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Behind the scenes with the obsessive-compulsive star-slash-creator-slash-writer-slash-everything of Fox’s postapocalyptic new sitcom ‘The Last Man on Earth’

Will Forte greets me outside the bathroom, extending his hand as I zip up my fly. We are at the production offices of his new television show on the far northwest side of the San Fernando Valley, and I’ve shown up early for our interview. It’s still 12 minutes until we’re scheduled to speak, but Forte is in the lobby shaking my hand and apologizing profusely for keeping me waiting. He hopes I’ll understand that he has to spend just a few more minutes overseeing the editing of the eighth episode of The Last Man on Earth, his postapocalyptic sitcom premiering Sunday on Fox. (The title more or less functions as a plot synopsis.) After that, Forte will give me all the time that I need. This winds up being nearly two and a half hours.

Forte is Last Man’s star, creator, writer, executive producer, and showrunner. Juggling all of these responsibilities — talking to me is merely the latest chain saw to be tossed into the air — seems exhausting, an assumption I base on the doggedly tired look in Forte’s eyes. Take all the time you need, I tell him. I’ve been primed for Forte to act this way.

“One of the nicest people you’ll ever meet,” Seth Meyers told me a few days earlier. “Get ready for a lot of politeness,” concurred MacGruber director Jorma Taccone. They weren’t exaggerating. Forte is a compulsively generous man. Before we settle in at a conference room upstairs, Forte decides to make us coffee — a mild espresso for me, a cayenne-pepper-accented cup for himself. (“It gives a sense of danger to coffee,” he explains.) We’re making small talk about his beloved Los Angeles Clippers, and he is encouraging me to see the game that night versus the Sacramento Kings at Staples Center. Forte became a season-ticket holder in the late ’90s, back when he was a writer and producer for That ’70s Show and the Clippers were known as That 60-Loss Team. When Forte moved to New York City in 2002 to join Saturday Night Live, he gave his tickets to Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, the writer-director team behind The Lego Movie and the 21 Jump Street films, and now Forte’s co–executive producers on The Last Man on Earth. (Forte’s character’s name, Phil Miller, is an amalgam of their names.)

His return to California — Forte’s average-guy handsomeness and humility read as Middle American, but he was actually born and raised just outside of San Francisco — came just in time for the Clippers’ ascendant Blake Griffin–Chris Paul era. But lately there’s been little time for basketball. Work on The Last Man on Earth began last March, just after Forte wrapped the awards season death march for his affecting dramatic turn as David Grant in Alexander Payne’s Nebraska. Because Forte has a hand in every facet of Last Man — not only did he write the first of two episodes airing Sunday, he’s also in every scene — he has had virtually no time for anything in his life other than this project.

All of that work hasn’t been for naught: The Last Man on Earth is unlike anything else on network television. Lord and Miller approached Forte with the idea of a half-hour comedy about a guy who survives a plague that wipes out the rest of human civilization in 2020. Initially, the concept seemed a little too “cartoony” to Forte, but over time it developed a “sad, somber side,” grounding Last Man in the reality of a lifetime of perpetual loneliness. Forte stresses that Last Man should still be categorized as a comedy — there are plenty of masturbation and “pissing in a swimming pool because the plumbing doesn’t work” jokes. But there’s genuine pathos lurking in the background of every scene.

Saturday Night LiveMary Ellen Matthews/NBC

It’s impossible to discuss what happens in the first two episodes without spoiling how Last Man subverts its own premise. (Make what you will of Kristen Schaal’s and January Jones’s involvement, though keep in mind that there are flashbacks and fantasy sequences.) But if you like Forte’s work, you probably know what to expect. Whether it’s MacGruber, the Falconer, the “Potato Chip” sketch, or countless “10-to-1”1 classics treasured only by SNL cultists, Forte’s specialty is taking an idea that might seem one-note or downright dumb and fleshing out the unexpected nuances. This applies even to his non-comedic roles, like the good son quietly battling a drinking problem Forte portrays in Nebraska. No matter the part, Forte projects a certain “I’m barely holding it together” quality — his forte is presenting a facade of normalcy that slowly comes undone from all the dysfunction pulsating just below the surface.2

“I loved working with him; I did not like writing with him,” Seth Meyers says. “If he wasn’t a nice person, no one would work with him.”

“I don’t know what people think this show is going to be,” Forte says once we sit at the conference table, “but it’s probably way different than what they’re imagining.”

I met with Forte last Saturday, the day before the Oscars. He’s been so busy, he says, he saw just one of the nominated films for Best Picture, but his frazzled brain can’t remember which one. Weekends have been relatively easy — work from 9:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m., and then more writing at home. During the week, however, the schedule has been more like 6:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., every day, for months and months, though with shooting of the season-concluding 13th episode scheduled to wrap the following Monday, a little daylight is about to enter into Forte’s work-only existence.

