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Top 50 Power Showrunners 2011

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    Carter Bays & Craig Thomas,
    David Strick
    Carter Bays and Craig Thomas
    How I Met Your Mother (CBS)

    Their series recently scored its sixth Emmy (for editing), had a fall premiere that was up 32 percent compared to last year's -- a feat rarely enjoyed by a show in its seventh season -- and they just inked a deal for another single-camera comedy project, The Goodwin Games, with 20th Century Fox.

    But two other milestones have Carter Bays and Craig Thomas giddy. "How I Met Your Mother just hit 16 million Facebook followers," says Thomas. "That's literally living proof of how invested fans are." Bays goes one further. "We're also the No. 1 most-pirated sitcom in the world," he says, laughing. "We're very proud of that!"

    It's just after 10:30 a.m., and the writer-producers are enjoying a rare private moment away from the rest of the staff inside the smaller of their offices on the Fox lot. "We often wish we could just come in here and lock the doors," says Thomas. "But as showrunners, we're at the head of this table, all eyeballs on us, so we have to pretend to have all the answers. Then we walk down the hall, begin sobbing and open the scotch. I don't know how sole showrunners do it."

    The friends, both 36, reflect on how far they've come since meeting at Wesleyan University: their junior-year internships at MTV that led to impossibly cool first jobs writing for David Letterman; the apartment -- and cat -- they shared in Manhattan; their move west in 2002 to sell a script about a group of young friends living in New York. "It wasn't a conscious choice, structuring the show with this dad telling his kids about his life in New York," says Bays. "But it's become a time capsule of our youth." Adds Thomas: "We've both become fathers while doing the show. Boring, old, married people."

    This moment of reflection is broken when Bays is summoned next door to Writers Room B. This morning's task is to comb through "Field Trip," an episode set to air later in the fall in which Ted (Josh Radnor) takes his architecture class on a field trip through Manhattan. Bays mulls over one joke for 15 minutes that centers on Robin (Cobie Smulders) being in therapy. "I just feel like I've seen that kind of gag in sitcoms a million times," says Bays. "Let's think of something else."

    Meanwhile, Thomas is making a rare visit to the set of HIMYM; so rare that his appearance elicits snarky fake surprise from the cast and crew. "Wow, you're here. It's like the fancy exec coming down from his shiny office," jokes Smulders, poring over her iPhone. Alyson Hannigan plays along. "When you're here, we start to panic: 'Oh no, what did I do wrong!' " she says, laughing. Emmy-nominated director Pam Fryman gives Thomas a squeeze: "We missed you!"

    Moments later, the cast is in place inside the oft-used bar set. Rounded out by Radnor, Jason Segel (Marshall), Neil Patrick Harris (Barney) and Harris' Harold & Kumar buddy Kal Penn (on hand for an arc as Robin's boyfriend, Kevin), they rehearse a scene from "Mystery vs. History," an episode set to air after "Field Trip," even though the latter is still being written. "We adjusted the schedule so we could get Martin Short to play Marshall's boss. A crazy flip-flop but totally worth it," whispers Thomas, headphoned and watching a monitor. Bays then appears for a quick powwow with Thomas. He receives the same nice-of-you-to-grace-us-with-your-presence jabs. "Yes, it's almost like science fiction, having us here at the same time," says Bays. "Who knew we were both real?"

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