How I Met Your Mother's Slapsgiving: An oral history

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Pass the pumpkin pie and a cold compress! With Thanksgiving upon us, we look back at this classic slap-happy episode from 2007 celebrating its 10th anniversary this fall. So get ready to stuff yourself with some slap-etizers and dig into our oral history of one of the most beloved episodes of the long-running CBS sitcom.

During the show’s second season, the writers introduced one of their longest running gags: the Slap Bet, with Marshall (Jason Segel) earning the right to slap Barney (Neil Patrick Harris) five times — at any time and without warning. Lily (Alyson Hannigan) was appointed Slap Bet Commissioner to oversee the slap count and more. 

CARTER BAYS (Creator/Showrunner): A friend of mine from high school, we would slap each other occasionally. Slapping in high school was our way of having fun. The idea of slap bets definitely came from that era in my life.

MATT KUHN (Writer): The studios at the network were not excited about the slap bet as an idea. They were nervous about the silliness of it, and it’s one of those things where you’re like, “Well that’s what makes it fun is that it’s so stupid..”

NEIL PATRICK HARRIS (Barney): I was a rabid fan of the idea. My friendship with Jason was very back and forth in a gentleman’s bet kind of way. We would constantly challenge each other and make each other laugh, so to incorporate a proper, official, very, very dramatic, historic bet was right up our alley.  

In the third season, the gang shared their first Thanksgiving together in the apartment – it was a turning point for Robin (Cobie Smulders) and Ted (Josh Radnor) trying to work out their friendship post-break-up, while Marshall and Lily hosted their first Thanksgiving as a married couple. Issues between Ted and Robin come to a head when she brings her new 41-year-old boyfriend (played by Orson Bean in a sight gag indicative of Ted’s perception of him) to dinner.

KUHN: You throw it up on the board and go, “There will be a Thanksgiving episode.” You don’t always have to do one, but it’s a nice piece of terra firma to aim toward. The thinking was on two fronts. One is, Marshall and Lily are married and want to host. And then for Ted and Robin, we realized we’d done a couple of episodes after they had broken up and hadn’t really addressed it. And we felt like we’d gone as far as we could without sort of taking a look at the elephant in the room.

CRAIG THOMAS (Creator/Showrunner): We wanted to do an episode about that theme of, what does it do to a group when two members break up? And can everyone remain friends or is it like, are you fooling yourself? Can that not happen?

KUHN: Often times, doing a Thanksgiving episode or a holiday episode is a challenge because every show does one, usually every year, and so a lot of things have been done. You try not to run into usual tropes of, everyone is going to get in a big fight at dinner. Again, it’s not so much that we were reinventing the wheel here but when they actually sit down to dinner, things have seemingly been resolved for Ted and Robin in a kind of downer way.

COBIE SMULDERS (Robin): It was a true family dynamic in terms of Thanksgiving. There’s even a quote within the episode which is like, “Thanksgivings aren’t supposed to be like that,” and someone’s like, “Yeah they are.” Thanksgiving is a time of year where you get together with a group of people that you grew up with, but there is some major baggage underneath.

THOMAS: I love that the old guy is 41-years-old that Robin dates because Carter [Bays] and I were 31, 32. We had a lot of writers that were even younger than us or maybe around our age or a little bit older. Obviously the joke is, they see this 41-year-old as this much older man. We’re 42 now and that’s really weird.

BAYS: And we wish we looked as good as Orson Bean.

SMULDERS: I know I’m the youngest in the whole cast, so I was probably 25 or 26, so that would make sense from my perspective. But Neil was almost 40 in that scene and yet we’re all treating a 40-year-old man like, “Oh wow, he looks good for 40.”

After having sex while making pies the night before, Robin and Ted decide they can’t be friends anymore, but the two reconnect by episode’s end over a shared inside joke that involves them saluting every time someone uses words like “Major,” “General,” and “Corporal.”

THOMAS: That was a real inside joke that our group of friends from college would do. They ingrained it in me because I lived with those guys, one or more of those guys, for all four years of college. And it just became so absolutely reflexive in me to do it. And then we got the whole writers’ room doing it. Every time you hear it for the rest of your life you have to do it — it becomes this reflex. I remember that theme emerging of, “Wait, the way that Robin and Ted will become friends again at the end is that.”

KUHN: That one stupid inside joke is all it takes to bring them back. That was the thinking there in terms of marrying a big moment for the whole group as a group of friends to a time that’s usually fraught with emotions. It made sense as a natural pairing.

THOMAS: They’re just going to do it despite the weirdness and the silence and the awkwardness between them. … When you really connect with somebody there’s some part of it that is just a reflex that can’t be let go of. It doesn’t disappear and that’s a real friend. I always loved that idea and it came from something we really did do with our friends.

KUHN: I remember sitting in a meeting with Craig [Thomas] and someone saying, “That’s a general idea,” and us just catching each other’s eye and saluting. It was fun because that’s what friendship is.

