Had you been within a one-mile radius of the Memorial Chapel on Saturday night, you may have seen dozens of students and parents rushing to catch a rare chance at seeing two Wesleyan legends return to campus.
The excitement was palpable as the audience waited in the pews for “A Conversation With Craig Thomas ’97 and Carter Bays ’97,” the co-creators of CBS’s “How I Met Your Mother,” to begin.
After the duo arrived onstage to thunderous applause, moderator and Film Department Chair Scott Higgins jumped right into the development, production, and style of “How I Met Your Mother.” Thomas and Bays, who, before “HIMYM,” had written for such shows as “The Late Show With David Letterman” and “American Dad,” found the television format unique in its freedom for creators.
“It’s as simple as the person who writes the show calls the shots and is able to decide what goes into the show,” Bays said.
What’s more, they found that the television format has an inherent ability to develop audience-character relationships, dating back to the shows the pair enjoyed while growing up.
“‘Cheers’ is one of our favorite shows ever,” Thomas said. “Spending 11 seasons with people…when do you get to do that? In what art form do you get to spend that much time with people and get to know them and see them go through life?”
But the actual idea for “How I Met Your Mother” came in two stages: first, as a title, which seemed like a unique concept.
“It’s a person telling another person how they came into being, and all the things that led these two people into coming into being and starting a family together,” Bays said.
But ultimately, the show turned into the examination of a moment in the pair’s life. Thomas, who dated his now-wife Rebecca Alson-Milkman ’98 throughout his time at Wesleyan, and Bays, who was single at the time, wanted to explore this situation.
“We were a couple through our twenties, we were the first couple we knew getting married, and Carter was single,” Thomas said. “And he wanted to find the right person.”
As Higgins, Thomas, and Bays noted, “How I Met Your Mother” arrived at a moment in television when the sitcom was going through a period of transition. “Friends,” arguably the biggest sitcom on the air, had ended in 2004, and there were talks of the sitcom “dying.” But it was in this climate that Thomas and Bays found their home at CBS.
“The directive came down from on high, ‘We want to do a show like this,’” Bays said. “We were at the right place at the right time.”
In the same vein, casting was simply luck. Finding Jason Segel, who they admired from his work on “Freaks and Geeks,” Allison Hannigan, who Thomas and Alson-Milkman knew from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” Neil Patrick Harris, who displayed a unique ferocity during his audition, Josh Radnor, an actor mostly known for theater, and Cobie Smulders, a relative unknown at the time, felt like fate.
“Never again in our careers, whatever we do, will it be this amazing, this casting process,” Thomas said.
And, for the most part, CBS was on board with their vision, even if there were complex transitions between single camera or animated shows and the multi-camera format of “How I Met Your Mother.”
“There was like this intervention that happened where our director and producer sat 29-year-old me and Carter down and said, ‘This cannot be shot in front of an audience,’” Thomas said.
After finishing his set of questions, Higgins opened the floor to the audience. From the get-go, many members of the audience had one thing on their minds: the controversial finale of “How I Met Your Mother.”
Though the first two questions were relatively straightforward (if they taped the segments in the future early and how they struggled with an unknown end date for the series), once the finale was brought up, the ball started rolling.
Thomas and Bays were hardly cagey or defensive over what could have been a contentious moment. In fact, they welcome the controversy.
“Somehow I never understood how much people cared about the show until how much people freaked the fuck out about the finale,” Thomas said.
Another question addressed the choice to have the titular Mother die, which Thomas and Bays noted was not only a difficult decision but something they believe illustrates a larger point of the show.
“What I hope people take away from it, what I take away from it, is that it doesn’t make love any less great that it has to end,” Bays said. “In many ways it makes it better because it’s something you have to appreciate while it’s there.”
It was during the question-and-answer portion of the talk that Thomas and Bays began to discuss their formative years as students at Wesleyan.
The duo, who began working together after an internship at MTV during the summer of their junior year, found the environment at Wesleyan conducive to creativity.
“[Wesleyan has] the spirit of just throwing yourself into a project and envisioning something and making it happen, which sounds so trite and simple, but that’s showrunning,” Bays said. “It’s not a surprise that so many showrunners happen to come from right here.”
So when one audience member asked how the show would be different had Thomas and Bays not gone to Wesleyan, the answer was simple: it just wouldn’t exist.
“We were playing in bands together, we were in English classes together, we were in screenwriting classes together, we wrote a screenplay with Jeanine Basinger as our advisor,” Thomas said. “I met my wife here, and my other wife [Bays] here.”
And this love of Wesleyan came through in the show, however small the moment.
“Our wardrobe people started putting people in Wesleyan T-shirts because they knew it would make us happy,” Thomas said.
Ultimately, “A Conversation with Craig Thomas ’97 and Carter Bays ’97” illustrated just how significant the university was in making the writers and, indeed, “How I Met Your Mother,” what it was.
“The point being, if you didn’t like the finale, blame Wesleyan,” Thomas joked.