CBS sitcom can shoot more than 70 scenes per episode
“How I Met Your Mother” is a show created by two fans of traditional sitcoms who had no real experience writing traditional sitcoms. Teamed with an experienced sitcom director and a studio willing to take risks, they wound up inventing a hybrid format, one that looks and feels like a multicamera show but is shot with many of the qualities of a single-camera one.
Carter Bays and Craig Thomas were former Letterman writers who had worked mainly in animation and single-camera. But when they created “Mother,” they had a classic style in mind.
“We had worked on one or two single-cam shows and seen a rash of what I would call single-cam-itis,” Thomas recalls. “It’s easy to write a single-cam and not write as many jokes, rely on style and gimmicks over doing something great. We were a little turned off by purely doing that. We are huge fans of ‘Cheers’ and ‘Friends.
“We wanted something a little more like comfort food,” Bays says. “We knew we wanted to go in some pretty edgy directions with that, so we wanted to build on a foundation of something gettable and accessible.”
They showed the pilot script, which featured 64 scenes, to their veteran director, Pamela Fryman.
“Pam sat us down, intervention-style,” Thomas says, “and said, ‘Guys, this is not a multicam show.'”
“I don’t know anyone who would sit in an audience for as long as it would take to shoot the pilot,” Fryman says. “I don’t care how much pizza we would have served.”
No one wanted to shoot it single-cam, so the producers and the development team at 20th Century Fox Television came up with a compromise plan.
“Rather than have them restructure a script everyone loved,” says 20th chairman Dana Walden, “we all agreed that the way to do it was shoot it like a single-camera with no live audience — doing something on a stage, having it feel very intimate, giving it the feel of very live theater, while also preserving the style Carter and Craig wanted.”
Where single-cam comedies shoot over five days, and multicam over a night, the “Mother” pilot was filmed over three days. The finished product looked and sounded like a classic sitcom but didn’t move like one.
The hope had been to figure out a way to bring in an audience for episodes after the pilot, but as Fryman was trying to figure out where to put the bleachers in the studio, “I got a call from Dana Walden, and she said, ‘I don’t know that we should do this with an audience.’ I’m an audience director, but she was absolutely right.”
“As we look back at it,” says 20th chairman Gary Newman, “it gave the actors freedom to experiment a little bit, and try different takes. You also didn’t get that phenomenon that you sometimes see in traditional multicams, where actors get bigger and bigger to anticipate the audience.”
“Ultimately, the studio was really encouraging of it,” Thomas says, “even though it costs more money to do the show the way that we do.”
With no studio audience, the actors and producers have to rely on the crew to tell them what jokes are working, but Bays and Thomas also have to trust their own instincts on the many jokes built around editing.
Originally, the laugh track came from screening episodes for friends, but after a while, the show switched to canned laughter.
“We share an audience with The Flintstones’ and ‘Gilligan’s Island.’ They laugh at a lot of the same stuff,” Thomas quips. “For the rhythm of our show, we found that people were laughing over half the jokes. I know it’s a very strange recipe.”
Though everyone needed to adjust to the hybrid format in the early days, 100 episodes later, “the way we shoot this has become so secondary,” Fryman says. “It’s just what we do.”
Bays estimates that they average more than 70 scenes per episode these days, “which is absurd. An entire season of ‘Sanford and Son’ was probably 60 scenes.”
“Every week, we get a script that’s more ambitious than the last,” Fryman says. “The musical number we just did for the 100th episode, I said to the guys, ‘Did you glance at my resume? Did you see musical numbers anywhere?’ But they kind of love that.”