Fox’s new comedy series LAST MAN ON EARTH has been careful to not spoil the fun surprises they have in store for viewers, but suffice it to say, those not spoiled will have a great time watching and laughing along the way. The show is literally about the last man on earth.
Whatever the reason, everyone is suddenly gone and it is about one man’s journey searching for anyone out there and then realizing that he is it. So then the question becomes: what do you do with yourself? How do you pass the time when it is just you and you can go anywhere and do anything? As a comedy, the show plays nicely with wish-fulfillment and fantasies, like driving as fast as you want anywhere without stopping, shopping without money, and blowing things up to your heart’s delight. But underlying all those zany and crazy antics is a sense that, without other people, what good is it all?
Fortunately, THE LAST MAN ON EARTH maintains its sense of humor and with some great use of visual-whimsy, the show moves quickly forward without dwelling on the negative possibilities for too long. In fact, the show’s lead character must be applauded for his ingenuity in finding ways to pass the time and explore the world around him. Being THE LAST MAN ON EARTH can be exciting and tons of fun — and the show focuses on the fun and delivers some great laughs.
During a recent press call, creator/writer/executive producer and star, along with executive producers and directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller shared a few teasing thoughts on what inspired them to write the show and what they would do if they were suddenly the last man on earth.
How is it for you guys to be promoting and discussing this product that you’ve all been working on for so long and being very limited in what it is you’re able to say until the public gets a chance to check it out on Sunday night?
WILL: It’s definitely tricky. It’s been tricky because we want to find that right blend of explanation and description of the show, but we also want to save some of the fun surprises. And I guess, unfortunately, we’re not going to know until after Sunday if we’ve struck the right balance. I feel there are so many discussions. I know that I am more on the side of keeping the secrets. But then again, I’ve really never been in anything that people have gone to go see, so I’m not a marketing genius by any stretch.
PHIL: The trick for us is we want to protect the audience’s experience of watching the show. And part of it is getting to enjoy all of the delicious surprises. You guys have seen a couple of them but there’s a lot more to come, and it’s just one of the joys of Will’s writing. We feel like our job, and the marketing team has done a great job of saying, “Hey, kids, there’s a present under the tree.” But we still give everybody the opportunity to go under the tree and unwrap it instead of “Hey, Santa got you something, and by the way, Santa doesn’t exist and it’s a go-bot.” There’s no fun in that. I’m really happy that people have gone along with the ride, and all the press we’ve talked to, and Fox and stuff has been really on board with just trying to tease this out and sell the idea that there’s a lot of great surprises on the way. The one thing that’s challenging is seeing people say, “Oh well, there’s no way that concept can last for an entire season.” And then we’re sitting back here going, “You don’t know. There’s so much more to it than you know,” and not being able to say that. Hopefully we can get the message across that there’s a lot more to come and we just don’t want to spoil it for anyone.
WILL: Yes, and pretty much every episode ends with a twist, or a cliffhanger, or a new development, so it’s pretty fun.
How did you come up with the idea for the show?
CHRIS: Well, it was a team effort. Phil and Will and I hung out for several days. We wanted to make a TV show together, and we’ve been friends for many years.
PHIL: We came to Will, as a writer first, we said, “Look, I obviously would love for you to be in this.” But we met Will when he was a writer and that’s how he was paying his rent, and we just had so much respect for him and his voice and we just wanted to figure out the best vessel to get that on to television.
CHRIS: And one of the ideas that we tossed around was this idea of something that sort of takes place in a post-apocalyptic state, and all the questions that that brings up. It was something that Will sparked to immediately, and then basically went home and over a weekend wrote a treatment for an entire season, and it was amazing. So, it was just something that he was really inspired by, and we were just excited to help support his vision.
WILL: Yes, we knew that it was the right thing for us to work on, because once we settled on this concept it just jumped out at us. It was almost hard to stop typing, because it just was really like we had talked about, so many different areas and we’re trying to figure out how to turn it into a show, and then this just leapt out at us and it immediately felt like the right thing to do.
If you were suddenly the last person on Earth, what would be the first thing you would run to do?
WILL: A lot of the things that I would do are things that I actually do in the pilot in the first couple of episodes, a lot of wish fulfillment stuff. It doesn’t take much to make me happy, so if you give me a steamroller and some breakables I’m pretty good, or a flame thrower. But another thing that I think would be at the top of the list would be going and finding all the classified information that’s out there in Washington, D.C. and just figure out what really is happening with all these conspiracy theories. I love that stuff.
