The far-reaching stakes of How I Met Your Mother’s slap bet

The far-reaching stakes of How I Met Your Mother’s slap bet

Welcome to the TV Roundtable, where some of TV Club’s writers tackle episodes that all deal with a central theme. This wraps up our eight-installment “competition” theme.

“Slap Bet” (How I Met Your Mother, season two, episode nine; originally aired 11/20/2006)

In which secrets lead to slaps, and future slaps remain secret…

Donna Bowman: Our readers are an astute bunch. Not only is “Slap Bet” a perfect sitcom showcase for the theme of competition, it’s also a worthy follow-up to the Friends episode we discussed a couple of weeks ago. Like Ross’ quiz, Marshall and Barney’s slap bet provides the writers with a simple framework of expectation and resolution that can be exploited for a variety of hilarious effects. It’s a brilliant device that, in spite of having long since entered into the mythology of the show (slaps have been doled out in seasons two, three, five, and seven so far), hasn’t lost its freshness and vibrancy.

And in an embarrassment of riches, this is also the episode that gives us Robin’s Canadian teen pop star Robin Sparkles in her classic mid-’90s video “Let’s Go To The Mall,” featuring such Tiffany-inspired lyrics as “Put on your jelly bracelets and your cool graffiti coat.” (“The ’80s didn’t come to Canada until 1993,” Robin explains.) The mystery that sparks the slap bet begins when Robin refuses to go to the mall to celebrate the opening of a new Sharper Image store, and refuses to give a reason. Barney thinks it’s because “our friend Robin used to do porn—wait for it!—ography,” speculation that Lily finds plausible because “she’s got the fake orgasm noises down.” (“Hey!” Ted objects. When Lily explains, “The walls are thin,” he grumbles, “That’s not what I’m hey-ing you about.”) Marshall thinks Robin’s married because she always tells stories about her “friend in Canada who got married way too young,” and being from the upper Midwest, Marshall is familiar with the way malls are central to many weddings.

Thus the slap bet is born. As with the Friends game show, humor arises from the proliferation of rules and roles, and from the speedy accumulation of extremely specific detail. Lily jumps on board immediately when Barney offers her the position of Slap Bet Commissioner. “On your tombstone, it will read ‘Lily Aldrin: caring wife, loving friend, Slap Bet Commissioner,” Barney intones to impress upon her the gravitas of the role. (“And on your tombstone, it’ll read ‘Got slapped so hard by Marshall, he died,’” Marshall trash-talks.) Slap bets are simple: The winner gets to slap the loser across the face as hard as he possibly can. But when fouls and infractions occur, as determined by the Slap Bet Commissioner, the penalties can grow wonderfully complex. Marshall inflicts his slap on Barney when Robin confirms to Ted (and Ted caves and tells Lily) that she’s married, but when it turns out Robin was lying—this is confirmed by Marshall’s legal search of Canadian records—Lily awards Barney three slaps, which he impulsively delivers in rapid succession.

Barney is convinced that his pornography surmise has been proven right when he gets a video showing Robin flirtatiously asking a teacher for leniency, but Robin urges them to watch it all the way to the Gretzky-haired, robot-dancing end, and the Commissioner has to up the punishment for Barney’s “premature slapulation”: either 10 slaps executed immediately, or five slaps at the slapper’s discretion for all eternity. “I’m going to go with the five for eternity,” Barney decides, and Ted shakes his head: “Horrible call.” Because now Marshall can make Barney cower in fear whenever he pleases, not knowing whether a slap is in the offing or not, and can maximize his slapping efficacy by catching Barney off-guard. As we’ll see in season seven’s “Disaster Averted,” the number and timing of future slaps can, at the discretion of the Commissioner, be renegotiated down the line: Barney accepts three additional slaps in order to get out of the consequences of a bet involving Japanese cooking techniques and Lily’s breasts.

