A Conversation with Carter Bays, Co-Creator of How I Met Your Mother and Author of The Mutual Friend
Cathleen Freedman: This has been a long time coming, you just didn’t know it. I’ve been a huge How I Met Your Mother fan for years, and after reading your debut novel, I am a massive and emphatic fan of The Mutual Friend. Before we really get started, I just want to hold the conversation hostage for a minute and wax poetic about this book. Hopefully, anybody reading or watching the interview will be convinced to pick it up. It was incredible. There’s no artful way to weave some of these things into the interview, so I’m just going to say them now:
The writing is quick-witted, and, yes, that is a pun off of Alice Quick’s (the main character) name. I laughed, and I cried. Gabby was in the room when I finished the book, and I looked at her and said, “I just finished my favorite book.” I’ve never read any novel that so wonderfully handled an ensemble cast. I thought the final chapter was beautiful. It has everything I would want in a book, and through the law of syllogism, everything I’d want in a novel I’d write. It was brilliant, it was glorious, and I already have it penciled in my calendar to re-read again. I hope that’s convinced anyone reading or watching to pick The Mutual Friend up.
Carter Bays: Wow. I feel like I need to take you on tour and have you say that to the audience! You should do all of the interviews for this book because that’s lovely. Thank you very much.
Gabby Etzel: Well, let’s start at the beginning. When did you first think of the project that would become The Mutual Friend?
Carter Bays: That’s a good question. So How I Met Your Mother ended in 2014 at the beginning of the year. I was living in Los Angeles, and I had been writing a TV show about New York where I previously lived for nine years. It was inescapable that when [HIMYM] ended—and my wife also really wanted to move back—that we would return as soon as we’d get the chance.
How I Met Your Mother ended, and it just felt like “One chapter is closing, let’s start a new chapter here and move to New York.” I think right after we finished editing the final episode, we were on a plane. We had this new apartment, two young daughters, and our son was soon on the way as well. It was just this brand new chapter opening. I had spent nine years doing the same thing, which is very rare for any writer, in any avocation. It’s rare to have a steady job for that long. I really was shot out of the cannon creatively in the sense that I had been in this one box for so long. I felt like my next “thing” would need to break all of the rules that I’ve given myself over the course of these years and just start fresh.
As much as I wanted to do something brand new, I also felt like I had this muscle that I’ve been working on: I knew how to write these kinds of characters and these kinds of stories. I wanted to keep writing about New York. There are certainly thematic similarities between The Mutual Friend and How I Met Your Mother, so I was able to continue that path in a brand new way.
But I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do. We had just tried to do a pilot in that final season called How I Met Your Dad. This is separate from How I Met Your Father, which is a totally different thing. This is something we developed, and Greta Gerwig was in the pilot. It was really exciting and then the pilot just didn’t go. I don’t even want to go into why. I think the pilot was good, and I think it would have been a great show. It just didn’t get picked for whatever reason. I had just told this story about dating and life in your twenties in New York City, and to a large degree, I had told my story. Craig Thomas and I both had told our version of it.
We sort of knew, “This is going to have to be someone else taking the baton and telling their version of it.” As far as my involvement in How I Met Your Father and what I could connect to, I felt like we had told every possible story we could tell in the first series. So with the second series, I wondered, “Well, what did we not get into? What’s a different direction to take?”
It sort of got me thinking about meeting my wife. I met her in 2009, and we were instantly *just like that.* We got married within a couple of years, and I missed the whole dating app thing. I would see my friends on it and be like, “There but for the grace of God go I.” I was and am so grateful for my wife—she saved me from all of that. I started thinking, “That’s the thing that a newer version of the story would be about and a younger generation of writer would explore.”
It’s not just in dating that phones have changed our lives. I think we did one episode about Ted going to a matchmaker or online dating, and it was presented as this embarrassing thing like “I don’t want to tell anyone that I’m doing this.” That’s how it was fifteen years ago! Now it’s evolved. It’s rare that you meet someone who doesn’t meet their significant other that way.
Season 1, Episode 7 of How I Met Your Mother. The other plot is about the cockamouse, a cross between a cockroach and mouse.
“Hell, if a cockroach and a mouse can find love in this crazy city, then, damn it, so can I.”
- Ted Mosby
Carter Bays: This grew into a more holistic “Wow. The world has really changed.” Having been born in 1975, I’m in the lucky position of having lived on both sides of that fence. I grew up in a time when there was just one phone in the house—it was hanging on the wall in the kitchen. (Bob in The Mutual Friend tells some version of this.) It’s a strange thing to have to see us suddenly have to live in this brand new way that we’re just not evolved for.
