Theodore Evelyn Mosby

Published on June 14th, 2011

Alex on How I Met Your Mother, and what the actor who plays Ted Mosby means for a generation.

Years ago, two close friends told me about an idea they had been discussing that involved each of us coming up with a list of 10 media products that sort of represent who we are, media that have had a big effect on our lives in some way. Walking home from their apartment, I was surprised at how easy it was; I had my list complete by the time I got home. I wouldn’t change any of the list or their accompanying explanations now, and these were television shows, movies, and music that were important to me to the point that they almost certainly shaped who I am now. This blog probably doesn’t exist without that list, much like it definitely doesn’t exist without a certain book on that list, nor is it the same format without an important movie. And that’s why Ted Mosby terrifies me.

How I Met Your Mother is, all things considered, a wildly underrated show, probably due to its multi-camera sitcom format and its occasional slips into all-out corniness. The show is primarily about Ted Mosby’s (Josh Radnor) quest to find ‘the One’ (see what I mean about the corniness?), but it is also about his more general life experiences with friends Marshall Erikson (Jason Segel), Lily Aldrin (Alyson Hannigan), Robin Scherbatsky (Cobie Smulders) and Barney Stinson (Neil Patrick Harris). And while How I Met Your Mother may appear to be a typical laugh track sitcom, it is also funny in semi-unique ways, as well as being interesting in a way that seems to be wholly original for sitcoms.

The reason the show is as funny as it is has much to do with the way its writers use phrasing and wordplay, particularly in the way the show employs an incredible amount of puns. An article I read months ago (that I can sadly no longer locate) realistically compared the show to Seinfeld in the way many of its characters’ phrases, such as ‘yadda yadda yadda,’ are often used reflexively by the show’s fans in their own lives. While How I Met Your Mother will never resonate culturally like Seinfeld did, and it’s doubtful any sitcom ever really will again, the same general idea applies. A How I Met Your Mother fan will find that a simple word like ‘awesome’ becomes an integral part of their vocabulary for the first time since they were twelve, and this same fan might have also reflexively saluted upon reading the term ‘General Idea’ in the previous sentence. These are terms that stick with the viewer like seemingly no other show’s dialogue does. How I Met Your Mother’s best jokes and recurring ideas are essentially the comedy version of ridiculously catchy pop songs; these lines will be in your head until the world ends.

That is not to say that all How I Met Your Mother jokes are as disposable as your average Britney Spears song, however, and quite often the show’s writers simply put a name to a common aspect of normal human life. Think revertigo, which explains how Lily reverts back to a younger version of herself when she is hanging out with a friend specific to that period in their life. She suddenly walks, talks and acts completely differently, presumably in accordance with how her and her friend Michelle acted years ago. Not only is the show funny and memorable, it is often sometimes helpful when explaining aspects of your own everyday life.

This isn’t the only way that dialogue in this show generally seems to ring truer than most sitcom dialogue. Even though the show exists in a multi-camera sitcom set-up with a laugh track, elements that inherently remove realism, the characters in How I Met Your Mother still seem to speak like one would expect a 20-something to speak. Modern media references abound, as do references to lost media of the characters’ childhoods. There also tends to be more realistic discussion of sex, friendship, break-ups and a variety of other things than you would find on most modern sitcoms. The producers and actors even seem to go out of their way to make sure the audience not only sees how characters look when they say a line, but also how the other characters are reacting to that line. And while they might do this to the point where it is a fault, it still enhances the show; most sitcoms only show the reaction of the next character to speak while the others sit stoically, but How I Met Your Mother realizes that’s not how people actually react in group conversation. A silent glance between two people can be loaded with meaning, and this show seems to recognize that. And like How I Met Your Mother is good at explicitly discussing and showing aspects of a regular life, it is also surprisingly good at implicitly reflecting other aspects.

A couple of summers ago, after having already watched the first four seasons of the show once, I became obsessed with How I Met Your Mother for a few months. Obsessed is a word that always sounds like hyperbole, but I assure you this was legitimate obsession, as defined on Wiktionary. I wouldn’t go to sleep, no matter how late I got home or how early I had to get up for work, without at least watching one or two episodes. The night I was asked by my friends to come up with my list of ten influential media products, I probably ate a sandwich and watched a few episodes when I got home. I went through the show four consecutive times before I finally tired of it; I was probably half an inch away from writing fan fiction for a musical episode where Robin and Barney join the New York Knicks (complete with a Walt Frazier cameo). The level of enjoyment I got from this show confused me at the time, as its shortcomings are painfully obvious even when you only watch each episode once. I explained to a friend that I didn’t know why I loved the show as much as I do, and her response was a semi-perturbed, “I like it because it’s funny,” which might as well have been “shut up, stop trying to break down why you like everything.” I do like How I Met Your Mother because it’s funny, but it’s not like it is 30 Rock funny, or even Archer funny. What sets the show apart, and allows me to obsess over it, is the way Ted Mosby’s story is told. Each episode seems to take place in the present, but the entirety of the show to this point has actually taken place in the year 2030. We’re not watching Ted experience these stories; we’re watching him tell his kids about them decades after the fact. We’re being shown not how these events actually happened, but how Ted remembers them happening and visualizes the memories. It is this penchant for time shifting that allows sitcom fans like myself to treat How I Met Your Mother like it’s fucking Lost. (This probably makes MacLaren’s bartender Carl the show’s version of the Smoke Monster.)

