Inside How I Met Your Mother's Sad Dad Twist

Just days after the world counted down to the start of a new year, CBS’s How I Met Your Mother this week surprised viewers by — we now realize in retrospect — counting down to the end of Marvin Eriksen Sr.’s life. It was a stark twist served up at the end of an otherwise light episode. Series cocreator Carter Bays spoke with TVLine about the comedy’s decision to follow in the footsteps of some revered sitcom predecessors by dipping into the drama well.

TVLINE: Had you decided heading into this season that Marshall (played by Jason Segel) would lose his dad (Bill Fagerbakke)?
This was a sort of right of passage that we knew we wanted to take the characters through. We structured the season as the “before” and “after” – the first 12 episodes of the season were setting up the situation, and now it will all unfold. We’ve explored a lot of other big mileposts — most of them are pretty happy, some of them are sad. This is certainly one of the saddest, but it felt like something we wanted to see our characters grapple with.

TVLINE: What TV comedy precedents did you have in mind as you approached this episode?
Definitely Cheers. And Family Ties, especially. When [HIMYM cocreator] Craig [Thomas] and I were first developing this show, those were two that we wanted to emulate in that regard. On Family Ties, you could do an episode where a character deals with alcoholism or Alex’s friend dies in a car accident…. Or Coach [dying] on Cheers. What made those stories heartbreaking is that you love these characters so much, and our goal with this show was to create characters you love. The great thing about Cheers is that all of the comedy came from character. As a result, all the drama, when they did it, came from character as well.

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TVLINE: How do you keep a darkish cloud from looming over the next episode? What will you put on our screens?
The cloud doesn’t lift right away; that’s another thing that we didn’t want to do, make this a one-off sad moment and then go back to normal. This show is a journey, and this is something Marshall and all the characters are going to deal with. It’s part of life, and the next episode (airing Jan. 17) is about trying to find humor in these moments. The next episode is thematically about how when something like this happens, you turn to your friends. So the rest of the group tries to figure out how to be there for Marshall.

TVLINE: You counted down to the big moment by “hiding” descending numbers throughout the episode. Was that device a way to soften the blow by letting viewers know that something was coming?
The countdown, for us, was a way to clue the audience in early on that something momentous was going to happen. It’s obviously dark subject matter for a sitcom, but your life can change in an instant. It’s not the most fun thing to write a sitcom about, but for all of who have felt loss, when you look back on those times you realize how little time you had. Jennifer Hendriks was the writer on the episode, and she did an excellent job with it.

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TVLINE: What more typically funny-happy moments can viewers look forward to?
Actually, the next episode is very funny. Danny Strong — who Buffy fans will remember as Jonathan, but more recently has been on Mad Men – has a funny bit as an old high school classmate of Marshall’s. We go back to Minnesota for the funeral and we run into this guy who was a bully that picked on Marshall. That presents a very funny dynamic.

HIMYM fans, what did you think of this week’s dramatic turn?

Comments are monitored, so don’t go off topic, don’t frakkin’ curse and don’t bore us with how much your coworker’s sister-in-law makes per hour. Talk smart about TV!

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52 Comments
  1. sarah says:

    I am happy I got some explanation for the episode at least.

    • Chiana says:

      I definitely noticed the numbers, but didn’t realize their significance until it was pointed out in this article. I was beginning to wonder if it had something to do with Lost – some kind of homage.
      Looking forward to seeing some more dramatic moments with Marshall. Jason Segal is my favourite actor on the show, so it should be interesting. Also looking forward to seeing Danny Strong. I don’t watch MM, so I hadn’t seen him in anything since Gilmore Girls. Loved him in Buffy. Like how so many of Joss ensemble is showing up in HIMYM. Probably Alyson’s influence.

  2. Andrew says:

    I don’t even remember the last time a sitcom had me tearing up, but that ending was a total suckerpunch. I hadn’t noticed the title of the episode or the countdown (upon the second viewing I realized I must have been blind not to notice).

  3. irg19 says:

    Great twist, so didn’t see this coming. Can’t wait to see what kind of character development we get from this. Will it prompt Barney to find and confront his father?

    • August says:

      That would be great outcome of this incredibly sad and abrupt ending for Marshall and his dad. The ending with Barney telling his mom she was all he needed was very sweet, but I think it would be great character development for Barney to go after something he really cares about and something that frightens him.
      We’ve seen some elements of drama with all the other characters, when it’s not just for the laughs but Barney’s been pretty cut and dry comedy for most of the time, his short lived affair with Robin is the only time we got to see him be vulnerable, it would be a great opportunity for NPH play Barney in another light, away from his comfort zone and the girls.

    • liuzitong says:

      definately

  4. jencoop says:

    I was so surprised by the ending. It was very well done. I have not sobbed like that since Denny died on Grey’s.

  5. Jill says:

    So glad to see Carter Bays answering some questions because I really wanted to know the impetus behind this episode. The end was so shocking and sad but to read about the countdown today (which I totally missed) was so interesting. I’m so glad to see HIMYM back in the news!!

