Despite everyone’s insistence that cable is the place to find the best programming on TV, 31 episodes into its two year run, Last Man on Earth has proven network TV can still compete. Segmented into essentially three volumes (part 1 of season 1, part 1 of season 2, and part 2 of season 2), the show has continued to transverse sitcom conventions, not only in its high concept structure, but the social commentary and emotional truths it tackles.
Every volume has essentially used the comedy format and plot structure (the show centers around survivors of a massive apocalyptic virus) to address our most basic societal conventions and needs. Volume 1 eventually became a romantic comedy about the world’s worst guy (Will Forte’s Phil) choosing to evolve because fellow survivor-quickie wife Carol (Kristen Schaal) gave him a “second chance” at redemption. Season 2 picked up with the couple returned to “society” (the five fellow survivors who had banished Phil) and focused on the need for community (even a makeshift one) and anyone’s ability to grow (very gradually) into a decent person (along with one of the only non-judgmental polyamorist relationships on TV). And in part 2 of season 2, the show focused on the role of family, with several of the women planning to repopulate the Earth (Forte notes that a debate in the writers room among the female writers led to the characters split decision regarding having kids after the virus) and Phil reuniting with the astronaut brother (Jason Sudeikis) we learned about in the last episode of season 1.
Last night, the family was once again pulled apart, this time for good, when Mike contracted the virus and returned to the family home in Tucson to die alone. Phil followed, desperate to deny it was the virus, but also to be there for his brother until the end. That plot line was noticeably emotional for Forte, who during a Q&A at the Paley Center for Media last night, spoke of working with his SNL brother. “Certainly the stuff with Jason was special to me because he’s a guy I’ve spent so much time with, he’s like a brother. So it was a very emotional thing to go through that with him. He used to be in my life every day, but I don’t get to see him as much anymore. So this was a very special experience. So I just wanted to give this relationship its proper due. The tough parts in telling this kind of sad story was finding humor in it. But our writers have become very good at that.”
Instead of turning the half hour into a one-off drama episode or throwing in big, serious moments, the show stayed true to itself (and its characters) and peppered all the saddest moments with big laughs, including Phil and Mike resuming their prank war and “one of the saddest fart jokes.” In the sweetest moment of the show, Phil gave Mike the ball heads that had helped him survive two years of isolation. And then there was their sexiest scene of the show…Mike finally shaving the half haircut he’d given Phil when they first reunited. And because it’s the only song that would have been appropriate, the montage used the brothers’ favorite song, Falling Slowly from the movie Once.
Kristen Schaal, who also attended, joked that “the audience just hadn’t heard that song enough.” Forte explains choosing that slow love song for the brothers was an extended in-joke between he and Sudeikis, because it really is their go-to Karaoke song when they go out. And just as the characters got tired of the brothers’ un-ironic love for that song, Schaal showed similar exhaustion with the actor’s love for the song, recalling “There was one day on set when Dave Noel was directing and he was just like “I think we’ve got it” but Will kept wanting to get it from all the angles. There is a limit to that song.”
As for the shocking haircut, Forte spent a month walking around with half his body shaved…including his eyebrows which even hair and make-up told him would be a mistake. The idea for that visual joke came from Forte’s strange mind, recalling “That was really very early, months and months before we did it, I just woke up one day and thought let’s just do a half and half. I just liked that little section of me waking up, him saying burn and me going “burns on you, I like it this way.” That little section allowed us to keep it half and half for a while. And I couldn’t wait to do it.” He also had co-star Mel Rodriguez shave down (but he didn’t keep the look for as long), although Kristen Schaal’s request to take part in the antics didn’t work out, despite Forte’s attempts to justify giving Carol a weird haircut. Schaal does however have some say regarding Carol’s unique look, including issuing a mandate that Carol never wear heels, because according to Schaal “heels are so dumb.” Appropriately wearing red flats and a “Carol shirt” borrowed from wardrobe to the talkback, the show’s eternal optimist wears flowers and patterned clothing (compared to the sleeker high fashions Cleopatra Coleman, Mary Steenburgen, and January Jones’ wear), but asks she not look too childish.
Forte however, has no problem seeming childish as Phil. After all, a big part of the reason audiences tolerate him is because of his childlike perspective and “not knowing better.” Asked by a child in the audience who came up with some of Phil’s ridiculous ways of insulting people, Forte claimed it was simply because that’s how he talked in real-life with his sister. Basically, it’s all in his head, and the show has become an uncompromising attempt to put Forte’s vision out there.
