THE BACK PAGES

I’m dreaming of a codpiece topiary

MARK STEYN December 25 2006
THE BACK PAGES

I’m dreaming of a codpiece topiary

MARK STEYN December 25 2006

Why Barney is the new Fonzie

Fans love a jerky character on ‘How 1 Met Your Mother’ because of his catchphrases

tv

BY JAIME J. WEINMAN • What makes a popular television character? Is it heart, likeability, compassion? None of the above: it’s about quotable catchphrases. Take Barney Stinson, the character Neil Patrick Harris plays on CBS’s sitcom How I Met Your Mother. Here we have an amoral playboy who cares more about his beautifully tailored clothes than the women he dates. Craig Thomas, who co-created the show with Carter Bays, says: “It’s easier to watch the guy on TV than actually have to hang with him all the time.” But he’s the most popular character on the series, and he gets the best catchphrases. Harris and Barney are to How I Met Your Mother what Henry Winkler and the Fonz were to Happy Days.

Barney entered the catchphrase hall of fame in the pilot for How I Met Your Mother. Advising another character to dress like him, he exclaimed, “Suit up!”—signifying, Thomas says, that “he thought of his suit as some kind of superhero outfit that separated him from the pack.” He’s repeated that phrase in subsequent episodes, adjusting it to fit whatever suit he’s wearing, like “Flight suit up!” It’s become so closely associated with the character, and with the show, that the U.S. cable network TV Land named “Suit up!” one of television’s 100 greatest catchphrases.

That distinguishes How I Met Your Mother from most TV shows today—but not shows of a bygone era. In a recent article in Emmy magazine, a writer for Diff’rent Strokes recalled that a good catchphrase was considered very important for a sitcom, and that he and his staff would sweat over the proper placement of Gary Coleman’s catchphrase, “What you talkin’ ’bout, Willis?” Things are different now, and writers are less likely to repeat

phrases in every episode; the TV Land list included only three other characters from contemporary shows. That makes Barney a throwback to the golden age of Gary Coleman.

It’s not just “Suit up!” that has become associated with the character. TV Land didn’t get around to other Barney lines that are eagerly anticipated by fans. There’s “Legendary!”, his typical description for his latest wacky scheme to get girls. Or “Wait for it,” which he interposes between two halves of a word (“Porn...wait for it...ography”). Or “Have you met Ted?”, which Thomas says is based on a Barney-like person he and Bays used to hang out with: “There was a good friend of ours who always went out with us, and he’d play ‘Have you met Carter?’ to try to meet chicks, get a conversation started.” You might think that these attributes—the sleaziness, the incessant repetition of smarmy comments—wouldn’t fit in with a show like How I Met Your Mother. It’s mostly a romantic comedy, focusing on two young couples, and Barney’s the only character who isn’t charming. But as the lone creep among otherwise cute and charming people, Barney comes off as reminiscent of lovably jerky, selfish sitcom characters like John Larroquette on Night Court-, Thomas says that Harris “often jokes that he’s Larry from Three’s Company.” The question is whether, like other sit-

coms, How I Met Your Mother will wind up being restructured to focus on a popular catchphrase-spouting jerk. The show’s ratings aren’t particularly high, and some critics are arguing that it would be better off with more of Barney and less of the other characters; Amy Amatangelo, critic for Zap2it.com, wrote that “the parts of this show are better than its whole, and Barney is the show’s best part.” Ever since Happy Days was rebuilt around the Fonz, there’s always the danger that an ensemble show will turn into a vehicle for the character who makes a big splash.

But Thomas says he and Bays aren’t going to let that happen to How I Met Your Mother. For one thing, they keep Barney from becoming a cartoon by demonstrating that he has a vulnerable side: one flashback shows that he became the jerk he is today after he was dumped by a woman he loved. “Ultimately, he’s a pretty fragile character who’s really afraid of being alone,” Thomas says. “He just wants people to like him, to be important to people, and to have disciples who follow his word.”

But that side of Barney comes out a couple of times a season at most. It’s Barney the catchphrase machine that audiences seem to have fallen in love with, for his almost Fonzie-like self-confidence. Or as Thomas puts it: “I’m sure Barney as a character would be very happy to know he made the ‘100 Greatest Catchphrases’ list, but then again, I’m sure he was expecting it all along.” Nl