“I feel like I’ve always been a hard worker — working too much on things that I don’t need to work on. Nothing’s ever going to be perfect, but I still feel like there’s this attainable perfection, which doesn’t exist,” he says. “I drive myself crazy. I’m a control freak, a perfectionist, OCD, and I just go into hyper-focus. At least in the experiences I’ve had before, I’ve had little periods of time where I could decompress, and this has been a period, a long period, with no decompression.”

Forte mentions OCD a lot in interviews. It’s not clear if he’s ever been formally diagnosed. (“An old girlfriend took me through this OCD questionnaire,” he says with a chuckle. “It was like, ‘You should talk to somebody immediately about this.’”) When Forte appeared on the WTF podcast in 2014, and Marc Maron did his requisite interrogation of Forte’s background in search of The Darkness That Exists Inside The Hearts Of All Comedians, what Maron found was a relatively well-adjusted guy. Forte describes his childhood as happy: His dad was a financial broker, his mom a schoolteacher who gave it up to raise him and his older sister. Though Forte’s parents later divorced, they remained friendly enough to reconvene for the sake of the children each Christmas.

In the WTF interview, Forte brings up OCD in the context of his inability to leave parties without ritualistically bidding farewell to every casual acquaintance. (Forte, 44, has never been married, which he blames on his impulse to put everybody else ahead of whomever he’s dating.)3 I notice this reticence to end a conversation when it’s time for me to leave — Forte walks me to my car, tells me about the best beaches to hit up later in the afternoon, and insists on giving me his phone number should I have any follow-up questions. Only then is he satisfied that he’s properly closed our loop.

Repetition to the point of tedium is also key in Forte’s comedy — he auditioned for SNL with an old bit from his days with L.A.’s Groundlings in which he plays a gold-painted street performer who says “cock” dozens of times in the space of just a few minutes. There’s also that endless sex scene with Maya Rudolph’s ghost in the feature film version of MacGruber, which goes from funny to exasperating to hilarious to disturbing and then back to hilarious as it just keeps going and going (and going and going). And then there’s the “Fart Face” sketch, one of the most infamous bombs in SNL history, which will surely be studied 200 years from now when our alien overlords research human history’s landmarks in anti-comedy.

Is it possible that real-life Forte is also presenting a nice-guy front that contains a complex, interconnected phalanx of demons and neuroses? In fairness, that’s basically true of everybody, though in Forte’s case his amiability is balanced by a creative intensity that borders on unhealthy. He’s overwhelmed on Last Man only because he’s not comfortable ceding control to others. He needs to be here all the time to make everything go exactly right. This show is a giant oven, and Forte is repeatedly checking that all the dials are in the “off” position.

The same friends and colleagues who warned me about Forte’s boundless kindness are quick to add that he’s among the most uncompromising people they’ve ever worked with, a guy who’s brilliant and bullheaded in equal doses.

“I loved working with him; I did not like writing with him,” Meyers says. “If he wasn’t a nice person, no one would work with him.”

Back when Forte made his introduction down by the office john, I was surprised I could see his face. The massive bird’s nest of mountain-man beard bulk that he sports in Last Man’s promotional spots is gone, save for a heavy dusting of scruff that complements his shaggy hair. Forte admittedly has a thing for facial hair — he’s never been able to resist putting on a mustache to goose the ridiculousness of characters like ESPN anchor Greg Stink or that guy who plays in a Bon Jovi opposite cover band.

“I cannot pull off a mustache. It’s like threading a needle, because most of the time, I’ll look like a complete idiot,” he says. “There was one time, I think, I kind of pulled it off. I had to have this mustache for a movie I was doing [2014’s Life of Crime]. I needed a little bit of scruff down here, because if it was just a mustache and no scruff, it was dipshitty. But there were, like, two or three nights in a row where I was like, ‘This look actually works. I’m almost, dare I say, a badass right now.’ And then it went away.”

will-forte-last-man-on-earth-foxFox

As with everything concerning The Last Man on Earth, Forte put an ungodly amount of thought into his beard. A fake was out of the question — fake beards immediately read as comedic, and Forte wanted his bountiful bristles to convey a man who has given up on life. But how long should his beard be, precisely? Forte sought to emulate a desperate survivor, not one of the Avett Brothers. (“This is the thing that differentiated it: Nobody does the side stuff,” he says. “It’s, like, the Guinness book guy who has that.”) Forte originally wanted the beard to grow bigger and bigger in the pilot, presenting a follicle-based metaphor for his character’s mounting melancholy. But “you have different directors coming in each week and it’s just a production nightmare,” so the idea was reluctantly scrapped.

