Carter Bays of How I Met Your Mother: The TV Squad Interview
Well, who better to go to for answers than Carter Bays? He and Craig Thomas (Craig is on the left in the picture above, and Carter is on the right) are the creators and executive producers of the show, and have been working as a writing team since they met at Wesleyan University. The 31-year-olds worked together on Late Show with David Letterman, Oliver Beene, and American Dad before getting a chance to run the show on HIMYM in 2005.
I spoke to Bays by phone last week (I was supposed to also speak with Thomas, but a family emergency called him away). Be warned that this interview contains MAJOR SPOILERS pertaining to the finale. I will warn you prior to a spoilery portion of the interview (and tell you when it ends) so you can skip it if you wish.
Joel Keller: What have you guys been working on since the show wrapped up?
Carter Bays: We've been working kind of off-and-on on a feature screenplay that we've been meaning to work on for a couple of years now; it's one of those ideas that have been floating around and we finally have a little time to work on it. Craig is working on preparing for fatherhood, and I've just kinda been hanging out.
JK: Want to give any information about that?
CB: It's kind of our stab at the big broad comedy starring Vince Vaughn, Will Ferrell, fill in the blanks.
JK: Has the show gotten you more contacts in the movie industry so you can shop it around more easily?
CB: It has actually; it's funny because it's one of those areas where you work on the show day in and day out and you're not quite sure that people are watching. Then we keep hearing from people in the film business who want to meet with us because of the show, which is a pretty big acheivment for people writing a multi-camera sitcom.
JK: What are the differences you've seen being a TV writer in New York and being a TV writer in L.A.?
CB: Well, the first big difference is that being a TV writer in New York is actually an interesting profession to have. When you meet someone at a bar, it's a lot more fun to say "Well, I write for a TV show," than it is here in L.A. There are a lot of TV shows and a lot of TV writers (here).
It's also people in New York... when you tell people in New York that you're a TV writer, there's no angle behind it. And it feels like so much of the social life out here is focused on the industry, and you go to parties and people want to talk about work, and it's kind of like... it felt much freer in New York. You could leave your job and get away from it, I guess.
JK: I've heard from people who live out there that you have to surround yourself with friends who aren't from the entertainment industry, or else the constant focus on that industry will drive you nuts.
CB: That's absolutely true. When I lived in New York, I had a lot of friends who weren't in the entertainment industry. It's like I'm the town shoemaker, and in New York I would hang out with the town candlestick maker, but here it's like a city full of shoemakers, and you're always talking about the same thing.
JK: So, have you guys heard anything about the show getting picked up?
CB: We haven't heard anything. And we're not going to until the last minute. That seems to be CBS's policy, and it makes sense from a business standpoint. We're not criticizing that. They want the people working on their pilots to think that there's a shot of getting their show on the air, and if they pick up their entire slate of Monday night comedies... I don't know, if it were my pilot, I wouldn't... I'd probably throw my hands up in frustration.
JK: Are you surprised that the show is even up in the air, despite the support you've gotten support from executives over there? I remember talking to (CBS senior vice president of programming operations) Kelly Kahl and he said he defended you during the whole Super Bowl thing, so I was suprised to hear that your show was on the bubble.
CB: I don't put much stock in those rumors. I don't think our show up in the air; I just think the show hasn't been picked up yet. It would be nice if they had picked it up already. But it feels like something like... you know you're going to have to pay taxes on April 15th. I'm pretty confident that we will get picked up.
(pauses) This is all going to be really funny if we don't get picked up (chuckles).
JK: You guys are getting a lot of critical buzz, and it seemed like the executives were behind it just a few months ago. It was just interesting that things turned so quickly.
CB: I do think, though... I feel like their strategy makes sense of not picking people up. As frustrating as it is for us, I feel pretty confident that we're gonna come back.
JK: So you're not hearing any rumors either way?
CB: No... not really. Except for that one rumor... every time I Google News search the show... that rumor spread like a fire. It really all just started from like, a TVGuide.com article or something that who knows if it's even true.
JK: Have you and Craig started to make plans for what season three is going to be like?
CB: We have; I think in terms of thinking about the pick-up I think (laughs) we maybe uncosciously wrote a season finale that promises such a fun season three and leaves you so hanging that it'll be excruciating to fans if we don't get picked up.
BEGIN SPOILER ALERT
JK: The interesting thing about the season finale is that it does kind of have a little bit of an air of finality to it. A lot of people might have seen what happened coming. Is the intention that that next year we're going to see Ted and Barney's adventures being single guys?
