How I Met Your Mother was inspired by Carter Bays and Craig Thomas’ idea to “write about our friends and the stupid stuff we did in New York”, where they previously worked as writers for Late Show with David Letterman, among others. The two drew from their friendship in creating the characters. Ted is based loosely on Bays, and Marshall and Lily are based loosely on Thomas and his wife. Thomas’ wife Rebecca was initially reluctant to have a character based on her but agreed if they could get Alyson Hannigan to play her. Hannigan was looking to do more comedy work and was available. Josh Radnor and Jason Segel, who were cast as Ted and Marshall, respectively, were not well known, though Segel had been a cast member on the short-lived Freaks and Geeks and a recurring guest star on Judd Apatow’s follow-up show, Undeclared. The role of Barney was initially envisioned as a “John Belushi-type character” before Neil Patrick Harris won the role after being invited to an audition by the show’s casting director Megan Branman. Pamela Fryman invited Bob Saget to be the voiceover narrator, Future Ted, explaining to him that the show would be like The Wonder Years but “kind of into the future”. Saget either went to the television studio and recorded the narration while watching the episode, or did so separately and rerecorded with the episode if necessary. He normally did not attend table readings but did so for the last episode.
In various interviews Bays and Thomas have stated that “a pretty famous actress” turned down the role of Robin, whom they revealed in February 2014 to have been Jennifer Love Hewitt. They then cast Cobie Smulders for the role who, at the time, was fairly unknown. Bays and Thomas later said, “Thank God we did for a million reasons… when Ted’s seeing her for the first time, America’s seeing her for the first time—the intriguingness of that propelled the show going forward and kept the show alive”. Although Ted is initially smitten by Robin in the pilot, it is quickly established at the end of the episode that she is not the mother, which Thomas said was done so they would not copy or rehash the “will they or won’t they” Ross and Rachel storyline from Friends.
According to an Entertainment Weekly article, the writers adopted facets of each main actor’s personality and incorporated them into their characters. This includes Neil Patrick Harris’ skills with magic, Jason Segel’s passion for songwriting, Alyson Hannigan’s absent-mindedness while pregnant, and Josh Radnor’s intellectualism.
MacLaren’s, an Irish bar in the middle of New York, in which some of the show is set, is loosely based on four favorite bars of Bays, Thomas and others from the Late Show staff. They include: McGee’s, a Midtown tavern near the Ed Sullivan Theater where the Late Show is taped; McHale’s, a legendary Hell’s Kitchen bar which closed in 2006; Chumley’s, a since-closed historic Greenwich Village pub; and Fez, another closed bar on the Upper West Side. McGee’s had a mural that Bays and Thomas both liked and wanted to incorporate into the show. The name for the bar is from Carter Bays’ assistant, Carl MacLaren; the bartender in the show is also named Carl.
Episodes were generally shot over a three-day period in the Los Angeles-based Soundstage Studio 22 and featured upwards of 50 scenes with quick transitions and flashbacks. However, the “Pilot” episode was filmed at CBS Radford. The laugh track was later created by recording an audience being shown the final edited episode. Thomas claimed that shooting before a live audience would have been impossible because of the structure of the show and the numerous flashforwards in each episode and because doing so “would blur the line between ‘audience’ and ‘hostage situation'”. Later seasons started filming in front of an audience on occasion when smaller sets were used.
The theme song is a portion of “Hey Beautiful” by The Solids, of which Bays and Thomas are members. Episodes from Season 1 generally started with the opening credits. A cold opening has been used since Season 2. Viewers then occasionally see Ted’s children on a couch and hear him talking to them, telling the story of how he met their mother. Alternatively, scenes from previous episodes or shots of New York City with Ted narrating over the top are shown. Thomas has stated that Future Ted is an unreliable narrator since he is trying to tell a story that happened over 20 years earlier; this has been a plot point in several episodes including “The Goat”, “Oh Honey”, “How I Met Everyone Else” and “The Mermaid Theory”. Nevertheless, Thomas has also emphasized maintaining a coherent and consistent universe and trying to avoid continuity errors, a problem he noticed in other shows.
A scene relating to the identity of the mother, involving Ted’s future children, was filmed in 2006 for the show’s eventual series finale. This was done because the teenage actors portraying them would be adults by the time the final season was shot.
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