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Though it’s never explicitly stated onscreen, it turns out that How I Met Your Mother was inspired by the Sept. 11 attacks.
Carter Bays and Craig Thomas discussed the show’s roots during a New York Television Festival keynote discussion on Monday. The two New Yorkers had been working as staff writers on the Late Show With David Letterman, but wanted to write material with characters and storylines outside of the series’ signature Top 10 List format.
“It really was a ‘do it now or never do it’ moment. Life is short — this is something we want to do eventually, we should do it,” recalled Bays of choosing to move to Los Angeles to pitch the CBS sitcom, which came to star Neil Patrick Harris, Jason Segel, Cobie Smulders, Josh Radnor and Alyson Hannigan and run for nine seasons from 2005 through 2014.
The tragedy also informed the tone of the pilot. “We have to write something bigger and with emotion, and [that] talks about twists and turns in life,” said Thomas. Bays added, “It informed HIMYM in very subtle ways. For two 29-year-olds to be writing something so nostalgic … [Because we learned:] Wow, life really is about chapters closing and things coming to an end, and things pivoting on an axis that will never pivot back.”
Of writing the “playful and emotional” pilot, Bays repeated a well-known TV tip: “Write what you know, not what you think you want to see.” He added, “I was single and really stupid about it and hopeful, and Craig and his wife had just gotten married. … It felt like we had a lot to say about being people in our 20s, and love.” Even though they were nervous about imitating Friends, he concluded, “If you’re going to pitch someone and say, ‘Give me millions of dollars to write 100 or 200 episodes, you better have material. … Mine your life. We were just writing a little bit ahead of where the characters were, and watching them catch up to us.”
Thomas quoted veteran writer Rob Greenberg on the topic: “Make the pilot you want to make. Go down swinging, you have to live with it in the end that this is your pilot. If it goes down and you made all their choices, no [executive] is going to say, ‘Yeah, that’s on us.'”
Throughout the discussion, the co-showrunners recounted Harris’ defining moment (“He did a crazy acrobatic audition — he did flips onto the wall, he was playing laser tag, he left a footprint in the wall of CBS,” said Thomas), the positive value of network notes (they “made us rethink something” or “lit a fire under us to prove them wrong,” said Bays) and the reason why they often created character-driven websites and music videos: “It was shot over three days and it was all fake laughs, … and there wasn’t really any sort of interaction with the audience except through the internet, when it was early internet, back when it was still fun and nice,” laughed Bays. “That was how we had a conversation with the fans.”
After wrapping the series in 2014, Bays and Thomas relocated back to NYC and are now developing new projects with Sony. “It’s deeply humbling to just be back to the blank page,” said Thomas. “HIMYM wasn’t the funniest show, it wasn’t a joke machine like Big Bang Theory. The thing I take away is: How do you do something that maybe nobody else is doing? … Find your little superpower that only your show can do, and do it.”
The 12th annual New York Television Festival runs through Oct. 29.
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