How I Met Your Mother may have featured plenty of big-name celebrity cameos, but an appearance by Britney Spears was apparently a bridge too far for Neil Patrick Harris. Beginning in 2005, How I Met Your Mother started life as a hangout sitcom with a difference. Unlike the superficially similar Friends or New Girl, instead How I Met Your Mother had a narrator recounting the events of every episode from far in the future.
This set-up let How I Met Your Mother exploit the unreliable memory, self-serving retelling, or general idiosyncrasies of its narrator Future Ted as he told his kids of his misadventures throughout his 30s. The clever set-up was utilized more frequently in the show’s early seasons, with How I Met Your Mother gradually becoming a more conventional sitcom as the series gained fame. As the cult hit began to gain worldwide mainstream popularity, How I Met Your Mother featured several increasingly impressive guest stars with each passing season.
Among the notable names that cropped up on the show’s cast list were Lucy Hale, Kyle MacLachlan, Bryan Cranston, Katie Holmes, and eventually even pop music royalty in the form of Nicole Scherzinger, Katy Perry and Britney Spears. However, series star Neil Patrick Harris voiced an objection to Spears’ role, fearing How I Met Your Mother may have become too reliant on big-name guests over quality writing.
According to an LA Times article from when the singer reprised her role as Stella’s Ted-obsessed receptionist, Barney Stinson actor Harris claimed he was “in a small minority that thinks the show doesn’t need stunt casting” and he claimed to hope the network “don’t Will & Grace us too much.” The former point is a fair critique, given the talented ensemble cast of How I Met Your Mother, but notably, it’s not something Harris felt compelled to voice when earlier guest stars appeared. The second comment, though, is a pretty pointed criticism of Spears herself, as HIMYM had featured plenty of other name stars by this point, but Will & Grace was famously the only other show Spears had filmed a cameo for – in a role other than herself – at that stage.
Notably, Spears’ comedic role on How I Met Your Mother was well-received by viewers and critics alike, unlike numerous later guest stars such as Tim Gunn (who cropped up in HIMYM’s worst episode, ‘Sunrise’) who reviewers felt served no narrative purpose. Spears hasn’t done much acting since her brief How I Met Your Mother role, but her comic timing and game performance ensured that the then-troubled musician’s appearance won her back considerable public favor after a personal breakdown that the media famously obsessed over and exploited only a year earlier.