Forte applied the same fastidiousness to his work on SNL, which is why Meyers didn’t like writing with him, “mostly because I like to write fast and Forte will really spend an hour talking about where a comma is.” But when Forte would finally present a sketch, it was like a Thanksgiving feast being served at the writers’ table.

“You know, SNL reads through about 40 pieces [per episode] — some are good, some are bad, different writers have different sorts of DNAs as far as what kinds of sketches they wrote,” Meyers says. “Forte’s pieces, everyone looks forward to, because he was a guy building a ship in a bottle. The attention to detail was always such a delight to see.”

For The Last Man on Earth, it’s not a question of whether the finer points will pay off (they do in the two episodes I’ve seen), but rather if the audience most likely to appreciate Forte’s beard-heavy comic minutiae will discover it in time. Last Man has the look and feel of a cable show — Forte cites Breaking Bad as an inspiration4 — but it can’t get away with cable-show numbers. It must instead bear the expectations and baggage of a network sitcom. Last Man has been marketed as a broad comedy, which might disappoint those expecting a punch line every 30 seconds and repel the very people interested in the sort of idiosyncratic oddity that Last Man really is.

macgruber-will-forteUniversal Pictures

This is not a new problem for Forte: Those of us who treasure 2010’s MacGruber as a subversive tribute to ’80s action movies with an incompetent, unlikable jackass subbed in for Rambo still have to counter the prevailing wisdom that it’s just another lame SNL retread. It took years for the movie to finally have the cult following it always deserved. Last Man probably won’t have that kind of time.

“My track record suggests that I’m not quite a mainstream darling, that’s for sure,” Forte says. “I don’t want to only cater to a small audience, but it’s just kind of worked out that way. The one thing that this show has going for it is that Chris Miller and Phil Lord are involved and they are able to strike that balance of doing unusual, unique stuff, but somehow being able to make it very accessible. It’s the hardest thing in the world to do. It’s something I’ve never been able to do.”

One less-than-accessible idea that Forte had for the pilot was to do it almost entirely without dialogue, which Fox resisted for obvious reasons, even for the cold open. (Forte spends much of the first episode talking to himself.) But overall, “the network was very good and supportive,” even as Forte dug in his heels, in spite of Last Man being “a show that probably makes them nervous, because it’s pretty different.”

“It took a while for us all to be on the same page in the way that it probably is for most pilots, but this one was really asking them to take a leap of faith, and they did take that leap of faith,” he says. “There are just things you can’t do on network TV, like language restrictions, stuff we can’t do anything about. But the stuff we can do something about, we did do something about.”

Saturday Night Live - Season 37Dana Edelson/NBC

If there’s a galvanizing moment in Forte’s career, it’s probably almost getting fired from SNL after his third season. Forte came very close to not even being on the show — he actually chose to not be on. Forte originally auditioned successfully in 2001, but he ultimately opted for the financial security of his high-paying That ’70s Show gig. It was the second time Forte had voluntarily walked away from a dream opportunity — in 1997, he left a job writing for The Late Show With David Letterman after only nine months. (“I just wasn’t that good at it,” he says now.) In the case of SNL, Forte rationalized not joining the cast by telling himself that the reality of SNL could never live up to the ideal in his mind. But after a year, Forte realized he was kidding himself out of fear, and when SNL called again in the wake of Will Ferrell’s departure, he signed on.

The stage fright persisted, however. Forte was fine acting in his own sketches, but interpreting the work of other writers froze him up. He felt he could hear those writers’ voices in his head, criticizing his every move. He’d spent enough time in writers’ rooms to know how they talked about actors. At the end of the 2004-05 season, Forte didn’t know if his contract would be renewed. SNL wanted a three-week extension to make a decision on his status, and then another three-week extension. Eventually, Forte got his renewal, but he was the last person brought back.

“When [Lorne Michaels] called to tell me, he said that I was too much in the writer’s mind-set, and that when it was somebody else’s sketch I had to take ownership of the character,” Forte says. “And of course in my head, I’m going like, That’s bullshit! What does he know? And he was absolutely right.”

After that, Forte’s M.O. was, “Fuck it, this is all gravy, I almost was not here.” By his fifth SNL season, Forte was loose enough to consider a little-loved pitch by writer Jorma Taccone originally earmarked for host Lance Armstrong, based on the ’80s action-adventure TV show MacGyver.

“The original pitch to Lance Armstrong was that he play MacGyver’s stepbrother MacGruber, who defused bombs only using pieces of shit and pubic hair that nobody else wants to touch,” Taccone says. “It got a huge groan in the writers’ room.”

