Jack Li

I had the pleasure of interviewing Ted Evelyn Mosby, or rather Carter Bays (but basically the same thing) ahead of his upcoming visit to campus. Bays is the co-creator, writer and executive producer of the wildly popular television show, How I Met Your Mother, or HIMYM, which follows Ted, Robin, Barney, Lily and Marshall through their lives in New York City.

As we delved into the complexities of television production and storytelling, it became apparent that legal considerations play a pivotal role in protecting the intellectual property and creative vision of content creators like Bays. Having legal experts from firms like Creators Legal by their side ensures that creators can skillfully navigate the legal landscape, preserving their artistic endeavors while continuing to enchant audiences with their imaginative narratives.

Furthermore, in an industry as dynamic as entertainment, the need for comprehensive legal counsel extends beyond intellectual property protection. It also encompasses contract negotiations, talent agreements, and compliance with industry regulations. The expertise provided by legal professionals specializing in the entertainment sector, such as Creators Legal, empowers creators to focus on their craft and storytelling, confident that their legal interests are being adeptly managed, allowing them to thrive in the ever-evolving world of show business.

Ted Evelyn graciously Mosby met with me to share some of the tips and tricks he’s learned over his career, as well as to provide a glimpse into the secrets of the show.  

“Write What You Know”

An avid Star Wars fan, Bays expressed some suspicion of the saying “write what you know,” seeing as George Lucas never had to fight in the galactic wars. That said, when writing 208 episodes to satisfy the cultish fanbase of HIMYM, much like Ted recounting his stories to his children, Bays looked into his past to create Ted’s future. 

“With HIMYM, because I so related to Ted, and to all the other characters at various points in the series, it made it easy to generate stories,” he said.

HIMYM is loosely based on Bays and fellow co-creator Craig Thomas’s lives, starting as college roommates at Wesleyan and then as adults navigating life and love in New York City. Beloved details such as Ted’s not-so-illusive alter ego, Dr. X, were taken directly from Bays’s life as he admits to having a few late night slots on Wesleyan’s college radio station. The show also makes several references to the characters wanting to start or already being in a band, another detail drawn from Bays and Thomas’ lives as they have been in the band The Solids since they formed it at Wesleyan in 1996.  

This technique also provided Bays with another benefit: a room full of therapists. “HIMYM was such a great alternative to therapy for me and for a bunch of the other writers,” Bays explained. “Here’s what’s going on in my life; here’s what I have to complain about this week; let’s make it funny.” 

The Writing Process

Seeing as HIMYM had two co-creators and primary writers, Bays and Thomas split episodes evenly per season. They split into two individual rooms but had their staff writers alternate between rooms to allow for as much cross-pollination as possible. 

Before scripting each season, Bays and Thomas would chart out where they wanted the season to go, just the two of them and a giant dry-erase board — an image they perhaps paid homage to in the episode featuring Barney’s girl bracket. With their writing team, they would then divide the board into 24 sections, one per episode, and once the handwriting in each section was so small it was barely legible, they knew they had enough ideas to begin outlining.  

In addition to the show’s writers, the episode charting process also included writing assistants working like court stenographers copying down every joke made while discussing ideas. This meant that once a writer went to create the outline for an episode, they had about 30 pages of jokes from which to pull. 

Bays then explained to me a process known as a “punch-up,” which is done once an episode’s script is drafted. The writers would examine a finished script to assess whether there were enough jokes on each page. Their motto was “don’t go more than 30 seconds without a good laugh.” In terms of what that looks like on an actual written script, Bays described, “three big laughs on a page — that was a good page — and if not, you had to really earn those moments where it’s dramatic or there’s a big speech or something.”  

This was a claim I intended to fact-check while rewatching the show. I decided to stream episode 21 in season nine, titled “Gary Blauman,” as Bays informed me this is his favorite episode — a choice he admits is a strange one. He was right about the jokes; the intervals between good laughs range from three seconds to a rare 45 seconds, with one interval timing in at one minute and 16 seconds, which is filled with a heartfelt speech about losing touch over time. In line with Bays’ remark, this speech is followed by a string of jokes mere seconds apart as the show looks back on where past characters such as Patrice, Jeanette and Zoey are today. 