Both the title and the theme song for How I Met Your Mother are actually pretty indicative of the storytelling of the show: the title is in the past tense, rare for a television show, and the theme song is a quick look at photographs from this group’s past, all cut together quickly to give the idea that these photos were taken at a memorable time in their lives. It kind of looks like something Ted cut together on After Effects one night when he was feeling nostalgic. But what it also does is establish what is going on throughout the show: Ted is looking at these snapshots, or what he remembers of these moments in his life, and expanding on them himself two decades later. And since these stories seem to be extraordinarily detailed, either Ted has the greatest memory in the history of humanity or he is an unreliable narrator who has a tendency to embellish. A lot. Barney and the rain dance girl would not wait on a roof with Ted all night as he tries to cause precipitation; nobody would steal a giant chalkboard from their wife’s kindergarten classroom to use for a giant March Madness bracket. So what the show is at its most simplistic level is a reflection of how this character tries to explain his life to his kids, and as such most episodes show an older Ted explaining to his kids the lesson they should learn from the given story, such as one shouldn’t expect everybody they meet to share their motives for doing something (true), or that “nothing good ever happens after 2am” (false). Old Ted doesn’t shy away from self-criticism or self-congratulating in telling these stories, but the whole show is essentially Ted reflecting on how he used to be as a 20-something.

The biggest problem with How I Met Your Mother is in its characters, who are mostly unlikable. Ted is the worst, Lily is a truly terrible person*, and Marshall is annoying for actually wanting to stay with somebody as awful as Lily. Only Robin and Barney are people you would want to hang out with, and even then you would get tired of being with Barney within about 20 minutes. That the show is as likeable as it is, despite these characters, is a testament to the jokes and storytelling format. The show is funny, but that How I Met Your Mother is so watchable is not because of its characters, but despite some of them.

*For those who respond to this sentence with, “Oh, but I like Lily!” just allow me to say that you should not.She purposely does things that break Ted out of multiple relationships, and her defense is that “if ever there was the tiniest chance of [whoever] being the mother of your children, I wouldn’t break you guys up.” And Ted is okay with this. Lily is the decider, it seems. Lily also does not tell her fucking husband about her massive credit card debts and shopping addiction. She’s awful.

Unlikeable Ted Mosby is an architect, or by now I suppose a professor of architecture, and judging by the size of his New York apartment, he is financially successful. He’s also a douchebag. He is often pretentious, is one of those ‘hopeless romantics’ to the point where it is absurd, and is overwhelmingly goofy. I’m not a violent person by nature but I feel like if I had to have a beer with this guy, I would probably end up punching him in the face. And while my reaction might be a bit overboard, I’m not alone: I don’t know anybody who is a fan of the character, and Ted seems to annoy the other characters in the actual show far more than even that girl with crazy eyes did.

It’s usually pretty easy to gauge how actors would be like to hang out with in real life by their work; few people seem to be good enough actors to completely fool us. Matt Damon appears to be a cool person and seemingly everybody who meets him is willing to back that up, while Katherine Heigl kind of seems like a terrible person, which Judd Apatow and Seth Rogen seem to go out of their way to mention. We have seen Damon as everything from an uber-serious spy with a social conscience to a goofball conjoined twin, and since he is an actor with enough success to be able to pick and choose his parts, we can sort of imagine that Damon himself falls somewhere between those two characters. Josh Radnor, the actor who plays Ted Mosby, has not done much film or television work outside of How I Met Your Mother, possibly due to the fact that he’s not a very good actor. It kind of seems like Mosby is actually shaped to fit Radnor himself: each grew up in Ohio, the character and the actor seem to dress identically at all times, and both are kind of douchæ whenever they talk about anything even vaguely artistic. If it comes out that Radnor is a big fan of the Fritz Lang movie Metropolis, as the presence of a poster in Mosby’s bedroom might indicate, I won’t be even kind of surprised. Due to an overwhelming lack of evidence (or an abundance of it, depending how you look at it), we can sort of judge Radnor as a similar type of person to Mosby. But while Mosby only occasionally talks about wanting to write some short stories, Radnor seems to be able to actually convince people to read his screenplays.

