Forgiving Through Connecting: Neil Patrick Harris and Barney Stinson

Curator's Note

To say that Neil Patrick Harris is a fan of magic may be an understatement. He served as the President of the Board of Directors of Hollywood’s Magic Castle, has received Tannen’s Magic Louis Award, hosted the World Magic Awards, and even performed a trick when he guest starred on Glee. During interviews, whether on the red carpet or on Ellen’s couch, NPH’s love for magic is evident. Therefore, when Neil Patrick Harris’ character on CBS’ How I Met Your Mother performs acts of magic, it creates a connection back to the actor himself. Intertextuality in television programming is not uncommon. The writers of The Simpsons, for example, have made a long career of using intertextuality to amuse audiences. However, the magical connection between NPH and Barney Stinson does more than just generate laughs, it creates a connection between two very different personalities. Barney is a crude, womanizing, brofisting individual. On the other hand, NPH has always portrayed himself as a humble, caring, fun-loving individual. Jonathan Gray (2010) suggests that when coupled with paratexts, intertextuality can help us understand how a text happens. In this case, we should consider the narrative progression of Barney Stinson to be the text, while Harris’ love for magic to be a paratext. The use of magic is the tie that binds the character to the actor, as well as reminding viewers that it is still NPH behind the character. The art form that is magic relies staging tricks or creating illusions. Much of this is achieved through distraction of the audience and sleight of hand. In this case, it would seem that the writers have been able to distract from Barney’s misogyny by slipping in traits derived from the more likeable personality that is Neil Patrick Harris. The employment of magic in HIMYM, whether it is a card trick in MacLaren’s Pub or an elaborate confession, makes a connection back to the actor behind the character. Perhaps this sleight of hand creates a sense of forgiveness for the actions of Barney because we are reminded that it is, indeed, just a character.


Thank you, Charlie, for adding NPH and the concept of intertextuality to this week’s conversation about magic. Your suggestion that the writers of How I Met Your Mother might be using intertextual sleight-of-hand — i.e. references to Neil Patrick Harris’ likeable status as a celebrity who loves magic — as a way of rendering the bro-ish, misogyny of the character Barney Stinson more appealing is food for thought. What about viewers who still fail to forgive the actions of Barney, despite NPH’s cool magic effects? In the reception experience of these viewers, I wonder if the intertextual connections that dominate are ones made to people like the real-world pickup artist named Mystery (from Neil Strauss’s book The Game). Mystery is documented by Strauss as using magic effects in a way similar to Barney. This might cause some viewers to link their reception of HIMYM to the reality TV show The Pickup Artist, which is perhaps the most lamentable dating show of all time. On a brighter note, it might also link them to an episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philidelphia called “The D.E.N.N.I.S. Stystem,” which critically parodies the entire subculture of pickup artistry quite well. So, of course, does Tom Cruise’s performance as Frank Mackey in the film Magnolia.

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