SMULDERS: I salute by myself. I don’t have a partner in crime. It would be a lot better if I had a real-life Josh Radnor to salute with me but I definitely still do it.

Monty Brinton/CBS

Despite all of Robin and Ted’s drama, the episode is best remembered for Marshall taunting Barney with the promise of his third slap on Thanksgiving day. Marshall used his first two slaps during the second season: one during “Slap Bet” and one during “Stuff.” The prospect of a third slap was introduced in this episode, which aired Nov. 19, 2017. From slap puns to turkey-handprint decorations to an online countdown clock, Marshall tortured Barney throughout the episode.

BAYS: When we ended the first Slap Bet episode, and it was left with the five slaps for eternity thing, 99 percent of the joy of that episode was just knowing we’re going to get to come back to this in the future. … I don’t remember why exactly we picked Thanksgiving. Someone probably said the word slapsgiving and that’s when everything fell into place. [Thomas and his writing room] were working on another B-story for the episode. I was on the other side of the building working on some other episode, and there was a tremendous howl from the writers’ room. Someone came running down and was just like, “New B-story for the episode: Slapsgiving!”

THOMAS: We were just like, wait a second — slap bet, slapsgiving — this could become a holiday. This could become a thing.

KUHN: You start short-handing stuff. “Oh you guys are working on that slap thanksgiving episode.” It doesn’t take too long before it simply becomes Slapsgiving … Anyone who works with me knows I love a good pun and it’s amazing how many things almost rhyme with slap. Then it’s a matter of squeezing in as many as we possibly can knowing that in terms of the story Marshall would be judicious in how many he throws out there.

THOMAS: The realization [was] that when you do those elementary school turkey cut-outs they’re in the shape of a hand, so it’s like a slap. So it’s a turkey and a hand that’s going to slap you in the face. That was one of those transcendent moments where the planets aligned. It’s a hand! And it’s a turkey!

KUHN: Marshall and Lily want to host Thanksgiving for the first time. You start going, “Well how would they break down the roles for that?” Marshall being a goofy guy probably would be on decorations anyway, and then once we put him in the mindset of he’s going to do everything he can to torture poor Barney, it was only a matter of time until you remember, “Hey, wait a second, don’t you use hands to make crude turkeys?”

THOMAS: How brilliant is Jason Segel at delivering that sort of slow-burn menace at Barney? Jason just did that dead eye stare at him so well. That’s probably part of why we kept going back to it.

BAYS: Jason loved the moments where Marshall could be a little evil. He really just dug into those moments.

KUHN: Carter and Craig were always super excited to use any channel available to make the viewing experience feel more encompassing. Nowadays we refer to them as Easter eggs. We would just lay claim to the internet world for various addresses, knowing we’ll do something with it in the future.

BAYS: People weren’t really taking advantage of the fact that people were watching TV while their laptop was open in front of them. That was at a time when we were really excited about the possibilities of these kind of off-show websites that existed in real life, and that [Slap Bet Countdown] was one of them — we can establish a ticking clock on the show and just have it in real life. There was a lot of work going into making sure it would land on a Monday night roughly around the time in the episode that slap would probably fall. There was a lot of math.

THOMAS: The slap countdown and the cut-out turkey hands and all the sort of accoutrement we had Marshall do around the slap, it all boils down to one of our favorite things in comedy, which is working really, really, really hard on something really, really, really dumb. There was a website; there was a song; there was arts and crafts; there was puns — it was such a multimedia onslaught of an effort that went into something that’s about a guy slapping another guy in his face. It’s just so stupid, but it brings so much joy.

 

Monty Brinton/CBS

Lily takes the slap off the table when bickering threatens to tear apart their Thanksgiving, but she changes her mind at the last moment, allowing Marshall to smack Barney, resulting in Barney falling to the ground and taking out a coffee table.

SMULDERS: We were all heavily anticipating the slap, probably as much as the audience was. Neil is a physical, comedic genius, so he was really able to sell it.

ALYSON HANNIGAN (Lily): I just remember there was a discussion between Neil and Jason of, “Well should I really hit you or should I not?”

KUHN: It was something that Jason and Neil were excited about. They’re both good physical comedians and Neil really wanted [Jason] to connect to sell the reality.

HARRIS: That was really ingrained in Barney’s character DNA — punishment and sort of fearless, reckless abandon at all costs, for the sake of adventure. So I, as an actor, felt like it would be a shortcoming if I, as Neil, opted out of things that they had posed that Barney would do.

BAYS: I seem to remember Neil being a real technician about it, as he is with all comedy. He’s so precise. There was a lot of rehearsal. … The decision was made, we’re not going to do the whole air slap with sound effect.

KUHN: In rehearsal up to it, Jason wouldn’t actually connect, but he would say, “When we do this, I’m going to do it for real.” It was two guys who would go to the limit for the show. 

