When How I Met Your Mother (HIMYM) premiered in 2005 on CBS, television critics scrambled to contextualise the new sitcom. Its premise- a group of 20-something-year-old friends living in Manhattan- was not new to television. In fact, to these critics, HIMYM was attempting to fill some very large shoes. The heavyweight prime-time sitcoms like Friends and Frasier had both ended in 2004 and from the word go HIMYM was predicted to deliver a derivative form of entertainment. Entertainment Weekly, in its 2005 review of the pilot episode, described the central character Ted Mosby (Josh Radnor) as a ‘Schwimmer-ian man’ – a reference to David Schwimmer who played Ross on Friends. The L.A. Weekly was even more enthusiastic with its label maker, saying that the show’s ambition (other than producing ‘polished comedy’ each week) was “…[not] about originality but about trying to re-create what’s worked in the past. So it goes without saying that the breezily charming How I Met Your Mother would love to be the next Friends…” While in this essay I intend to agree with these critics- that HIMYM does indeed draw not-so-subtly on its predecessors, I also intend to argue that the reasons it does this are more complex than mere creative laziness. HIMYM is an example of a television show which cleverly imbues elements of its own genre and other cultural references to create a complex, intertextualized cultural conversation with its audience. In doing so it reflects the very medium it comes from, and the intertextual nature of the genre it is attached to.
Coming off the back end of the cancellation of the immensely popular sitcom Friends, HIMYM had a chance to potentially fill the void left by its discontinuation. By employing intertextual elements that reference that show, HIMYM did not need to explicitly define or explore its target audience- it merely had to connect to those who had grown up watching Friends, and because of that, would be predisposed to the humor and plot devices of a friend based situation comedy. The characters of HIMYM all have similarities to the core characters of Friends- For example; the smooth talking womanizing Barney Stinson in HIMYM is a smart, well dressed twist on Joey Tribbiani of Friends. Both have their signature ways of seducing women- Barney with his elaborate and fanciful stories (“This is my last night before my three year shuttle expedition to the moon”) and Joey with his legendary pick up line, “How YOU doin’?” Both are also portrayed as having a more sensitive side when it comes to the well-beings of their friends- Barney flies to San Francisco to save his friend Marshall’s marriage and Joey urinates on his friend Monica’s leg when she gets stung by a jellyfish (“That’s right, I stepped up! She’s my friend and she needed help! If I had to, I’d pee on any one of you!”). Arguably the character Lily Aldrin in HIMYM is a less extreme version of Phoebe Buffay with her odd habits and beliefs. And, as noted above by Entertainment Weekly, Ted the architecture professor has many similar qualities to Ross Gellar, the archaeology professor. Although these character correlations may be present in other shows, the HIMYM character connections with the (already infamous in 2005) characters of Friends sets up the air of familiarity for its audiences. These new characters, while not replacements for the ones of Friends, embody the basic quirky, eccentric, womanizing, and neurotic natures of them. By employing familiar archetypes to surround their characters, the producers of HIMYM employ a sense of realism into their construction- so that in some sense, the audience has a basic idea of what to expect from their interactions and relationships with the other characters. In this sense, HIMYM can be seen as embodying the idea set forth by Jason Mittell, that “…texts come together through cultural practices of production and reception.” HIMYM is produced to utilize these preexisting character archetypes in order to ensure audience following and the audiences’ reception of HIMYM involves looking for these intertextual references to other shows. For, what expands a fictionalized world more authentically than the possibility that the characters from HIMYM, produced to operate within the same sphere of reception as the characters on Friends, couldn’t bump into one another on the streets of New York? And even better- they could relate and connect to one another because of those similarities.
HIMYM also joins Friends in using tropes of television sitcoms in order to create wider cultural relevance and place the show in a frame outside of the traditional restrictions of genre. Lisa Williamson from the University of Glasgow surmises that Mittel’s approach to television genre theory “… refuses to view genres as historical and static, understanding them instead as cultural products that are ‘constituted by media practices and subjected to ongoing change and redefinition” (35). In this sense, the well used tropes of the television sit-com, which is traditionally used to pigeonhole a show to fit in with other shows that use the device, such as the ‘catch phrase’, can also be looked at in the frame of a ‘cultural product’. For example, while the television trope of the ‘catch phrase’ can be applied to multiple genres of television, such as the talk show, its use in the sitcom has a way of bringing the completely fictionalized characters and situations through which the said catch phrase originated into a place of cultural reality. For the audiences of the sitcom, the initial use of the catch phrase can be seen as an identity marker for the show; fans of HIMYM can quote Barney’s “haaaaaave you met Ted?” to one another to reference and acknowledge the show’s humor. Over time however, a certain catch phrase can also enter the sphere of cultural language that is made up of references, quotes and parodies of popular culture- someone asking “Have I been Punk’d?” when finding themselves in an unusual or uncanny situation is an example of an aspect of cultural language that deviates away from the context of the program Punk’d and enters cultural language where it legitimately acts as a question relating to their own circumstances. The use of a catch phrase can come to be recognized by not only fans of the show- who play close enough attention to reference it to the specific character or episodes in which it was used, but to the audience of the everyday- the users of this cultural language. An example from Friends is Joey’s famous pick up line: “How you doin’?” which can be used in the cultural language as a way of jokingly flirting with someone, or the equally famous expletive from Homer Simpson- “D’oh!” which functions as a noise of frustration at a error one has made. Though HIMYM, having not been around as long as Friends or The Simpsons has not yet produced catch phrases that can be used through cultural language in the same way, there are arguably several that have the potential to- such as Marshall’s use of the phrase “lawyered” when he disproves someone in an argument. Phrases like “D’oh!” and “How you doin’?” exemplify the way that facets of the television genre have permeated into culture, gradually shedding specific reference to the television show from whence it originated and coming to relate more specifically to circumstances separate from the show’s narrative.
