Craig Thomas and I became writers because it seemed like fun.
I imagine that’s why anyone does it. You come up with an idea — in our case, the idea was a show called “How I Met Your Mother” — and you and your best friend since college sit in a coffee shop with a notebook and some pens, you make each other laugh and, magically, the idea starts to grow. It’s a quiet life, an intimate life. Exactly the life you signed up for — the life of a writer.
And then all of a sudden, it’s six months later and that life is gone. You’re not a writer, you’re an executive producer, and “How I Met Your Mother” is not an idea in a notebook, it’s a corporation, a 200-person phone sheet, a multimillion-dollar investment underwritten by two of the largest media conglomerates in the world.
It’s 9 o’clock Monday morning, and you’re sitting in your office blinking at the pretzel crumbs and Red Bull empties scattered across the desk in front of you, and you think a hobo must have been squatting in your office, and you wonder where he went — off stealing a pie from some old lady’s windowsill, perhaps? — but then you remember, these are your crumbs, your empties.
You vaguely recall you were here not five hours ago rewriting a script, which you didn’t finish. It’s still there, unfinished, and you want to finish it, you want to plop down in that cozy little coffee shop and polish it to a sparkle, but instead you have to take a notes call on a recent cut of an episode, not the one you were writing, not the one that’s being shot on the stage right now.
This is a different one that you pull out of your mind’s filing cabinet just as the notes session begins, and the network suggests cutting the donut joke.
You think it’s a great idea, but you’re not sure it will work since Lily is putting on her jacket while the donut joke is delivered, and it might create a continuity error, and you can’t figure out how to make it work, but then the notes call is over and you’re back on the previous problem, making last night’s Red-Bull-and-pretzel fiasco even remotely funny.
You gather the writers in the conference room to punch up the script and find yourself saying things like, “Can we beat ‘sweater steaks’?” because you’re sure Barney’s description of Robin’s breasts can be one notch funnier.
It’s also not lost on you that this is your job. You’re not teaching high school English or designing bridges but, rather, telling a roomful of people — women and men — to brainstorm on creating new sexual harassment slang.
You’re helping them do it until the stage calls, and you have to get down there because Neil Patrick Harris is in his penguin costume, and you have to approve it before it shoots, so suddenly you’re in the golf cart, flying across the lot, and oh look, Rebecca Romijn coming out of her trailer, wow, she’s tall!
And then you’re pulling up to the stage, and there’s Neil, and you realize the penguin mask you chose from a Polaroid the Friday before, while perhaps funnier looking, more closely resembles the head of a duck than that of a penguin, and so you have to decide very quickly whether Barney, in selecting a penguin costume, would go for comedy or verisimilitude, and of course, comedy wins.
But not before it again occurs to you that this is what you do for a living, instead of building a schoolhouse in Africa or attending to gunshot victims in an ER. You’re making qualitative assessments of waterfowl get-ups, or at least you were a second ago, because now you’re speeding back to the writers’ room.
First, though, you have to talk to the line producer about how the hell you’re going to shoot an entire episode inside a limousine, but no, before that, you have to go to the edit room to see if cutting the donut joke actually works.
And it does. It works beautifully. You don’t miss the donut joke at all. And Neil is hilarious in the penguin costume — everyone’s hilarious, the scene works great.
You never end up beating “sweater steaks.” The writers suggest you get out of the scene on the previous joke, and they’re right, and you thank God that you are surrounded by such talented people who can actually make this stuff work.
And even though you’re a long way from that coffee shop, and that notebook is buried beneath a pile of budgets and spec scripts, at least your best friend is still there, and you don’t want to leave at the end of the day.
(Carter Bays, along with Craig Thomas, is the creator of the CBS comedy “How I Met Your Mother.”)