In Depth

Hot List: Craig Thomas & Carter Bays

Showrunners, “How I Met Your Mother”

Carter Bays and Craig Thomas are saving the sitcom, one joke at a time.

They’re hardly the only soldiers on the frontlines of network TV’s battle to keep half-hour prerecorded comedy alive for future generations. Chuck Lorre, Tina Fey and Greg Daniels are earning their bronze stars as well.

But those folks are veterans of TV comedy who found success on the small screen long before their current shows premiered. Mr. Bays and Mr. Thomas carved out their place among the comedy elite with their first at-bat, CBS’ charming, quirky yet mainstream hit “How I Met Your Mother.”

The spiritual successor to “Friends,” “HIMYM” seemed to finally get the attention of the pop-culture zeitgeist this past season. A high-profile guest turn by Britney Spears helped, to be sure, but so did a strong run of laugh-out-loud episodes when the show returned from its strike hiatus.

“Whatever that line is, we seemed to pass it this year,” Mr. Thomas said, noting he now sees references to “HIMYM” characters or catchphrases in magazine articles that have nothing to do with the show. Mr. Bays last winter saw a fellow airline passenger in a hockey shirt emblazoned with the word “Swarly,” a reference to the alter ego of Neil Patrick Harris’ Barney.

“Chuck” and “Gossip Girl” creator Josh Schwartz is an “HIMYM” fan.

“‘HIMYM’ stands out because it’s not only funny—in ways big and small—but because it’s emotional,” he said. “It has more feeling and poignancy than most romantic comedy movies. The characters are well drawn, the moments well observed, but it’s the emotional resonance they’re able to tap into in only 22 minutes that makes the show stay with you. That, and their ability to bend the form of the half-hour multicamera comedy as far as it will go—playing with time and structure and point of view to create a truly modern version of the network sitcom.”

One reason for “HIMYM’s” success is the authentic way it captures friendship, which is rooted in the fact that Mr. Bays and Mr. Thomas have been friends since they met at Wesleyan College more than a decade ago. They were in the college band together and then, during a summer internship at MTV, ended up pitching two series ideas to the network.

Those shows didn’t go forward, but Mr. Bays and Mr. Thomas started working together more often. After college, they went after a job on Conan O’Brien’s NBC show, but ended up on “Late Show With David Letterman.”

The pressure-cooker environment there prepared the men for the even more intense exercise that is running a weekly network sitcom.

“We realized you had to be good at delegating and trusting the other person,” said Mr. Thomas. “If we disagree, we have a system where the person who feels the most passionately about something wins.”

Mr. Thomas said not having a partner is almost unimaginable to him. “I don’t know how solo showrunners do it. I don’t know how you do it alone.”

Unlike many creators, who launch a show and move on, Mr. Bays and Mr. Thomas have been content to stick with “HIMYM.” This season will be critical, with the show expected to amass enough episodes for syndication.

Industry wisdom and TV history suggest the duo’s next project will be much anticipated. The success of TV writers such as J.J. Abrams and Ms. Fey and Judd Apatow almost makes the idea of a movie script logical.

“I have no sense of my career right now,” Mr. Bays said. “All I know is that we have this job to do. This is our focus.”