I started thinking about how we are just living differently than we’ve ever lived in the history of humankind. The way we fall in love with people, the way we maintain friendships, the way we connect with people, the way we buy socks. Everything has changed. It’s easy to say, “Well, yeah, that’s just how it is!” But I felt like the fact we’re living through this revolution wasn’t being given its due. There’s so much ridiculousness from daily life that comes from it that we’re not really prepared for. We’re not prepared to live in this world that we’ve created for ourselves. This is such a long answer. My future answers will be shorter!
*Cathleen and Gabby shake their heads, not even interrupting because they do not remotely mind*
I was also thinking about how much of my life is lived on my phone. It’s almost like I’m living in two worlds at once. As this is happening, I’m moving to 91st and Amsterdam. We had an apartment. My kids were going to school right near Columbia University. On a whim, I thought, “Well, what am I going to do with myself? I don’t have a job. I’ve been in output mode for nine years where I did nothing but tell stories. I need to be in input mode.” I had this crazy whim one afternoon that changed my life and said, “I’m going to take a class at Columbia. Let’s see if they have a Continuing Education Class.” If you’ve read the book, this is a plot line straight out of The Mutual Friend.
I found this one class being offered on Buddhism and thought, “Oh, that’s cool. My wife’s family is Buddhist.” There was a Buddhist ceremony that we did for my children when they were born, and I didn’t really know that much about it, so I decided I wanted to learn more about Buddhism. Immediately, the central metaphors of Buddhism connected with me. I wouldn’t call myself a Buddhist, but the central idea is that there are these two realities: the temporal world and the eternal world. There’s the tangible world, and there’s this more intangible world that we can’t see but is around us at all times. I had been thinking about this in terms of my relation to the internet and electronic communication, and that kicked the doors open. I realized, “Oh, there’s something to talk about here.” As I was trying to come up with an idea to write, I found myself unable to work because I was constantly checking my phone. There’s a story there: Someone trying to live in 2015 and get something done, but they can’t. I wanted it to feel like The Hobbit where it’s this great adventure. Someone is battling a dragon, but the dragon is just distraction and the apps on your phone. I wanted to tell an epic story about that and give it its due because that feels like the challenge of anyone’s life right now. That was a long answer.
CF: But it perfectly encompasses the book and makes it so much richer for me as a reader knowing all of that went into it. Especially the Buddhism class. It’s like Bill’s character.
Carter Bays: I tried to put a little of myself in all of the characters but with something missing. For Bill, I feel like there are similarities in our situation especially at the beginning of the book. He takes the Buddhism class at Columbia. I, like him, felt like something was missing. I had just finished this big project and didn’t know what to do next. Bill is sort of like me, minus the ability to hit the brakes and realize, “Okay, that was fun, but you have a wife—and in my case, I have kids, too.” It’s not so simple for Bill. He keeps going.
CF: I love the narrative structure of The Mutual Friend, and your experience in TV completely pays off. Going from screenwriting—especially short, episodic writing—to novel writing, what have been some of the hurdles and unexpected joys of that process?
Carter Bays: The book wasn’t always a novel. It started out as a pilot I wrote and ended up developing with Craig Thomas. We tried to sell it as a TV show, and it didn’t go. With Craig’s blessing, I went off and wrote it as a book.
I always loved outlining with How I Met Your Mother. I’m a big outliner. I’m not a big “pantser,” as they would say in the business. I love setting traps and springing them and figuring out exactly where to set them and make two storylines intersect. I love that stuff. I love those logistical challenges in planning a story.
(According to writersdigest.com, “a pantser is a term most commonly applied to fiction writers, especially novelists, who write their stories "by the seat of their pants.")
Carter Bays: A lot of the storyline of the book came about while I was still thinking of it as a TV show. When you write pilots, it’s like you write the first chapter of a story. You learn you’re going to write a lot of pilots before one of them actually makes it. I got tired of writing “chapter ones.” I decided I need to tell this story—I needed to tell Alice’s story and find out if she could pull this thing off. If I can’t convince some TV studio to give me $2 million an episode to find out if Alice can pull it off, I have Microsoft Word on my computer, and I can find out for myself. I was writing—for myself—the kind of book I would want to read.
There are a few moments in the book where I realized, “Oh, I can do a lot more with a novel than I could do with the confines of a show.” For instance, there’s a scene where Roxy checks in with her friend in Hawaii to get a recommendation on her new roommate. We cut to her friend on a beach in Maui. As I was writing that, I felt my former line producer from How I Met Your Mother, Suzy Greenberg, go, “We’re not going to Maui for half a page of a script!” So I sort of loved that. It’s a book! Ink and paper cost the same no matter what’s on it.
