In this week’s issue, New York Magazine surveyed fourteen of the top TV showrunners about their process and craft. All during upfront week, we’ll be running longer transcripts of these conversations: Some will include extended answers to our questionnaire, some will break free altogether, but all will provide a revealing and insightful look into the minds of the people who make our appointment television. Two of those people are Carter Bays and Craig Thomas, the creator of CBS’s How I Met Your Mother. We spoke with Bays about last night’s finale, and then spoke with both Thomas and Bays about the show more generally, their long-term collaboration, and one highly unsanitary prank war.
So for months, many fans and online outlets have been focused on the question of whose wedding we’ll see in the finale. And then, boom! You and Craig pulled a fast one with the revelation that Lily’s preggers, even as you also told us that Barney would eventually be getting hitched. Which was the bigger bombshell in the scheme of things?
Carter Bays: The pregnancy is definitely the big one for us in terms of where the story’s going. Finding out Barney’s the groom is big. But in terms of next season, [the pregnancy] is the game changer. And it feels personal for me, since my wife is eight months pregnant.
Did you always plan on having the pregnancy reveal at the end of the season?
Bays: This was definitely always in the cards since we plotted out this season. We weighed all the pros and cons of adding a baby. And then we wanted to tell a story that involved Marshall going through hell [before]. We wanted a happy ending. We structured it so there’d be this built-in silver lining after losing his dad. In the end, the story was about generations, of life moving on.
Was this script shot with extra security, due to the double twist?
Bays: We didn’t trust anyone! Everyone had their assigned scripts. We did all that stuff CB: Lost did. I don’t think we had watermarking. But it was a really sweet, touching moment when we did the table read. Jason had read the script before, and he brought Alyson flowers.
When do you expect Lily to give birth?
Bays: We’ll pretty much pick up where the [finale] left off. We set the finale in September so we can pick up Season 7 exactly where we left off and so we can watch every moment of [Marshall and Lily’s] journey. I don’t think this is giving much away, but, most pregnancies are nine months. So we’ll probably show the birth right around May.
So let’s talk about the Barney reveal. A lot of folks had predicted this might happen. How did you and the writers get to the point of agreeing that Future Barney would be the marrying kind?
Bays: There was definitely a debate. And it boiled down to the fact that we’re coming to the end of the series. We’re in the twilight of the show. Barney and Robin broke up for a reason: We wanted to explore what his problem was [with commitment]. We found out through [the dad story line] that it was abandonment issues. And his sense of not deserving love. That’s what this season was about. So in the finale we were able to set up that the step he couldn’t take with Nora before, he maybe he will take eventually.
From the start of the season, you planned for Barney to be the groom at the wedding?
Bays: We always knew. We tried to plant as many red herrings as we could, like with Punchy.
The wedding flash-forward took place “a little bit down the road.” How long is that?
Bays: Saying when this happens would give too much away. But in the first episode of next season we will go back to the wedding.
I’m assuming Nora’s still in the picture next season.
Bays: She’s not booked yet, but we hope to have her back. We want to see what it is about Nora that revs Barney’s engine.
And yet we also saw a potential rekindling of the Barney-Robin romance.
Bays: We kind of pretty clearly hinted at their flirtation with getting back together. We’re not done with that. We can’t say if they’re gonna end up together. There are some unexpected twists ahead. But they’re so good together. I know there’s going to be debate as to whether they should or should not be together. But it excited us to see what might be involved.
Sounds like there’s a Barney-Nora-Robin love triangle ahead.
Bays: There will be many geometric shapes of love in the next season. It’s musical chairs and we have three single characters who, ultimately, are very much looking for love. And there are a lot of positive ions around, running into each other. It will be interesting to see who ends up with whom.
What about Ted and Robin? Could that be revisited?
Bays: That’s another Pandora’s box of potential bad and good things. On a series-wide scale, this story started with him and Robin. She’s an important part of his life. We’re going to find out why she’s important to his life.
We should talk about Zoey. The online hate for her character seemed to grow every week, and the reaction to the season’s penultimate episode was downright harsh.
Bays: We knew this [story line] would be divisive. It was kind of a downer. You hope that everyone will love all of them. But we look at this episode as 24 pieces of a whole. This week, leading into the finale, we’re happy with how the show is ending.
Did you do enough to show the core characters reacting to Zoey’s bitchiness? Other than a line from Barney, there wasn’t much.
Bays: I guess maybe we let her off the hook a little bit. We’ve seen a lot of girlfriends for Ted turn out to not be the mom for a lot of reasons. The reason she’s not the mother is because she’s not a very nice person. That happens. We’ve had Ted’s love affairs fall apart for noble reasons. We just wanted to do one where he picked the wrong girl. She was toxic. She was poisonous. But we also tried to make it more complex than that. We didn’t want to just make her a villain. She was written as a somewhat selfish person who’s lovable in her own way.
