Carter Bays of How I Met Your Mother: The TV Squad Interview
by Joel Keller, posted Sep 10th 2008 3:40PM
Yes, I know: I just spoke to Carter Bays a couple of months ago, right before How I Met Your Mother's season finale. But there was so much news coming out about the show over the summer -- The Bro Code, a wedding, self-contained episodes, Regis -- that I felt I had to speak to him again before the fourth season started on Sept. 22.
(Well, I actually wanted to talk to both Carter and his show-running partner Craig Thomas, but, as usual, the mystery man was elsewhere. I've met him more than once, though, so I know he does exist.)
Anyway, I could have spoken to Bays at the CBS press tour party in July, but I wanted to get a bit more in depth, so we arranged a phone interview; that took place a couple of weeks ago, right after the third episode of the fourth season wrapped. He was a bit more evasive about those topics than he's been in the past, but he still provided me some good information about the upcoming season, the "haunting" singing voices of his male stars, and what it's like to see his show being played on an airplane. Interview is after the jump.
Joel Keller: What episode are you guys working on?
Carter Bays: We're just about to start shooting episode three of the season.
JK: How many have you guys got written at this point?
Bays: Oh, we're about ten or eleven in. Well, various stages are written. Some are just stories that we broke in the summer scripts.
JK: Have things gone the way you were thinking about them before you went back to work earlier this summer?
Bays: Yeah pretty much. We sort of knew the story we wanted to tell. We kind of had to adjust the timeline of it dependent on Sarah Chalke's schedule. That was a big factor in how we tell the stories this season but we got it all worked out so it's pretty much going according to plan.
JK: What's her availability?
Bays: We've got her for four episodes and she's kind of locked up right now I think through October. We've got her for four episodes for now and then beyond that we'll hopefully be able to do more.
JK: There is a plan to use her more than those four episodes or you haven't gotten to that point yet?
Bays: Well we haven't quite gotten to that point yet but I think that the; yeah I think; we love having Sarah around so we're always trying to make it work.
JK: What can you say to the fans of the show to kind of get them excited about what's going to be coming this year? Because I've been hearing that the stories are going to be more self contained this year than they've been, and there's going to be a wedding where Ted's going to be involved. You're just giving enough details to whet everybody's appetites.
Bays: I know it's hard to... because there are some big... we've got some secrets coming up. They're some big events, and it's hard to know how much of it to reveal because we want it to be a surprise. We said we want to do more stand alone episodes and not make it so serialized this year and I think we've kept that promise although as we started writing, story lines unfold and it's kind of hard not to pick up; if something big happens one week it's hard to not pick up from that the next week and go on with the story.
JK: What was the motivation behind going to less serialized episodes?
Bays: Entirely just our own -- I feel like I've read somewhere that people interpreted that that as like we're getting pressure from the network or studio and they haven't said anything like that. I think it's just really as we've (always) been. I think last year, especially as we've had this whole kind of saga of Ted, Robin and Barney unfolding, we kept coming up with ideas for episodes that sort of would exist outside the realm of continuity in the show and they were really funny ideas that we wished that we could (do).
We sort of looked forward to being out of a serialized story where Ted and Barney aren't friends anymore and we sort of have to address that and get them from point A to point B and we sort of; we've been looking forward to having a little brief period on the show where we can take a breather and actually do the fun little stand alone episodes that we've been wanting to do for a while.
JK: In other words -- not to bring up the X-Files analogy again -- but it did seem like they had the "monster of the week" episode and then they had anthology episode. Is that how you guys are going to work that?
Bays: (half-jokingly) Some of our episodes are monsters of the week definitely.
It's not like there's two different molds and we cast each one accordingly. Sometimes I think we're just trying to every now and then, if we have a good idea for a story, tell it as though someone who's never seen the show could enjoy it.
Actually I think a big influence on this has been watching our show on airplanes and realizing that some of our best shows have been the ones where you can come into it not knowing anything about the characters and enjoy them. That being said I think the episodes that hit the sweet spot of that are episodes like our wedding episode in season two, which I actually just saw on an airplane. And if I hadn't known everything that Marshall and Lily had been through to get to that point, it still would have been just a funny episode because you go to a wedding and things go wrong and people can relate to it. So I feel like that's the sweet spot we're aiming for. You don't have to know all the intricacies of who's keeping the secret from who and all of that stuff to enjoy the episode.
JK: How freaky is that to get on a plane and see them showing an episode of How I Met Your Mother?
Bays: No it's crazy. Hearing people laugh actually makes air travel tolerable.
JK: Are you actually listening in or do you have something else going on and you hear them laughing them in silence?
Bays: I'll usually be reading something but I'll notice when it comes on and I'll listen to the laughs. I'll know where the laughs are in the episode and sort of listen like "Oh, here comes something good," and sure enough people around me will laugh.
