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Carter Bays of How I Met Your Mother: The TV Squad Interview

by Joel Keller, posted May 15th 2008 10:04AM
Craig Thomas and Carter BaysIt's been a heck of a season for How I Met Your Mother, between the writers' strike that everyone had to suffer through, blogs and other websites picking apart episodes in Lost-esque fashion, and the Britney Phenomenon that got the attention of fans and non-fans alike. But the end result is a good one: the show has been picked up by CBS for a fourth season, giving fans one more year to enjoy the chemistry among the five leads while trying to guess who the heck the "Mother" actually is.

Despite the strike, co-creators Carter Bays and Craig Thomas have been able to get out 20 episodes for the third season. The finale will be broadcast on Monday, May 19 at 8:30. As he did before last year's finale, Bays and I got together by phone to discuss the season and the finale. Bays (who is on the right in the photo; Thomas, who is on the left, was on another call and couldn't make it) spoke about getting picked up, the finale, Sarah Chalke's role as Ted's new girlfriend Stella, how the show managed to pick up a mythology, and, of course, their very famous guest star. The interview is after the jump.

Joel Keller: I've been hearing that there's some good news.

Carter Bays: I think there's good news. I think we can say it.Yeah, we got our pick-up. We're on the schedule, so we hear.

JK: I remember when I talked to you about this time last year was – you were confident but there was a little bit of doubt. Was the feeling a little bit different this year or...?

Bays: Call me crazy, but I never really doubted it. I just felt like the show has a lot of creative life left in it and I don't know. It's too good of an environment just up and disappear.

JK: What do you think did it for you guys this year? It seems like the show is getting somewhat more attention than it did last year. What have you guys been noticing?

Bays: What little time I get to spend outside of the walls of the studio, not working on the show, I have noticed that people seem to be watching the show more. I used to have to explain what it was when I'd say, "Oh, I work for this show, How I Met Your Mother. It's this show on CBS. It's really funny." But now people seem to know it.

JK: Any indication of what you think that's from?

Bays: You know, I feel like the cynical answer would be Britney. But I do think that even before that, even like as we were – during the strike especially, when I actually managed to get into the world, it felt like a – I don't know, just a good word of mouth, I think. I think enough people not only like the show but proselytize for it that it's sort of grown in viewership.

JK: You brought up the "B" word so, I might as well mention it. (Carter laughs) Did you guys look at this and say, "Look, if we get her on here, this is going to help our ratings out?" Or did you not even expect that to happen to you?

Bays: Obviously, we knew that she's the most written about person on the internet. More people are going to tune in. I don't think we would have done it if we didn't feel in our guts like this would be fun and interesting, and it'll just be yet another crazy experience that we get to live through on Stage 22.

Part of it may have come from a personal curiosity on the part of the writers and the actors. Just like, "Wow, this will be an interesting experience to have Britney Spears come in and play this little role."

But yeah, it definitely felt like something that... you know, obviously we want to bring as many eyeballs to the show as possible. And it definitely didn't hurt.

JK: Was this is a situation where you had her in for the one episode and then it just kind of grew from there?

Bays: Yeah. It sort of came out of the writers' room, this idea of a second episode for her. And we were kind of wary; we weren't sure if we wanted to do it this quickly or whatever but it just kind of felt like, "It's an idea, it's funny, let's try it." So, we gave it a shot.

JK: Where we left off this past Monday's episode, it looks like she might come back?

Bays: You know, we left the door open. It's funny how after doing three years of this now suddenly the door is open. We have kind of a large repertory of recurring characters. And it's hard to get through all of them but you know, I wouldn't rule anyone or anything out.

JK: We did get a lot of comments on the last episode that said that people are starting to think she was a bit of a distraction. And, of course, there was the thing that Neil Patrick Harris said a few weeks ago (about not needing guest stars). That wasn't about Britney specifically but he was talking about guest stars in general. How do you try to work in guest stars and try to address the distraction issue? The chemistry of that ensemble is what makes the show.

Bays: It is.. it definitely is and I think we wouldn't – the last thing we wanted to do is have it just suddenly be The Britney Show for 22 minutes. I think we all wanted to do it if the storyline somehow fit into the bigger story that we're telling, in this case about Ted and Barney.