Taccone had been a Forte fan even before joining SNL with his Lonely Island cohorts Andy Samberg and Akiva Schaffer. Taccone loved Forte’s uniform strangeness. (He was partial to the “Oh No” sketch.) Once Taccone started working on MacGruber with Forte and Forte’s longtime writing partner and “comedy soulmate” John Solomon, the character evolved from a one-joke poop-and-pubic-hair sketch to a miniaturist character study about a barely disguised egotist, narcissist, racist, misogynist, and all-around moron. While the sketch always ended with an explosion, the particulars of MacGruber’s awfulness accumulated with each installment, as it became one of SNL’s most reliable recurring favorites.

“It’s Will’s voice that’s really shining through,” Taccone says. “There’s so many little shitty-ass parts of that character I love.”

A well-received Pepsi ad starring MacGruber that aired during the Super Bowl in 2009 paved the way for the film. Taccone was tapped to direct, and he matched Forte each obsessive step of the way. MacGruber is littered with hyper-specific references to Taccone’s favorite movie, Die Hard. (For instance, the C-4 in the opening credits is the actual C-4 used in the Bruce Willis film.) Ringers like Val Kilmer and Powers Boothe were brought in and instructed to act as if they were really in a picture Joel Silver had produced in 1988. Budgeted at only $10 million, MacGruber still manages to look like a real, slick, and supremely stupid action flick. It should’ve taken over the world. Instead, MacGruber was excoriated by critics and bombed at the box office. Forte assumed that his shot at a film career was blown.

“The only other movie I had been a lead in was The Brothers Solomon, which did even worse at the box office,” he says. “It was like, ‘OK, well, I don’t know what the deal is, but I don’t think I’ll ever get a chance like that again,’ which was fine. When you make something that you’re really proud of and it doesn’t do well, you can live with it. The hard part is when you make something that you have to compromise on and it doesn’t do well. Then you go, ‘I friggin’ sold my soul.’ It’s not worth it.”

NEBRASKAParamount Vantage

When Nebraska established a beachhead for Forte’s career as a dramatic actor, headline writers recast MacGruber as the “rags” portion of his career arc. (Just do a Google search for “From MacGruber to Nebraska” stories.) It’s true that Forte’s film career is back on an upswing: Later this year he’ll star with Owen Wilson, Jennifer Aniston, and Imogen Poots in Peter Bogdanovich’s She’s Funny That Way, and as the enticingly named Pastor Fontaine in Napoleon Dynamite director Jared Hess’s Don Verdean. But if Forte has his way, he’ll also eventually star in MacGruber 2.

That’s right, true believers: An outline is in the works, the cast is down to return, and Forte and Taccone are clearly giddy about expanding the MacGruber universe. It’s just a matter of when Forte has time to work on a script. Right now, he’s hoping The Last Man on Earth gets renewed for a second season, after which he’ll tackle MacGruber 2. But if Last Man gets only one season, and somebody decides to finance these maniacs, we could be seeing MacGruber thrusting vigorously into Vicki St. Elmo a little sooner.

Perhaps the prospect of doing a sequel to MacGruber — which grossed about $9 million, even less than the film’s relatively tiny budget — could be chalked up as more stubbornness. But mainstream acceptance isn’t Forte’s no. 1 priority. Taccone recalled a prospective 10-to-1 sketch back in the SNL days that Forte wrote about a couple on a date in which the guy and the girl keep revealing secret identities — the woman turns out to be actually Chinese, and the guy turns out to be actually Australian with a truly awful Will Forte Australian accent.

It goes on like that forever — too long, in fact, for the sketch to make it on the show. But then Taccone figured out a way to shorten the sketch so the premise still worked and it could get on air. And Taccone really wanted it on SNL, because it was almost too bizarre for network TV. But after looking at the truncated version of his sketch, Forte decided he’d rather not do it at all.

“His commitment to comedy, his comedy, was so strong that he was like, ‘I’d rather not have it on television than do it wrong.’ And all I could think was, He’s right,” Taccone says. “It also frustrated the hell out of me. I wanted to kill him at that moment, but you have to respect it. There’s so few people willing to protect the right kind of comedy.”

Being an inherently nice guy can make those battles awkward. But it’s also what gives Forte the armor to fight another day.

“I believe in human decency and I am very respectful, I like to think. But when it comes to comedy, I become a different person,” Forte says. “That’s where I will fight. I keep hearing throughout this process [for The Last Man on Earth], ‘You gotta pick your fights.’ And I go, ‘Everything’s a fight.’”

Filed Under: TV, the last man on earth, Saturday Night Live, nebraska, WILL FORTE, Seth Meyers, SNL, MacGruber, 10-to-1, Comedy, phil lord, chris miller, Fox

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Steven Hyden is a staff writer for Grantland. His first book, Your Favorite Band is Killing Me, will be released in May.

Archive @ Steven_Hyden