The Wife:

You know what I love? Metatheatre. You know what else I love? This episode of How I Met Your Mother.

After the break, this was a great episode to come back on, and I love especially that it plays with the idea of the actor and, particularly, the actors on HIMYM. The premise is this: the gang starts to notice some unusual behavior on Barney’s part. He’s calling someone and telling him he loves them, disappearing from the bar and ignoring scads of floozies. When he leaves suddenly, they hop in a cab and follow him out of the city. After he steps inside a nice suburban home, they follow him in demanding to know who this secret girlfriend of his is. He introduces the gang to his mother, impressing Lily with the revelation that he is, at heart, a mama’s boy . . . until a blonde woman walks into the room whom Barney introduces as his wife, followed by an obnoxious kid introduced as his son, Tyler.

Worst family portrait ever.

Worst family portrait ever.

Everyone, including the viewing audience, is shocked to hear about Barney’s secret life, until his mom leaves the room and Barney reveals that Tyler and his wife, Betty, are both actors, hired to appease his mother’s fondest wish for him. When she was ill, she hoped that Barney would get married before she died, so Barney hired Margaret, a Broadway actress just this shy of a Tony, to play his fiancée, Betty. But Margaret has a tendency to go off book and added a surprise pregnancy to the mix when Barney’s mom expressed a desire to live to see grandchildren. And then she got better and Barney had to begin casting child actors to play the part of Tyler in his fantasy life.


Mom at audition: You said if I slept with you my son would get the part.
Barney: Well, apparently, I’m a better actor than your kid.


Ted recognizes Betty from a Brecht play he saw some years ago, admitting himself as Brechtophile, and the two of them develop a rapport over Brechtian theatre and a passion for acting. Ted tells Betty that he always wanted to act, even staging plays for the children in his family to perform at holidays that he artfully overdirected. Betty gives him a few tips on acting. Meanwhile, Marshall and Lily, after having sex in Barney’s childhood racecar bed, try to convince Barney to tell his mother the truth, debating amongst themselves when the truth should be told and when it should be held back to spare someone’s feelings. They agree that the truth should be told always, so Lily admits that she hates Marshall’s mother, which Marshall finds completely shocking because, well, he was the runt of the family and that woman still loved him. (“I’m only 6’4″!”)

Barney wishes he could tell his mom everything, especially because he totally hates the kid he cast as Tyler, ragging on the boy’s lack of professionalism, inability to stay in character and constant desire to develop a catchphrase (“Tyler no likey!”). He complains that child stars were just so much better in the 80s, an awesome wink at Neil Patrick Harris’ star-making turn as Doogie Howser, M.D. that merited every bit of canned laughter they tacked on to it. If I heard that line in a stage play delivered by a former child star like Harris, the laughter would be louder than the track provided. And that was a loud track – an intentional move, I believe, to further point out the artifice of theatre, television and filmmaking that highlights the metatext about acting in this episode. Even having everyone converge on the three-room set of Mrs. Stinson’s house made this episode seem like a sitcom from another era, or even a stage play by someone like Neil Simon. Every part of this episode is about artifice and theatricality, and I’m glad that the creators, writers and Pamela Fryman took that conceit full-tilt. Brecht would totally approve.

Robin feels bad for Tyler, learning how much he hates playing Barney’s son and she and the boy strike up a sort of kinship for being put-upon by their employers. Robin knows she’s a good journalist, but she’s stuck doing some shitty morning show gig, just because it was available at the time. Likewise, that’s how Tyler got this job. They know they’re better than that, but Robin assures the boy that the best thing he can do to get through it is just to be as awesome as possible at a terrible job. This eventually leads to an awkward moment where Tyler misreads her motherly adoration for the boy as romantic intentions and tries to kiss her, apologizing, “Sorry! I thought I was picking up on something there!”

Barney goes so far as to script some banter for the dinner scene with his mom, filled with things she’d want to hear, like stories from Betty about Barney almost forgetting their anniversary but actually surprising her with a romantic candlelit dinner and a half-remembered nightmare from Tyler about how he doesn’t want to lose his mommy and daddy – a line that Barney had to deliver because Tyler forgot and ad-libbed something about dinosaur bones coming alive, a thought which terrifies Marshall. Barney, by the way, based his “in a relationship character” on Ted. During Barney’s recitation of Tyler’s nightmare, Betty and Ted slip out to the kitchen, where they’re caught making out by the whole group as they head in to the sundae bar Loretta prepared for them. Caught in the moment, Ted decides to resort to some of Betty’s acting tips, improvising a story about Barney stealing Betty (who is blind, in Ted’s estimation) from him when they met on a train to Algiers. Tyler, finally getting something right, runs out of the room crying about how he doesn’t want his mommy and daddy to get divorced.