I think as far as an answer to that, I feel their pain. I know as a fan of TV shows myself when you see something like that it can totally throw off the chemistry. I guess all I can say is we would never use someone on the show unless we thought it was funny. And it really is – the writer's room and the stage are kind of our laboratory and every week we'll have an idea. And sometimes it connects and sometimes it doesn't.

But I think – I guess what I'm saying is that there was never a moment where we as writers were like, "This isn't funny but we've got to get Britney on the show so let's do it." I mean, we've – I stand by that episode. I thought it was funny. I thought it was good.

JK:How do you balance that so it doesn't become like what Neil said, like Will & Grace? How do you make sure that it's not just about the guest stars?

Bays: Well, I think one thing that we do is we always write with an eye towards story and character first and casting second. I mean we definitely – like with Britney – the Will & Grace move would've been to say, "Okay, we've got to bring out the ratings. Let's get Britney. What kind of part can we write for Britney to get her on?" The example that is always in my mind is it goes to the classic... you know, Joe Namath's tour bus breaks down outside the Brady Bunch house. And he comes out teaches Bobby how to throw a football.

We would never do that. What was great about the Britney thing from the beginning is that it was a funny character that helped fill out the world of this new character Stella as she is related to Ted and it sort of all came out of something natural to the show.

JK: Speaking of the Stella character, it was supposed to be Alicia Silverstone instead of Sarah Chalke, right? You can say that publicly that she was who was originally cast?

Bays: Yeah.

JK: Was Silverstone supposed to be in all the episodes that kind of led to like the last one that Sarah was in (Note: I'm talking about the Chalke-less episodes where Stella was only mentioned)? Was that the way it was originally designed?

Bays: Yeah, I think it was initially going (to be that). I mean we always knew that Stella would be kind of a bigger arc for the season.

JK: Did you have to scramble when Alicia dropped out and Sarah obviously had commitments with Scrubs and she couldn't be in every episode?

Bays: Yeah. It was a scramble but Lord knows – I think we came out okay on that one. It's fantastic.

JK: Is she supposed to be back next year?

Bays: We're still figuring that out. We've got a another classic, comic, "Mother Blows Everyone's Mind" finale. So, we'll see where it goes from there.

JK: Is she going to be in the finale?

Bays: Yes, she is. I think I can say that (chuckles). Pretty sure, yeah, we should be advertising that. Yeah, she's in the finale.

JK: Anything else you tell me about the finale?

Bays: We're still editing it. And honestly in the edit room, you know, I feel like what I say about it now could change this time tomorrow. So a lot of us – we sort of wrap up some of the bigger storylines of the season.

JK: Well, Josh (Radnor) said was a big cliffhanger, right?

Bays: There is a medium-sized cliffhanger.

JK: A "medium-sized cliffhanger."

Bays: It's pretty big, it's pretty big.

JK: Any clues or hints or anything that you can think of that wouldn't completely spoil it?

Bays: No. I feel like it's kind of a nice surprise the way it works right now.

JK: Okay. Is it something – well, I mean, is it one of these totally "pull the rug out from under you" kind of things like the end of the goat episode, where you're just like, "What? What did they just say?"

Bays: Yeah. (reconsiders) No, no, no. It's not... It's a satisfying cliffhanger, if that makes any sense.

JK: Okay, because the end of that episode I think every fan was rewinding their TiVo's and trying to figure out what was going on.

Bays: Yeah. (chuckles)

JK: Do you guys like doing that? I think the second in a week in a row where you did that, because you had the "Sandcastles in the Sand" episode where you kind of took viewers on one ride and then all of a sudden shifted it over to another direction (Note: the episode ended with Robin and Barney making out).

Bays: Yeah. It's funny you say that, because it did feel like two weeks in a row we had these crazy left turns. It sort of felt like we're setting up all these mysteries and not answering any of them. We've sort of didn't want to make the Lost move, you know?

JK: Are you guys afraid of your show becoming like Lost? Before they announced they were ending their show, people are starting to wonder whether they had any kind of plan or any kind of idea of how the story was going to end. There was starting to be a bit of a backlash.

Are you guys kind of worried about that people are going to start telling you things like, "Reveal the mother already!"?

Bays: I think the thing about Lost is it's a drama and it's built on suspense and it does it – they do it impeccably. I think it's just a tremendously good show. I think we have the advantage of we're a comedy. So we could do five episodes in a row of just creating stuff that happened at the bar and it's still – I think people would still watch it just to be entertained on that level.