happythankyoumoreplease is an unfortunate movie with an even more unfortunate title about a 20-something unpublished New York writer named Sam Wexler, who ends up quasi-adopting/totally-kidnapping a small black child named Rasheen. Josh Radnor not only plays Sam, but he also wrote and directed the movie, and likely sent out mix CDs with the script featuring the indie music he wanted playing during each particular scene. I can only imagine how other members of the How I Met Your Mother cast tried to avoid being invited to a screening of the movie; I bet it was like that episode where the gang went to Lily’s play (I hope Marshall was able to transfer a slap to actor Jason Segel for Radnor’s post-screening director Q&A). The movie is a textbook case of the Look at How Indie We Can Be syndrome that has become prevalent in every movie written and directed by the lead on a network sitcom, but is also commonly found in indies directed by people who never acted on CBS or ABC. It’s an epidemic, and Radnor is most certainly afflicted: the title is happythankyoumoreplease with no spaces or capital letters, Sam’s best friend Annie has fucking alopecia, the movie is obsessed with hating Los Angeles while idolizing New York, and Sam’s unpublished novel is actually called ‘The Other Great Thing About Vinyl.’ The movie has some good cinematography, as well as a couple of legitimately good moments, but it is mostly boring and frustrating.

The interesting aspect of doihavetotypethistitleagain actually comes in how similar Ted Mosby and Sam Wexler are. Sam seems exactly like how Ted would have ended up if Ted gave up a career in architecture to pursue a career writing or hosting a new version of his Dr. X radio show. Both Ted and Sam are annoying in the same way, and they each seem to have an inflated sense of self, although Sam even more so than Ted. At one point, Sam explains to his love interest Mississippi that he refuses to go see her sing because he once saw his college girlfriend act in a play, hated her in it, and was then forced to break up with her because the college girlfriend actually believed she had talent. Mississippi then asks, “What if you suck as a writer?” Sam’s response? “I don’t.”

Since the movie features a character played by Josh Radnor saying that he doesn’t suck as a writer, using words that Radnor wrote, it is not difficult to apply these words to be applicable to Radnor himself. It’s pretty clear that Josh Radnor thinks he is a good writer; he has even acknowledged in promotional materials for the film that it has a “sort of meta-narrative going on,” a phrase that backs up my previous point in more ways than one. As such, Radnor positions his happythankyoumoreplease character in a predictably arrogant role. While Ted Mosby is professionally successful, he seems to harbour slight regrets about never becoming a writer, while Sam Wexler did just that but is not as successful as Ted.

It’s possible that I watched How I Met Your Mother obsessively because I saw a version of myself in it, although I suppose everybody does. Ted Mosby, like most sitcom leads, is an everyman character, one who is meant to remind us of ourselves. Even if you aren’t much like him yourself, it’s likely that you know a bunch of people that remind you of Ted; you probably don’t know anybody that reminds you of Robin.

I’m a little younger than Mosby, Radnor and Wexler. But what these characters, and actor, show is kind of a crossroads of sorts. Josh Radnor’s career allowed him to stray him away from being the typical 9-5 type of professional that Mosby is, landing Radnor in the more artistic lane of being a writer/director/actor, which then allowed him to create the character of Sam Wexler, unpublished writer/douchebag/kidnapper of children. People my age are likely to go one of two ways: either we’ll end up as a professional of sorts like Ted, hanging out with our friends every night, or we’ll end up trying (and probably failing) to succeed creatively while wafting through life with our non-profit working friend who has alopecia. Neither of these options sounds that much more appealing than the other, although I would probably have to resist the urge to make some Arrested Development references around my alpaca friend in the latter scenario. But the realism in How I Met Your Mother is kind of what I like so much about it: nobody in the show really ends up doing what their 20-year-old self wanted to, but they all eventually come to terms with that. Josh Radnor got what he wanted out of life judging by his apparent desire to write/direct, and since he also has a good network TV job he is able to try to be a new version of Edward Burns, writing and directing shitty indie movie after shitty indie movie while paying the bills with Les Moonves’ money. How I Met Your Mother sometimes asks, “Where would Ted be had he pursued a more artistic career?” and happythankyoumoreplease reminds us that it might be for the best that he didn’t.

We all reflect on our own lives at various points in it; this doesn’t make us narcissists, it makes us human. And while we might not all have Bob Saget to voice these inner musings, they will occur regardless. In happythankyoumoreplease, Sam Wexler tells a story about how every five or so years, a writer told him that he looked back on himself and saw what an asshole he was, and that everything about himself 5 years ago was embarrassing to him now. This is completely understandable. I might not even have to wait 5 years to be embarrassed by what I’m writing now; it will probably happen instantaneously once I post it. But that will happen regardless of where I, or we, end up. There will always be embarrassing and unfortunate things about me, and you, so it’s probably best to just laugh at them years into the future like we do at Ted Mosby’s college haircut. Or maybe I’m just thinking this way because the unsure, lazy, and not completely likeable protagonist in Sam Wexler’s novel is named Alex.

Early in the movie, when Sam is going to a meeting with a publisher to discuss ‘The Other Great Thing About Vinyl,’ his friend Annie comforts a concerned Sam about the meeting. Sam doesn’t feel like it will go well, and Annie responds with, “It has to go well… you’re the voice of our generation.” As unfortunate as it is that a writer would actually write those words about himself, Radnor might be right. Just not in the way he envisioned it.

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