  6. RyanT says:

    Just wanted to say kudos to the creators, writer, and obviously Jason Segel for a great job on this episode. Well done, all. Looking forward to this “after” part of the season.

  7. Jenny says:

    This episode was so unexpected and heartbreaking – but also made me love Jason Segel even more. :/

  8. fiona says:

    SO THAT’s what the numbers were all about! My sister and i were watching and we noticed the numbers but we didn’t figure out what they were for…

    The ending was really sad but i was expecting something bad as the episode was going

  9. Darth Clavie says:

    Oh! I totally teared up!!
    When Marshall’s dad didn’t pick up the phone, I knew something had happened :( so so sad.

  10. Trish says:

    I knew just a beat before the reveal and busted out some tears. Poor Marshmallow :(

  11. MissJess says:

    My roommate and I were watching the episode along with a friend, and made sure to catch every number. About half way through, my roommate guessed that when we got to 0, they’d get pregnant! I tried not to get my hopes up TOO high, but she is usually so good at guessing tv shows, that it was hard not to. So it felt like a double blow for Marshall to lose his dad…and, of course, I cried like a baby!

  12. Nico says:

    I cried it really hit me hard too. I also loved that Marshall’s dad was Dobber from Coach and then he had to go and die.

  13. James Rogers says:

    Wow! This episode was hectic! Haven’t cried for a sitcom in ages!!! Not even sure if I have ever had. HIMYM has helped me through good and bad times and I have learnt quite a bit from it. This is a very real part of life’s journey and hope to learn from this too. Thanks for a great, but sad episode Jennifer. On a side/sad note, Jennifer was my sister’s name, she passed away some time ago. Weird…

  14. Stacie says:

    I literally had my jaw drop when Lily told Marshall the news. I was just watching a regular goofy episdoe of HIMYM and then it just changed. I give them lots of credit for the suprise. I don’t remember being suprised like that in awhile, maybe not since Lost last season.

  15. angel says:

    I really don’t understand this. I agree it was smart and “well-done”, but I don’t tune in to CBS on Monday nights to see one of my favorite TV characters in such a heart-wrenching scene (BTW… kudos to Jason Segal, who clearly is one of the best actors around!), that cuts through my heart… a big reason why I DVR shows like HOUSE – I want to feel happy and relaxed, not feel like my best friend’s dad just passed away. All the syndicated showings have really reminded me how much I love this show recently, but I thought this blew!

  16. Michelle says:

    The episode was very funny, until the shocking twist (which I hadn’t heard about beforehand). I noticed the numbers around the 40’s, and it had bugged me. Thanks for explaining them!

  17. Mannie says:

    Next time I notice numbers on HIMYM, I’m going to turn it off. I cried and it put such a damper on my night.

  18. I'm Done! says:

    I am so done with this show. It probably should have ended a while ago. The fearless friends have been through almost ever conceivable scenario and relationship twist. Yet, I still tuned in. This super sad episode cured me. I am done with HIMYM.

    Put a fork in it…

    • PauletteB says:

      What color is the sun in your world? Life isn’t all light and roses. As sad as the ending was, all I could think of was the blessing of that unexpected visit and how Marshall would have that memory to treasure.

      • I'm Done! says:

        PauletteB,

        The sun in my world is a rosie shade of yellow and sitcoms are funny until they’re not. That’s when they end.

        Thanks for asking.

      • Melissa says:

        Me too! I kept thinking about when Future Ted said that Marshall would always be grateful that Lily told his parents he was trying to masturbate… because it lead to that awesome conversation with his parents.

    • Seriously -_- says:

      What a baby just because of one episode you stop watching -_- pathetic i hope it keeps going on forever HIMYM FOREVER!!

    • iva says:

      Me too! just done with it

  19. Ray says:

    This one episode, showed that HIMYM can still pull out the goods.

    I’ve basically written off this show as directionless and gutless because of how the creators seems to lack any courage in moving the overall arc of the show forward; reveal the mother already!

    But this one episode showed me that there is real vitality in this show. Especially with every character outside of Ted.

    Loved this episode. Amazing performances by Hannigan and Segel at the end. These two tend to be the light of the show and to give them something so dark to play with was so, so smart. Well done!

  20. SaraK says:

    I totally teared up! Can’t wait to see how Marshall deals with his dad’s death

  21. Shani says:

    My husband and I caught the countdown right away and about halfway through the episode, we thought it might have to do with the Slap Bet. Totally wrong, but the episode was really good and of course I was a mess at the end.

    • handtalker says:

      I know that there have to be dramatic moments on a comedy sometimes (Marshall & Lily having trouble conceiving, Robin’s breakups, etc.), but this one seemed so unnecessary. It seemed like a cheap stunt for shock and/or ratings. It’s good to know after reading this that it was purposefully thought-out.

      I will miss Bill Fagerbakke AND the character he played. RIP, Dad.