I had really been falling in love with literature again. I was reading lots of Tolstoy. I had a lot of gaps in my reading that even as an English major, I never got around to, or probably was supposed to but didn’t read. Lots of Jane Austen. The one actually that really opened me up to the possibilities within a book was Ulysses by James Joyce. I took another class at Columbia on James Joyce. Just reading Ulysses is such a monumental thing to do, but I recommend it to anyone who has the time set aside to really spend six months on one book. It’s worthwhile.
Writing a novel felt like finding out there’s a really fun party next door that you should go to. Television is fun, but you can do so much with a book. I came to the party and brought over some ice, and I don’t want to leave now.
CF: I love that! One of my favorite Dolly Parton songs is “Two Doors Down,” and it’s about that idea of a party happening that you don’t want to miss out on... I will also say that your answer was so well-done that it preemptively answered some of the following questions we had. What changed from the pilot of The Mutual Friend when you turned it into a novel?
Carter Bays: A lot of things changed, and yet, a lot of things didn’t. Just walking my kids to school every morning and walking back from 91st Street to 114th Street, I spent a lot of time living with these characters. I do a lot of my writing while walking around. A lot of it stayed the same. While writing the book, I was beginning to burst at the seams with ideas and things that I wanted to put into the story. For the longest time, I thought they were scenes for a TV show, but then I realized, “Oh no, they’re scenes from a book.” Being able to tease out the central surprise—and I don’t want to give anything away—but the narrator. I’ve always had a fascination with narrators. Like with How I Met Your Mother. So much of what makes that show unique is the way it was narrated. I found myself really interested in the concept of the omniscient narrator. It lent itself to this particular story. I was really interested in how much digitalized information there is right now. I don’t have the statistics in front of me, but it’s something like the world’s collected information doubles in size every three weeks. It’s massive. [Cathleen has redacted the following portion because it gives too much away.] That was something that was sort of in the show version, but I got to explore it even more as it became a piece of prose.
GE: In writing by yourself, for yourself, did you ever find that you missed having a writer’s room?
Carter Bays: Very much. Very, very, very much. That’s the best thing about television: the collaboration. How I Met Your Mother was such a wonderful collaboration. I remember when we said we were going to do a ninth season. We were aware of where fans stood on it, and we knew people liked the show, but it was also kind of like, “Okay, guys, wrap it up here. Really, another season?” Some people were like, “They’re just doing it for the money!” I’m telling you, it was absolutely selfish, but it had nothing to do with the money. It was the selfish desire to keep this family together and to keep working with these people. I remember the last day of shooting—I was talking to Pam Fryman who directed almost every episode of the show and one of my best friends in the world and one of my true mentors in art and in life. I told her I felt lucky we had this ninth season to appreciate. It was really a victory appreciation lap. She said, “Well, I hope you appreciate it because you’re going to spend the rest of your life chasing this feeling, and you’re never going to find it.”
CF and GE: Oh.
Carter Bays: It was kind of haunting but 100% true. [The How I Met Your Mother experience] was such an amazing thing, and I don’t know how Craig and I managed to build that. While it existed, it was just wonderful, and I truly treasure all of the people I worked with very much—and miss them very much. So that’s a big difference from that to writing fiction, which is me in a room, sitting at my computer.
The trade-off is while I miss that and collaborating—that’s the thing, though! Collaborating. Writing something 75% of the way and then Neil Patrick Harris takes it the other 25% and then another 20% and makes it hilarious. I love writing for actors, and I love writing with other writers. I love that interchange. After How I Met Your Mother, I spent a long time chasing—exactly like Pam predicted. Craig and I both tried to get new shows going. For whatever reason, they almost made it, but something happened. I started looking at my output as a writer and saw that I had a bunch of great first chapters that never happened. I heard someone else describe it this way—“A script is not a finished product. It’s a business plan.” You take it to a company and say, “I’m going to turn this into the finished product: a work of art.” I felt like my output for the last few years has been me writing things that haven’t happened yet. Craig and I wrote a movie, which we’re still hoping gets made, and I think the best thing we’ve ever written. But right now it’s just a screenplay. I wanted to have one thing from this time in my life that when I finish it, it’s done. The work of art is completed. It’s not left unfinished in any way. If I don’t sell to a publisher and I take it down to Kinkos and print it out, I can put it on my bookshelf and point to it and say, “That’s what I was doing those years.” On one hand, all of this is ephemeral and it’s about enjoying the process—not a book on the shelf or a TV show on screen. It’s about enjoying creating art. But that impulse impelled me to write the book, and it’s something new. It was a bucket list thing.
