HIMYM: A sitcom for historians

Nobody takes an intro class to get on any other path but the path to
not being hungover anymore
-Marshall Eriksen

While How I Met Your Mother‘s stance on 100-level classes might not please academics, it is the ultimate sitcom for historians. The entire show is an oral history of a father’s life up until meeting his children’s mother. The show takes advantage of this format for comedic and occasionally dramatic effect, in the process revealing several fundamentals of the craft of history.

Memory and Unreliable Narrators
One of my favorite gags in the show is the narrator’s inability to recall certain details. This leads to characters with fake names such as “Blah Blah”. The episode “The Mermaid Theory” centered around the narrator’s poor memory as he continually struggles to remember the details of an argument between friends Lily and Barney, switching dialogue between the two and finally realizing the event actually years later. Likewise, “The Goat” builds up to a dramatic struggle between Ted and a goat, only for the narrator to remember that the incident happened a year later (pushing the climatic event to a later episode). In “Three Days of Snow” the narrator manipulates the story, giving the impression that the events were happening concurrently, but revealing that they were actually spread across three days. When the writers play with the narrator’s unreliable memory, they remind the viewer that the stories are being told from a couple of decades in the future, but also hit on a fundamental issue with historical memory, its fallibility. Without intending to provide such a perfect educational example, How I Met Your Mother exemplifies the ways in which perspectives on historical events change with time and underscores many of the potential issues with sources written after the fact.

Like the mid-story plot changes from the narrator, many episodes showcase the alternate perspectives of its characters as they try to figure out what really happened. In “No Pressure” Ted, Lily, and Marshall breakdown a parting kiss between Ted and Robin. Because of ulterior motives (Lily and Marshall have long term bets on the behavior of their friends one of which is Ted and Robin ending up together), the goodbye kiss is depicted as potentially sexy as well as incredibly awkward. Similarly, in “Oh Honey” the main characters recap recent events from their perspectives while talking to an out of town Marshall. Barney’s tells of Honey’s (whose real name the narrator has once again forgotten) romantic interest in him, contradicting a previous narrative in which Honey pursues Ted (though Barney’s perspective is clearly not the truth). Ted himself faces the reality of bias in “Garbage Island” when the story of how he met Zooey is challenged by her ex-husband. While Ted thought himself a cautious, respectful friend, the ex-husband saw him (though without realizing it was Ted) as a moustached villain. The show’s play on the use of retrospective narration underscores an important fact of history, bias. Without realizing it, the viewer becomes a historian analyzing different characters’ narratives in an effort to construct a clear perspective of events.

As a scholar who studies the importance of “place,” one of my favorite episodes is “The Burning Beekeeper.” The episode examines five minutes of a party, looking at one room at a time. The viewer receives more information as the story moves from room to room, finally getting a holistic picture of events. Like scholarship that looks at place, this episode plays down the importance of an individuals perspective and emphasizes the spaces through which the people move. It actually reminded me of Andrew K. Sandoval-Strausz’s great book Hotel which uses hotels as a medium to examine economic and social changes in the United States over time. Though not used as often as other narrative devices, the use of place reveals another instance in which the show’s writer utilize core principles of historical analysis and writing.

Historical thinking and other skills that the liberal arts teaches its students permeate society. While some may not look for them in popular culture as obsessively as me, the example of How I Met Your Mother provides a nice example of the importance of history in our everyday lives and the stories we tell.

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