CB: Yeah. the idea is that Ted has now kind of fully digested Robin. We started him in the series -- I don't know how to word this in a way that doesn't give it away -- he's sort of run the table with Robin, he's gone as far as he can. And because he started season one in such a place of "I have to get married! I have to find the girl!" it's going to be fun to see... now that he's carried the entire experiment and seen where it leads...
I've seen this happen to countless friends of mine that they have this experience where they're like "This is the one!" and it turns out not to be the one, they inevitably go through the period of, "All right, I'm going to go out and have fun. Obviously looking for the one wasn't the right idea. I should have been listening to Barney all this time. I'm going to go out and live life a little bit."
JK: It does seem like Ted's the guy who has developed the most since the first season. Barney's had some depth added to him, but it seems like Ted's the guy who's come the farthest in the two seasons. Was this a development arc you guys had in mind for him from the beginning?
CB: Yeah, kind of. I think, thinking in the long term, I kind of want to make Ted cynical. Like, all of his preconceptions about love as this storybook romantic thing... his idea that it happens in real life exactly the way it happens in the movies, we want to see that kind of shattered so that when down the road he does meet the mom it'll be that much more of a surprise.
JK: Do you guys have any intention of having Ted meet the mother in season three?
CB: I think it's still a ways off... well, I don't know. We're actually not sure. We really haven't discussed what happens in season three. I know that Ted will get a little hardened next season.
I'm telling you a lot... I feel bad, because so much of this stuff is predicated on... I guess people do see the ending coming, to some degree, but...
END SPOILER ALERT
JK: Let me ask you this, then: did the story lines for season two play out as you and Craig planned them at the beginning or did things shift as the season went along?
CB: I think we did... We shifted a few things around but we definitely knew where we wanted to start and where we knew we wanted to finish up. We knew that Marshall and Lily, we wanted to start with them broken up. obviously, and end with them getting married, and see how a couple goes from being broken up to being married by the end of the season. And with Ted and Robin, we wanted to start with them at the moment of lift-off for their relationship, and reach a point at the end of the season where they... move from that level to a new level.
JK: Some of the other details that came out about Barney, for instance, did that come about during the season or was this something that you planned early on?
CB: It's interesting; with Barney... like a lot of times you'll write a back story for a character and then say, "OK, the character comes from this back story, how does he behave?" and then you come up with his behavior. But in Barney's case for whatever reason, that character just blossomed into life in the writing. And I think this season, and to a large degree last season, a lot of the comedy of Barney is less about what becomes of a person who grows up in these conditions, and more about what kind of conditions could create a guy like this.
And I feel like a lot of the best stuff we've gotten out of him... like the Bob Barker stuff... clearly this guy just doesn't understand how to be a man in the 21st century. Clearly he didn't grow up with a dad, you know?
JK: Did the Bob Barker episode come about because CBS came to you and asked to do some cross-promotion or was that an idea you generated?
CB: (laughs) It was actually one of those serendipitous moments that when it happens, you have to pounce in it. Everything lined up... we were kind of stuck on what the third-to-last episode of the season was going to be, and we sort of had some trouble breaking that story, and at the same time we had an idea list, and one of those ideas that had been around for two years was "Barney goes on The Price is Right." We just had this idea of, wouldn't it be funny if Barney turns out to be this prodigy at The Price is Right and just goes in there and runs the table and plays the perfect game, creating this Roy Hobbs moment for Barney.
And actually at the TCAs (the press tour), someone from 20th (Century Fox, HIMYM's studio) mentioned to us that Bob Barker had seen the show and really wanted to do a guest appearance, and really wanted to work with Neil (Patrick Harris, who plays Barney), because he just liked Neil as a performer. And everything just came together from there. As soon as we heard that, we were were like, "Barney goes on The Price is Right! We've had this idea for a year!"
And it's funny how certain ideas like that... you can struggle over breaking a story, and some ideas just explode into being, it kind of writes itself, you know?
JK: What's a good example of that?
CB: In the "Bachelor Party" episode, the Robin and Lily story. That actually happened to a friend one of our writers, the whole thing with the sewing machine. Pretty much without fail all the best stories come from people's real lives. And as soon as that was pitched in the room, it was like "OK, that's the story, that's Robin and Lily... go." And it was written within a week.
JK: I remember you telling me in January (when I spoke to you at TCAs) that you've gotten ideas from your assistant Carl...?
CB: Carl's given us a lot of material (laughs). Kinda funny how that happened.