CF: “Write a novel.”
Carter Bays: I don’t want to leave this earth until I’ve checked that off. I’m happy to have done that.
CF: The Mutual Friend is about the way we connect with others and how we’re constantly connected. Have you been the mutual friend for any far-flung relationships in the world where it comes back to you when someone says, “Oh, I met so-and-so who knows you…” or vice versa?
Carter Bays: Huh. That’s a great question. I’m maybe going to have to email you on that.
The postscript email:
Carter Bays: In LA, you’re always in a car, and you’re driving everywhere. It’s a very monastic existence, living in your car with your book on tape or your music. Walking in New York, you’re really aware that you are a minor character in this giant novel of humanity. There are so many people out there. Just the joy and serendipity of walking along the street and seeing a friend. Once, I ran into the actor Chris Diamantopoulos. You’d know him. He’s been in everything, and he’s lovely. He’s married to actress Becki Newton. We sort of vaguely knew each other, and then we ran into each other on the street. Just totally random. In midtown in the 50s. Just a quick “Hey, hi, how’s it going—we should get lunch. You guys are living here? Yeah, we’re living here too.” We ended up getting lunch, and now we’re best friends. We see each other all of the time. I don’t think that friendship would have existed if we hadn’t just bumped into each other.
Part of the fun of The Mutual Friend is seeing the connections that nobody sees. Again going back to the omniscient narrator. There is someone who can see. That’s something that really haunts me: the connections that I don’t know. Walking down the street, it’s fun to see someone you do, but also there’s the question of “This stranger passing by? Do we go to the same dentist? Did we date the same person twenty years ago?” There are so many mysteries like that. I feel like social media has collapsed the world. When you make a new friend on Facebook, you can go, “Oh, we both know this person!” I feel like there are so many of those connections that we miss.
CF: I was going to say a spoiler, but I’ll keep my mouth shut. Instead, I think you’ll appreciate this. There’s this movie 5 to 7, and there’s a line in it: “In New York, you’re always within 20 feet of somebody you know or someone you were meant to know.”
Carter Bays: Wow.
CF: I guarantee we probably passed each other on the street.
Carter Bays: Oh, for sure. Without a doubt.
CF: Fact and fiction might blur a bit. How would you describe your newfound literary style?
Carter Bays: That’s a great question! I was very nervous writing this because it doesn’t really fit into a genre. My publisher listed it as 'Romance' at one point. I don’t see it, but then I look at the profile of this book: It’s about a young woman in New York City, and there is a love story in it. Maybe it does fit the thumbnail sketch of those books. Not to take away from those books, but I’m not sure if that’s what I was aiming at. I think it’s an accumulation of different influences that I love. I think Tolstoy is one of my favorite writers. James Joyce, Jane Austen. Those three. That’s where I was aiming my arrow, and I probably hit way down here. I was going for a book in that tradition of funny and thoughtful and exploring deep ideas and presenting a full, three-dimensional look of different characters, and seeing them from as many different angles as possible. Dickens is a big influence also in the way I try to show a collapsed-down version of different tiers of the world and see them all together, against each other. I’m a big fan of Charles Portis just for his sense of humor and surprisingness. Music is a big influence on me, like the work of Radiohead. Radiohead doesn’t get enough credit as sci-fi writers. Some of the best sci-fi is albums like Kid A. "Paranoid Android" is one of my favorite songs. Artificial intelligence plays a part in The Mutual Friend. It was a big influence.
Carter Bays: I felt like “This is my book, and I just want to squish everything I like and am interested in and care about and just put it all into one. If I can get it to 200,000 words, then that will be a good record of who I was and what I was thinking about at this time of my life.” With the help of a great editor, I was able to get it down to 150,000, which is still a big book—but it’s a bargain! It’s a lot of book for your buck.
CF: That’s how I like ‘em! All of those authors wrote stories that are time capsules for those periods. You did that too with The Mutual Friend. You captured that 2015 existence, yet it felt relevant enough that I didn’t read it and think, “Oh, how twenty-fifteen!” [which is remarkable considering how integral technology is in the story.]
Carter Bays: It was like how James Joyce put a glass bell over the city of Dublin. He had some famous quote like—
“If Dublin were to be destroyed, Ulysses could be used to rebuild it brick by brick.”