And the mystery is just a nice little – I don't get the sense that people are like chopping it to bits so like "Yeah, yeah, yeah, skip over all the jokes. Skip to the answer."

JK: Is the plan to reveal the mother at the end? Do you guys just know when you're going to reveal that and then go on from there?

Bays: We have like three plans and we're still trying to figure out which one we're going to pull the trigger on. But revealing the mother at the end has always kind of been the plan but I don't know. We'll see.

JK: So you're not sure. It could be the middle – the hundredth episode or something?

Bays: Yeah. I think we've been careful – we like to write ourselves into corners but we haven't written ourselves in too tightly that we can see how it feels. You know?

JK: How did the writers strike affect you guys this year?

Bays: Well, it was financially really tough and it was tough especially – you know, as people running a company of 300 people who were all out of work, that was a very difficult time for everyone.

Creatively, I think it helped us a little bit. It helped us sort of take a step back and look at the show and look at what works and what doesn't. And it sort of helped us. We kind of had the advantage of not being able to write which made us kind of think. And it's sometimes – sometimes you do better work when you're just working in your mind as opposed to slapping something down on paper to see if it works.

JK: Did it affect how some of the stories we're going to be told?

Bays: Yeah. I think it did. I think we ended up sort of speeding up certain things and slowing down other things.

JK: What's a good example of that?

Bays: I think initially the season was going to be a whole season of Ted going around and being Barney. And I think, looking at the first 11, I think we handled that arc very well, but it's helped to get him back on the right path a little sooner.

JK: What's next season going to look like without obviously spoiling what the cliffhangers going to be? What can you say without spoiling anything?

Bays: I feel like every season we sort of tackled some big arc for the season. Like two or three big arcs for the season. And we're sort of right now whittling down a few different ideas. But we haven't really landed on any specific thing yet.

JK: Is it weird that your show's got a growing mythology now and people are actually looking at frames and finding things to make connections? Like that blog post about the framed letter that's in both Old Ted's and Stella's homes.

Bays: Oh yeah. (chuckles)

JK: Is that a clue? Or is that just a prop that was just placed?

Bays: You know, I feel like I shouldn't respond one way or the other but it definitely – we were surprised to see it as well. It was a bit of a props snafu, I think. I'll just kinda say that. But it may have been a portentous one. Who knows?

JK: But do you understand – like people now are starting to pick the show apart like it's an X-Files episode or a Lost episode?

Bays: I know, I know. It's very daunting. Normally you don't have to put this much effort into the details of a sitcom but we love the challenge.

JK: So you guys are going to try to keep up with that next year? Keep having little clues here and there?

Bays: I think so, yeah. It definitely makes it – you know, we love the details. The details are our favorite thing about the show. And you know, any chance we get to do the crazy website that's a spin off or you know, the 20-minute song – we love (to do that).

JK: Like the garbage bag site. Did you guys write that one to?

Bays: Yeah, I wrote that over the weekend actually. That was very last minute.

JK: Who was the one saying French?

Bays: That's me. That's my 12th grade French teacher, who I still have to thank.

JK: And who were the people in the pictures?

Bays: That was one of our PA's and Kelly, one of our PA's and Jaime one of the guys who works here in the office.

JK: Ok, thanks. Tell Craig I said hello. Hopefully people will now refer to you two as Bays and Thomas instead of Carter and Bays.

Bays: I know, I know. It's high time.

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Great interview! Thank you. I'm so glad the people were reading too much into that letter or whatever in stella's house/apt. I really don't think she's the mother.

May 15 2008 at 4:12 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

You should have asked if they were ever going to finish the last 2 slaps..

May 15 2008 at 2:24 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

"That was one of our PA's and Kelly, one of our PA's and Jaime one of the guys who works here in the office."

What are you trying to tell us here? First of all I think "PA" means "Personal Assistant" and "apostrophe s" is an indicator of possession. Right? So the PA's what? The PA's Kelly? And the other PA's Jaime? And one of the guys who works here in the office.

I really don't get that sentence at all...

May 15 2008 at 11:10 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Bash's comment
Joel Keller

I guess he wasn't as clear on it as I thought... He's talking about Kelly, who's one of their production assistants (hence PA) and Jamie, who works in their offices.

May 15 2008 at 11:14 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Carter Bays has 2 last names, while Craig Thomas has 2 first names.

May 15 2008 at 10:32 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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