In fact, despite criticism that the first season went too far making Phil unlikeable and turned off initial fans of the show, Forte claims that de-evolution of the character into one of the most despicable people on TV (worst man on earth) was exactly what they intended…because they wanted to show a character that despicable is still capable of real growth (“We realized he doesn’t need to make a full change, so long as he’s trying to change. But we can still have him make mistakes”). Schaal went a step further, saying “I think the minute he decided Carol was awesome, was the minute he became someone people could trust. And then he can be as stupid or goofy as you want. But he needed that one thing in the world to ground him, which was me.”
Forte is known to be one of the hardest working men in Hollywood because of the show’s long hours and high pressure (and his tendency to be a control freak). Working a schedule this year which forced him to rent an apartment closer to set and caused him to go up 6 pant sizes, he describes the 24/7 schedule as “It was really hard. It’s like a full acting day, so I can’t start writing until the evenings. And editing is on the weekends. So it’s 7 days a week. I love the show and am really proud of it, so it’s worth it. But I thought going into the second season, after doing it for a year, it would get easier, but that didn’t turn out to be that way.” Even with a dedicated writers’ room (including SNL/MacGruber writing partner John Solomon), the work load is still massive. His team of writers have been uncompromising with FOX for the most part (although a scene of Forte burning a dead body was cut), including the bottle episode focusing on Mike, but featuring none of the regular cast.
It all starts again in two weeks, and Forte used his break this season to star in David Wain’s biopic about National Lampoon founder, Doug Kenney. Asked if he’s become a better boss or easier guy to work with, Schaal (who spent a few days in the writers’ room herself this season) told the audience about her “boss” (a title she gives with her signature Louise Belcher sarcasm) “The thing I will say, I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone work harder than Will Forte. And I say that having worked alongside Tina Fey. She had Robert Carlock, so I felt there’s a little more of balance. Forte gives every ounce of himself to this thing. And I really appreciate you for doing that. And the thing about it is, for someone who works around the clock on the show…At the end of the day he’s never angry. He never yells at anyone or snaps. He’s still so incredibly fine. But I do think he’s insane.” Forte only proved his status as a nice guy when he made a bee line to a child in the front row holding a hand drawn picture of his character at the end of the event.
Despite Forte’s inability to hold Schaal’s hand in a natural manner (something Schaal took great pleasure in pointing out to the audience), the two clearly have great chemistry on and off screen, and that added to the romantic storyline between them this season by having them the only truly committed couple in the group. Schaal describes the appeal of their relationship being “They both feed each other’s zaniest in a really complimentary way, and don’t judge each other. So they’re allowed to flourish and become more and more ridiculous the longer they stay together, which only makes them more fun to watch. They just have each other’s backs no matter what, but it was earned because they found that after not getting along in the beginning.” Even before getting the part, Schaal was a fan of Forte’s, recounting “I said this to Christian Bale’s face, I met him at an awards show. I said, you’re my favorite actor. Well, you and Will Forte. I was a little tipsy, but it’s true. Forte is such an astonishing actor. Anything you give him, he nails it with such honesty. So I knew when I got the part that I’d just become a better actress with him. So every day is such a gift, because I get to lock in with him and be in a scene with him, and just give everything to him. And get paid for it. It’s like the best college, I feel so blessed.”
Forte is similarly in awe of Schaal, “From the moment we created the Carol character, even during the pitch I said “think Kristen Schaal” and there was never a casting process with her. We just asked her to do it.” Their mutual appreciation also extended to their co-stars. Schaal, a woman who admits to having intense celebrity crushes, misses the show’s first real causality, Boris Kodjoe (“I miss him, he’s so handsome. He told me to follow my dreams and stop being so negative in my trailer. Do you follow him on Instagram? He’s rarely wearing a shirt on Instagram. You’ve got to follow him”). Forte created Rodriguez’s role with him in mind after they appeared together in the movie The Watch, but he wasn’t sure if he could act because he had no lines in that movie. Turns out he can and Forte announced he expected him to win an Oscar in the future. The show already has an Oscar winner in the ensemble, Mary Steenburgen as wine enthusiast Gale. Schaal told the audience that more scenes with Gale is her wish for season three.
As for their season three plans, neither were eager to speculate or divulge clues about what’s to come. Both “joked” that it isn’t impossible to imagine their characters dying (although Schaal seemed visibly upset to hear Forte had a scenario for killing his character). It seems a given that Mark Boone Junior will be back next season, having ended with a cliffhanger of him approaching the Malibu home with machine guns and two people in medical containment suits. At this point, they won’t even tell who will be playing the two characters (although Schaal suggests Beyoncé would be a great choice). But after season two ended with January Jones’s character shotgunning Junior’s suspicious drone like the characters from The Walking Dead and Carol declared that they all have to calm down and be a lot nicer because their expectant children will only know this post virus world, so “this world can’t stuck,” seeing the arrival of both a physical and mental threat is full of comedy potential.