Top 10 running gags from How I Met Your Mother
Mark Harrison | On 03, Dec 2015Reading time: 11 mins
All nine seasons of How I Met Your Mother are now on Netflix UK. To celebrate, we look at the best running jokes from the show. Warning: This article contains very mild spoilers for all nine seasons, with some broad references to story arcs.
Kids, did I ever tell you about How I Met Your Mother? It’s a show that’s essentially told from the year 2030, under the pretext that everything Ted Mosby (voiced by Bob Saget) tells his two teenage kids about his social life and dating history in New York City in his 30s eventually led him to meet their mother.
The action takes place in the present day and the younger Ted (Josh Radnor) is a terminal romantic, who shares a flat with his lifelong friends, Marshall (Jason Segel) and Lily (Alyson Hannigan), who are newly engaged in the first episode. Despite the protestations of his degenerate player bro Barney (Neil Patrick Harris), Ted feels ready – desperate, even – to meet The One. He thinks it just might be Robin (Cobie Smulders), but given how the show ran for for almost 10 years, you might have guessed that it takes a little while to meet the future mother of his children.
As a popular US 30-somethings-in-New-York sitcom, HIMYM’s actually twice removed from Friends and Seinfeld, the high watermarks of that particular sub-genre. It has more in common with Coupling, which ran on BBC Two from 2000 to 2004 and subverted the sitcom format by messing about with flashbacks and different characters’ perspectives on their relationships.
Coupling was creator Steven Moffat’s answer to Friends and although there was a typically disastrous attempt to remake it wholesale for the US, Carter Bays and Craig Thomas’ sitcom feels more like the real transatlantic successor to its clever structure, with a whole self-contained mythology added in for good measure; to a greater extent than in Moffat’s series, Ted is both sitcom character and the teller of his own story.
Given how the whole series is designed as a story that one of the characters relays to his children, the running gags stand out more prominently than in other sitcoms of its kind. Where Friends had incessant callbacks to what it means to be on a break, HIMYM had a dense and meticulous continuity going, right from the very beginning. As the first eight seasons arrive on Netflix UK, here’s a look at some of the recurring elements that made the show stand out from the rest.
10. The Playbook
Barney Stinson was the breakout character in the series back when it started: he’s the guy with the catchphrases and, less enjoyably, a sociopathic attitude towards women that was weirdly lionised by some fans. The character becomes more human as the series goes on and while his generally harmless cheesiness doesn’t excuse his attitude towards the women he beds, there is fun in the development of “The Playbook”, a mythical tome in which the player has catalogued increasingly ridiculous con artist techniques designed to seduce women.
Entries in the book include cross-dressing gambits The Lesbian and The Mrs. Stinsfire, the identity theft of The Ted Mosby and the horribly audacious My Penis Grants Wishes. The really cringe-worthy aspect of this comes from the gullibility of the female bit players in the series, but the absurd hustles do raise some memorable laughs.
9. What Does Barney Do?
Aside from trolling women into bed, Barney’s career is something of a mystery. He’s a major player at Goliath National Bank and has a large office on the upper floors of their headquarters, but the free time his job apparently allows often leads other characters to ask him what he actually does, to which Barney always scoffs dismissively and says: “Please.”
His work life only becomes more and more ridiculous as the show goes on. Barney has enough clout to get jobs for both Marshall and Ted, as a lawyer and an architect respectively, but then also spends most of his office time in an insane feud with someone whose office he can see from his window.
In Season 5 episode Double Date, Barney chances across a stripper who is Lily’s exact double. We learn that Stripper Lily is the third doppelgänger of the gang that they have encountered, following previously unseen encounters with “Lesbian Robin” and “Moustache Marshall”. Later that season in Robots Versus Wrestlers, a visit to the titular, self-explanatory event reveals “Mexican Wrestler Ted”.
But this running gag also becomes part of a major story arc in Season 5, with Marshall and Lily deciding that they won’t settle down and start a family until they’ve discovered Barney’s doppelgänger, believing it to be just one of the things they’ll miss out on if they become parents. (He does finally show up after they’ve already started trying for a baby and, of course, he’s the worst.)
Aside from this plot, doppelgängers of the main cast show up throughout the show as Radnor et al take on second and even third minor roles. (Watch out for uglier versions of Marshall in Season 4’s Not A Father’s Day.)
7. Telepathic Conversations
“Kids, that’s when Uncle Marshall and Aunt Lily had one of their telepathic conversations.” One of Dad Ted’s claims is that the main characters know each other so well that they’re capable of reading each other’s thoughts. It first comes up in Season 1’s Mary The Paralegal, with a telepathic conversation between Marshall and Lily in which Segel and Hannigan set the performance standard with a series of insistent expressions and mad-eye acting as they discuss things through narration.
Over the course of the series, the rest of the characters have these conversations with one another too, replicating the expressive style of the first scene. In fact, one instance of this trope foreshadows Ted’s messy break-up with a girlfriend called Stella (Sarah Chalke), when he completely misreads what she’s thinking. On another occasion, Barney manages to talk Ted into running a bar, with nothing in his head but Kokomo, the Beach Boys’ song from Cocktail.
6. The Karate Kid
Barney has a warped view of the world and in Season 4’s The Stinsons, we learn that he’s particularly confused when it comes to movies. His favourite film of all time is 1984’s The Karate Kid, in which he thinks William Zabka’s character Johnny was the titular kid, rather than Ralph Macchio. To him, that movie is a tragic story in which the villainous Daniel cheats to win the day.