And I wanted to capture that, but for the internet in 2015. What is it like living with a phone in our hands at this particular moment? I was also well aware that so much can change, especially with a book where there’s a good 15 months of lag time between when you finish it and it actually arrives in the bookstore. I had gone through this with How I Met Your Mother. When we were making How I Met Your Mother, we were reminded of those early hairstyles from Friends. We were just like “Let’s make something that feels crisp and timeless and does not do any jokes about what’s in the news because those jokes won’t play if this ever makes it to reruns twenty years from now.” With that in mind, I knew the book couldn’t be “Alice Quick woke up today! This story takes place right now!” I already knew it would be “Alice Quick went to check her MySpace page.” I decided to make it the summer of 2015, which is when this really started taking shape for me. I picked that time and said, “I’m just going to set it there.” Without getting political, politics went crazy right after that, and I’m glad I didn’t have to include any of that in the story. Also, the pandemic. I felt like the world started changing too much that now, looking back, 2015 was this prelapsarian, Garden of Eden time. Everything was simple then!
CF: So much more innocent!
Carter Bays: It’s already a period piece! That’s why I chose that particular summer.
CF: I have a couple of very specific Mutual Friend questions, so you can answer them speed-fire or not.
Carter Bays: Okay.
CF: Was the coffee shop you referred to with Hungarian pastries not the Hungarian Pastry Shop in New York?
Carter Bays: It was! It absolutely was. Of course! The string, the boxes.
CF: I thought surely it was, but in the acknowledgments, you list the places you went to in New York while writing the book, and I was ready to see the Hungarian Pastry Shop, but it’s not in there!
Carter Bays: That’s really interesting. The truth is I set it there because I love that spot. I would go there occasionally, but I never actually sat in there and worked. The place where I actually did most of the work was—at the time, Nussbaum and Wu. Now it’s Wu and Nussbaum. They probably had some deal where every 15 years they switched names.
Carter Bays: There were things about the Hungarian Pastry Shop that I loved. How old it was, the graffiti on the walls, so I tried to incorporate that. It’s a hybrid of the two places.
CF: So this may have gone over my head, but it seemed as if you were intentionally vague with the description of Vanessa. Was that to replicate all of the years Bob went without knowing or…? What was the reason?
Carter Bays: A theme I kept trying to explore over and over again was the way we gather information in our world. As more and more information is available at our fingertips, we're able to find more and more. If we meet someone, you can Instagram someone, Google them, Facebook them. It feels like we’re fast approaching a place where you can know everything about someone right away. The uncanny valley nature of that is you never can truly know someone. There are always going to be questions and mysteries. There are a lot of variations on that theme and knowing but not knowing. Even the omniscient narrator doesn’t have access to some information. We just have to go through life knowing certain things are mysteries and unknowable. We’re not going to wait until we officially know everything about someone before we can love them. That was like Bob and Vanessa, two people who don’t really know much about each other but realize that what little they know of each other is no different than what people in the same room know of each other. You don’t need to see someone’s face or touch someone’s skin to love them. It’s a pure, epistolary romance that develops over the course of years.
CF: I specifically love the names you chose in The Mutual Friend. I remember reading "Pitterpat" for the first time, and I lost it. That was so good! Where did some of the names come from?
Carter Bays: All right, so Pitterpat. So much of the writing happened on the sidewalk, walking from my kids’ school back and forth. I think it was one of those I-don’t-know-where-it-came-from-but-it-popped-into-my-head and I thought, “Ooo, a character named Pitterpat!” I was calling her… I think her name was Suzy or something else, but I felt like “Her name’s Pitterpat.” Names are so crucial to unlocking a character. You find the right name, and—there’s a movie with Dan Stevens about Charles Dickens writing A Christmas Carol. I don’t know if this is a true story or if they just dramatized this for the movie. There’s this great scene where Dickens is trying to come up with the name for Scrooge. “Scroom. Scrunch. Scrounge.” He’s just saying all of these names, and when he says the word “Scrooge,” it’s like it unlocks something in his mind. He knows who he is. I think that’s very true. I definitely cast about for names. Sometimes you get stuck with names. I kept getting the note that Bill and Bob’s names were too similar. But I just felt like Bill is such a Bill! That’s who he is. He’s this all-American success story. That’s who he is. And Bob—
CF: Oh, Bob is such a Bob.