You’ve started breaking stories for next season already. Any early themes yet?
Bays: It will turn a little more inward. This season relied on bringing [Zoey] into our world. The new season will be about resolving issues between our characters.
Okay, so now, we’re going to get a little more big-picture. What’s the most valuable thing you’ve learned, and from who?
Bays: Craig and I were hired three months out of college to write for The Late Show With David Letterman, which turned out to be a four-and-a-half-year graduate degree in comedy writing. When one of David Letterman’s writers pitches a joke he doesn’t like, he has this great way of saying no: He says “No.” It’s kind of awesome. There’s no hard feelings behind it — there’s just a subjectivity you have to embrace when it’s your job to shape the tone of the show. Learning to say “no” politely but decisively is a crucial part of that.
Craig Thomas: Delegate. Don’t do every little thing yourself. Carter and I learned that valuable lesson from these total dumbasses named “First Season Us.”
Do you have a showrunner philosophy?
Thomas: Care deeply about your characters, so deeply that you almost delude yourself into thinking that they’re real human beings and quite possibly your best friends in the world. If you don’t care about the characters that much, how can you expect an audience to? You can be the funniest show of all time, but it’s hard to last years on TV without your audience really caring about these people.
Bays: Yes. It’s “Don’t be an asshole.” In fact, that’s maybe setting the bar too low. When I think of how our director, Pam Fryman, runs her set, I would amend “Don’t be an asshole” to be “Don’t be anything less than delightful.” If you can’t live up to that even in the face of all the stress this job throws at you, you need to quit and let someone else do it.
What show do you wish you had created?
Thomas: Deadliest Catch. If only for the foresight to know that you could take the repetitive, monotonous act of catching 80,000 identical crabs and somehow turn it into riveting TV.
Bays: Saturday Night Live or Sesame Street. Either way, steady employment for decades, huge cultural impact, and you get to live in New York!
What’s your best show pitch that didn’t make it on the air?
Thomas: We wanted to do an episode of HIMYM where it comes out that Lily doesn’t actually believe in things like UFOs and the Loch Ness monster. And we write Marshall as an unquestioning believer in all things mysterious and awesome, like the Loch Ness monster, UFOs, Bigfoot. So Marshall is horrified. It’s like discovering your wife who you thought was Catholic is actually an atheist. It was a way to do a debate about religious faith but in a completely stupid way. My point was going to be this was a dumb idea, but now I’m actually starting to get excited about it again.
Bays: It’s not a show, but a comedy bit we pitched when we were at Letterman: “Don Rickles Insults Animals at the Zoo.” And it’s exactly what it sounds like. It kills me that it never got produced. Maybe the people at Letterman will read the inevitable outpouring of support in your comments section and reconsider.
Is there a dream show you’d like to get on the air?
Bays: There’s one idea that I will never have the time or inclination for the research required to pull it off, so I freely offer it up to the world: a pay-cable mini-series adaptation of Please Kill Me, the oral history of punk rock in the seventies. I would love for someone who loves punk rock as much as Tom Hanks loves astronauts to step up and take a swing at that one.
What’s your worst experience on a staff of writers?
Thomas: In Season 1 our writers room got into a prank war with the writers of the show The Loop. The theme of the war was “hogging things down.” If you don’t know what that is, I envy you, but basically, it’s putting your balls on stuff. I’m not proud. Each room would send photos of themselves hogging down various items belonging to the other room. The oddest one? Our agent came to visit us and gave Carter and I a hug. We later got a photo from The Loop writers showing us that our agent’s sweater had been hogged down.
What show made you want to work in TV?
Thomas: Cheers. Talk about caring about a show’s characters. And also a show that had some intriguing darkness built into its DNA: an ex-alcoholic, washed-up relief pitcher, who owns, of all things, a bar, surrounded by a bunch of people who sit around and drink all day. And yet we love and understand and accept them all completely.
Bays: Late Night With Conan O’Brien. I started watching in ‘96 and ‘97, when the show was still this amazing secret that no one seemed to know about. Craig and I were seniors in college, and neither of us had any idea what we wanted to do with our lives. Then the Masturbating Bear came along and changed all that.
How much do you care about what fans think?
Bays: Very, very, very much. Although sometimes what we want them to think is: “What the hell was that?” As a fan of other shows, I always loved to be amused, but I also love to be baffled, and tricked, and angered, and jerked around. It’s pretty masochistic, but it keeps me coming back for more. I think we’ve occasionally perpetuated that cycle of psychological abuse with our own show.