JK: Is the bar named after him?
CB: It is. His name is Carl McLaren; the bar is named McLaren's, and the bartender is named Carl.
JK: I thought there was one really great idea came from him, maybe from the "Swarley" episode?
CB: The crazy eyes thing... that's part of general guy knowledge. But in the "Bachelor Party" episode, when Barney says "Well, that girl's a fifteen," that's Carl.
And I feel bad even saying that, because it was just Carl joking around. He's the sweetest guy on earth; he's a very nice guy, and I don't want people to think, you know...
JK: Blackjack sex jokes are funny. Funny's funny, right?
CB: It's funny. You use it, wherever it comes from.
JK: How long did you write for Letterman?
CB: We wrote for him for four-and-a-half years, right out of college.
JK: What did writing for Letterman teach you about the business and doing this for a living?
CB: I feel like the more I talk about this, the more it just feels like everything we've learned, we learned from Letterman. It really was. It was Comedy 101, 201, 301, and 401, the full gamut of the experience of writing comedy for television. The whole process of coming up with ideas, pitching ideas to somebody, getting them approved, going out and shooting them, editing them... as writers on the show, we'd take care of all of it. If you had an idea for a skit -- "Bill Clinton goes to Starbucks" -- you'd have to write the script, shoot it, edit it, put the music to it, pretty much like what we're doing now except on a smaller scale. It was in one sense it was like film school, and in another sense it was like we were learning from the funniest guy on television.
JK: Was it interesting that the show had a mix of younger writers and veterans...
CB: I seem to remember when Craig and I first started, Dave referred to us as "those guys from Yale," even though we didn't go to Yale. And I think he also referred to us as "those guys with backpacks," even though we didn't actually wear backpacks, though it might have looked like we were wearing them because we were college kids.
JK: On which episodes this year did you guys just really enjoyed the writing process and working on them overall?
CB: Well, there were the ones that were just great experiences to work on.. Like obviously "Robin Sparkles" was just a barrel of monkeys for us. Craig and I especially were in hog heaven having the chance to write this song and record it, because that's what we do in our spare time, we play music and record it any chance we get. We wrote a song for American Dad when we worked there, we wrote a lot of songs on Letterman; it's something we love to do and we've been looking for an opportunity to do it again on the show. We were parodying a world we loved so dearly and its so part of our formative experience growing up. Just that whole '80s thing.... digging into that was fun.
JK: You take a lot of gentle jabs at Canada, especially in that episode. Where did that come from?
CB: That was one of those things that starts out as one joke in one script and just turns into a smorgasbord of comedy. It's obviously filthy lucre, because we love Canada, we don't like do disparage anybody, but it's... I don't know, it just keeps being funny. We try to stop, and we just can't stay away from it.
JK: It's strange... on the CBS website, they called the episode "Robin Sparkles" when it reran even though it was called "Slap Bet" the first time around.
CB: That (laughs) actually... we had this whole divisive debate about it, because we initially called the episode "Robin Sparkles." Then, we put up the "Robin Sparkles" MySpace page before hand. It was probably me; I irrationally got freaked out that people were going to Google search "Robin Sparkles" and find this MySpace page and that'll blow the joke of the episode. There was a big debate whether you blow that final joke or not, because it was the final piece of the episode. Now that it's rerunning, we just figured let's call it by the name we've always called it. Plus it was one of our more written-about episodes, so...
JK: When I posted something about the episode before it reran, I called it "Slap Bet," and one of our readers said, "But the website says the episode airing tonight is 'Robin Sparkles,'" and I had to write back that it's the same episode. (Carter laughs) I find it interesting that people think of the slap plot and the Robin Sparkles plot as part of separate episodes. Have people come to you and said something like that?
CB: No, but I get a warm feeling inside remembering those are the same episode. The slap bet was something where we looked for a number of different places to put it, because it was this idea, like the Bob Barker thing, was just floating around and we didn't know what to do with it. And with "Robin Sparkles," when we were trying to come up with what the B story of that episode was, it just fit in so beautifully.
JK: Did the guys who were doing it, Neil and Jason (Segel, who plays Marshall), did they come up with some of those moves, like Marshall rearing back before slapping Barney?
CB: Oh, yeah. They love that. What I love about our cast is that they are so hungry for opportunities like that, to just dig in. Like Neil pantomiming killing himself in the season premiere, it's one of those examples where we wrote it as "Barney pantomimes killing himself," and Neil just went crazy with the samurai, the hara-kiri, the blood spurting out... it was fantastic.