Carter Bays: There are so many iconic Bobs. Bob from Twin Peaks, which I don’t know if that really influenced it. At one point my kids came up with “Bobert.” They were like “Why is it ‘Robert’ if his name is Bob? Shouldn’t it be ‘Bobert?’” And that became a hilarious joke in the family. They were 3 or 4 at the time, but they started saying “Bobert” over and over. And that just made its way in. His name is Bobert Smith. That became a whole “Oh! And that’s why when they Google him, they can’t find him because his name is Bobert Smith.” There’s also Robert Smith of The Cure.
"Yes, I sometimes even tried to catch her
But never even caught her name."
-The Cure, "Catch"
Carter Bays: For the longest time, I thought of “Bobert Smith” as a bug, but I realized it was a feature.
[Carter proceeds to say a few other things about why “Bobert Smith'' is a perfect name for Bob, but Cathleen redacts it because she doesn’t want to spoil the book for you. If you’re reading this and have also read The Mutual Friend/don’t mind spoilers, watch the video interview instead.]
CF: It’s so hard to side-step the good stuff!
Carter Bays: [Redacted for spoilers.] That was the inspiration for it.
CF: So you surrounded your mental interiors with the characters of How I Met Your Mother and The Mutual Friend for years. Now that those pieces are largely finished, do you find yourself still living with them, thinking about them, and developing plots for them?
Carter Bays: Um... No. It’s weird. They’re very similar. How I Met Your Mother was nine years. This was a good 6-7 years. It took a long time to come together. The difference being that one of them, I was writing with the entire audience looking over my shoulder as I was writing. People are falling in love with the characters as you’re writing them and writing about them online and tweeting about them. You don’t want to internalize their voices, but inevitably it happens. It becomes this shared experience. With the book, it was a totally different experience in that I really was the crazy guy on the subway having conversations in his head. It’s such a leap of faith to work on a story this long and not know if people will connect to it or if people will respond. That’s why it’s been so gratifying to see people have responded and that I wasn’t totally crazy. Once the book finished, I felt like “This is exactly where I want to leave the characters. I feel like it will be okay.” It felt like the right time and place to say goodbye. It’s funny, it was originally conceived as a TV show that would go many seasons. Yet now that I’m here, I think it’s a nice place to end their stories. I don’t find myself wondering what they’re up to.
CF: It ended where it needed to. I like that.
GE: Now that you’ve successfully entered the literary realm, what direction do you feel creatively drawn to right now?
Carter Bays: I feel like you just jumped out of my subconscious. I’ve been struggling with that. It’s hard. And all of the stuff I’ve said about TV and books—none of that has changed. I miss working on shows, I miss working in writers' rooms and working on a team. That’s great fun. But it’s also been a great experience writing this book. I’ve fallen in love with prose and writing fiction. I’d like to keep doing both. I have some irons in both fires right now.
I get asked what I’m working on next, and it’s hard because I have a few things that I’m doing. But I haven’t had “the thing” leap out yet that’s grabbed me the way Alice and her story grabbed me. I’m waiting for that to happen. I’m trying to be patient. It’s like fishing. You go to the river every day and throw your line and hope you catch something.
CF: We’ve just left New York, and we’re having the identity crisis that comes with leaving New York City. Do you feel like you’re a New Yorker even though you’re currently in LA? What state of mind are you in? How do you rationalize that experience?
Carter Bays: I do feel like I’m a New Yorker, I do. I have ping-ponged between the coasts for most of my adult life. I came out here for a number of reasons. Most of my friends are here, and most of my wife’s family is out here. If I do want to do TV, that’s all out here. New York is always there for me. I keep talking about James Joyce, but I also feel like he couldn’t write Ulysses or Dubliners from inside Dublin. He had to move to Paris and Zürich and Trieste. I think New York will always be my muse in that sense. It’s many people’s muse. I don’t think I’m alone in that. It’s fun to visit. I talked to my daughter, and she misses living there, but since moving, we’ve discovered that New York has great hotels! She said, “I wouldn’t want to move back because we wouldn’t get to stay in the hotels!
CF and GE: Aw!
GE: Now we’re going to move on to our Absolutely Anything questions, which you’ve never been asked before and will likely never be asked again.
Carter Bays (with gravitas and deep knowing): Okay.
CF: You said you would go to an office, light a candle, and get to work on The Mutual Friend. What candle scent is most emblematic of that period for you?
Carter Bays: Wow… What was I using? It was Le Labo Santal… Santal something. I can’t remember. 75?
Carter Bays: Here’s the back story. My office was a little apartment on Gramercy Park, which is one of my favorite places in New York City. I had a view of the park from this little room. It’s right across from the Gramercy Park Hotel. They had a great bar there that I think is now closed. I don’t know if it’s ever opening again. They were famous for their lobby having this scent. I think Le Labo did their scent for the lobby also, but it was very distinct and iconic. They made sure you couldn’t get that exact scent, but Santal was similar to it. It had sandalwood.
