It was through his voiceover-only role on “How I Met Your Mother” that I first encountered the work of Bob Saget, who died at age 65 on Sunday. He served as Future Ted for all nine seasons of the CBS sitcom, which ran from 2005-2013. I was not a “Full House” or “America’s Funniest Home Videos” viewer, so while I knew of the actor, “How I Met Your Mother” was my first real exposure to him.
Voiceover narration is overused on TV these days, as too many writers employ the device as a shortcut. At best, it can bring us inside a character’s thought process, and give us an intimate sense of who they really are. If omniscient, it can add a storyteller’s more objective point of view. But in too many cases, using narration is merely a way to relay information and events without ever having to show them, or a way to overtly connect dots, rather than letting viewers connect them on their own.
The narration on “How I Met Your Mother” was essential, however. It was an integral part of the show’s blueprint, which had Future Ted looking back at his life and telling his kids all about his romantic exploits. Future Ted and his children were the impetus for the storyline, and the end point toward which it was always heading — the solution to the mystery of who the mother was and how Ted would meet her. The show was a pioneer in the popular art of callbacks and time shifts, too, many of which were possible thanks to the fact that it was all a look backward from 2030.
Saget was excellent, his voice a defining part of what was, for its first five or six seasons, an endearing and clever sitcom (it started falling apart, of course, when CBS stretched the run beyond its natural life). Saget brought an older-and-wiser — but never humorless or preachy — attitude to the role, projecting all kinds of facets through his voice. He was a Dad-joke kind of Dad, one who stretched his kids’ patience with his storytelling, one who, particularly when he’d screw up or lie about a vignette, was clearly unreliable. Voiceover may seem like a simple kind of performance, but it’s not, as the actor must convey personality and layers without the benefit of, you know, a body or a face. (By the way, that is not the case in “How I Met Your Father,” which premieres on Hulu next Tuesday; we frequently see the narrator from the future, played by Kim Cattrall.)
The creators of “How I Met Your Mother” wisely used Saget’s voice, instead of that of the actor playing Present Ted on the show, Josh Radnor. In some ways, it was a practical decision; we’d always know we were hearing the older version of our lead character, “Wonder Years”-like, which would have been less clear if we were hearing Radnor’s voice from the future. But hearing Saget also implied that the Ted we knew would change and grow over the years, even as his humor remained intact.
Some of my favorite voiceover narrators on TV include Ron Howard on “Arrested Development,” Brenda Strong on “Desperate Housewives,” Kristen Bell on the original “Gossip Girl,” and Chris Rock on “Everybody Hates Chris.” I don’t hesitate to put Saget’s work as Future Ted alongside them.