I’ve written effusively for the last four seasons about the way How I Met Your Mother can, at its best, utilize single-camera style to momentarily flash forward, backward, and sideways, piling unexpected pleasures on top of its straightforward gags. The first slap Marshall gives Barney in MacLaren’s is a terrific example. It happens on a cut from Robin confirming that she was married; cause and effect brought together with absolutely no further business. Then moments later, the writers get to show it to us again because Lily denies that she begged Ted to tell Robin’s secret, leading to a “30 seconds ago” flashback where she begs, Ted tells, and Marshall hauls off. Everything about that juxtaposition is pristine, and the best part is that we get another look at Neil Patrick Harris histrionically reeling from Marshall’s mighty slap, confirming that no one gets tired of seeing Barney slapped in the face repeatedly, and raising the anticipation for all the slaps to come.

It appears from this round of the Roundtable that bets are one of the most primal forms of competition, containing potential for suspense that makes for compelling television. How did this variation compare to the other bets we’ve examined so far—including its close cousin, the Friends quiz?

Ryan McGee: Donna, you’ve covered most of the elements of this great episode, but one final brand of competition has been lurking in the periphery throughout this set of themed episodes for the Roundtable: the competition between the desires of a television show’s narrative vs. a television network’s business model. I’m not sure the title of the show is the problem with How I Met Your Mother as a whole, though it certainly doesn’t help at the current moment. Rather, the show’s consistent assertion that it’s heading somewhere often chafes against the show’s popularity, which has spurred season after season. That’s in many ways a good problem for creators Craig Thomas and Carter Bays to have. But which side of this “competition” is really winning at this point?

“Slap Bet” contains the type of mythology the show can still handle successfully. Divorced (pun intended) from Ted’s long quest to meet his future wife, the bet is just one of many elements that helps forge the friendship between these five people. What sells the importance of the bet is Lily’s reaction to being named commissioner. Her serious approach to this nominally frivolous assignation helps give the bet stakes, but also provides much-needed continuity to make the bet last over the course of several seasons of television. Did the writers know where each slap would fall? Doubtful. And that’s perfectly fine. What matters is integrating the bet into the overall group dynamic in a way that isn’t omnipresent onscreen, yet still inscribed within the DNA of their relationships. The best episodes of HIMYM add to our understanding of what makes these people tick, not to our understanding of how a certain event pushed Ted one nanometer closer to the mother of his children.

The comparison you make to Friends is valid, in that HIMYM successfully applied the lessons learned from that NBC juggernaut while also forming its own type of comedic vocabulary. But I’ll confess that not knowing where a story is going is always going to be preferable to me over one in which the finish line is unclear. If Mother just used the Bob Saget voiceovers as a narrative McGuffin to tell a bunch of stories about a close-knit group of New Yorkers over a specific period of time, then neither the name of the show nor the program’s sleight-of-hand storytelling would be important in the long run. It would be a variation on John Lennon’s famous lyric from “Beautiful Boy”: “Life is what happens while you’re busy waiting for Marshall to slap you.” But there’s more pleasure for me in getting to the end of the journey and only discovering the show’s true path just before reaching the finish line. While this wasn’t remotely a problem at the time “Slap Bet” initially aired, knowing where this show is going has somewhat ruined where it currently is.

Genevieve Koski: Sorry Ryan, but I can’t stand the old “When are they going to get to the fireworks factory?” complaint about How I Met Your Mother, which at this point is as tiresome to me as the series’ increasingly strained attempts to draw out its titular mystery. At this point in HIMYM—which I’ll admit, I’m about half a season behind on—I really don’t care all that much about the destination, which, seven years on, all but the most obstinate of ’shippers must recognize as just a framing device rather than an oh-so-slowly unfolding plotline. As long as we’re using the Friends comparison, it’s like griping that it’s taking Phoebe too long to meet and marry Paul Rudd; why demand the epilogue when the story proper is still in full swing?

