They say we are in the golden age of television. With groundbreaking shows like Mad Men, True Detective, and Fargo on the air, it’s hard to argue with that statement. While dramas have become some of the most popular and talked about aspects of pop culture, it hasn’t been as grand for television comedies. Most of the country will watch a show like The Big Bang Theory, but that instant hit now feels like it has long overstayed its welcome. Then there are shows like Parks and Recreation that feature a great cast and excellent writing, but somehow can’t find an audience. Another reason comedies aren’t going through the same renaissance as the rest of television, is the lack of fresh ideas and concepts. How many shows on right now are based solely on characters with different personalities living together? How many shows are just adaptation of other mediums?
Fortunately, there is hope for cable television and it comes from the creative minds that provided us with 22 Jump Street and The Lego Movie.
Coming off their two massive blockbusters last year, directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller are now turning their attention back to television with their new Fox comedy, The Last Man On Earth. Will Forte (Saturday Night Live, MacGruber) stars as Phil Miller as the last living survivor of a virus that has wiped out the rest of the earth’s population. While the post-apocalyptic aspect of the show has been done many times before, a comedy exploring such a dark concept is most certainly hasn’t. Besides being the basis for his name, Lord and Miller are the executive producers of the series as well as the directors of the first two episodes.
Recently Pop-Break joined a roundtable discussion with Lord and Miller about coming up with the concept of the show, working with Forte, coming back to television, and what they would do if they were that person 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?
Phil Lord: 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.
How did you come up with the concept?
Chris Miller: 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.
PL: 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.
CM: 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.
If you were suddenly the last person what would be the first thing you would run to do, because you could do anything?
PL: Chris, I was just sitting here going how do I not have a stock answer prepared for this question?
CM: Go to Area 51 or something, and see if there are actually aliens there.
PL: I honestly would be thrilled to just figure out how to make a fire and get back to basics. I want[ed] to see what it’s like to live in ignorance for a little while. I promise to come up with a better answer.
CM: You could also drive this little spaceship if you go into Area 51. I’m just saying.
Coming back to television so long after Clone High and doing a live action series, what’s it like?
CM: 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.
PL: 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.
As you’ve developed the show and as you guys have even figured out where you want to place Phil, 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?
PL: 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.
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.
CM: 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.
PL: 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?
CM: Oh God— Life After People was something that we talked about. What other post-apocalyptic?
PL: 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?
CM: 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.
PL: I’m impressed. I vote seven days. That’s about how—
CM: Seven days?
PL: I enjoy myself entirely when my girlfriend is away, seven days is great, and then I get real lonely.
CM: People go on those weird retreats where they have to be quiet for seven days. People do that all the time.
PL: Yes. And they come back—
PL: Maniacs, schizophrenics.
Catch Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s new series The Last Man on Earth tonight on FOX at 9pm for one-hour premiere special.
Al Mannarino is the managing editor for Pop-Break. He is also host of the News Over Brews Podcast, Loot Care Unboxed, Backstage Break, and the producer of Behind the Brews. He graduated Rowan University with a degree in Radio/TV/Film & History and is currently a Promotions Assistant for Clear Channel Media + Entertainment. When he isn’t writing he is either trying to build his own TARDIS or taking a nap. Follow him on Twitter: @almannarino