How CBS' Mother Met with Sitcom Success
How I Met Your Mother:
How I Met Your Mother
At its best, it's one of TV's tangiest, highest laugh-per-minute ratio comedies, populated by one of the brightest and most crackling casts out there. In its less-than-two years on our screens, it has taught us to "Suit up," fear the slap bet and never, ever call Lily a, um, "grinch." It gave TV back Neil Patrick Harris
and Alyson Hannigan
, and treated us to the arrival of relative newbies Josh Radnor
, Jason Segel
and Cobie Smulders
. To celebrate the CBS sitcom's funnily serious litany of accomplishments, TVGuide.com invited cocreator and executive producer Carter Bays
to survey the secrets of his Mother
's success, preview the season finale, ponder the show's fate, and, of course, pay tribute to the great Robin Sparkles. (How I Met Your Mother
airs Mondays at 8 pm/ET.)
TVGuide.com: I want to start off by saying that in this season, you've done a great job keeping Robin and Ted together while also keeping them fun and interesting. Was that a concern when you first pulled the trigger on their coupling?
Carter Bays: It was, because the whole goal of Season 1 was "Ted's in love with Robin," and once you achieve [the consummation of that relationship], you worry that that'll neutralize the drama and excitement. But it sort of turned out to be the opposite. They're so good together and they play off each other so well, it's fun seeing them as a couple.
TVGuide.com: Is there anything you're afraid of as you go to write each episode? Any well you fear visiting too often?
Bays: Oh yeah, things are always swirling around. You don't want to make it too silly, you don't want to make it too serious…. There are always a number of things that we can overdo on the show that we try not to. Coming from a place of boredom with the sitcom form, we try to vary things as much as possible. We try to find interesting new ways to tell a multicamera sitcom story.
TVGuide.com: The clever, sometimes fleeting flashback moments have been a real boon to your storytelling.
Bays: When in doubt, that's always the last thing that we cut, those kinds of things. That's what makes the show interesting, and it makes it closer to a single-camera show than a standard multicamera.
TVGuide.com: Neil Patrick Harris literally scoffed when I asked if he'd like to see more growth from Barney. Is that where you're coming from, too?
Bays: Definitely. In the last few episodes of this season, we're going to see more growth from Barney than we've ever seen, as far as humanity and depth. In Season 3, I want to neutralize that and just make him a cartoon character again. It's more fun, more insane. Neil loves playing that part exactly that way.
TVGuide.com: Speaking of Neil, not that he at all was obligated to, but did he give you a heads-up that he'd be coming out — if only because he plays a ladies' man on the show?
Bays: It all happened very quickly, but yeah, we all sort of had a little powwow about it. But at the end of day, it was totally his thing. It was up to him.
TVGuide.com: Since I can never seem to get Alyson Hannigan on the phone — she's the only primary I've never had the pleasure of Q&Aing....
Bays: She's mysterious, that one. [Chuckles] She goes into the night….
TVGuide.com: Lily's semi-extreme makeover this season — the dark hair, the almost inexplicably fabulous thrift-shop wardrobe — was that entirely to serve the character's arc, to sex up the show, or partly Alyson's request?
Bays: I'm going to give all the credit to Alyson. I mean, we did have a new wardrobe person this season and that changed a little bit, but as soon as we went on hiatus last season, she went dark with her hair and grew it out. She came back the next season looking completely different. And while the understanding was, "I'll go back to being red…," it sort of felt to us that it fit perfectly with Lily at that moment. When you go through a breakup, the first thing you do is get a haircut.
TVGuide.com: I reported last week that in the season finale (airing May 14), "Barney learns a secret that Robin and Ted have been keeping." What else can you tease about that reveal?
Bays: Barney learns it toward the end of the episode, and it'll set up a new dynamic for Season 3, just the way that the finale for Season 1 [Marshall-Lily's split and Ted-Robin's hookup] set up a new dynamic for Season 2. It will be a new chapter in everyone's life.
TVGuide.com: Surely you know how the fans love to scrutinize the flash-forwards, for example, the wedding of Barney's brother. Are you ultra-careful in staging them, so as to not paint yourself into one corner or another?
Bays: Usually. There are certain times where we paint ourselves into a corner but then we'll get an idea so good we'll go back and reshoot something, even though it's a pain in the ass. [Laughs] But that's part of the joy of writing the show, the corners we paint ourselves into. Like, there was a quick pop to Ted talking about his 30th birthday and there was a goat involved, so next year we're going to have to do an episode about that and involve a goat somehow. We have no idea what that story will be about, but we'll figure it out when we get there. It's a fun writers' exercise to create a situation and figure out how to get there, but other moments are very carefully calculated.
