The magician Teller has said that one of the secrets to fooling the audience is to “make the secret a lot more trouble than the trick seems to be worth.” I’m an admirer of folks who will take the single-minded pursuit of pulling off an effect to ridiculous, obsessive degrees. Barney (and the actor who plays him) are both amateur magicians; they express infectious delight in the creation of moments that require a commitment of time and a level of preparation that normal people would consider all out of proportion to the result. But that’s why normal people like me love them. We wouldn’t go to the trouble, but magically, astoundingly, there exist people who will.
The effect that Barney pulls off in “The Rehearsal Dinner” isn’t so much a magic trick as a confidence game—but to tell the honest truth, I’m just as fascinated by elaborate cons as I am inexplicable illusions. (Please see the collaborations of Ricky Jay and David Mamet, especially the sublime The Spanish Prisoner, for more information.) To keep such a game going, there have to be multiple layers of secrets. When the mark uncovers the first layer, she has to think she’s found the truth you were trying to hide. Each subsequent layer has to be a fully realized world that delivers the satisfying thrill of discovery, of deception unmasked, of villains exposed and moral certainty strengthened. And they must drive the mark to take bold action that, despite playing right into the conniver’s hands, feels exactly like the most free act of will and courage and intellect and cleverness and table-turning that the mark has ever committed.
Now, I’d never want to play a part in a confidence game. (I don’t really even want to be an audience volunteer in a magic trick.) I just want to observe, because the observer’s role is as a secondary mark. We know something’s going on, and we think we will be smart enough to spot it. But as Teller points out, we can be fooled simply by our common-sense notion of how elaborate a simple trick is likely to be. How expensive. How much of a hassle. If the effect seems to require that the performer has memorized an insane amount of information, or is willing to undergo pain, or rigged something that involves the collusion of a host of confederates, all for a moment’s entertainment, we are likely to doubt the obvious explanation. No, there must be some kind of trick to it, we decide.
I figured at various times in “The Rehearsal Dinner” that there was, in fact, a Lazer Tag rehearsal dinner. But at the same time, I doubted it. Robin denied it vociferously and repeatedly. There was no evidence that she was hedging her bets, and every reason to think that Barney was a victim of his own overactive imagination. And the more he acted as if he had figured it out, playing the part of the heckler at the magic show who yells out how he thinks its done and waits to be congratulated for his acumen, the worse I felt about the plot of the episode. Some pranksters won’t take no for an answer, and they are infuriating. They think every “no” is just a polite cover for the “yes” that we really want to say, and so they impose their view of what’s fun (and what’s funny) on the unwilling without apology. It would be selfish and horrendous for someone to refuse to take their bride’s repeated, emphatic word, to break a promise about something clearly important to her, to act as if the world should revolve around him and his adolescent wishes.
And so I became a victim of misdirection. Keeping one eye peeled for the moment Robin would break and reveal that she had gotten Barney what he wanted, I forgot all about what Robin wanted—and about Barney’s long history of going to outrageous, multi-layered, long-con lengths to make things happen.
It’s a beautiful thing when Barney smoothly extracts himself from the handcuffs and pushes that “Let’s Get This Party Started” button. More beautiful than the parade of Canadiana that he reveals, frankly, although the epilogue of innovators from the North is insanely charming (Frederick Banting! Norman Breakey! Louise Poirier!). It’s the game that elicits our admiration more than the big score. And what I love about this half-hour is that it has layer after layer that becomes apparent only after we’re racking our brains to put it all together, like the nested flashbacks-within-flashbacks as Barney tells his story to the Lazer Tag security guard. He’s been honing his character “Obsessed with Lazer Tag Rehearsal Dinner Idea Guy” for months. He’s kept the truth from everyone except his trusty best man Ted, who has in fact been using the cover of his own obsession (learning to play the piano in order to serenade the couple dressed as Liberace at the rehearsal dinner) to contribute to the show. And of course, he’s gone right to the edge of risking Robin’s love in the service of one tremendous surprise.
If you’re a longtime reader, you know that I am a sucker for entertainers who go all out. I’m easily amused. I like to laugh and have a good time. You don’t have to work hard to make me feel like I’ve got my money’s worth. And so whenever people not only work demonstrably hard for my entertainment, but work far more than is reasonable to gain my approval, love, and applause, I tend to fall head over heels in love with them. HIMYM doesn’t have to go to the trouble of these nutzoid matroushka-doll flashbacks, the rapid-fire inventory gags where a dozen changes are rung on a joke when the episode could have gotten away with a few to prove the concept, the background gags (like the couple meeting, conceiving a child, graduating him from college, and burying the husband while the ensemble reels off Canada burns), and the sudden, unexpected changes of scale from the intimate to the grandiose. The series has characters I adore and writing that brings out what’s funny about them. All the creative team needs to do to entertain me is to have Ted claim “I’m something of a wedding gift master, as you know” and cut to everyone else rolling their eyes. So when the team brings off something far more complex and ambitious than a normal person would consider sufficient to get the job done, I get stars in my eyes. I admit it. I do want to be part of the magic trick. I’ll gladly be the mark, if that means I’ll someday understand how it all fits together, and appreciate how hard it was to make the gears turn. Just don’t let the curtain come down.
- Barney can’t let a button go without pushing it. “Push it a little bit,” he urges the security guard in reference to the big red button on that saxophone-playing tchotchke.
- Previous bad ideas: Gluten-free edible panties, hot dog on a stick on a bun, inflatable sex toy life raft, the breast augmentation channel, single-malt scotch tape, and the time Barney ran for mayor (slogan: “The only poll I care about is in my pants”).
- Barney wants Robin to have the wedding she wants. If it’s in Canada, “just say the word… and then say it again in French.”
- You can trust Lily with secrets about as much as you can trust Marshall with Pop Secret.
- Also Lily keeps a secret about as well as Barney’s dentist keeps his keys. You don’t know him, but he’s lost them like twice. Actually once, and then that time they were in his other pocket.
- Lily’s Italian lessons have gone about as well as Ted’s piano (or figure-skating) lessons. “I am goodbye to a job in Italian, many sad,” she mourns in the subtitles.
- “Well dog my cats, what are the chances?”