HIMYM frequent use of intertextual references outside of the frame of its own genre works to layer cultural texts upon one another in order to create a complex, culturally rich system of humor with its audience. In doing this, it exemplifies the way that the genre of the sitcom is built upon a multitude of facets, some not even having relevance inside their own genre by not being due to aspects of production- like the trope of ‘The Local’ hangout in which one set is used for a majority of the scenes as an expense saver. Instead, some facets of the genre function as a way of humorously parodying or referencing culture in a way that reaches outside the narrative world of the program and into the real life world of the audience. This can be seen as blurring the line between the artificiality of the produced world of the sitcom and the real world inhabited by the audience. Evidence that these intertextual references are culturally relevant can be seen in the way that they are acknowledged outside the world of television such as a slideshow that can be found on the official website of Oprah- www.oprah.com, which shows a range of different television shows and their references to Oprah, including both HIMYM and Friends. The slideshow is titled ‘13 Oprah Show Shout-Outs’ with the subtitle; “The Oprah Show has permeated pop culture. Even fictional characters watch!” A feature like this on Oprah’s website not only demonstrates the authenticity and relatability of the characters in these sitcoms- who are participating in the same cultural ideologies and practices as their audience- but it also shows the value of such intertextual references. Oprah’s stance as a cultural icon is legitimated by these intertextual reference of her within the world of the sitcom- acknowledging that she holds a place in cultural conscious where the aspects of her show- such as the gift-giving to her audience or her tendency to host guests with abnormally tragic lives- can be so familiar that they can be parodied by the show in order to forge a connection with their audiences. The intertextual references in HIMYM are both frequent (with as many as 10 per episode) and varied. They include more demographically specific cultural intertextuality- such as the New York/New Jersey rivalry (“I Heart NJ”- the third episode in the fourth season) which New Yorkers are more likely to understand than audiences in New Zealand. They also include as well as specific references to web culture with parodies of websites such as ratemeproffessor.com (“Subway Wars”- the fourth episode of the sixth season) and Barney’s annoying forwarding of chain mail that the other characters complain about. HIMYM even employs a somewhat self-reflexive intertextual parody in episode nine of season six titled “Glitter” where Barney (the most enthusiastic employer of catch phrases in the program) references a long list of catch phrases by reality television programs in order to encourage an annoying friend to leave New York:
“Punchy, the tribe has spoken. Please pack up your knives and go… I have to ask you to leave the mansion. You must leave the chateau. Your tour ends here…You’ve been evicted from the Big Brother house. Your desert just didn’t measure up…Give me your jacket and leave Hell’s kitchen! You did not get a rose. You have been eliminated from the race. You are no longer in the running to be America’s Next Top Model. You’re fired. Auf Wiedersehen.”
The comedic affect of this, while in part because to Neil Patrick Harris’s delivery of the lines (parodying the idiosyncratic deliveries of the phrases by the various reality television hosts) is also due to the way that these lines highlight a generic trope of television in general- which is employed by HIMYM itself. The show’s acknowledgement of its own genre formula serves again the purpose of locating its characters experience alongside that of the audience- simultaneously revealing its construction as a television show, and heightening its characters authenticity.
The intertextual construction of television genre, while being difficult to theorize, is demonstrated in television shows like HIMYM. It functions intertextually on several different levels- by reference to other shows which operate within the same frames, like Friends, referencing more generic television tropes- exemplified through its use of the ‘catch phrase’. Finally, it functions by way of referencing wider cultural themes that can operate outside of the medium of television all together- such as web culture. As Williamson notes, “television analysis must examine the various cultural practices that inform our understanding of genre within a particular historical instance” (36). In creation of the television genre, the world a specific program is catering to has more of an impact upon the way it is crafted than the traditional labeling fixing notions of genre as would have one believe.
“13 Oprah Show Shout-Outs.” Oprah.com. Harpo Productions, Inc., 16 May.2011. Web. 28, Sept. 2011
Abele, Robert. “CBS’s Sharper Image: Are our next Friends on the Tiffany network?” L.A. Weekly, LP, 15 Dec. 2005. Web. 24, Sept. 2011.
Goldblatt, Henry. “How I Met Your Mother.” Entertainment Weekly, 15 May. 2006. Web. 25, Sept. 2011.
Mittell, Jason, “A Cultural Approach to Television Genre Theory,” Cinema Journal 40.3 (2001): 3-24.
Williamson, Lisa E. “Contentious Comedy: Negotiating Issues of Form, Content, and Representation in American Sitcoms of the Post-Network Era.” Thesis. The University of Glasgow, 2008. Print.