CENTURY CITY, Calif. -- The "table read" is a TV sitcom tradition but not one that outsiders generally get to see. Sure, a few table reads have been included on TV show DVD releases in recent years, but it's still mostly a private affair as actors gather around a table to read a script aloud for the first time while the show's writers and producers listen and judge which jokes hit and which ones need work.
In mid-January on a 20th Century Fox soundstage, the cast of CBS's "How I Met Your Mother" read the script for the episode airing tonight in front of a crowd of TV critics. It wasn't the typical table read, but it served the same purpose: A chance for everyone involved in the show, including network and studio executives, to get a sense of the episode and later, out of earshot of the TV critics, to offer feedback.
Kourtney Kang wrote tonight's episode, titled "Hooked," and she described this particular table read as unusually smooth.
"Sometimes they go great; sometimes they don't. That was an amazing table read," said Ms. Kang, who graduated from the University of Pittsburgh in 1998 and from Carnegie Mellon University's Master of Fine Arts program in playwriting in 2000.
- When: 8 p.m. Monday, CBS.
- Starring: Neil Patrick Harris.
Now in its fifth season, "How I Met Your Mother" (8 tonight, KDKA) focuses on a group of five friends in New York, including womanizing Barney (Neil Patrick Harris) and the more milquetoast Ted (Josh Radnor), whose quest to meet his future wife is often referenced in brief flash forwards to 2030 as Ted tells his children the story of how he met their mother. So far viewers have not been made privy to the identity of the mother in question; tonight, country music star Carrie Underwood guest stars as a woman Ted hopes to date.
Cast members said the degree a script changes post-table read varies week-to-week.
"It's never like, oh, we have an entirely new show the next day," said actress Alyson Hannigan, who plays Lily.
"We'll tinker with little things here and there," said "Mother" co-creator Carter Bays.
Indeed, little changed from that table draft to the episode airing tonight. Some lines were cut, others added. A few lines of dialogue were transferred from one character to another. A term for affectionate nuzzling ("motorboat," look it up at urbandictionary.com) was dropped. But the changes, on the whole, were minor.
"I was on another sitcom before where they would radically change things," said Mr. Harris, who previously starred on NBC's short-lived 1999 sitcom "Stark Raving Mad." "There was a lot more network and studio involvement, and they were much more concerned about its success, and so there would be a whole new show the next day sometimes. The studio and network have been relatively hands-off. They get breakdowns of what the show's going to be well before they hear it now, so they don't change the structure too much."
Sometimes alterations become necessary for reasons other than comedy. In Ms. Kang's original script, a flashback was supposed to show Barney attempting to lure a woman to his apartment with an organ made of bones from the movie "Goonies."
"We could not get the clearances for it," Ms. Kang said. "So we ended up changing it to a trampoline."
Unlike traditional sitcoms, which are filmed in front of a studio audience, "How I Met Your Mother" is a hybrid show: It's shot over three days with multiple cameras running, but the show is not performed in front of a studio audience. This allows for more quick, cut-away scenes, including brief scenes in tonight's episode as Barney walks Ted through the history of occupations "to which Hot Girls have flocked."
The episode shows a fast succession of clips of women in the days of cavemen, in World War II and in the "Mad Men" '60s era.
"Sometimes our schedule revolves around that," explained cast member Cobie Smulders, who plays Robin. "We'll have to shoot [on] one set first because it'll be torn down that day, and then they'll build the next set that night. Our production crew, they're like magical elves. We show up and there's four new sets that they've worked on all night."
After Monday morning's table read, Tuesdays are devoted to rehearsals and scenes are shot Wednesday through Friday. But it's the table read that can set the tone for the week, and Ms. Kang was uncertain how tonight's episode would play in front of TV critics.
Cast members sat at the table and read the script, often laughing at scenes some seemed to be reading for the first time. Mr. Harris drank Red Bull, seated a few spots away from actor David Burtka, his partner who makes a repeat guest appearance on "Mother" as Scooter, a dweeby guy who has a crush on Lily.
"We usually have [table reads] in a much smaller room, and everybody there is a fan of the show or is employed by the show so they want it to be good," Ms. Kang said. "To go from that to the big stage, which can be a harsher environment where laughs don't come as freely, I was a little bit nervous. Then after that second page, I just breathed a sigh of relief."
TV editor Rob Owen: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1112. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook. First Published March 1, 2010 5:00 AM