In all fairness, HIMYM is in a slightly different situation, by virtue of both its self-imposed eponymous trap and the serialization-crazy era in which it exists. But once Ted does meet The Mother (which has a nicely threatening connotation when written that way), it’s not really going to change anything that came before it; if anything, it’ll make it seem worse in hindsight, as all those feints and McGuffins the writers were forced to use to draw things out are suddenly rendered even more meaningless. No, I’m more than content to sit back and enjoy the scenery as long as I can, because meeting The Mother means the ride is coming to a close, and I’ll miss hanging out with Ted, Robin, Marshall, Lily, and Barney far more than I’ll celebrate the arrival of yet another interloper.

All of which is why “Slap Bet” remains my favorite and most-rewatched episode of HIMYM. (Well, all of that and “Let’s Go To The Mall,” which, come on, it’s just the best.) This is from the era when the show was still going along with the notion that Robin might be The Mother, so it makes almost no effort to squeeze in references to the show’s ongoing quest narrative outside of a very perfunctory “Kids, one of the things about relationships is…” voiceover. But in the process of mostly ignoring its overarching mythology, “Slap Bet” creates another, smaller, yet so much more satisfying piece of mythology. At this point in the series, aren’t we all more excited for the disbursement of the next slap than yet another glance at that damn yellow umbrella or toy bus?

In our discussion of “The One With The Embryos,” I said that I liked the Friends game show because it revealed the depth and breadth of the characters’ friendship outside what we see on the screen; similarly, but somewhat inversely, what’s satisfying about “Slap Bet” is how it expands and strengthens the characters’ friendship onscreen. The whole theme of secrets being a barrier to relationships is applied most literally to Ted and Robin’s romantic relationship, but exposing Robin’s stonewashed past to the group tightens the bond all of them share. It’s a new inside joke, as is the slap bet itself, though Barney probably doesn’t see it that way. Inside jokes that would almost certainly show up on, say, a fake game show made to determine whether they trade apartments.

The fact that both Robin Sparkles and the slap bet have outlasted the romance between Ted and Robin—which still gets reignited occasionally, but we know from the voiceover telling us about “Aunt Robin” that they’re no Ross and Rachel—speaks to the real appeal of HIMYM. To be horribly cliché about it, it’s about the little things: the weirdness of Lily and Marshall’s symbiotic relationship, Barney’s schemes and delusions, the way they all actually laugh at each other’s jokes and trash-talking (one of the little things I find most delightful about this show). The best stuff on HIMYM—stuff like “Slap Bet”—happens between the signposts guiding viewers toward the conclusion.

Erik Adams: There isn’t a precise correlation here (and we covered similar ground in the Alfred Hitchcock Presents installment of the Roundtable), but the conversation about enjoying How I Met Your Mother’s ride when we have a vague notion of the show’s final destination got me thinking: Can you still enjoy “Slap Bet” if you know the big Robin Sparkles reveal is coming? I was way behind the curve with HIMYM, but when I finally started watching it in reruns and on Netflix, I knew three things about the show: 1) The premise is in the title, 2) Barney is the cad of cads, and 3) Robin had a secret past as a one-hit wonder in her former home/native land. Did realizing, upon Robin’s adverse reaction to the Sharper Image invitation, that “Slap Bet” is “The One Where Robin Goes To The Mall” take the fun out of the ending or the episode? Absolutely not, because there’s so much more meat on the bones of this episode than its GIF-ready twist. A phoned-in version of HIMYM could’ve propped itself up on surprising viewers with its big ending—but that ending would’ve capped a single season if top-tier episodes like “Slap Bet” (which, I concur, are a rare sight these days) weren’t bristling with so much energy and informed by a richly realized history. Just look at that main-apartment set—nearly every piece of it has or will have a story, and that reinforces our reasons for indulging Future Ted as he tells a story to his exceedingly patient children. (This despite the fact that Ted Mosby is one of TV comedy’s most grating protagonists, but that’s a discussion for a different place—like the comments section below every review of HIMYM Donna has ever written.)

