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Alyson HanniganAlyson Hannigan - "How I Met Your Mother" Sitcom - William S. Paley TV Fest
Wednesday 29 March 2006, by Webmaster
March 28, 2006 - In our final look at this year’s Museum of Television and Radio’s William S. Paley Television Festival, we take a look at the night devoted to the new CBS comedy How I Met Your Mother. The entire cast was present, including Josh Radnor ("Ted Mosby"), Jason Segal ("Marshall Eriksen"), Cobie Smulders ("Robin Scherbatsky"), Neil Patrick Harris ("Barney Stinson") and Alyson Hannigan ("Lily"). They were joined by the show’s creators, Carter Bays & Craig Thomas, and Pamela Fryman, who has the distinction of having directed every single episode of the series.
Asked how they came up with the show, Thomas replied, "The first thing was the title. Everyone wonders that about their own parents and I just felt like, How I Met Your Mother, that’s a story that everyone can relate to. It could have been a movie, or a TV series; we weren’t really sure. There was a lot of pressure on it, because I think that people liked that it had a hook or a way in. Everyone was talking about the sitcom being dead and can you get people to watch a sitcom again. So it was an idea that people could sink their teeth into a little bit. And also it was a way to differentiate it from other 20-something shows. It’s a life story being told. It’s not just ’Let’s hang out and talk about dating!’ There’s sort of a larger picture to it which was exciting to us and 20th and CBS responded really well to it."
"Also I think a lot of the pressure came from ourselves," added Bays. "We really cared about this a lot. When we were first starting to develop it, we came up with a few ideas and actually wrote a script for another pilot. And we liked that one too, but it wasn’t personal like this one was. This one felt like something we’d write whether we had a deal to write it or not. From where I’m coming from, it was at a point in my life where I was single and thinking, ’When am I going to settle down and get married?’ It was very therapeutic writing in a weird way. The real pressure was for us not to screw it up ourselves."
Recalling what it was like auditioning for his role, Radnor said, "I remember it was raining that day. You get very superstitious as an actor, and I was so excited about this audition. I woke up and it was raining and I thought, ’Oh, bad sign! It’s not going to go well.’ And it did go well! It was just one of those incredibly pleasant meetings." Bays agreed, bringing up the moment in the show where Ted tells Robin that he loves her, even though he just met her. "The best moment was that big speech at the end of the pilot. He did that and at the end of it there was sort of this pause and our casting director Megan Branman literally said, ’Will you marry me?!’ It’s like if the casting director is literally proposing to him, this has got to be our Ted."
As for casting Hannigan, Thomas noted that, "We are enormous Buffy dorks thanks to my wife Rebecca. Ted’s based on Carter, Marshal’s based on me, Lily’s based on Rebecca. And I said, ’We’re writing a pilot and we’re going to make a character based on you.’ And she basically said, ’That kind of freaks me out. I’ll let you do it if you can get Alyson Hannigan to play me. If you can get Willow!’ And somehow it happened!" Hannigan acknowledged she was in fact looking for a comedy at that point, saying, "I wanted to go to work and just laugh all day and be silly and goofy. The first few seasons of Buffy was that job. And then it sort of turned dark and we tried to destroy the world... and that was fun too, but..." Bays then cracked, "You’re not gonna like season two! We have this weather controlling machine..."
"I had done American Wedding in the last season of Buffy and it just reminded me how much I love comedy," continued Hannigan. "And I needed a break from doing that sort of heavy heavy heavy stuff. And I did the whole sort of development deal thing and I would go into these rooms and they’d be like, ’Okay, so what’s your dream job?’ ’Well, I just want to go to work with funny writers and funny people!’ And this is more then I could have asked for. This is what I was talking about. I just didn’t have a title or a cast. It completely came true. Everything I was hoping for."