GE: What app do you feel like you unfortunately spend the most time on?
Carter Bays: I just shut down Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. I had a moment yesterday where I was like “I had been thinking about doing this for so long.” I didn’t want to do the “Well, everyone, I’ve decided to leave!” I did that on Facebook, and I sort of said, “Here’s my email if you need to reach me.” I also worry that people are going to think, “Oh… He’s in trouble. He’s shutting down all of his accounts. What’d he do?” I’m on Day One of this, so who knows how it will turn out.
Reader, Carter Bays is back on Instagram. Follow him @carterlbays.
Carter Bays: For a while, and less and less so lately, I felt like I was living on Twitter. It was my social life. It was enjoying so much real estate in my brain that I wanted to give to other things and give to one-on-one interactions with people. I want to start having lunch with people more often and have people over for dinner.
Reader, Carter Bays is completely off of Twitter. This interview was done in September 2022 before the mass Twitter exodus.
Carter Bays: I feel like we’re tricking ourselves when we say, “Oh, I’ve kept that friendship maintained because I liked that tweet they did.” For comedy writers, Twitter has democratized comedy writing in such a way that it’s a little haunting for me. I started out writing for David Letterman and writing Top Ten jokes. At that time in 1997, getting that job was so exciting. It felt like, “I’ve got this specialized skill, and no one else can do this.” And really, no one else had the reach. It was broadcast TV. Cut to today: Top Ten jokes were essentially ten little tweets. Now, anyone has as much reach as a writer from David Letterman. It’s been very humbling to realize, “Oh, I’m not the funniest person in the world. There are a hundred people who are funnier than me. There are a thousand people who are funnier than me.” I’ll write a tweet, and it’ll get maybe 16 likes. I’ll be like, “Oh, okay! I did a good job on that one.” Someone else will bang something else, and it’ll get 6,000 likes. You sort of realize how much gatekeeping was going on back in the structure of four networks and that’s all the comedy that gets pumped into America’s brains.
CF: Whatever you do, don’t let yourself get on TikTok. At any point in time.
Carter Bays: My daughter wants to join, but I’m resisting.
CF: Are you familiar with the social media practice of the finsta?
Carter Bays: The finsta?
Carter Bays: Yes, I think a senator used it in his speech. It’s like a fake Instagram.
Carter Bays: It’s your sneakin’ around Instagram.
CF: Yes, your alter ego Instagram! As a member of the Finsta Age, I’ve narrowed down the finsta username into a formula. It’s essentially a pun of your name or a niche interest or an inside joke plus your favorite numbers, which tend to be your birthday.
Carter Bays: Ooo, okay.
GE: For example, Alice Quick might use a finsta username of @thequickdoctor or Roxy might use something banana-related. Knowing all of this, if you were to have a finsta, what would your username be?
Carter Bays: Hm… This is assuming I don’t already have one.
Carter Bays: This is what it would be, but I kind of blew it. I recently changed my Instagram handle to this but changed my mind because I thought it was too silly. You know Cardi B, the singer? Her Instagram is @iamcardib. So I made mine @iamcartyb.
GE: That’s GOOD!
CF: That’s finsta material.
GE: How I Met Your Mother begins in 2005 New York. The Mutual Friend begins in 2015 New York. What do you predict you will write that takes place in 2025 New York?
Carter Bays: Wow. That’s a real head-scratcher because I don’t know. So much of the book definitely took shape in the first big bang of inspiration over the first summer that I lived in New York, but it took a while to become what it became. I’m not having that big bang of inspiration right now, but I feel like it could start happening. I want to write about being a father and my family. That’s something I haven’t really explored. Because I’m in it right now, it’s hard to write about fatherhood and feel like I have a narrow take on it. I think something about family, starting a family, and being a dad. I kind of wrote about it with How I Met Your Mother. It’s funny watching old episodes now and relating more to Bob Saget. God rest his soul.
CF: What age do you think you’ll let your kids read The Mutual Friend?
Carter Bays: My daughters are 11 and 10, and they want to watch How I Met Your Mother. They’ve snuck in a few episodes, and I know their friends are watching it. There’s grown-up content in it, and then there’s grown-up content that your dad wrote. I’m hesitant to let them watch it, but I’m sure it’s going to happen eventually. With The Mutual Friend, I’d love for them to pick it up as soon as possible. For a while there, as I was writing it, I was like, “Ooo, no, not this particular chapter or scene. I don’t want them to ever read this.”
