What Can We Steal From “Girls Versus Suits,” an episode of the CBS program How I Met Your Mother?

Title of Work and its Form:  “Girls Versus Suits,” an episode of the CBS program How I Met Your Mother
Author: Written by Carter Bays (@CarterBays) and Craig Thomas (@HimymCraig), directed by Pamela Fryman
Date of Work: Originally broadcast on January 11, 2010
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The episode appears on the program’s Season 5 DVD collection. It is also aired in syndication and is currently streaming on Netflix.

Bonuses: This is what The Onion’s AV Club thought about the episode.  And here is what Myles McNutt wrote in a review for Cultural Learnings.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Blocking and “Yes, and”

Folks, I already wrote about an episode of How I Met Your Mother.  I’m trying to write about a wide variety of art and artists, but I simply couldn’t resist.  As you’ll see, one element of this episode has been gnawing at me.

“Girls Versus Suits” is the 100th episode of the program and you can tell the creators and writers wanted it to be special.  After all, the audience sees the time Ted gets his very first description of The Mother.  At one point, she’s only feet away!  He sees her foot!  (He thinks.)

The A story: Ted meets Cindy, a beautiful doctoral candidate at the college at which he is teaching.  He asks her out.  Unfortunately for Cindy, she has a “roommate complex” and the roommate happens to be The Mother.  Ted tries to resist pointing out how cool the roommate is, but he can’t help himself.  Cindy breaks up with him for two reasons: 1) she doesn’t want to get in trouble for dating a teacher and 2) Ted would clearly like the roommate more than he likes her.

The B story: There’s a hot new bartender at MacLaren’s.  Everyone thinks she’s beautiful except for Marshall, who prefers Lily.  Barney, of course, formulates a plan to sleep with the bartender.  The complication?  She hates men who wear suits.  Wearing jeans and a t-shirt brings poor Barney down.  In a scene that is a Pulp Fiction homage,  Barney sneaks into the men’s room and alleviates his withdrawal symptoms by putting on a suit he has hidden in the stall door for emergencies.  Uh oh…Barney tears the suit.  The tailor can’t save it.  At least the bartender has been sufficiently impressed to head to Barney’s apartment.  The two are about to…engage in activity when the bartender discovers that Barney lied about hating suits.  Then THIS happens:

Did you watch it?  If not, go back and watch it.

Yes, it’s a three-minute musical number starring a couple dozen dancers and features a CG suit with wings.  Here’s the deal:

This scene SHOULDN’T work.  Look what Bays and Thomas did at the end of the musical number.  For three minutes, Barney has sung about how much he loves his suits.  In a single line, he absolutely negates everything he just said.  In improv comedy, there’s something called a “block.”  If one performer says, “Hey, isn’t it fun owning a bowling alley?” then the other must keep the scene in the bowling alley.  If the other says, “We don’t own a bowling alley, we’re taxidermists,” then the scene is blown and no one knows what is going on, including the performers.  Barney effectively blocks himself at the end of the musical number.  Why was it okay for Barney to completely negate the whole point of the song?  The producers spent a LOT of money to write and record the song and to hire the dancers and to rehearse everyone…why doesn’t Barney’s “Then again, she is pretty hot” ruin everything?

  1. The indecisiveness and willingness to do anything to get laid is perfectly in line with Barney’s character.
  2. The musical number actually means something important to Barney.  He loves those suits and the song is really an existential dilemma for Mr. Stinson.
  3. The program often employs “odd” narrative techniques.  The How I Met Your Mother audience is prepared for “crazy” things to happen.
  4. The cast CLEARLY had a helluva lot of fun shooting the number.  Watch the kickline after Barney waves to the angel suit.  The actors are out of breath and a little tired, but you can’t take your eyes away because THEY LOVE WHAT THEY’RE DOING.

What Should We Steal?

  • Never, ever negate your entire narrative in a single line…unless it works.  Under other circumstances, the hundreds of thousands of dollars that the How I Met Your Mother production team spent on the musical number would be a waste.  In this case, the “block” fits perfectly.
  • Ensure that your enthusiasm comes through in your work.  You’re a writer!  You create worlds and people with mere strokes of your pen.  Share what you love doing and love doing what you share!
  • Experiment all you want, so long as your audience is prepared for the ways you will deviate from the “norm.”  The program has used musical numbers several times, so the average viewer will understand that in the world of these characters, people just sometimes dance.
  • Offer T.C. Boyle a shoutout on occasion.  Ted calls World’s End a “good read.”  Mr. Boyle deserves more shoutouts than Derek Jeter deserves supermodels.  (As a Tiger fan, even I have to admit Jeter’s due.)

