I’ve written before about sitcom “tags,” those short sequences that reward you for sitting through the final commercial break. I got to thinking about them again because How I Met Your Mother didn’t have one this week, which I found surprising: they’ve had tags in almost every episode since the second season. And because I’ve gotten used to them, it almost felt strange not to have one; I didn’t expect the episode to be over before the last commercial, and was waiting for an extra sequence that never came. I have the same reaction when The Office doesn’t include a tag. Even if the tags aren’t really relevant to the story, once a show sets up the expectation that there will be a tag, I feel weird when it doesn’t include one. (It used to be that you could tell if a tag was coming or not because of the credits: if the executive producer credit appeared, you knew the show was truly over and there wouldn’t be a tag. But most comedies nowadays, 30 Rock aside, don’t have executive producer credits at the very end.)
As to how tags are used, there are two basic ways to play them: either wrap up the story in the tag, or use the tag for some vignette that isn’t truly necessary to the story. How I Met Your Mother usually chooses to devote the tag to a very short elaboration of some gag that appeared earlier in the episode, like Barney talking about who the “real” heroes are in various movies. The episode has already ended, for all intents and purposes; the tag is a bonus. But sometimes, if the show is running long, they’ll make the tag into what is in effect the end of act 2, like the tag where Barney and Robin watch her “Sandcastles in the Sand” video. That tag isn’t one that you could miss without missing the ending of the story. Conversely, The Big Bang Theory seems to prefer to make the tag a necessary part of the episode, but this week, the story wrapped up before the commercial, and the tag was just an extra gag that didn’t affect the story content or emotional content in any major way.
Historically, most tags have been the kind that can be easily separated from the main episode, in part because they were often the first things to go in syndication. But there were some twists now and then. After Batman popularized cliffhangers, Get Smart started using its tags as a variation of that technique, leaving Max and 99 in a cliffhanger situation at the last commercial and then getting them out of it in the tag. And one episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show used the tag to turn a seemingly happy ending into an unhappy one. Act 2 ends with Rob apparently about to get a job working as a credited writer of additional dialogue on a play Alan Brady is starring in (the episode was about him ghostwriting Alan’s new lines without the playwright knowing about it). But the tag reveals that it didn’t end the way we thought it would:
Tags have been used in the other way, too, turning apparently sad endings into happy ones or tacking on some kind of hopeful footnote to an ending that wasn’t satisfying to the network. (It wasn’t in an actual after-the-commercial tag, but an example of this kind of thing is the Seinfeld episode where Jerry’s monologue, at the network’s request, included a reference to the fact that a guest character didn’t really become an alcoholic after all.)
Another thing a tag can do is pay off a running gag; this kind of tag is necessary to understand the episode, but is really more a resolution of a subplot than the main plot. This tag is a twofer: it adds a bit of a happy ending to an apparently sad Act 2 ending, and wraps up a running gag from the first act (his refusal to play top 10 hits instead of oldies):
Here’s an example of a tag that is a completely self-contained vignette, only tangentially related to something that happened earlier; it can be, and in fact was, cut entirely in syndicated reruns. Also, it’s an example of an over-involved audience member (the guy who shouts “The Fonz!!!” when he shows up).
One other thing a show might choose to do is turn the tag itself into a running gag, doing the same thing most weeks or every week. Famous examples include Mork reporting to Orson or more recently, Abed and Troy doing some wacky routine together on Community.