And actually, the slapping thing, part of what made us confident in it was during the season finale last year, there was a scene where Ted is doing a rain dance, and Barney slaps him. And we wrote in the script, "Barney slaps Ted. Ted slaps Barney. A small slap fight ensues." And they had so much fun with it; we didn't really say who slaps who beyond that, but it just turned into a really funny moment.
JK: And the interesting thing about that is, it's just people slapping each other. It's not this high conceptual comedy. But every time I see it, I'm still laughing my ass off.
CB: It makes you realize that as high-minded as you get, as much as you want to do comedy that's new and fresh and original, you can't improve upon The Three Stooges.
JK: Did you guys find yourselves comparing subsequent episodes you were writing to "Robin Sparkles" and "Swarley," which came right in a row, or did you put your heads down and keep going?
CB: We did put our heads down and keep going in some sense. When you're in the midst of writing a season, it's hard to come for air and look around and say "that worked, that didn't work." I think you go into a season with certain mileposts that you know you're coming up towards and you're excited about. Like "Robin Sparkles," for instance, was an idea that (executive producer) Greg Malins had in June of the previous year. And we just sort of knew at some point during the season we were going to do this and it was going to be great.
JK: Did you come up with the idea to put up that MySpace page as you were writing the episode?
CB: It happened very early on. Definitely from the beginning of the season, we were looking for ways to be creative with the internet publicity of the show. All of that kind of fell together really nicely.
JK: But putting the page out there before the episode aired, was that something you did to see if people ran into it and would wonder what it is?
CB: Yeah, that was the idea.
JK: Did you hear any feedback on it before the episode aired? Did people say that "Robin Sparkles" looked a lot like Cobie (Smulders, who plays Robin)?
CB: The message boards definitely puzzled over it, which was great. People thought it was actually (part of) Cobie's dark past, which was funny.
JK: There wasn't any link back to the general MySpace page you guys have, right?
CB: There wasn't. Now there is, obviously.
JK: Did that spur you to do more of those "what you didn't see" kind of videos that you have on MySpace now?
CB: It definitely was. And it definitely got the network and studio behind us on that kind of promotion, when they saw how popular "Robin Sparkles: was. We could point to that as an example as "See, this works." As a result, season three, we're going to go nuts with it and be super-creative with the stuff.
JK: Do you read reviews of the episodes around the web?
CB: Yeah... I inevitably check around everywhere I can.
JK: Were you getting frustrated that everyone was comparing the later episodes -- because I was falling into this trap myself -- to ones like "Swarley" and "Robin Sparkles" instead of their own merits?
CB: Once upon a time those comments were "This isn't as good as Friends," so at least we're getting compared to ourselves.
BEGIN SPOILER ALERT
JK: I made the mistake of watching the screener for the last two episodes before I watched the third-to-last one, so I knew about the tomato sauce and the hat on Marshall. I've noticed that you guys like to take little details in one episode and revisit and expand on them in later episodes. Do you map that out in advance?
CB: Sometimes we're actually dastardly enough to plan things out and to have a master plan. And that was one of those situations where we said we want to create a little mystery and pay it off later. And there is actually something in the finale that... and this is another one of those things (laughs)... the blue French horn was on the wall. And we had to reshoot large sections of that "Showdown" episode to take the blue French horn off the wall, because we thought of that element of the finale much later on in the process.
You can get so bored in the same old format, it's fun to create challenges for yourself.
END SPOILER ALERT
JK: How did you come up with that format: the flashbacks and taping it first then showing it to an audience later?
CB: That came completely out of necessity. We had every intention of doing an audience show, and the fact was if we did a traditional tape night for our show, it would last fourteen hours and we'd still not get everything shot, because we shoot so many different scenes and so many different setups. And also its the physical space of the stage; we use every square inch we can of sets, because we're popping around all over the place, every episode would have eight to ten sets, and there wouldn't be any room for risers for an audience.
JK: You guys always had the intention to doing a multi-camera show?
CB: We actually didn't give too much thought to the whole single vs multi-camera debate. It seems that people pick sides and wave their flags one way or another. For some reason it felt like we wanted to have a laugh track on the show. Having worked on single camera shows, I know it can... you can fall victim to the thing of because there's not a laugh after every joke, not every joke has to be funny. And we wanted to try to set the bar for ourselves and make it funny from start to finish.
I think we like being the ones carrying the torch and being the last funny sitcom on the air... maybe I shouldn't say it. (laughs)