Harris noted that he was coming from a very different perspective then Hannigan when he read for the show. "I was hell bent on doing a drama that pilot season. I had done a show in ’99 called Stark Raving Mad that was on for a season," he recalled. "It was a very prototypical sitcom experience with a live audience and there were problems with the characters and the network was really nervous. It was on NBC in a really intense time slot so there was a lot of heat on it immediately. And then the Regis Philbin Millionaire show came along and it sort of clobbered it. The whole process when I was doing that was very frantic. I was more stressed then I’d been on any job. So then it got cancelled and I didn’t want to do that again. If I was going to do the live thing I’d rather do it on stage in a more formal setting. So I was looking at dramas. And I read one and I was close to getting that. It was a legal drama."
Harris has received great praise for his performance as Barney, but the actor explained that the role didn’t seem to fit him at all at first. "I got the call to come in on this and it was written for like a 35-37 year old, heavy set dark haired guy. Like a Jack Black type. And so I clearly was not going to get that job! So I didn’t have any expectations at all. I thought it was really funny and I was just sort of over pilot season and constantly going in and getting rejected for not being this or that. So I just went in and kind of made an ass of myself. I did the dive roll from the laser tag scene [from the pilot] in the room." Harris explained that the tremendous reaction he then received baffled him. "When I was leaving, Megan came running out and said, ’They want to test you!’ I went back into their office and they sat me down... and this never happened in my career! And they said, ’We really want you to be Barney. You’re the guy that we want for this role.’ And as an actor, that’s very strange. You never hear that and I thought they were kind of bulls***ing me and seeing if they could lower my quote or something!"
Amongst its positive press, much has been made of the fact that How I Met Your Mother is a traditional sitcom, shot with multiple cameras in front of an audience instead of the single camera/non-audience method used by shows like My Name is Earl and Arrested Development. Harris pointed out that in fact, there is partially a misconception, revealing, "We don’t perform in front of a live audience at all. We will work Wednesday through Friday just shooting because there are so many scenes and flashing back and forth. Because of that I think that our comedy tends to be more genuine and more grounded. Even though I’m all over the place, I’m just trying to make you guys [referring to the rest of the cast] laugh, instead of that craziness of, ’That joke didn’t land! We’ve got to rewrite a joke! They’re not laughing! Something’s wrong!’ And I think that sort of separates the show and makes it a little bit unique." As for the laughter heard when the show airs, "It’s not a laugh track that you’re hearing," Harris revealed. "Once they get four shows together, then they go to the stage next door and an audience comes and watches the show. They record their laughter, to the actual cut together show."
As for why they didn’t go the single camera route, Thomas simply explained, "We wanted to do a multi-camera show. We wanted it to have that feeling; to be a sitcom." Fryman was asked why they shoot in such an unusual manner for a sitcom, which traditionally film an entire episode in one evening instead of over the course of several days. "We do it because we have to do it," she replied. "Because the pilot was 60 scenes. And it was impossible to do 60 scenes in front of an audience. I mean there was just no way to do it. Plus a lot of the humor happens in the edit and the jokes would have been lost. And then when the show got picked up, that continued, because there are so many scenes and because we wouldn’t really gain anything from having an audience on stage with us. It’s much better to put it all together, put it up there, let people laugh and record that. It’s just a very honest way to do it. And we’ve all learned to trust each other. We know what works, we know what doesn’t work. We listen to each other. And it’s an incredibly healthy way to do this."
Moderator Joseph Adalian noted that Segal was a veteran of two critically acclaimed shows that suffered from low ratings, Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared. Asked if he was again afraid he’d be, "Stuck in a great show that nobody watched," Segal said, "I was very lucky to get hooked up with a real genius like [Freaks and Geeks/Undeclared creator] Judd Apatow right from the start. So I would read comedies and think that they wouldn’t live up to the things I’d worked on before. And I read this and I loved it. I felt like Marshall was written for me in a way." Segal then noted that he had to initially turn down Mother because of a commitment he had to another show. "I was really disappointed, because something in my gut told me this was what I was supposed to do," he recalled. "And so the three of us [Bays, Thomas, Segal] had a little private conversation, which I haven’t said till this moment... It was, ’Well look, we know that you’re testing for the show tomorrow. And if that test doesn’t go so well... we’ll be here waiting for you!’ And so, funny enough... the test didn’t go well!"
