Robert Jackman

How I Met Your Father and the never-ending sitcom

How I Met Your Father and the never-ending sitcom
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If you're the type of person who pays attention to these things, you might have noticed Keir Starmer's new attack line. 'The joke isn't funny anymore, prime minister,' the Labour leader now tells Boris Johnson on a semi-regular basis – attempting to turn his opponent's clownish entertainer shtick from electoral strength to weakness.

Leaving aside the merits of the jibe, this line has one major flaw in its central premise. Namely that the leader of the opposition is evidently still under the impression that comedy has a shelf-life – whereas all evidence from our streaming habits points to that not being the case. And then some. If anything, most of us are still laughing at the same things that tickled us ten years ago.

You only need to look at the nine-figure sum – half a billion dollars apparently – that Netflix paid for the Seinfeld back catalogue to realise that, in the streaming world, expired comedies are seriously big business. Even the apparently 'new' sitcoms that head up the streaming schedules are often nothing off the sort. Just take the latest big name from Disney+, for example... A show by the name of How I Met Your Father.

As you've no doubt guessed, this big new title is actually a reheated sequel to How I Met Your Mother: the world-conquering comedy vehicle which launched the lovely Neil Patrick Harris onto the A-list path back in the early 2000s. Due to arrive on UK screens later this year, the show stars Hilary Duff as Sophie – the semi-singleton destined to meet the man that will end up as the father of her future children.

A quick glimpse at the trailer, which landed last month, confirmed what I'd already suspected: that the show is essentially a carbon copy of its predecessor. The unashamed laugh-track, the exaggerated mannerisms and the implausibly glamorous dating interests are all laid on thick as we get our first glimpses of Sophie navigating the Tinder-driven dating world.

How will How I Met Your Father do? Provided the writing is at least semi-competent, I'd be willing to bet it will draw big numbers. After all, just look at the enduring popularity of the original HIMYM (all nine seasons of which are currently on Disney+), which still remains amongst the most popular streamed shows in the US. If Duff's reboot can pull in half of the numbers of its predecessor, Disney can expect a decent pay-day.

As it turns out, though, HIMYM is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to evergreen sitcoms. In fact, it pales in comparison when it comes to the granddaddy of the streaming world: the US version of The Office. Based on viewing figures for 2020 (the latest full-year data available), the Steve Carrell-led sitcom racked up a staggering 57 billion minutes of viewing time in the US alone. Divide that by the number of minutes in a calendar year and it means that 100,000 Americans are streaming an old episode of The Office at any given minute. Not bad for a show that ended nine years ago

It doesn't stop there. The Office is also the subject matter of two of the most downloaded podcasts in the US – Office Ladies and The Office Deep Dive. Both feature former stars of the show discussing old episodes, sharing behind-the-scenes stories, inside jokes and other fan trivia. They're like those audio commentaries you used to get on old DVDs – except they get millions of downloads a week.

And it isn't just Americans who can't stop binging old sitcoms. On this side of the Atlantic, Channel 4's on-demand service is practically fuelled by old comedy series – with the likes of Peep Show, The Inbetweeners and Father Ted still doing the kind of numbers that today's writers would jump at. Just remember that next time you're extolling the virtues of Succession: it'll probably get fewer viewers this year than The Inbetweeners.

You can see this trend elsewhere too. Head to Facebook and you can find hugely popular 'meme' groups where Peep Show devotees repurpose well-hashed lines from the sitcom to make contemporary political commentary. Unsurprisingly, some are cashing in. One much-loved minor character (Mad Andy) spent lockdown hosting a Peep Show-themed quiz. Other former stars charge £50 a pop to record custom video messages for stag dos and birthday presents.

This boom for 'comfort comedy' – the desire to unwind by watching characters we already know – has been building for years but has been turbo-charged by streaming platforms. With their big data oversight, the likes of Netflix and Disney+ know exactly how much time we like to waste watching old episodes of much-loved sitcoms like The Office and How I Met Your Mother. And they're more than happy to oblige. As much as our comedy tastes remain the same, the media giants will be laughing too – all the way to the bank.