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From their obsessive rituals (Peppermint Patties! Oatmeal! Bruce Springsteen!) to the parts of their jobs they hate most (killing characters off, dealing with agents), TV’s most influential writer-producers featured on The Hollywood Reporter‘s annual list of the Top 50 Showrunners come clean about the people, things and quirky habits that keep them — and their shows — alive.
The show that inspired me to write:
Bays: I think it might be either The Fresh Prince of Bel Air or The State. Both were written by guys who had gone to my high school — Andy Borowitz and David Wain, respectively — and they made it seem realistic that a kid from a suburb of Cleveland could end up making a TV show.
Thomas: Cheers and the old Late Night With David Letterman on NBC. But I think the fact that my father was an advertising writer (Tom Thomas, responsible for Foster’s “Australian for Beer” campaign, among many others) was equally huge for me. Seeing him get paid to make stuff up, I thought, “Wait, that’s not a real job — this bastard’s getting away with murder! I wanna do that, too!”
My first big break:
Bays and Thomas: Writing for The Late Show With David Letterman.
My TV mentor:
Bays: There’ve been a few, but at the top of the list I think is [HIMYM director] Pam Fryman. She’s kind of the definition of role model, in every way imaginable.
Thomas: A wonderful TV writer named Rob Greenberg was paired up with 29-year-old me and Carter as we made the How I Met Your Mother pilot. We were initially concerned that this guy we’d never met might come in and try to take over. Instead, Rob was the strongest voice of, “Make the pilot you want to make, stick to your vision no matter what.” He gave us courage when things felt tough.
My proudest accomplishment this year:
Bays: When my wife was pregnant with our daughter, I went with her to every single one of her OB/GYN appointments.
Thomas: I also went to every single one of Carter’s wife’s OB/GYN appointments.
My toughest scene to write this past year:
Bays: The first scene of a pilot is a bottomless pit into which you have to throw draft after draft until you get it right. And that was definitely the case with [Fox midseason comedy] The Goodwin Games.
Thomas: The opening of a HIMYM episode where Marshall [Jason Segel] is telling the whole story to his father’s tombstone. Not to suggest that a snowy graveyard in Minnesota doesn’t immediately scream “hilarity,” but I remember feeling like, “Wow, if the opening scene doesn’t set the tone that it’s OK to laugh, we are screwed!”
The most absurd note I’ve ever gotten:
Bays: We once got a note on an episode of How I Met Your Mother the day after it aired.
Thomas: We once got a note on a comedy screenplay from a features agent who said we shouldn’t set a particular part of the story in Mexico, but instead Cuba, because “Cuba is hot right now.” (He was referring to the 2000 immigration/custody controversy around 7-year-old Cuban boy, Elian Gonzalez.)
The aspect of my job as showrunner that I’d rather delegate is:
Bays: Consuming 4,000 calories of craft service every day. I’d love for someone else to do that.
Thomas: Lying awake at 3 a.m. thinking, “Did we word that penis joke properly? Should we have ended on the word ‘dong?'”
My preferred method for breaking through writer’s block:
Bays: Work on something else. Luckily, when you run a show, at any given moment you have eight scripts to worry about. So if one of them has you stumped, there’s always seven others that could use your attention.
Thomas: Sadly, lying awake at 3 a.m. until something sparks. And then you still can’t get to sleep, because now you’re all jazzed up about this great idea. Which will turn out the next day to be total crap.
If I could add any one writer to our staff, it would be:
Bays: Tina Fey.
Thomas: Nora Ephron.
The show I’m embarrassed to admit I watch:
Bays: My wife and I got way into Miss Advised on Bravo. I say this sincerely: if you strung all the episodes together, converted them to black and white, changed the soundtrack to some experimental chamber music, and showed the finished product in a movie theater, it would be hailed as a bleak, existential masterpiece, mapping the unrelenting self-sabotage of the human heart, and it would win the Palm D’Or.
Thomas: I’m not embarrassed to admit I watch Deadliest Catch religiously, but I’m embarrassed by a mental comparison I make while watching. Seeing the pressure the crab captains are under — deadlines, managing a staff of big personalities, steering a ship worth millions — reminds me of being a showrunner. Now, if those crab captains heard that a comedy writer sitting at his cushy computer in L.A. was equating his “high pressure” job with theirs, they would chop me up and use me as chum.
The three things I need in order to write:
Bays: Coffee, a computer, and most importantly no Internet connection.
Thomas: A desk, a door that locks and a deadline.
If I could scrub one credit from your résumé, it would be:
Bays: To borrow the line from Alan Ball, I can’t feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little career. But Quintuplets was pretty rough.
Thomas: We freelanced one episode of the short-lived Method and Red on Fox. I mean, no we didn’t.
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