The show may place more emphasis on justifying/delaying its ending as it ages, but “Slap Bet” was the overwhelming winner of the readers’ choice vote because of the pieces it adds to HIMYM’s proverbial apartment set. The bet itself is a variation on one of the defining aspects of the Marshall-Barney relationship: The argument over which character is Ted’s best friend. Each wager effectively states, “I’m Ted’s best friend because I can read his girlfriend the best,” and since neither guess is correct, their stalemate continues. Thanks to the last-second ruling by Commissioner Lily, there’s an escalation in their little tug-of-war. That penalty ensures the bet’s inclusion in the show’s mythology, nearly elevating it to the same level of importance as The Future Mrs. Ted Mosby’s true identity. And that’s why my ideal version of the How I Met Your Mother finale doesn’t fade out on a shot of Ted embracing The Mother (Embracing The Mother: feminist science-fiction novel, or unremembered prog-rock classic?), but rather the delivery of the final slap, Neil Patrick Harris ushering the show into the great beyond by one-upping the reeling pratfall he takes at the end of “Slap Bet.”

Phil Dyess-Nugent: I, too, was a latecomer to How I Met Your Mother, and I was a little surprised when I sat down to revisit this episode and realized I’d never actually seen it before. (Having missed Robin and Ted’s courtship period when it first aired, I always find it a little jarring to see them in couple mode.) So I’m well-equipped to judge that, yes, it works like gangbusters even if the surprise has been spoiled, the show being so self-referential that most people who’ve only seen the later seasons will be familiar with the mechanics of slap bets and the Robin Sparkles experience. I’ve never believed HIMYM is a great sitcom, but it’s akin to a great game, like one of the board games Lily’s father invents—all bells and whistles and gimmicks and stunts and throwaway gags, tethered to this mystery that most viewers care about as much as anyone ever cared what Charlie of Charlie’s Angels looked like. The upshot of all that cleverness is that the show has built up its own checklist mythology. Watching an episode can be like visiting a really cool junk store. (I’ve always wanted to believe that the reason it features such a terrific supporting cast surrounding a donut hole of a protagonist is that this is the creator’s conscious homage to Seinfeld.) “Slap Bet” is a perfect episode of this show, because of the quality of the gags and the way they’re laid out so that the whole thing keeps popping, up to that parody video and the concluding slap and pratfall. And because Neil Patrick Harris has no truck with gravity. And Alyson Hannigan’s hair looks good.

Noel Murray: You guys have pretty well covered the enduring wonder that is “Slap Bet,” though I do have a couple of points to add, first about the style of How I Met Your Mother, and then about our competition theme. On the style: Donna mentioned how the show works as a single-camera show and a multi-camera show simultaneously, using the tricks of the former and the staging of the latter. But I’m always impressed by how much work goes into just a few seconds of screen time from episode to episode. Think about how many different outfits the actors wear in any given week, or how it must be to walk onto a freshly dressed set just to say a couple of lines for a flashback. Or think about the density of the references and callbacks. I love how when Ted’s trying to lawyer Robin and asks about whether she had a buffet at her wedding, she answers that there was a buffet in the food court, not forgetting that her wedding was at a mall. And then there are all the unobtrusive bits of Canadiana in “Let’s Go To The Mall,” from Robin saying “sooorry” and “aboot” to the presence of a “La Chocolatiere” shop in the background. (And that’s not even taking into account Barney’s description of Canadian porn: “If I have to watch one more flat-chested Nova Scotian riding a Mountie on the back of a Zamboni I’ll go ‘oat’ of my mind.”)

As for the competition, I have to confess that the one area where “Slap Bet”—and How I Met Your Mother as a whole—tends to lose me is in its depiction of friendship as a series of dares, insults, and public humiliations. Don’t get me wrong: It’s frequently very funny stuff, and I ragged on my buddies plenty when I was in my 20s. But it always seems a little contrived to me when TV defines youthful fun as capturing your friends doing something stupid and/or embarrassing on your cell-phone camera, and then posting it on the Internet so the whole world can laugh at it while you force your chum to watch it repeatedly. I blame commercials to some extent for turning this into a cliché, but I still find that a little of it goes a long way. (Slaps aside, of course. I could watch Marshall slap Barney all day.)