Thomas: We care hugely about what fans think. Television is not a medium in which you should be playing with your back to the audience. A TV series is unique, because it’s a conversation between show and fans that lasts for years. We try to hit the sweet spot between accessibility to the more casual viewer and also rewarding hard-core fans with plenty of payoffs and callbacks. But ultimately, you write for the kind of viewer you, yourself, are. And personally, I always love it when a show calls back something from three seasons earlier, the secret handshake of that. Only TV series can do that.
Do fans ruin shows?
Bays: Yes, shows would be so much better if nobody liked them! No, of course fans don’t ruin shows, but maybe writers and executive who pander to fans do a little.
Thomas: I think being overly afraid of fan response can cause you to play things too safe. Because sometimes, deep down, an audience, myself included, likes to be surprised and frustrated and not given immediate answers and resolutions. In our pilot, Robin was never going to be “The Mother.” In our minds, that would be way too easy. That frustrated some critics and fans, but ultimately was the right choice creatively.
How do you think tweeting is changing TV?
Bays: I tweet. I don’t know if it’s changing TV, but I love it. It’s the closest thing we have to a live studio audience. Except live studio audiences are usually polite and laugh when you tell them to. Twitter is like if our show were taped at the Apollo. If a joke gets a laugh, 50 people will tweet it, and that’s a really rewarding feeling. But when 50 people say an episode is the worst one we’ve ever done, that’s a real kick in the balls.
Thomas: I don’t personally tweet, but our show does, and we check what folks tweet about our show. It’s a good way to get quick, honest fan responses, but you’ve got to take it all with a grain of salt. The truth is, I love television immensely and always have, and have tons of opinions about various shows, but I’ve never once felt the need to tweet or blog about it. Sometimes it’s good to remember that, no matter how dauntingly loud and opinionated the sound of new media can be, there are also millions of people just sitting at home, drinking a beer and enjoying a half-hour in the little universe we’ve created.
What are the best and worst ways to push the envelope?
Thomas: I think that shock value, just being dirty or inappropriate or saying certain “edgy” buzz words so you seem cool, is lazy writing. And on a personal note, as a special-needs parent, there’s no bigger bummer than when I turn on a show or listen to the radio and hear people casually throwing around the word “retarded” like that’s an okay thing to be saying. The worst is when a show I actually like does something like that and I go, “Crap, can I keep watching this show now?”
Bays: The comedy of meanness seems to be an easy and unfortunate envelope people keep trying to push. When we first started our show, a lot of the sweetness in the pilot came as a reaction against what felt like a particularly mean-spirited time in comedy, when you’d see all these racist jokes in things but it was okay because the people making them were being “ironic.” The use of the word “retarded” is also a huge bummer.
Thomas: “Pushing the envelope” happens when you surprise yourself in your own writing. When you pull something off you didn’t know your show was capable of, usually in the form of taking your characters to a new place that’s surprising but still seems honest and makes sense in their lives. TV is, to some extent, about comfort and familiarity — these characters will be there for you once a week at the same time — but if you don’t mix things up a bit, evolve a little along the way, things can get stale. But if you do it wrong, it’ll seem forced and fans will be pissed, so it’s a delicate dance.
Bays: The best way to push the envelope is to show as much gay stuff as possible. It’s so neat how much of a quantifiable impact TV has had on people’s attitudes in the last twenty years, from The Real World to Will and Grace to Modern Family. As an industry we should be really proud of that. And more would be nice. Let’s get a gay president into one of these sci-fi disaster dramas!
Are you a control freak or a collaborator?
Thomas: I’ve been with my wife for seventeen years and my writing partner for fifteen years, so if I were a bad collaborator, I probably wouldn’t be able to say those two facts. Running a show is about finding the balance between both. “Control freak” sounds really bad, it has the word “freak” right in there, but there are times when having a vision and protecting that vision is hugely important, especially in Season 1, laying the groundwork for your series. But even when you’re doing that, you can do that with kindness and respect.
Bays: I probably have moments where I don’t collaborate as well as I should. But on the other hand I’ve had the same writing partner for fifteen years and we’re still very much in love. So, you know … scoreboard.
Other Showrunner Transcripts:
Community’s Dan Harmon
30 Rock’s Robert Carlock
Breaking Bad’s Vince Gilligan
The Good Wife’s Robert and Michelle King
Justified’s Graham Yost
Cougar Town’s Bill Lawrence and Kevin Biegel
Grey’s Anatomy’s Shonda Rhimes
Parks and Recreation’s Michael Schur