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    TV Summer School: How to Create and Run a Successful Sitcom

    TV Summer School

    With so few quality half-hour comedies on the air right now, one might wonder how two young guys from Connecticut managed to make it to the promised land, all before their 30th birthdays. At just 32 years old, Carter Bays and Craig Thomas are the genius minds behind CBS’ How I Met Your Mother, a show many of us dearly love and look forward to every Monday night.

    But besides being hilariously funny, Carter and Craig may just be the coolest, most down-to-earth show runners in Hollywood. How did two normal dudes end up in the catbird seat so quickly? Let’s bother Carter about it...

    So, we're doing a feature on how to create and run a successful sitcom.
    Oh, wow, I can't wait to read it and find out.

    Modesty, I love it. Now, I know you and Craig's first job after college graduation was on the Letterman writing staff, but I think we'd all like to know how two young guys just out of school land Letterman.
    Well, Craig and I had an internship at MTV. That was kind of the beginning of it all. Before that, during our junior year of college, we were both English majors and thought we were going to write sweet, little stories in The New Yorker every couple months and that was how we were going to make a living. Not that anyone can make a living doing that. But, no, TV hadn't even entered into our thought processes at that point.

    And then we both, simultaneously, unbeknownst to each other, got this internship. It was in the development department at MTV, which is kind of the most fun place to have an internship if you're interested in getting into this business, because you saw a lot. Like, our specific job was watching all the tapes that people would make with their friends and send in, saying, "Hey, we should be on a show on MTV!" You know, they would be all earnest and sincere and they would type up a cover letter. They were so excited. And our job was just to sign the boiler plate rejection letter that was sent to everyone.

    It was kind of unsettling, but at the same time, we were making copies and getting coffee for the people who make all the creative decisions about what goes on MTV and what doesn't, and that was really our introduction to writing as a business. And the friends that we made there—specifically one guy, Jeremiah Bosgang, he was, like, a vice president of development and friends with an agent in L.A. That was the turning point. The door opened a crack and we just dove through it. We sent this agent a packet of material—we wrote a terrible Seinfeld spec—and he's still our agent to this day, Matt Rice. It's kind of cool, because he was like a junior agent then, and we were these shit-kicker kids from Connecticut. But yeah, he still gives us crap about how bad our Seinfeld spec was.

     

    Carter Bays Rebecca Sapp/WireImage.com

    So, Matt helped you land Letterman?
    Yeah, well, this was all during our senior year. It was settling in that there was no fifth year of college. We actually realized our parents weren't going to pay for us to play in a band and drink beers for another year. And everyone else sort of knew what they wanted to do with themselves, and Craig and I kind of didn't.

    But we both started watching Conan O'Brien. Every night, we'd watch the comedy and we just got really into it. I had written for the humor page in the [college] newspaper and Craig and I had been working on a screenplay together at one point, and he was also really funny, so we just started writing Conan material together.

    That was just the best year for Conan. It was the year Triumph, the Insult Comic Dog and Pimpbot appeared. It was just a very formative time, I think, for that show. So, we spent a year working on this material, and then by the end of the year, we graduated and we had this packet. We were like, "Okay, this is it, we've got to get on Conan O'Brien, this is it." So our agent puts the call in and calls us back and says, "Yeah, they're not hiring. You're never getting hired. Everyone loves it there. No one's ever going to leave. You'll never work on Conan O'Brien." And that's when it was like, Okay, grad school?

    Your dream was dashed.
    Yeah, but then, as it happened, that summer I was, like, living at Craig's mom's house—we had no idea what we were going to do. We'd just go down in his basement, and he had a drum set, so we'd play music and stuff.

    But then, all of a sudden, two writers just up and left The Late Show. And that was our window. We had to pounce on it. But we didn't have any material for The Late Show. We hadn't written up a submission packet, so we had like 48 hours to do it. And at the time, it felt like, 48 hours?! But we spent a year on that Conan packet! There's no way we can do this. It just can't be done in 48 hours!

    Little did we realize that the job is, you know, you read the paper in the morning and there's comedy on TV that night. That is the job. You have to turn it over really fast. So, we just stayed up for 48 hours straight, coming up with material, coming up with jokes, and put together this packet. I had done layout on the newspaper at school, so I sort of had all these layout skills, so we had like a bellows binding and color pictures to go with it. It was very impressive.

    Ah, so you made it pretty.
    Yes, it was all packaging. That was actually the key, I think. That's the one piece of advice I would give anyone: packaging and, of course, make sure everything is spelled correctly. And yeah, that got us an interview with the head writer at Letterman, and then we had an interview with the executive producer. And after our second interview, they gave us the job.