JK: So this isn't a response to how deep people got with the story line and the clues about the mother last year?
Bays: Oh we still love all that. I certainly don't want people to think this is like a weather change of the show and that we're going a totally new direction with it. It's just kind of where our heads are at but we still love all that stuff. I mean, that ongoing mystery is still kind of the backbone of the show and we're definitely, we're definitely going to be teasing it along, especially this season. I mean my gosh, just from where the season finale left off that's right front and center of what's going on at the beginning of the season.
JK: We left off last year with Ted asking Stella to marry him and then we have Barney in the hospital, looking with the loving eyes at Robin. Where do we pick up in the season premiere?
Bays: I guess all I should say about it is the first scene takes place immediately after where we left off and then we move ahead a few months and Barney is out of the hospital because Neil (Patrick Harris) is too good a physical comedian to keep in a body cast.
JK: What was the reaction of fans to that particular scene? Was that something that you knew there would be surprise with it or did you get a reaction that you kind of...
Bays: I think we got exactly the reaction that we wanted. I mean the idea is; like every big event that happens on the show, in our writer's room we have epic arguments about whether we should do something or not and then if we end up doing it our friends have epic arguments over whether we made the right choice. Life is provocative and your friends make mistakes; I'm thinking about Barney and Robin sleeping together is what I'm referring to.
That was controversial and I think what initially made us decide to do it is that on a TV show, like in life, a decision like that is controversial and it does change things. It does rearrange the dynamic of a group and like all the opinions expressed by the characters about whether it was a mistake or whether it's great were opinions that we've had or opinions that in turn our friends who watch the show have had. We try not to shy away from stuff that at the very least will get people talking.
JK: How do you reconcile what everybody likes about Barney's character with the fact that he's now got this emotional attachment to Robin?
Bays: The first episode we sort of; our goal with the first episode was to address that issue head on and I think we sort of came up with an angle on it that we're really excited about and that I think will set a good tone for season four that won't disappoint anyone.
JK: Can you say whether or not this story is going to continue throughout season four or would that be giving too much away?
Bays: I guess what I will say is that the thing we try not to do is be... I feel like I've watched sitcoms and been on sitcoms where like one week one character is in love with another character and they're in love with them for exactly 22 minutes and then at the end of it they have a touching friendship speech and decide "Yeah we're better as friends," and then the next week it's forgotten about. We try not to do that on the show. Everything that happens affects everything from here forward. The question is how much it affects it and how it affects it, and I think we've found a way that this won't... Barney's not going to change. I think fundamentally people don't change that easily. I think it would be dishonest to say that Barney turns into Ted over the course of 22 minutes.
JK: Speaking of Neil, did you get a chance to watch Dr. Horrible?
Bays: Oh yeah! Yeah.
JK: When did he shoot that? Did he shoot that after the show wrapped for the season or was it during the season?
I think it was during the strike he shot it. I could be wrong about that but I'm pretty sure. I think the strike was winding down and they banged it out.
JK: When you saw it did you see something like hey maybe we can utilize something he's doing here during the season like just even like the thing or some of what you thought or was it...
Bays: Planning crimes?
JK: World destruction and things like that. But was there something that surprised you from his performance there?
Bays: Not entirely, because I knew what a talented song and dance man he is. It was more just delightfully fun to watch. I mean chiefly as a friend of Neil's I was excited for him doing something so different and crazy. And as a fan of Joss Whedon, it was just delightful to see another musical from him. Purely as a fan I devoured it.
JK: With the other story line... when you look back on how it transpired with Stella and Ted do you kind of wish that got developed a little bit more or was it sort of the best you guys could have done under the circumstances?
Bays: There were moments. If I could pinpoint something that like I wish we could go back and do it differently but we didn't have the option because we only had her when we had her -- it's hard when you have your character fall in love with a character played by an actress who is already a lead on a sitcom. I really wanted to do the episode where you see Ted and Stella actually start dating because we kind of glancingly referenced it but we didn't show that moment and I kind of wish we had showed it. But that was just a function that we had her for so many episodes and we knew where we wanted to head with the relationship.
JK: When you were breaking down the season pre-strike was the intention always to have Ted ask Stella to marry him at the end of the season finale?
Bays: Yeah. That was kind of where we were headed. That was always kind of the plan.
JK: How tough is that when you're running a show to kind of go with these changes that are fairly quick and sudden? How tough have you found that to work in that kind of environment?
Bays: It definitely keeps you on your toes. I mean we've got four episodes with Sarah and we're trying to figure out the most economical way to tell the story we want to tell with her. For now we only have four. Hopefully there will be more than that down the road. But it definitely keeps you on your toes.
In some ways it kind of helps the show, I think because sometimes the spontaneously-written episodes are the ones that come out the best. The nine that we wrote in a row last year after the strike I think were nine of our best and I think it was a function of just not knowing; of the ingredients we had to work with coming up very quickly and we didn't know what we were going to have from one week to the next.