TVGuide.com: What are among your personal favorite episodes — is "Robin Sparkles" one of them?
Bays: Yeah, "Robin Sparkles" has to be among them, because to manage to be a fun episode to shoot and a great episode to watch is hard to do. Usually the fun ones are the ones where you should have watched what you shot, where you realize, "We should have been working harder." [Laughs] We did the director's commentary for the DVD this week, and going over it again, I was very proud of "Where Were We?," the Season  premiere, considering what we had to accomplish in picking up the story from these two huge events.
TVGuide.com: What was the genesis of "Robin Sparkles," anyway? It was so "out there" to suggest that mild-mannered Robin was once this Tiffany-esque pop sensation up in Canada.
Bays: Greg Malins, one of the other executive producers, had this idea of a music video surfacing starring one of the characters, and he picked out Robin. [Ted, Barney et al] don't know that much about her past in Canada, so it seemed like a revelation that could come out easily. We also thought it'd be a great idea to use the Internet to cross-promote [by releasing the "Let's Go to the Mall" video online]. It took us months to come up with a story for it, though. We knew Robin was a teen pop star, but it was such a crazy thing to throw into a character's backstory that it was hard to break. But I was happy that we were able to take it beyond, "Hey, isn't that crazy," and make it a story about relationships and the secrets we keep from others, to give it a heavier meaning.
TVGuide.com: Was Cobie like, "Great idea, guys, but… I don't sing"?
Bays: No, she was totally game, right from the get-go. She took singing lessons and when she recorded it, she had a few beers to loosen up. After that, she unleashed her inner pop star.
TVGuide.com: Have you ever had to pull back on the innuendo or themes because of your 8 o'clock time slot? I was talking about this a few weeks ago with Holland Taylor of Two and a Half Men....
Bays: Well, Two and a Half Men is like the shining beacon for all the other shows on CBS. When I put "boner" in a script and they say no, we can say, "Two and a Half Men did it," although that obviously is a huge hit and they can get away with it. But they definitely pave the way for everyone else, as far as what's acceptable and what isn't.
TVGuide.com: When might we pick up the "slap bet"?
Bays: Oh, that's always hanging out there. There are three slaps left, if I'm correct…. We knew we wanted to use one pretty soon afterwards, just to make it clear that these slaps will be coming back. But we're now in the same dilemma that Marshall is in, not knowing. We want to save it for the best times, but it will be back.
TVGuide.com: Of course, your five primaries came into this with their individual expanses of credits, but in what ways have you seen them change over the past two years?
Bays: They've all just totally grown into these roles and become really good at multi-cam without being sitcom-y. I think Josh [Radnor] has done an incredible job of bringing a kind of independent-film style of acting to the form. And Cobie [Smulders has grown] leaps and bounds. She had never done anything like this, and she is now an incredible comedienne.
TVGuide.com: And a character like Jason's could have faded into the wallpaper or been a caricature, but he's made Marshall real and interesting.
Bays: And that's a fun character to write, too, because you keep finding out more and more about Marshall. He has a natural exuberance for life, which partly comes from Jason and also comes from [cocreator] Craig [Thomas] and myself. His belief in the supernatural and his obsession with the Loch Ness monster... I love the joy he brings to all of that stuff. We definitely very early on ran the risk of him veering into Joey [of Friends] territory and becoming "the dumb guy," but he's not dumb. He's a Columbia law student who has this wide-eyed, childlike exuberance.
TVGuide.com: What TV shows make you laugh aplenty?
Bays: South Park always makes me laugh, that's one of the big ones. I love The Office. I really like Extras. And, of course, I like all the old sitcoms that I grew up on that made me want to get into this, like Cheers and Seinfeld.
TVGuide.com: OK, the last topic here, of course, is Season 3. What's the latest temperature reading?
Bays: Oh, I feel very good about it. I'm not worried. It is nerve-racking, like waiting to get asked to the prom, but I think this show has such a strong fan base and it's been getting such good responses....
TVGuide.com: It gets such critical acclaim and the fans are so avid, it's almost surprising that the pickup hasn't been handed down yet.
Bays: Yeah, but it will make it that much more exciting when they announce it in May.
TVGuide.com: Will Season 3 be when we take a step toward Ted meeting the titular mother?
Bays: I don't know, I don't know. I still feel like that's a little ways off. There are still some emotional obstacles we need to get past before we get to that point, but who knows. That's the joy of it, that that person could walk into your life at any moment.
TVGuide.com: Right, he's a young guy, he should sow some more wild oats before finding "the one."
Bays: Yeah, I think so. He's still got some living to do.
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