    I can't imagine how elated the two of you must have been.
    Oh yeah, we were sort of like hysterically blind from excitement. It was on a Friday and we were starting on a Monday. All of a sudden, we had a job on Letterman. I remember, actually, after that meeting we were so sort of dazed that we came out of the executive producer's office and we immediately got lost.

    We couldn't find the elevator, and we were just wandering around. And having worked there now, looking back on it, we really must've been just completely stupid, because it's like one hallway. It's impossible to get lost in that building. But we ended up turning this corner, and it was just me and Craig, and there, at the other end of the hall, was Dave.

    We're just standing in the middle of the hallway, completely empty, just us and him. And he's got this football and it was sort of like, Do we go out for a pass? What do we do here? And he said hello and I said, "Do you know where the elevator is?" and he goes, "Yeah, it's down the hall." The whole subway ride home, it was like, "Do you know where the—?" Of course he knows where the elevator is!

    Was it always your intention to jump from late night to sitcom?
    Well, we had seen other people we worked with [make that move]. Like the guy who hired us at Letterman, Tim Long, he went on to write for The Simpsons, and we had seen other people come from our background and move on to write sitcoms, so that seemed like the logical next step. I think, in the beginning, if you had asked us what we really wanted to write, it would've been movies we were more interested in. But the fun thing about TV is that it's a job and there's some security in it. We liked the weekly paycheck side of it, as opposed to, you know, you spend six months writing a screenplay and either it sells or it doesn't.

    So you honed your sitcom writing skills doing episodes of Quintuplets, Method & Red and American Dad. But were you pitching ideas for your own show that whole time, too?
    No, we had forged a strategy with our manager and agent to really get some credits under our belt as sitcom writers before we started pitching our own thing. We wanted to really learn how it's done and be on a couple staffs and make some connections. We worked for about three years before we even started thinking about developing.

    How I Met Your Mother: Neil Patrick Harris Robert Voets/CBS

    How much time did it take to develop and sell How I Met Your Mother?
    It's funny—How I Met Your Mother just sort of happened naturally. It was actually the second thing we pitched. The first thing we pitched was the story of an Enron executive who gets sentenced by the judge to go teach at an inner-city high school, which you know, sounds like a great show. But from page one, neither of us wanted to do any research. We were just kind of like, "I don't know, it's probably like this" and the whole thing just rang completely false. But the other idea was just, "Well, let's write about our friends and the stupid stuff we did in New York."

    That idea seems to have worked out well for you.
    Yeah, that just came really naturally. But still, you can tell, like everything we sort of know about makes sense [on the show], and everything we don't know about [is hokey]. Like, we have a friend who is an architect, and he's always like "Really?! Ted's designing his own skyscraper at 28?"

    On any given day during the production of How I Met Your Mother, what are you actually doing? How do you go from a blank page to the product that's ready for air?
    Well, in two years of doing the show, Craig and I have sort of discovered what's important and what isn't. And what is most important is story. So, we'll sit down with—not the whole writing staff—but me and Craig and usually two other writers in a room, with a dry-erase board, to figure out what the episode is going to be about.

    You know, Phil Rosenthal wrote a book called You're Lucky You're Funny, which Craig and I are both reading right now. He talks about how Carl Reiner, on The Dick Van Dyke Show, would shut all the writers in a room and say, "What happened at your house this weekend?" And that's where the story comes from.

    So, it sort of starts off as a few hours of therapy, talking about what we're feeling. You know, we'll be talking about what secrets do you tell your partner, and what do you keep from them, and that will eventually turn into [the] Robin Sparkles [episode]. Or we'll say, "Hey, wouldn't it be cool if Robin was a Canadian pop star?" and we'll work our way backward, figuring out how you get to that. We sort of chart it all on the white board, and then we can assign that story to one of our writers.

    When the story is broken and the scripts are locked, is the bulk of your job done, or are you heavily involved in what's happening on set and in the edit?
    Well, it seems like so much of the great stuff comes out on the set and in the edit room, but if a script is solid, it is like a huge, weeklong sigh of relief. But with some scripts, you know, when the actors are rehearsing scenes for camera, to figure out angles, we're completely rewriting those scenes in the midst of it.

    What would you say to someone who wants to be you in 10 years?
    Can I have a job, please? No, seriously, Craig and I are really looking forward to that. You know, this business, it's like that. We have such a great team of writers that we work with, and one of them, Chris Harris, was actually the head writer on Conan the year we applied to work on the show. So, that's really sort of surreal and awesome. It's like having your own fantasy baseball league, except it's not a fantasy.

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