Todd VanDerWerff: How I Met Your Mother has always been an important show to me, not because it’s a show that was wildly important to my development as a critic, or because I’ve always had lots of profound thoughts about it, but simply because it’s a show that was always there for me, always more or less reflecting the life I was leading at that time. My wife and I have always felt great kinship with Lily and Marshall, who have roughly the same courtship story that we do. When my life went through turmoil, Marshall and Ted’s did as well. And when things started to get better, the same happened on the show. I’ve always kept this as a sort of critical aside, a show I watched every week just for fun and didn’t want to review. Even as it’s fallen from the height of its power, it remains a show I enjoy on a somewhat primal level. The art we most relate to draws us into it, and watching “Slap Bet” was like returning to the time in my life where I first saw it.

The thing I most like about this show is the way it insists that the best things are still out there, ahead of us. Every episode—even an awful one—is framed by the story of how a man eventually found a woman he loved, and that gives the show a boundless sense of optimism. Even the bad parts add up to a larger whole, a picture that needs every piece to make any sense. On one level, “Slap Bet” is about the show adding another, silly little piece to its mythology. On another, it’s about the show’s mission statement: One of the characters looks back at a time in her life that she didn’t like, and she realizes it doesn’t have to have any power over her anymore, because her life is better now. This is conveyed with a Canadian robot, but that’s a beautiful message to wrap into episode after episode of a silly sitcom.

And that’s ultimately why I just don’t care whether the show’s mythology harms it. Yeah, I’ll bet the creators wish they had a chance to go back and redo some of the passages leading up to the finale (which will likely arrive in the spring), but I don’t think it matters whether the show is spoiled by not coming to its preordained endpoint soon enough. This is a show about moving on and being okay with your past, about realizing that everything adds up to something greater (even the shitty things), and about how it can sometimes seem like things have a way of working out, so long as you’re willing to take the plunge when it’s necessary.

All of which is a long-winded preamble to say I’ve really enjoyed going on these trips back into TV history with you guys. Looking back into the past of the medium is a sort of time machine that returns us to who we were when we first watched these things, and if that seems corny, well, this is a show that makes me feel corny. I’ll see you all again the next time we get together to talk TV.

Stray observations:

DB: Ted’s attempt to “lawyer” Robin into revealing her marriage lie turns into a mini-competition of its own, as he machine-guns questions about her mall wedding, and she coolly returns fire. But in true HIMYM fashion, the best bit is when she turns the tables on him by asking him what database he used for research, and he fumbles “I used the Canadian Mall Marriage 6000” before caving.

DB: Another reason this episode works so well is the righteous indignation Robin and Ted both feel about the confidentiality owed for a fake secret. “No wonder your fake husband moved to Hong Kong!” Ted insults her, and her response reveals her commitment to the lie that’s no longer operable: “He moved there for business!”

DB: The Robin Sparkles video wouldn’t be half as fun without the constant cuts back to the gang watching it, especially Robin standing off to the side drinking a beer and waiting for the whole thing to be over.

DB: “Hey, it’s 2006!”: Barney puts the video on Robin Sparkle’s fan-maintained MySpace page.

RM: Having decried the show’s overly complex mythology above, I’m almost 100 percent positive that at least one slap will completely change the fate of either Marshall or Barney when all is said and done. I wish I could bet money on things like this.

GK: Though it’s perhaps too close to “The One With The Embryos,” the season-one HIMYM episode “Game Night” could have fit this bill as well, for its introduction of the game “Marshgammon.”

GK: If Married At The Mall were a show on TLC—which, hell, it might be—I’d watch it.

GK: Donna, you covered most of the memorable quoteables from this episode, but I’d like to throw in “You order pancakes, you get waffles, that’s good enough.”

EA: The object of Robin Sparkle’s affection sports a Wayne Gretzky ’do, while the pop phenom’s keytarist opts for a Jaromir Jagr look.

EA: The “from here to eternity” bit of Barney’s five-slap penalty turned into something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, didn’t it?