PHIL: I was just sitting here going: how do I not have a stock answer prepared for this question?
CHRIS: I like Will’s answer — go to Area 51 or something, and see if there’s actually aliens there.
PHIL: I honestly would be thrilled to just figure out how to make a fire and get back to basics. I’d kind of want to just see what it’s like to live in ignorance for a little while.
CHRIS: You could also drive this little spaceship if you go into Area 51. I’m just saying.
PHIL: It’s true. Go back to caveman times.
Coming back to television so long after CLONE HIGH and doing a live action series, what’s it like?
CHRIS: It’s been great. This cast is phenomenal. The show itself is so original and funny, and it’s been a real joy for us to work on something that is just good right out of the gate. And it’s been a really good way to get back into television, I’ve got to say.
PHIL: Yes, and we told this to folks on set and it’s well reported, it really is one of the most enjoyable professional experiences we’ve ever had, probably the most fun shooting on a set we’ve ever had. It all comes down to just having great collaborators and Will giving us such original material to start with, and being such a great creative partner on set. I’d say it couldn’t possibly be better. Certainly we would spent a lot of time writing on sitcoms and wound up on HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER it was the last thing we did before we went off to make CLOUDY, and we felt insane because it was the first show we’d ever worked on that went past 13 episodes. And the minute they hit Episode 17 we were like, “Alright, we’re leaving. We’re going to go try to make movies.” We left behind what would have been a very pleasant and comfortable life, and so it’s really nice to come back and work in television again and have it be just as satisfying as that experience.
Talking a little bit about Phil’s journey this season. As you’ve developed the show and as you guys have even figured out where you want to place him, what can we look forward to into how he’s going to grow and really what the point of his journey is for you guys as you’ve been crafting it?
WILL: It’s very hard to answer that question and not give away some very tightly held secrets for what happens down the line. I guess the best way to answer it is that we had a plan from the very beginning. We pitched the show with the general outline of the whole first season already pretty well thought out, and we certainly had to buckle down and figure out a lot of intricacies and pain in the butt stuff, but the big, bold strokes of the season were already formed. And Fox loved the idea and really supported us, and liked how we had envisioned the arc of the first season. They were really great about giving us just a ton of creative freedom. They were great partners. I think we always saw this as more of a cable show, to be honest. They claimed from the get-go that they didn’t want to change the tone of the show, and I think I went in with an eyebrow raised, thinking, “Okay, well when’s it going to come out that we have to change it around?” And they were great. They stuck by their pledge and let us make this different type of show. We’re so happy to have had this experience. It was just a great, great experience with Fox.
PHIL: I would also add that even though it’s a very unusual show, Will’s original pitch had and the show has red meat, emotional character arc for Phil Miller that is an extremely universal thing. I think that’s what Fox saw, is that the bones of this are something that, when I show my hipster friends, they think this show is amazing. And when I show my mom, she thinks the show’s amazing too, because she really relates to Phil’s struggle. When you’re asking about what’s this guy’s journey going to be like, we always talked about that this is a person who is very flawed, and a person who maybe needed the entire world to end in order for him to become his best self. And we’ve always talked about writing the show about somebody for whom the end of the world might turn out to be the best thing that ever happened to him, and over 100 episodes he basically turns into the person that we all hoped that he could be. . . But basically that was our big thought, well here’s a guy who maybe he wasn’t the best guy in the regular world, but if you took the regular world away, could he eventually get back to being the person that all of us hope that we can be.
You’ve played a lot of different characters, created a lot of different characters, what feels special about Phil to you?
WILL: Well, the exciting thing about this character is that it feels—I’m used to the experience at SNL, where I was an absurd character all the time, all these over-the-top characters, and had so much fun. It was such a blast. But I don’t know that people ever really got to know who the heck I was. I was just the dude in these huge, thick mustaches every week. I guess that’s a bad way to answer this, because I do have an enormous beard in this show. But this is a chance to play a character that’s a little closer to who I am in real life and be a real person. In a lot of ways I felt some real similarities to the character that I got to play in the movie NEBRASKA, and this is a combination of the SNL craziness side and the Nebraska slightly more subdued side.
What is the biggest challenge with getting the pacing right? Because it seems perfect and effortless on camera, but we all know it takes a lot of hard work to get the pacing right on any great show.