      • No Cheap Stunts says:

        I think people might be most upset because it was TOO real for TV (even with the artificiality of the numbers gimmick). I know it was for me. My wife found out her dad had died of a heart attack in almost those exact circustances and it was hard for her to watch it on HIMYM.

        As for a twist to keep the narrative fresh, it was a great one – reminiscent of Col. Blake’s sudden death in M*A*S*H. HIMYM needed it a bit more though because after six seasons the search for Ted’s wife has gotten a bit stale.

  22. Anthony says:

    I thought I’d add this: Although Jason and Alyson are comedy actors by trade, there acting for this emotional scene was fantastic and very real. It cut me up and it shocked me. Nethertheless-rock on HIMYM, I wish more people watched it in England!

    • TVphile says:

      Alyson a comedy actress by trade? I thought she was better at the serious stuff. But Jason? Yeah he’s a comedy actor.

    • Melissa says:

      Anthony, Alyson is not a comedy actor, she is an actor who can do comedy and drama and everything in between. If you never watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer, rent the DVDs. She can knock it out of the park no matter what the emotion.

  23. maliu says:

    I love Jason Segal in anything he does which is why I hung around to watch another season. He is quite the artist, even the still picture makes me want to cry for his (Marshall’s) loss.

  24. Jordan says:

    I was choked up. it makes you think of things that you don’t want to. The count down in combination with the episode made me think it was a countdown to conception. only when it hit 2, 1, 0 did chills set in and I realized; This is not going to be a good ending…his dad died.
    Great episode, but i hated it ; ;

  25. Poo says:

    Looooove comedy that can have and sustain drama

  26. SheFab says:

    My fiance and I went back and watched some old episodes yesterday…we came across the one in season 4 where there’s a comment made how in about 3 -5 years Marshall will be cutting a turkey with a light saber for Thanksgiving…when he addresses everyone at the table he says “Mom, everyone” Completely not acknowledging his dad…was this a hint or an oversight?

  27. Shocked by the number of people who have been complaining on Facebook (and one or two on here) about how they “don’t tune into sitcoms” for this kind of story. Meanwhile, I’ve been rewatching “Scrubs,” one of the funniest sitcoms of the last 20 years, and it’s impossible not to notice that at least once every season they had an episode like this.

  28. R Williams says:

    Not sure that this episode will be a character builder for the shows characters as these issues in life are not momentary and at some level never resolved, although accepted. Marshall’s Dad is not a friend but a part of him so the loss would be far greater. The two series referred to in the interview, Cheers and Family Ties were written because of events in real life which drove them to be written. The actor who played coach really did die and they wanted to pay their condolences on the show. This episode was written under different circumstances; could be a shark.

  29. toast says:

    I also didn’t see it coming and was shocked at the tail end of the episode. I noticed the ‘hints’ there, but I didn’t put it all together until I watched the episode a second time. Great stuff though… very moving.

  30. C. Duncan says:

    Heartbreaking. In a positive way. My favourite episode so far! Beautifully executed.

    I was in love with the series since day one. But now I can’t wait to see the next episodes!

  31. L says:

    this show feels so real…

    its as ”grand” and as modest as life itself is… everyone who works on the show seems to do a tremendously awesome job.

    the humor in it is perfect, the characters feel friend-like warm… and the plot is constructed in a very natural way.

    everytime the show pulls me thru intense emotional tides, it feels like real life.. never too dramatic, yet never too watered-down…

    even when an episode makes me go like … ”well that one was not that special”… i quickly remember life is like that as well and smile.

    its a great show. i love it. a big kudos to the people who make it possible :)

  32. Talmi says:

    I think you meant “rite of passage” and not “right of passage”….

  33. b says:

    Argh, I didn’t realize that there had been an episode this past Monday! Spoiled! Well, now I know there are hints/clues to look for so when I watch it I can keep an eye out for those!

  34. Zach says:

    why?! why would they do this ? Marshall’s dad was his other half!

  35. Paula says:

    Heartbreaking. Cried myself dry.

  36. Capman69 says:

    To the haters stating that they’re done with the show, go watch Big Bang theory if you want pointless drivel.

    Himym is House MD like, comedy, drama and poignancy.

    When Lily cries, throughout the series, it shows her versatile chops, she excels in that capacity. When she cried and told Marshall about his dad dead, I lost it, completely. She is outstanding. The line from Marshall after, ” I’m not ready for this ” sent me over the edge. Jennifer, your screenplay for this episode deserves Emmy recognition, it’s that good!

    Thank you, so very much.

    The idiots who turn the channel because they need to know who the mother is, need to reread the title. It’s a story, it’s creative and it’s almost over. Be thankful that Jason, Alyson, Neil, Jacoby and Josh took lower pay to keep the series moving. Most other blockbuster actors would have migrated from the silver screen at first chance, they haven’t, that shows integrity and heart. Which is exactly what this series exemplifies.

    Outstanding work, creators! Take your “very sad day” curtain call ONLY when the show no longer offers “blog worthy” banter.

    Dr Capper MD

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