I polished off How I Met Your Mother in the wee hours today, a time-slot the show seems designed for not necessarily because of a lack of skill in the product.
There’s an interesting effect in literature when you’re prepared for the outcome. In highschool, I found myself reading Jacqueline Carey’s Banewreaker with increasing dread after the promise on the cover:
This is their story… and they’re going to lose.
– Description of Banewreaker, Jacqueline Carey
The show proceeds as the story of how the narrator met his children’s mother, so like Carey’s promised doom, the plot has a definitive endgame that the audience knows, and we’re warned straightaway that the woman Ted meets and confesses his love to in the first episode is not the titular mother. The Office specialized in a kind of unflinching painfulness1, mixed with poignancy, but it isn’t the same sadism and hopefulness that makes you keep watching Ted. The comedy of How I Met Your Mother is a warming mixture of laughing-at and laughing-with — the usual mixture of good friendships. In fact, the modeling of friendship, and known stories, is what makes How I Met Your Mother so good, and so very good at two in the morning.
You hear all the time that part of the succor that television offers is through the repetition of familiar faces, so that one can watch a show and feel that one is coming home, even if it’s Gossip Girl. I wouldn’t know how to cite that, but it seems true, and seems like an excellent explanation of the repetitiveness of plot found in so many television programs. “Too Many Cooks,” an animated short on Adult Swim’s 4:00 AM slot, pressed on that repetitiveness of plot and genre with a nauseously long, unsettling title sequence to a fake family sitcom. Of course it goes from the perfect mirroring of a genre to increasingly unstable premises, the original family now blending (and sucking face with) another family, and then another, and the sexy neighbor is now continually topless, and Lars von Trier is cast as a pie, until now a scraggly-haired killer emerges again and again among the other formulaic characters, fading last from the screen.
But it’s not just the woman who is being slain here, even as the red emergency button is pushed and the terror of the slasher plot is jettisoned. “Too Many Cooks” wants to destroy our collective nostalgia for this form altogether. It holds up the 1980s sitcom as something worth celebrating but finds it as hollow as the products that those infomercials are peddling. They’re unnecessary and empty, they’re relics of a time that we long for but shouldn’t return to. In fact, we shouldn’t try. The collection of assembled cast members at the end, all smiling happily for the camera, isn’t the actual ending; it’s a fiction predicated on our own psychological need to see our best selves reflected on screen, to see the sitcom triumph over the harshness and horror of the killer. But he’s there at the very end, worming his way into the extended family portrait, his head remaining on screen even after everything else vanishes into the darkness. Fade to black.
The split-second show that follows uses the all-too-familiar refrain of a man entering the front door and bellowing, “Honey, I’m home,” an ur-sitcom staple, before the laugh track rings out and the end credits roll. It reduces the sitcom to its barest element, the setup, the gag, the most tired joke line of all joke lines. There are reasons why television moved past this format and these archetypes, why our comedies today — or at least the more intelligent ones — strive for more than just pratfalls and laugh tracks. And, consequently, there are reasons why the form idealized and then ultimately cast off by “Too Many Cooks” reminds us of something distant and dusty from our childhoods or adolescence. In exploiting those forms, Kelly and “Too Many Cooks” point toward the danger of nostalgia, which might have the power to tug on your heartstrings, but also to rip them right out of your chest.
– “What’s Behind Our Obsession with ‘Too Many Cooks’“, Jace Lacob
This particular kind of humor is Adult Swim’s specialty these days: the killer chases down a teenage girl, identifying her through the slats in a closet by the glow of the credit sequence following her around, and gutting her; the last scene is a photo of the very large cast, the father (as he has four times now) getting in the photo at the last moment, but the freeze-frame shows the killer in his stead, his face glowing as the remainder of the screen fades off. The joke is that there is no joke, or something equally brilliant and stupid. The joke is that you’re thinking about what it means, and it doesn’t mean anything. The joke is that what made you smile as the title sequence got longer and longer — that this was obviously a riff on a form, that you could laugh at this bloating sit-com without laughing at anybody — is the part of you now extremely uncomfortable with that lingering face, though as Lacob pointed out that killer is still just another flat feature of another flat repetitive genre, but now it’s here, cutting up something which it turned out you cared about, no matter how repetitive and obvious.
Like “Too Many Cooks,” How I Met Your Mother is self-consciously a story, and a very particular story, one you’ve heard before, one you know the ending to, one with a laughtrack. At different points the narrator corrects himself, admits a detail was incorrect, that the sequence of events didn’t happen like this, that secretly all of the characters had been smokers though it had never been shown on screen. This is part of what makes the show fascinating, but it’s not simply that the narrator is occasionally unreliable. Rather, one recognizes in some of the tropes and tools of this sit-com the very same tropes and tools you find when you tell stories about your life. Friends have gimmicks, which are always repeated when you discuss them or when you tell a story about them, or a trait that never comes up except once when it’s necessary to narrative and then never emphasized again. People somehow manage to be larger than can be conveyed clearly, and easily reduced into catch-phrases. That similarity is flattering, but not all the similarities of this show and this genre are. All of the characters compromise their dreams.2 All of the characters repeat their faults well into the salt-and-pepper age. There are changes, but for the most part, what we see on screen are cycles of attempting to be someone better and yet falling right back into form.
I can’t imagine seeing “Too Many Cooks” in its intended time slot. There is something large and empty inside of a person watching television past 2:00 AM, and the uncomfortable nudge of that ten minute joke could only widen it, and of course, that’s part of the point. It was meant to be a sucker punch. But I think, for those also awake and alone, How I Met Your Mother shares some of that same self-referential space, but kindly. The tenderness it shows for repetition isn’t aimed towards the repeated jokes, or the fact that they are repeated, but rather a tenderness towards people who never make the changes that they promise. Part of what you do with an inside joke is reference the fact of the friendship, the fact that you were together when the joke occurred and you’re still together now. In some sense we use those repetitive ribbings to remind one another of one another, and to remind ourselves of ourselves. The very great success of this show is how it manages to show that audiences have this feature due to genre and humanity both. It’s very beautiful and stupid.