How many weddings have taken place on network sitcoms? A thousand or two? The sitcom wedding inevitably calls for wedding-themed humor, and after half a century of comedy nuptials, there are precious few corners of the premise with any laughs left unmined. So it’s especially ballsy of HIMYM to spend an entire season working this one tapped-out vein. If this were a lesser show, we might get worried about seeing not just the same thing week after week, but reliving the same wedding situations that sitcoms have been trotting out since the Eisenhower administration.
But if there’s one thing that HIMYM has proved over the past eight seasons, it’s that you don’t always need a fresh idea to get fresh laughs. Throw in an absurd twist, mix-and-match with other storylines, and zip forward and backward in time, and even old jokes can gain new life. Tonight’s strategy for reviving that reliable staple of wedding comedy (Old People!) is a simple one: Pick up the pace. Barney and Robin race around the hotel trying to avoid encountering their elderly relations so they can grab one last before-we’re-old-married-people bang, but it’s not their dashes around corners and ducks into closets that make this strategy work. Simply speeding up the actors often comes off as exhaustingly frenetic. Nope, the pace that picks up is the dialogue editing.
Take my favorite recurring gag from this episode, Barney’s gasp-face whenever Robin says something that could be interpreted as “let’s do it in the butt.” (This sentence is where my career as an illustrious and celebrated TV critic has taken me. Sorry, Mom.) The timing is impeccable, and impeccably fast. Yes, the actors play it fast, but it’s the editing that makes it snappy. Medium shot of Robin musing: “We could always try the back door.” Close-up of Barney gasping in happy shock. Medium two-shot of Robin clarifying what she meant. Bang, bang, bangity-bang. Repeat twice in normal mode, once with somebody else gasping (James in this case), and you’ve established several important aspects of tone and feel that make the creaky and familiar seem new and up-to-date.
Even the ongoing storyline that concerns me the most, Marshall’s Wacky Road Trip, benefits from the zippy pacing tonight. Marshall proudly wears Vikings gear as he rides through a “hellish cheese-infested wasteland” (Lily, on the phone: “Wisconsin?” Marshall, snarling: “Wisconsin!”), and his odd-couple companion Daphne cheerfully cuts into their conversation: “Did you know that I don’t care who led the league last week in dumb sports stuff?” The upbeat tempo and constant chatter make any pauses far more effective. Look at the moment when Marshall, humiliated by wearing a Packers uni and a cheesehead because of his role in the April 26 incident, takes off the headgear in a Wisconsin knick-knack shop, causing instant paralysis among the green-and-gold denizens. Several seconds of silence, followed by Daphne muttering “Put it back on,” are funny partly because the bullet train has stopped on a dime.
And those shifts in pacing work perfectly for the more emotional of the subplots, too. Ted has a list of things to do before leaving New York for Chicago, and as Lily reads it we flashback to Ted crossing them off: fixing ungrammatical graffiti (“Your A Penis”), buying a round of drinks for a largely empty bar (“No doubles!” he snaps at an presumptuous patron), saying goodbye to Empy the Empire State Building, confessing that he ruined Lily’s perfect combination slutty/classy rehearsal dinner dress while he and Marshall were playing Princess Bride swordfight. The pace slows to a crawl for jokes that benefit from being stretched out, like when Ted grimaces forcing down the supposedly heavenly $600 scotch, which has been adulterated with chocolate syrup, ketchup, and “hand sani” after Lily and Robin accidentally break the bottle playing Princess Bride swordfight. (Lily’s version of Mandy Patinkin’s dialogue: “My name is Rodrigo de Goya; you killed someone I love; prepare to dance!”)
But when Ted needs to reflect on whether his avoidance of Barney is healthy for either of them, the episode can make a greater impact by giving his scene with Lily more time and space. Those scenes are played and edited to a different tempo than the comedy around it. They have breathing room. It’s not that Ted’s mixed feelings about the woman who might be his best chance at happiness marrying his best friend are any more original than the wedding-premised joke-sets to which this season will inevitably be shackled. That one is as old as they come. Our laughter and our empathy isn’t based on originality; if it were, sitcom storytelling would have been dead back in the '60s. No, it’s how these situations are presented to us, and who they’re happening to. Deliver the material in your signature style, give the performances plenty of energy, and let us feel the weight of the choices faced by characters we’ve come to know intimately. That’s the formula for success when the situation is formulaic—as all sitcom weddings are.
All those “Thank you, Linuses” last week, including the epic sequence with Ted taking the drinks from Lily’s hand, really pay off this week when they get deployed more selectively. What a terrific idea for a season-long running gag. If anybody can pull off this line the 50 or 60 times it will occur this year (using a conservative estimate), Alyson Hannigan, with her world-weary thirst and little-girl pout, is the one.
- Neil Patrick Harris and Cobie Smulders are on fire this week, and not just because they’re all over each other. Both are masters of the seething-to-socially-acceptable reversal, seen here as they excoriate the elderly relatives (Robin: “We won’t have a moment to ourselves once those old bastards latch onto us like leeches!”), then immediately express affection (Barney: “Living link to history!”). This is where Harris’ rubber-faced theatricality works so well with the show’s rapid-fire switchbacks, and he and Smulders can also set up and then subvert expectations with it, too (Robin: “The greatest generation!” Barney: “Please smother me before I’m that age!”).
- I have nothing against Wayne Brady, who is an incredibly versatile performer, but I don’t think the show’s figured out how to integrate him all that well as a recurring member of the ensemble for this season. That said, I’m glad I got to hear an old person accost him as he takes the bullet for Barney and Robin: “I have a gay question for you: How do you decide which one …?”
- Barney’s best moment, and a HIMYM classic joke structure: After accidentally seeing old people getting it on, he shudders that he’s never seen a walker used for anything but walking before. “The balls sliding around on the ground …” he describes, then protests against Robin’s disgust: “I’m talking about the tennis balls on the bottom of the …" and finally, defeated: "Plus, his testicles are swinging like a broken yo-yo.”
- Lily’s advice is to say goodbye to all the dreadful things that have happened to Ted during his quest to find love in New York, like getting left at the altar and having Robin turn him down. Which enables Ted to check off the other missing item on his list: “Get one last life lesson from Lily.”
- Because Marshall and Ted chopped up the slutty/classy dress, Lily is forced to wear her backup dress, which is just classy.
- Lily is against the sentimental wedding toast, which always turns into “Things… good… mouth… words… memory… times.”
- “Dude, Andre’s been doing stuff right the whole movie!”