"I literally went in the next day, and I read with the lovely Alyson Hannigan," continued Segal. "And I think we really hit it off in the room. We got messed up during one of the scenes." "Aw, he’s being nice. I messed up," interjected Hannigan. Smiling, Segal waved off Hannigan, saying "Ahhh, whatever! But as soon as it got off script, it was just as funny that we were kind of riffing off each other. And I knew it was going great and that we could act together for a long time. And that afternoon I got the call that I got the show and I was thrilled. And I had a hunch that this one was gonna be more received then the others, because it wasn’t nearly as sad! The others were so sad. This one was hopeful!"
Asked if she feels pressure playing someone who Ted thinks of as the perfect woman, Smulders said, "I just try to play her as truthfully as possible and working with Josh makes that very easy. For my [network and studio] tests, I went in with Josh for both of them and I got to throw a drink in his face for both! But yeah, it is a pretty big thing to say you’re going to be the ideal woman and this perfect woman for this man, but you’ve gotta kind of rationalize it in your own brain." The pilot showed how Ted meets Robin and instantly falls for her, only to end with the surprising revelation (from the older Ted who narrates the show) that Robin is not the woman he will end up marrying and have children with. Thomas explained that this caused a lot of surprisingly strong reactions. "We went to the TCA’s where they interview all the new shows and all the questions were really intense. ’Why is she not the mom?!’ People screaming at us! It was designed from the get go for her not to be the mom. We have a whole plan." Added Bays, "It’s torturous and frustrating that they’re not together, and from the very beginning I think that’s what we loved about the idea. That one of the central relationships on the show you really want to go this direction but it never will. Our frustration that Cobie and Josh can’t play a married couple is very real. It’s the same frustration these two characters have. They’ll never be together."
The entire panel clearly got along great with each other, and they all agreed it helped the show tremendously. Bays praised Fryman for helping create a family atmosphere on set, to which she responded, "It’s everything. It’s so important, because you know, this is how we’re spending our lives. It’s a job, but we’re there long hours every day, and people work better when they’re happy and when they’re in comfortable surroundings and they feel supported by everyone. And you know what? We have a great time!" Bays brought up Fryman being the sole director for the show, saying, "It makes such a difference, because it sets and maintains the tone. So you don’t have a new director coming in that’s crazy wacky comedy and then another one that wants to be real serious." Harris then joked that, "We bonded so fast in the pilot that Alyson kept saying there’s no way this show is gonna go. We all got along too well!"
This is the first high profile roles for Smulders and Radnor, and they were asked if they are finding more strangers recognizing them and approaching them now. "It hasn’t really affected me that much yet," responded Smulders. "I don’t really wear a lot of makeup and I don’t dress up and I’m literally like sweatpants girl. So I don’t think I look the same as I do every Monday night at 8:30. When people do come up, they have nothing but great things to say and are just fans of the show." Radnor agreed, saying, "My experience is it seems to be about the show. People want to talk about the show. There’s a lot of, ’Who’s the mother?!’ And people think that I know! And I don’t know what they want me to say. Is it, ’It’s an accountant from New Jersey that I meet season five?’ Or is it like, ’It’s Keira Knightley! It’s gonna be Keira Knightley!’ There’s a whole obsession with the end."