A bit of a mini-rant while I’m thinking about it:

  • Hold on a wide shot when you direct dance numbers. 

Seriously, I can’t watch Glee or that Pitch Perfect because I can’t tell what’s going on; they cut every two nanoseconds.  I would love to enjoy the dancing, but the audience can’t keep track of any dancers.  Look at this dance number by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers:

You can see the whole bodies of the dancers and you can actually watch them move from one step into the next.  It’s beautiful!  Now compare that number to this one:

How the heck are you supposed to follow what is going on?  Imagine you’re a kid who wants to recreate the dance.  You never see the whole dance!

One of my students made me aware of the Japanese girl band AKB48.  Look at the video of this live performance:

The director cuts around so much!  How can you tell what is happening?!?!?


What Can We Steal From “The Stinsons,” an episode of the CBS program How I Met Your Mother?

Title of Work and its Form: “The Stinsons,” an episode of the CBS program How I Met Your Mother
Author: Written by Carter Bays and Craig Thomas, directed by Pamela Fryman
Date of Work: Originally broadcast on March 2, 2009
Where the Work Can Be Found: “The Stinsons” can be found in the Season 4 DVD collection of How I Met Your Mother, viewed instantly on Netflix or seen in syndication.

Elements of Craft We’re Stealing: Characterization and Plot

How I Met Your Mother boasts a simple conceit: Ted Mosby is telling his children how he came to…well…meet their mother. The five extremely attractive friends live in New York City, experiencing life and love and drinking at their favorite bar an awful lot. The show appeals to me because the characters are roughly my age, but they are living the most kickinest lives ever and I am not. The most over-the-top character is Barney Stinson (Neil Patrick Harris), an unrepentant womanizer who has one of those hard-to-describe, high-paying corporate jobs. Through seventy-eight episodes, Barney is shown lying to countless women in an attempt (often successful) to have sex with them. Marriage? That’s an eight-letter four-letter word. Barney would rather make a commitment to a suit than a woman.

“The Stinsons” starts off in the bar with a mystery: why is Barney acting so odd lately? Could Barney Stinson have a girlfriend? The gang decides to follow Barney’s cab to catch Barney in the act.

  • Reveal one: Barney traveled so far to meet an elderly woman.
  • Reveal two: The woman is his mother, not a committed girlfriend.
  • Reveal three: A pretty blond woman comes down the stairs…it’s Barney’s wife.
  • Reveal four: A little boy enters and jumps on Barney’s back…it’s Barney’s son.

Why is this awesome?  Within three minutes of run time, our entire understanding of Barney is changed.  Bays and Thomas are messing with the viewer—in a good way—by challenging the base attributes of the character they established. This could be dangerous? Why isn’t it dangerous? Carter and Bays don’t leave us hanging long.

  • Reveal five: Barney explains that he is only pretending to be married because his mother’s greatest wish was for her children to have spouses.
  • Reveal six: Barney literally auditioned actresses to play his wife and son.

Almost immediately, all is right with the world. Barney is still selfish and commitment-averse. We learn that Barney slept with the mothers of the children he auditioned to play his son. Barney thinks that the evil blonde Cobra Kai guy is the hero of The Karate Kid. Barney is so bad at normal human interaction that he has literally scripted dinner. Barney doesn’t even want his pretend son to have a catchphrase and threatens to recast the kid.

The episode succeeds for the same reason that people love practical jokes. For a brief moment, we believe that the impossible can happen and that the world is not as we thought it was. In the seconds after the prank is sprung, of course, the shock and disorientation are pleasant because we know they are not permanent.

What Should We Steal?:

  • Mess with your audience’s expectations! People tune in to see Barney be Barney. Carter and Bays get a lot of humor out of subverting those expectations. Think about Superman II. What would it be like if Superman weren’t super? (The same principle can be found in Hancock. What if Will Smith-as-a-superhero weren’t like Will Smith as a superhero?)
  • Go over the top step by step. If you’ll notice, the information that is “revealed” about Barney gets bigger and bigger.
  • Stay true to character…with small changes. A chronic womanizer simply cannot become a monogamous angel overnight. While Barney remains a hound dog, the audience learns that he loves his mother: a small alteration of his personality. It is also perfectly natural for Barney to have family problems; they explain the way he treats women and views commitment.