the end of the day you can go hide out in a coffee shop and watch Aziz Ansari Live at Madison Square Garden with less effort than it takes to make a hot pocket. Pretty cool, huh?