This extends to other movies and in subsequent references to this gag, we learn that he thinks Hans Gruber and the Terminator were the title characters in their movies and Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker and War Horse are all villains.
But the Karate Kid reference is the one that proliferates throughout later episodes: William Zabka even guest-stars as himself and becomes a semi-regular character in the final season. HIMYM’s Zabka is a tentative sort, chastened by almost three decades of being booed by strangers wherever he goes and he’s an unlikely highlight.
5. The Wedding Bride
This is another running gag that relates to movies. It should be accepted wisdom that the cinema is not an ideal date venue, but after Stella leaves him at the altar, Ted has a bad date with a woman who wants to see the new romantic comedy, The Wedding Bride. Alas, it turns out that his former fiancée’s ex Tony is now a screenwriter, and the film expressly re-tells how he won Stella back from the petty and evil Jed Mosely (played by a sneering Chris Kattan).
The film isn’t in any way libellous, even though the finished cut of the film apparently includes the actors slipping and calling the caricature Ted Mosby instead of Jed, because it portrays what happened exactly as they did (Ted invited Tony to the wedding and even drove him there) but with a different emphasis (Jed says he’ll drive Tony to the wedding himself and make him watch).
As daft as it is, the idea of Ted being recast as an over-the-top rom=com antagonist is just one example of how storytelling and perspective informs the long tale of his love life. And in the world of HIMYM, The Wedding Bride out-grosses Avatar, leading to a whole franchise that drags Marshall (now Narshall) into it as well.
4. Music, Music, Music!
Although the show never went all out on a whole musical episode, a la Scrubs’ My Musical or Buffy The Vampire Slayer’s Once More With Feeling, HIMYM had an above-average number of original songs. We don’t know if Dad Ted is actually singing all of these to his kids, but as in most musicals, the logic of characters breaking out into song isn’t necessarily important.
Some of the songs are compositions that the characters have specifically made up in the show itself, like when Marshall keeps making mini songs to email out to people (“Cat funeral…”) but like the telepathic conversations, there are sometimes moments where characters go into a reverie and musical numbers just happen. The most magnificent example is in the show’s 100th episode, Girls Vs. Suits, which ends with a full-on NPH musical number, with a horde of backing dancers and a 50-piece orchestra.
On other musical notes, there’s The Proclaimers’ 500 Miles, which is the song that Marshall is all too happy to have had stuck in his car’s tape deck since college. Then of course, there’s the discography of Robin Sparkles, but we’ll get to that.
3. Slap Bet
In many ways, Season 2’s Slap Bet is the greatest ever episode of the show. Ted and Robin are dating at this point and the gang realise that they really know very little about Miss Scherbatsky’s past. Barney thinks she’s hiding a career in adult films, but the others are sure that she isn’t. In fact, Marshall is so sure that he enters a slap bet with him – whoever is right about it gets to slap the other in the face as hard as he can.
With Lily as “slap bet commissioner”, the initial bet escalates drastically and gives Marshall five whole slaps to be doled out on Barney’s stupid face whenever he pleases until the end of time. Due to some other developments and rulings by Lily, Marshall spreads these over the whole of the rest of the series, with one major episode in the final season dedicated to a ridiculous Shaw Brothers homage about the art of slappery.
There’s a massive catalogue of arcane Canadian jokes to be gleaned from American TV and movies and HIMYM might have got more mythology out of the Great White North than any other comedy show, except for South Park. The Canada of HIMYM is terminally polite, at least a decade behind the times, and apparently considers the world’s greatest living pop star to be one Robin Sparkles.
For our money, Smulders is the MVP of the whole show and she deserves a lot of credit for adapting a character who starts as a figure onto which Ted can project his domestic fantasy into the most rounded of the main cast. But aside from that, it’s her brief and hilarious spell as this teenage pop star that’s most celebrated.
In terms of the show, it’s just a great excuse to do a great music video parody every couple of seasons, including the irritatingly catchy Let’s Go To The Mall, the unspeakably tragic Sandcastles In The Sand and the pinnacle of smutty children’s TV spin-off songs, Two Beavers (Are Better Than One).
1. I Swear, This Is How It Happened
This is as much a format of storytelling as a running gag – like Coupling, many of HIMYM’s half hours involve re-tellings of the same story from a different perspective. One of the best is a throwaway sight gag in Season 4’s I Heart NJ when Dad Ted tells his kids that his Aunt Robin swears she did a somersault on a little girl’s bike. Season 4 also has Murtaugh, the episode in which Uncle Marshall remembers his kindergarten basketball team’s trouncing very differently, as a bunch of kids are repeatedly dunked on by six-foot-tall adults and a bonafide Teen Wolf.
But what the show also has is an entire language of euphemisms that make Dad Ted’s wild social life suitable to re-tell to his kid. There’s an episode where Marshall gets Lily all steamed up talking about how he wants to hold her hand. Barney gets kicked out of a theatre for bellowing “Kiss her” at Ted and his Wedding Bride date (he wasn’t yelling “kiss”). And of course, whenever Ted, Marshall or Lily “eat a sandwich”, they’re actually smoking weed.
In a series about storytelling, it’s fun to see different narrators chip in and it’s touches like these that marks the series apart as one of the finest network sitcoms of the last decade and worth watching through for the first time – or 15th time – now that the story, in all of its unfocused magnitude, is complete.
How I Met Your Mother Seasons 1 to 9 are available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.
Photos: Fox Television