They say when you’re writing a book, write it for a specific, targeted audience. Like you’re telling the story to one person. I think I was imagining my kids as adults. I think that was my target audience. I set out to tell a story that twenty years from now, will give a pretty good idea of what it was like at this particular time in history. I’m really fascinated with the way current fiction can have historical value. If you’re going to learn about the customs and practices of marriage in rural England in the early 1800s, you’re going to read Jane Austen because it will tell you more about it than reading an Encyclopedia entry. I tried to write with that in mind.
CF: Okay, picture this. You’re at a party.
Carter Bays: Yes.
CF: The DJ just dropped the beat and dropped dead, but the music must play on. Someone asks, “Was anyone here a DJ in college?” You raise your hand.
GE: It is now your responsibility to keep the music going. Off the top of your head and in the heat of the moment, what is your go-to song to pump up the crowd?
Carter Bays: Off the top of my head, it’s “Got Your Money” by Ol’ Dirty Bastard ft. Kelis.
CF: It turns out you misread the room. The party doesn’t need a fun pump-up jam, people just witnessed the DJ drop dead after dropping the beat.
Carter Bays: Oh my gosh.
CF: What this party needs is a song that—to quote Ted Mosby—is “hauntingly beautiful.” What hauntingly beautiful song are you going to play next?
Carter Bays: “Où va la chance” by Françoise Hardy. It’s this lovely heart-driven ballad in French. It’s just what this party needs.
CF: Gabby and I are best friends, but when people ask us who we are to each other, we find that “roommate of the mind” really succinctly captures that dynamic. I think anyone who would understand the depth of roommate relationships would be you. You and Craig Thomas were roommates, Ted and Marshall were roommates, and Alice and Roxy were roommates in The Mutual Friend. So we have a couple of roommate-related questions for you.
GE: The first one being: What is your tip on how to be a good roommate?
Carter Bays: Cleanliness. That’s a big one. Finding ways to give each other space as much as possible. Craig and I were roommates but even as writing partners, we realized very early on to give each other the space to do our own work. When that work is ready to show to the other, then bring it in. For the first season of How I Met Your Mother, there were moments when we were sitting at computers side-by-side. You need to let one person drive at a time. Let one person take the wheel, and the other one takes the backseat and doesn’t bark orders from the back. It evolved into a system where we would divvy up the season. 12 of the episodes would be his; 12 would be mine. It was so much easier and so much more fun. I always felt very lucky that I had the smartest and funniest writer I knew there as a backstop to make sure I don’t write anything too terrible and vice versa.
GE: Out of all of the characters in the Carter Bays universe, whose New York apartment would you want to live in the most?
Carter Bays: People ask me what How I Met Your Mother character I relate to the most, and I always say the Captain. I just want to live the Captain’s life. I don’t even need to be rich, I just want to have his level of delight in all things nautical. I’m a bit of a boat guy, but I’m not a full-stop boat guy. I always pull myself back from going “full boat.” But I love that about him. He’s a simple man who knows what he likes and knows what his decor style is and just goes for it.
Carter Bays: Just one room of the Captain’s apartment, though.
CF: Where was your first New York City apartment?
Carter Bays: The first one was on 63rd between Amsterdam and West End. Right behind Lincoln Center. The next one after that sort of became the How I Met Your Mother apartment was on 75th Street between Amsterdam and Columbus. That was in the heart of the Upper West Side. We were across the street from Dive 75, and I think it’s still around. Exterior-wise, it’s kind of what MacLaren’s was based on. This idea of a local bar that’s on the first floor of a brownstone.
GE: Who do you think lives in those apartments today?
Carter Bays: That’s a really good question. I’ll tell you the one that I really think about. There was one summer in New York when I had just bought my first apartment, but it wasn’t ready, and my lease ended. I needed somewhere to stay for the summer. I lived in a basement apartment in Williamsburg for the summer, and in this apartment, there was a blue tree. If you’ve read the book, it features in The Mutual Friend. I want whoever lives in that apartment now to read this book and go, “That’s got to be my apartment!” That’s my dream.
CF: That is… So. Cool.
Carter Bays: I don’t know if it was legally an apartment. It was a little musty. They may have shut it down.
CF: I don’t know… With this summer’s housing… The blue tree may have been an amenity.
Could this be the rest of the rest of the apartment's blue decor?
CF: While it feels criminal to leave without talking about one of the best shows of all time further, I think this is a testament to how great The Mutual Friend is.