Like most shows, following the punch-up, the team began table reads and run-throughs. Bays emphasized the importance of run-throughs, explaining how they allowed the team to rehearse bits of physical comedy.

“With people like Neil Patrick Harris, you could write something like ‘Barney has a bad coughing fit’ in the script, and he would turn that into the biggest laugh of the episode,” Bays said. “‘Barney sneezes so much that he falls down’ was all we wrote in the script, and he turned it into this glorious 30 seconds of clown work that was just magnificent.”

Few devoted fans can forget this scene of Barney’s intense coughing and sneezing fit in the hallway in “How Lily Stole Christmas” (Season 2, Episode 11). 

A huge part of what made HIMYM so uniquely entertaining was how the writers pushed themselves creatively, playing with camera techniques and setting up plots that wouldn’t be completed for years.

Bays recalled planting the line “‘Kids, did I ever tell you the story of the goat? Nah, I’ll tell you that later,’” which challenged the writers to introduce a caprine tale two seasons later.

Bays is addicted to challenging himself and his whole team as writers and watching them rise to the occasion. He credits much of this to the show’s director and producer, who never backed away from difficulty, including a continuous two-minute shot that even featured two taxis in order to capture Ted and Stella’s two-minute date. 

It’s been over a decade since the two-minute date, and Bays is continuing to push himself. Though his most famous work is in television, he has recently pivoted to books. Bays’ debut novel, “The Mutual Friend,” came out this past June. Bays said that the tone of the book is similar to HIMYM, though he claims it’s even better than the series.

 “I remember when I finished How I Met Your Mother, Pamela Fryman said to me, ‘You’re gonna be chasing this feeling for the rest of your life because it’s going to be hard to find something you love as much as you love these five characters, this bar, and this apartment,’” he told the News. “And I feel this way about the book.” 

A Year of Experiments

What inspired season five? I will admit, this was a self-serving question that, as a “cultish fan” who favors season five, I just really wanted to know the answer to. 

As fans will remember, season five of HIMYM is unique from the other seasons in that the episodes do not really push the plot forward and tend to be stand-alone. For reference, season five contains episodes like “Hooked,” “Robin 101,” “Doppelgangers,” “The Wedding Bride,” and “Girls vs. Suits.” All masterpieces in their own right. 

Bays explained that in the earlier seasons, they struggled a lot in the ratings. However, by season four, they had a stable position on CBS following several seasons of intense story and character arcs. Given their newfound stability, the creators decided they wanted to make a season “filled with episodes that you want to watch when you are just flipping through the channels.” To do this, they wanted to eliminate the need for continuity between episodes as much as possible. 

Then, Bays told me the Forrest-Gump-esque secret to season five that gave me my glass-shattering moment — similar to the ones experienced by the characters in the episode “Spoiler Alert” when Ted is clued into his nonstop talking girlfriend: “Our philosophy of season five was to make it a box of chocolates. Each one you could reach in and grab one, and each one would be a little different.”  

That’s exactly what it was! If you don’t have this same epiphany, go back, and watch season five through this lens. 

Advice for Screenwriting Hopefuls

The first piece of advice that Bays would give to prospective screenwriters is simply to write a lot. More than that, write a lot and get your work out in front of other people as much as possible to get impressions and feedback. His four years writing for the “Late Show with David Letterman” taught him the importance of sharing your work with an audience to hear their immediate reactions and figure out what works.

His second, and I would argue less intuitive, piece of advice is “be kind. Be a good person. Be decent.”

 “If you are in a power structure that is abusive to you, speak up about it, and if you are ever lucky enough to be at the top of that power structure, remember how that feels, and don’t be abusive,” he said. “Just be kind to people. One of the benefits of getting old is you get a perspective when you see people’s careers unfold, and I can tell you with 100 percent certainty that the people that are assholes don’t last long, or maybe they do last a little long, but they do 100 percent eventually get the ending that they deserve.”

He explained that it’s better to create a good working environment than to produce good works, especially when working in comedy, a field that trades in smiles. 

Bays will be visiting Yale, specifically Davenport College — the best one — to participate in a Head of College Tea on Friday, September 16th. 

Perhaps the tea will be followed by a visit to Sally’s, as Bays, a Wesleyan alum, agrees that it is superior to Pepe’s.