A Conversation with How I Met Your Mother's Craig Thomas
In the past year, How I Met Your Mother celebrated its first Emmy nomination for Outstanding Comedy Series, a lucrative syndication deal and its highest ratings in four seasons at CBS. The show is run by co-creators Craig Thomas and Carter Bays who also quadruple as executive producers, writers and theme song performers. On the eve of the series' fifth season, Movieline caught up with Craig Thomas to discuss the Emmy recognition, sitcom immortality and Barney's views on religion.
Congratulations on How I Met Your Mother's Emmy nomination. That's pretty rare for multi-cam sitcoms these days.
Right. For the medium of the sitcom in 2009, you're just looking to survive. You're looking to stick around long enough for people to find you and to know what you are. It was just a nice reminder that not only have we stuck around but people are starting to see that this is a show worth watching and a show that can be considered for an Emmy, which is just so thrilling. The best part was just how happy everyone was here at the office.
I bet that really improves morale.
The one downside was that we got super-drunk that day, starting at around noon. It turned into a huge celebration with lots of champagne. Everyone is so invested in the show and it just made us really proud. In the previous years, Neil was the representative of the show and it was so great that he got the nominations [for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series in 2007, 2008 and again in 2009] and he shared that with everyone here. But for everyone to share a best comedy series nomination is fantastic.
What does being an executive producer mean for How I Met Your Mother? Are you and Carter the head writers? What do you do on a day-to-day basis?
For lack of a better term, Carter and I are the head writers. We run the writing and creative side of things and manage what the voice of the show is. So one or the other of us is always in the writing room or on set while we're shooting the script or in the edit room, helping to edit and lock the show. So we basically oversee every part of it, from being in a room with a bunch of people and an empty dry erase board, trying to figure out what is a fun story for these characters all the way to locking picture in the edit room a couple months later once we've shot it and everything in between.
In terms of the day-to-day production elements, we have a producer, Suzy Greenberg, who is fantastic and who has been with us the whole run. She manages the physical and financial aspects of production and Pam Fryman is our director who has directed almost every episode of the series, the pilot on. So we have such a great team in place.
Now that you're going into your fifth season, do you get to delegate more than you did the first couple of seasons?
You really have to learn how to do that or you will die. [Laughs] The main lesson you have to learn as a showrunner is how to entrust everybody and include them in the process. Definitely when we started the show, we took on too much. We were working nights and weekends and doing entire passes on every script.
At first, all you have is this pilot and the job is to start stacking up episodes that feel as good as the pilot or at least like the pilot. You're setting the tone of what the show should be. You are in crazy, control-freak mode at that point but once you've helped to define what the voice is and overseen that process, the writers really start to know what you're looking for, and it would be foolish not to try to delegate more each season. And it's resulted in being way more efficient and hopefully added a few years back onto our life expectancy.
Do you aspire to be the next Bill Lawrence, with two shows in production at once?
We finally have gotten this show to a place where we are thinking about what the next show is, in part because we just really like the system that we've created. We have a great kind of a hybrid method of shooting where we don't do it in front of an audience but we do still shoot in multi-camera over three days. So the show gets to feel a little more like a single-cam or a little movie. But it still looks like a multi-camera show that can air on CBS. It's also much more financially feasible than a single-camera show. Last year and the year before we were too focused on making sure the show stayed healthy and strong to be able to do that, but we feel so much better about where the show is now. So we're starting to look ahead a little bit and thinking about what the next one will be.
Any specific ideas yet?
We're working on one specific idea and we have a bunch of sort of, half-baked notions and stuff but we're focusing in on one idea that we'll hopefully get to put out there this season and see what happens.
How aware do you have to be of ratings once you hit your fifth season and have been picked up for syndication?
I think it would be a lie for any showrunner to say that they don't care about ratings. You want as many people to watch your show as possible. It's interesting, people consume entertainment so differently each passing year now so it's tough to monitor, because of the DVR people, the people who buy the DVD, the people who see it on the airplane, the people who watch it online. You do have to take in account all of those other people and all of the other ways people consume TV now. It's hard to know fully what those Nielsen numbers mean nowadays, but at the same time, they are very relevant and you want to get the best number you can. We felt really lucky that in season four, out most recent season, was our best rated in 18-49 and 18-34. Hopefully it'll continue, you know we moved up a half hour. We're now on at 8 p.m. instead of 8:30, and hopefully our fans will follow us and we'll have a great year there.
Do you think about the show differently because of the time change?
We haven't been. The rules of 8 and 8:30 aren't particularly different. I think if we were on a whole hour later then maybe it would be a little different in terms of the tone and the censor stuff. Maybe we'll get more notes, because we're leading off the night. CBS has been really cool about letting us do what we want to do and it's pretty rare that we lose something that we love. If we really love something, then we make a case for it.
Like last year, we had Barney (Neil Patrick Harris) deliver this big crazy speech at the very beginning of an episode. Ted was saying, "Why do we wait three days to call a girl? You get a girl's number, why do you have to wait three days?" And Barney basically says "Jesus is the one who taught us. If Jesus died and resurrected a few hours later and even the next day, it's not a big deal. Word wouldn't have spread yet. But Jesus taught us about suspense and showmanship and you have to wait three days before you call a girl because that's the most effective period of time. That's going all the way back to the Bible, Ted.' So Barney delivered this whole speech about how Jesus taught us to wait three days before calling a chick. It was definitely nutty and Barney was saying 'Jesus' a lot which you don't see in a lot of sitcoms. And CBS was really cool. At first they were a little weary of it but ultimately [came around] when we said we believed in it, and explained that Barney was using this lesson from Jesus in his life and wasn't disparaging anybody. It was cool and for the most part -- we feel pretty free to do what we want to do.
How involved were you in the syndication process and are you excited for the show to be on Lifetime?
Yeah, when you reach syndication it's kind of the sitcom equivalent of immortality and your work gets to live on. It's a great feeling. Carter and I had written for a couple shows, when we first came out to L.A. We wrote for the show, Oliver Beene and it would be hard to prove at this point that that show ever existed. [Laughs]
Working at Letterman was fantastic and in many ways taught us how to be showrunners. But even having worked there for five years, it would be rare to see a rerun of an episode that Carter and I worked on because there are so many thousands of episodes that ours tend to get lost too. So it's a great, great feeling that a couple years from now, we could turn at the TV at like 6:30 at night and see an episode of How I Met Your Mother.
We weren't hugely involved in the syndication process. 20th TV puts together an effort to sell the show into syndication and they did a phenomenal job. They brought a syndicate consultant in and we met with them and gave some thoughts on it. But I give them all the credit. They just put together this great presentation that made the show really classy and smart and better than the average sitcom. It worked out and it was a success, at a time when it's really hard to do that.
What is the apex of television for you? Is there a show whose legacy you'd like to replicate?
I think Cheers is personally my favorite all-time sitcom, just because I loved the world of it. I loved being in that bar with those characters and I cared about them so much. When it went off the air, I almost took it personally. I remember, literally at the last episode of Cheers, tears streaming down my face, thinking I'm not going to get to see these people every week! To be somebody's favorite show and to be a show that if it weren't there, the audience would really miss spending time with them each week, is the goal. Cheers just worked so hard at its theme and was so honest and it so represented what a certain part of your life is like. And we wanted to try to represent what it's like to be in your late twenties and looking for love and stumbling along the way and how your friends help you through that. Those are the biggest inspirations for me, the shows that really capture that some kind of emotion.