Realizing that he has to do some serious rewrites on his false life, Barney takes his mom aside and tells her that Tyler is dying and Betty plans to commit suicide the moment her son dies, but then he recants and admits that the family he’s been parading in front of her for years are only hired actors. Rather than being angry or confused, Loretta is relived to hear this because she fucking loathes Betty and Tyler (especially his stupid catch phrase). She doesn’t even like the people Barney hired to play his friends!

Barney comes clean and tells his mom that his life is so completely the opposite of the life he’s been pretending to have to make her happy. He tells her that she wouldn’t even want to know some of the terrible things he’s done, and she counters with:

“Barney, when you were three, I left you to go on the road with Grand Funk Railroad where I was passed around like a bong.”


Like she told Lily and Marshall, Loretta is basically a big, fat whore. Like mother, like son.

Seeing Barney make up with his mother, Lily decides to try to make up with Marshall’s mom, but the cutaway reveals that the person she’s calling is actually Betty, who, with Ted, is telling her what to say to make it sound like she’s trying to make amends and appease Marshall. (Yet another similarity between my husband and I and Marshall and Lily: my husband’s mother is also named Judy. But unlike Lily’s feelings for Marshall’s mom, I totally love my mother-in-law, even when she kicks my ass at Scrabble.)

In addition to the vast metatheatre of this episode, I like that it highlights just how much acting we do everyday, especially through Lily’s feeble attempt to make amends with someone she hates by pretending to call her at the episode’s end. We all put on a good face for our parents that, except in certain cases, is probably far from who we are to our friends, or our coworkers or our teachers. We often pretend to enjoy people or things more than we actually do because to do otherwise interrupts social protocol. As the Bard said,


“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,”


We lie a lot to save face, we put on a face to meet the faces that we meet and we present different facets of ourselves at different times – all of it acting. In that light, Ted’s admission that he has always wanted to be an actor is funny not only because we know Josh Radnor is an actor, but also because everyone already is an actor, even if it isn’t their trade.

I’m a theatre geek, interested in metatextuality and performance studies (among my many other assorted academic interests) and, yes, I used to tread the boards a little bit. I fucking loved this episode. It’s brilliant. And when I say that, I’m not acting.

The Husband:

I’m not entirely sure where to come down on this episode. Yes, the metatextuality was great, but how about the actual plot itself? It really breaks down into two separate things:

1.) If everything at the house, all the fake plots and lines, etc., were meant to be a direct parody of 1980s-1990s TGIF family sitcoms (Step By Step especially), then the episode was brilliant. The design of the house particularly lends credibility to this theory.

2.) If it didn’t have those types of shows in mind, aside from the Doogie Howser reference, then it was more weird than anything else.

I hope it’s more of the latter, but it was done with such a light touch that I couldn’t really put my finger on it. It’s tough enough getting a Barney-centric episode – those, such as “The Yips” or “Single Stamina” (yes, both the Wayne Brady episodes), tend to take away much of his comedic power, because he’s best when in the background simply mocking everybody else – so adding all the bizarre theatre jokes (the writers once again show off by dropping so much Brecht knowledge) and perhaps mocking an entire subgenre of television comedy might have been too tall of an order to make all the pieces work. That may explain why I was underwhelmed by the tiny Lily-Marshall story, even though it gave me the biggest laugh of the episode when Marshall screamed “I hate you” at Lily.

They can’t all be 100%, and HIMYM definitely has the best comedic good-versus-bad ratio on television (second place after the uproarious but somewhat cold 30 Rock, of course), so I shouldn’t really complain. Hell, it’s still better than most of the stuff out there, and I’d be impressed as all hell if this were on any lesser show.

NPH gives Frances Conroy a happy ending. Wait! No! I didnt mean it like that!

NPH gives Frances Conroy a happy ending. Wait! No! I didn't mean it like that!

Whatever. Basically, as a major fan of Six Feet Under, I love seeing Frances Conroy in anything, be it getting a massage-gasm on Desperate Housewives, being a mysterious gypsy trainer person in the otherwise risible Catwoman, or here played a former skankatron. It makes me not even care that we’ve already heard the voice of Barney’s mother on more than one occasion, and that voice was provided by Megan Mullally.

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