Bays and Thomas were asked if they were considering adding any other regulars to the cast, causing Hannigan to jokingly whisper, "Alexis Denisof," the name of her husband. A fellow alum of Buffy and Angel, Denisof recently filmed a couple of guest appearances on How I Met Your Mother. Bays said they like building a strong supporting cast and could see Denisof returning. Hannigan joked that at first it seemed like all of Segal’s previous costars were appearing and not hers and that she was telling the producers, "Oh, so you’re big Buffy fans, but you’ve got like every Freak and Geek!" Thomas replied, "We finally caved; not that we’re caving because we love Buffy so much. But we had her husband on, and that shut her up! And we’ve got Amy Acker from Angel coming up." "We’re stealing all the Joss Whedon cast," added Bays. "There was a moment when we were shooting the finale when it was Amy, Alexis and Alyson and Nicholas Brendon just showed up to hang out. It was like everyone from every Joss Whedon show."
Asked about his designation from the press as the show’s scene stealer, Harris replied, "Barney as you saw in the pilot was just insane from line one all the way through. There’s not much redeeming about him. They have to write specific moments where he has some redeeming values. So it’s fun to be that guy." Harris had high praise for the show’s writing, adding, "If I may speak about the structure of the show, I think that’s what separates it. They have such a knack, the whole writing stuff, of creating a situation and not just seeing what happens next and where they go next in a linear way." Before the Q&A, the pilot and the episode "The Pineapple Incident" were screened, the latter of which especially goes back and forth through time, as Ted tries to remember what happened one drunken evening. Noted Harris, "’The Pineapple Incident’ is a great example of starting and going six scenes in, then backing up and replaying scenes. And then seeing it from a different character’s point of view. And I love that. I think that’s what makes it unique."
Fryman also felt the show distinguishes itself because, "We don’t have to laugh all the time. The show that they’ve created allows us to take those moments and really get to know who these people are. There’s so much heart. It’s a very emotional show, and wait till you see what’s coming up!" Segal agreed, also noting that, "One of the things that’s great is we’re free to play jokes at the level they should be played at, without having this obligation to make sure the person in the back row of the audience heard the joke and it gets a loud laugh. You can do a subtle joke or a big joke; we have a whole range. It’s nice." Thomas said they always intended the series to have different beats then just broad comedy. "CBS has been really supportive of the emotional stuff. They always say keep it grounded. We really try to write our first drafts without jokes to be honest. We just say, ’What’s the moment? What’s going to be said here?’ and then do a joke pass after. We kind of consider it a ’sit-dram,’ All the shows we watch are hour dramas and that’s just kind of how we write. And then we hope we find some jokes along the way."
The funniest part of the evening came from an innocuous moment: Asked why they chose to reveal Robin and Ted won’t end up together at the very beginning of the series, Bays explained, "We knew we didn’t want to do ’Will They Or Won’t They?’ We were already worried about the Friends comparisons, and thank god that’s gone away. I think that the rhythm of the show is different from that. We didn’t want to do Friends; we didn’t want to do Ross and Rachel and ’Will they or won’t they’ for ten years. We wanted to do an interesting friendship where they’re kind of in love but for some reason it’s just not in the stars for them." As Bays was speaking, Smulders and Radnor, who were sitting next to each other, jokingly leaned in as if about to passionately kiss. When Radnor smiled and turned away at the last moment, Smulders exclaimed, "He always pulls out before I do!" At which point first the audience, and then the entire panel burst into hysterics over the unintentionally dirty comment, with more then one of the cast having to wipe their eyes, nearly crying in laughter. It was capped off with Harris taking a sip of water in order to do a spit take.
Later, after everyone finally settled down, Thomas assured the audience that they did have a plan for who the mysterious mother will be, saying, "We know what the last five minutes of the series will be. I think we know where it’s going." Bays said it was always important for them that Ted struggle to find the right girl. "We just thought it would be so cheap in a show about how hard it is finding the love of your life if we went, ’I went down to the bar, and there she was!’" One fan noted that they loved an episode featuring Robin and Barney playing laser tag together and asked if those two characters might end up romantically paired. Bays replied, "There’s definitely a chance. I think part of what we loved about that scene was they are kind of kindred spirits on the show. They’re the two characters that aren’t about settling down and getting married and so was fun to see them goof around. Who knows?"