CHRIS: Oh yes. This show in particular, because the pacing is a really important part of it, we like to spend a lot of time in the editing room. Will is equally as fussy as we are as far as going to the frame of what feels right. Then we also like to watch these things with a group and then see where people are engaged, and where people are fidgeting in their seats, checking their watches.
PHIL: And with this show in particular we actually asked Fox, which they don’t typically do this, we said, why don’t you get an audience that you would normally have for a multi-camera sitcom and just sit in and watch on show night, why don’t you get those guys and have them come in and watch THE LAST MAN ON EARTH, and we’ll just sit and listen and we’ll videotape them and see where they laugh and where they don’t. This show is on Sunday nights on Fox, and there’s a really specific audience of like FAMILY GUY fans, and in comes a group of people that couldn’t be further from that audience. And we were all horrified, going, “Oh no.” Then we showed it and they were so engaged and laughed so hard and were so vocal it gave us a huge sigh of relief. It just taught us that these are themes that land with a lot of different kinds of people. Part of it, and Chris is right, we found a few things that, okay, well nobody gets that and they’re getting everything else, so clearly that thing doesn’t work. The big thing that was important to us and important to Will is that the performances didn’t feel fake, or zippy, or cartoon-y, that the show could have, we could edit, we could have short snippets of scenes. You saw some of that stuff where he’s playing with the tennis balls, it’s a very short moment, but the pacing of the moment within that space that we gave it was very natural, and in general the show allows for processing for someone to understand what something means before they respond to it. We were really careful about making sure that the audience had time to project into the characters what they might be thinking and feeling, instead of being told that with dialogue all the time. Sometimes when shows are cut really, really fast they feel a little bit like they’re hiding something, or they’re a little scared to let you sit in the moment, and it was really important to Will, in particular, to allow us to experience things with the characters. We think it adds to the engagement with the show. While we knew it was 21 minutes and it was on Fox, we wanted to make sure the show felt like it was never wasting your time. I think that’s really important. People are busy and they’ve got stuff to do, and we always take that really, really seriously, the same thing in our movies, but we wanted within the time that our audience is entrusting to us, we wanted it to be immersive.
What are some post-apocalyptic or dystopian movies and books that are mentioned and thrown out in the writers’ room?
WILL: A ton of stuff. There are a bunch of very obvious ones that you would think of from the get-go, “Omega Man,” and “I am Legend,” “28 Days Later,” the first part, when he’s walking around the empty streets. But one of the big things to me was my fascination with that show LIFE AFTER PEOPLE. I loved that show. I was so fascinated by it. The parts of those movies that I just brought up that I always love are the parts where the character’s just wandering around an empty city. That is so fascinating to me and it always makes me wonder what it would be like if I was that person and what I would do. So, that was a big deal to me.
PHIL: The one I can’t stop thinking about is “Omega Man,” just because it’s so crazy. I like the Will Smith version a lot, especially before the zombies show up, but the Charlton Heston version of that character, it’s so B-movie and pushed, and his performance just really feels like a guy who went crazy, and just him driving around with just a shotgun in a convertible just seems like the funniest thing to me. I felt like no one had explored how silly that experience would be. I think in a strange way Will wrote the most grounded, most real version of that experience, like what you would really do is kind of fart around and I think he got to how lonely that would feel. In a weird way it felt like we were simultaneously doing the comedic version, but also the most honest version.
How long do you think it would take you to go insane being the last man on earth?
WILL: I think I would go insane pretty quickly. Actually, you know what, I might last a little while because I get kind of a hyper focus going. So I think I would probably get into some weird computer game that would take my mind off stuff for a while. But inevitably that would wear off and I would go crazy pretty quickly. I’m starting from a place of near craziness anyway, so it’s debatable that I’m not already there in a land with people.
CHRIS: And my answer is: seven months before I go crazy. I could watch a lot of movies, distract myself, drive around, check out some stuff, and then after seven months I think I would go full on crazy.
PHIL: I’m impressed. I vote seven days. I enjoy myself entirely when my girlfriend is away, seven days is great, and then I get real lonely.
CHRIS: People go on those weird retreats where they have to be quiet for seven days. People do that all the time.
PHIL: (Laughs) Yes. And they come back maniacs, schizophrenics.
To see what deliciously entertaining surprises the show has in store, be sure to tune in for the 1-hour premiere (2 episodes air back-to-back from 9 to 10 pm) of LAST MAN ON EARTH on Sunday, March 1st at 9:00 p.m. on Fox.