HARRIS: We just went for it. It felt a little bit like a college fraternity hazing. [Jason] went back and slapped the f—k out of my face, is kind of how it went.

HANNIGAN:  Jason and Neil were so committed to the slaps. They took it so seriously. It was so beautiful, just the physical comedy that Neil would throw in was genius. I just felt so lucky to get to be a part of it because I had to be the witness to it.

KUHN: Neil was always going above and beyond for anything, like, “No, I’ll do the fall myself,” that kind of thing.

SMULDERS:  Neil turns and then he falls and we had a breakaway table, but he was so close to the piano and where I was I was like, “Oh I’m going to witness Neil breaking his neck and that’s going to be the end of this.” So I was very nervous about it because he puts 100 percent into everything that he does and so I just knew he was going sell the slap and really make it big and really showcase it.

HARRIS: When we were planning it, [the fall] seemed like a good coda that would allow Barney to not have a response, either physical or verbal. If he just got slapped and spun around, it seemed like there was a need for him to say something or react in some way, but falling all the way to the ground seemed fun. They had a table that was already there and they just sawed into it a little bit. They always were more worried than I was about my getting hurt because I sure loved falling into things on that show.

Monty Brinton/CBS

After the slap, the group celebrates with a song in Barney’s honor, “You Just Got Slapped.”

BAYS: When we first designed the sets, one of our big things was we want to make sure the events take place in places where we would want to hang out. There’s a piano in their living room. I like playing piano. Jason likes playing piano. It definitely added something to the shooting environment, just like in between takes someone randomly sits down and tickles the ivories. But it was like, we’ve got this piano, at some point we have to use it in some way.

HANNIGAN: The thing is with Jason he broke out into song all the time, so my memories of him are just in song, so it’s hard to know when we were rolling or when it was just Jason being Jason.

HARRIS: Jason would sit at that piano in the living room set and wriggle around and sing songs all week during rehearsal and when we were blocking and shooting, so it was a very familiar vibe for us. But it was a great use of his talents and a funny take on such a violent act.

BAYS: I just remember thinking it needs to be more than a slap, there needs to be a bit of a victory lap to go with it.

KUHN: I have visions of Carter running in and going, “We came up with a song last night,” and basically just performing the whole thing.

BAYS: Some friends of ours were getting married in Martha’s Vineyard. I remember flying to Martha’s Vineyard in one of those little prop planes, on this beautiful day, looking out over the Atlantic ocean, so beautiful, and this melody came into my head, and suddenly, I started singing to myself about slaps. And I spent the rest of the weekend, like during the ceremony and the reception afterwards, just quietly singing the slap song to myself.

THOMAS: It’s a ballad. It’s a kind of sad sounding or earnest sounding ballad, like a Neil Diamond song. There’s something so genuinely and completely earnest about it.

BAYS: The breakthrough was making it, like, a beautiful lush ballad that should be about love, but instead it’s about how you just got slapped.

KUHN: Neil was sort of accompanying with almost dog yelps. It was hard for everyone to keep it together for that. But they did because they’re professionals, but you can kind of sense that energy.

SMULDERS: My focus was more on Neil because Neil had to sit there and whimper and cry and we all just had to continue on and really enjoy his misery and I’m not good at that. So I always remember being like, “Is this okay? Are you really okay? Because you’ve just been slapped a lot today.” It was glorious. One of the things I remember most is sitting around that piano and listening to Jason do it over and over again.

The episode proved so popular that the creators revived the conceit with season 5’s “Slapsgiving 2” and season 9’s “Slapsgiving 3.” 

KUHN: You’re proud of every episode you do just because they all have different challenges and you solve the problems in different ways, but it was my second script. It felt good to get one that came together so well.

THOMAS: There’s so many great Thanksgiving episodes of television shows. So when you’re in a writers’ room trying to come up with your Thanksgiving episode, you feel so daunted. You think of all the amazing episodes of TV and you’re like, “Why should we even try?” We stuck with it and said, “How can we do a Thanksgiving episode that nobody else would do that fits in our show?” And I feel like we pulled it off in this episode and I was very proud of that. It was one of my favorite things we did on the show.

HANNIGAN: What I thought [was[ so great about the show is just that no matter what the craziness was, there was always such heart to it. … It’s just such a wonderful show to be a part of because you had such outrageous physical comedy but it was always centered around these incredible relationships and these people that you’d want to be friends with. And even when they’re slapping the living daylights out of each other, they still love each other.

THOMAS: We see it listed alongside other classic Thanksgiving TV episodes. It’s an honor to be on that list. It’s cool to look back and realize we found a way to do our own version [of a Thanksgiving episode] that felt worthwhile.

HARRIS: Things like “Slap Bets” were part of the lore, so every time Slapsgiving came around I was excited they were continuing to keep the torch alive — and by torch I mean Jason’s palm and the feeling of being burned like a torch on my face.

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