JK: When we talked to show-runners when at the press tour, the ones that came back (after the strike) they had mentioned that during the strike they had gone back and read or listened to fan feedback, something they didn't really have an opportunity to do during the season and it, changed their mind on some of what they wrote either after the strike, or maybe story lines they were planning for the next season. Did that happen with you guys?
Bays: There was a period where I was checking the websites or whatever. I've sort of stopped doing that lately. During the strike there was a period of like sort of reflection and thinking about what we wanted to do differently on the show for the second half of the season and so I think we did correct our course based on that. I like being able to interact with the fans through the stuff we do on the internet but at a certain point you've got to sort of not pay too much attention to the news groups if you want to like stay focused on telling the story that you need to tell.
I love that our show is a show that people discuss. That's something that I'm so grateful to all the people that make our show a part of their lives week in and week out, but I think for us to keep the experiment; we need to keep the laboratory clean sort of, if that metaphor works. There's too many voices that try to get into the process that you got to like stay focused on the story you got to tell.
JK: As far as online stuff can you give me any indication for what you guys have planned for this season so far like any kind of neat websites or MySpace stuff or anything new?
Bays: We've got a few; actually we're having a meeting about that later today and we're going to sort of hash out what we're going to be doing. We have a few ideas that are along the lines of what we've done the past couple of years. We're always; we're trying not to repeat ourselves. We're trying to constantly come up with new interesting stupid stuff that people can; new and interesting ways for people to waste their time if they're fans of the show.
JK: Is there something you've wanted to do as a companion piece of the show but you just haven't been able to do it because either the technology wasn't there or you just couldn't figure out how to do it in a timely manner?
JK: Yeah there's been a lot of ideas like that. Everyone's still kind of figuring out what the value of all this internet stuff is and I think there are certain things that would take a lot of work. We're still hashing it out. We're still trying to figure out what the best use of our resource is.
JK: What's an example of that if you care to give one?
Bays: I probably shouldn't say because we have a list of things that we are planning to do and it's just a matter of when we get around to doing them.
JK: What was the idea behind The Bro Code book?
Bays: It was just an idea that I think like three people had at the same time. We'd mention the Bro Code and it would be an easy book to write. Matt Coon, who writes Barney's blog has already generated volumes of material for that and we basically gave him like three weeks to write an entire book and he did it. It's really funny. I can't wait for people to read it.
JK: The wedding you guys mentioned, the wedding episode is going to involve Ted and Stella in some way shape and form?
JK: In what way shape or form might that be? Is that something you want to mention or is that something...
Bays: I think we'll leave that to be seen by everyone.
JK: So it's not necessarily that Ted's the groom and Stella's the bride?
Bays: No we haven't talked about that yet.
JK: So there's going to be a wedding and those two are involved and that's the extent.
JK: Which episode is that going to be around? Is that early on?
Bays: I don't think we have that quite solidified yet.
JK: Any guest stars coming back that fans might be familiar with from earlier seasons? Any new guest stars coming?
Bays: I'm trying to think. Oh you know who's going to be back? Stuart and Claudia. They're going to be back from season one and Stuart was at (Marshall's) bachelor party. He's going to make another appearance. We're always trying to bring back; we've got Joe Manganiello as Brad. We love him and we'd love to have him back. I'm sure we'll try and get Barney's brother James (played by Wayne Brady) back on the show.
JK: I've talked to you about the Britney situation in the past. What do you think of that whole thing? Is it something that you would try again? Would you want to bring her back if the situation merited?
Bays: I think it was only a good thing that we did it. Our numbers shot up when we had her on and new people that had never seen the show started watching it. It was only good for the show having her on and the whole idea that something like stunt casting can hurt the show like it's... I mean the next week we started writing the same show that we were writing the week before. It was just a fun event and it felt like a really good way to get people who'd never seen the show to watch it; which is always our goal.
JK: Is there a potential that she might come back this year?
Bays: It hasn't been talked about but we never rule anyone out.
JK: Is there anything else you want to mention about the season coming up, anything the fans want to know about that you haven't mentioned before?
Bays: Well the second episode has Regis. That has been reported and I think that's going to be a very funny episode. So far there's not anything that needs to be said other than these are; so far we are three for three of the scripts that we've got and I hope we keep going with it because we're having a good season.
JK: Is this Regis thing going to be similar to how Bob Barker was worked in two years ago?
Bays: (joking) Yeah, Barney thinks that Regis is his dad now. That's what we're going to star to do. Every couple of weeks Barney will have a new theory; a new TV host.
He's playing himself, who is playing a character who is a little unlike the Regis we all know. I'll put it that way. (Ed. Note: Of course, now we know that Regis will be participating in a search for the "Best Burger in New York." Not sure why that was such a big mystery...)