Talking with Will Forte About ‘The Last Man on Earth,’ ‘Clone High,’ and the ‘MacGruber’ Sequel
From his eight years on SNL to his roles on 30 Rock, Tim and Eric, and cult hit MacGruber, Will Forte has been one of comedy’s most lovable bastions of gutsy weirdness of the past decade, and now he finally has a show all his own. The Last Man on Earth premiered last Sunday on Fox, and it centers on Forte and fellow 30 Rock alum Kristen Schaal as a pair of lonely, desperate apocalypse survivors who aren’t exactly relieved to discover each other’s existence. I recently spoke with Forte about developing his own show, what he’s learned from working with co-creators Phil Lord and Chris Miller, and whether or not we can count on a comeback for two of his greatest projects, MacGruber and Clone High.
Congratulations on the premiere! And for the great ratings, too — how’d you feel when those came in?
It was so exciting. We’ve been working so hard on this, and I’ve learned to go into things with low expectations so I won’t get hurt… [laughs] because I’ve certainly been excited before and then let down. So you know, it was really really exciting, to say the least, especially considering it’s something a little different, so you have no idea if people are gonna give it a chance. It was really cool.
When you created the show and started developing it, were there any bigger goals you had in mind for it as a network show?
No, not really. Chris [Miller], Phil [Lord], and I — we’ve known each other since Clone High, but most people know them from The Lego Movie and 21/22 Jump Street — they had asked me if I wanted to write something with them, and we got together for a couple days and thought up this idea. Their deal was with 20th [Century Fox] so we knew that it was likely there would be a chance of going to pitch it to Fox and other networks, but as we started thinking up this idea, it seemed a little more cable-friendly. So out of respect we went to pitch it to every place, just thinking Oh well I don’t think the networks will probably wanna have anything to do with this, and at the pitch Fox was very interested and I was actually nervous because I thought they were going to make us change it around a bunch. But they were great — they let us keep the same tone, the same everything. But we certainly didn’t set out to go like Let’s do something different on network! We just had this vision of what the show was, and Fox liked the same vision we had and let us stay true to it.
In some of your recent interviews you were asked about how you plan to sustain the show’s premise over multiple seasons, which made me think about how it’s hard to categorize. Usually you can label shows “workplace comedies,” “family comedies,” “romantic comedies” — not so easy with your show.
That’s what excites us. We’re thrilled by the fact that people don’t know how we could do much more with it, you know? Because hopefully that means they have low expectations. [laughs] Because we’re really excited and worked really hard to create some nice twists and turns in this, and I hope people are caught off-guard by the directions we go in. And I prefer watching a show where you don’t know where it’s gonna go, you know? The bad thing to me is when you’re like Oh, I know exactly where this show would go for seasons and seasons. What’s the fun in that?
That was even the approach around promoting the show. It was cool to not know Kristen Schaal had a leading role until it premiered.
That’s the kind of stuff that’s always interested me, and Fox has been really great about supporting this. I mean, it’s really tough for them knowing that here’s this wonderful actress in Kristen Schaal — who is well-known out there in the comedy world and the world-world — and there were so many clips they could’ve used from those first two episodes, but they respected our wishes to try to keep it a secret. And I saw a couple of spoilers in reviews here and there, but I think a lot of people probably didn’t know she’d be coming, so that was just another instance of Fox getting behind this thing.
How’d you land on casting Kristen Schaal?
I got to work with her at Flight of the Conchords and then a little later we both did parts in 30 Rock and I got to do a little stuff at Bob’s Burgers, and just from knowing her around New York, and she’s just wonderful. The moment that I knew about this character of Carol, she was the only person that I had thought of. And even in the pitch to Fox I said “Think Kristen Schaal” and it was just great — they were immediately like “Perfect idea.” So we had the easiest casting process of all time.
Last Man on Earth feels like more of a movie than a show. The huge empty spaces, the music all feel very cinematic. How’d you figure out the overall style and format for the show?
Chris and Phil obviously have so much experience with creating these beautiful aesthetics, and they’re as talented as it comes with every aspect of filmmaking. So I don’t know, it just kind of felt like the right way to go. It definitely was this weird world we were trying to create, and again, Fox really supported this and invested in these first couple episodes especially to set this world up, and it really shows when you watch it. We got to do some pretty crazy things, and there’s some visually stunning things, and it’s all Chris and Phil and our director of photography Christian Sprenger. They’re awesome.
You’ve known Chris and Phil for a long time, so now that you developed a show together, what have you learned from working with them?
We share a general sensibility, but my sensibility is something that…I don’t know, I’ve never really been able to convey it in a mainstream way, and they have this talent for being able to keep these very interesting, smart, and weird ideas and somehow convey them in a very accessible way, which I’ve never been able to do. So it was really nice to be in there and learn that stuff from them; I was hoping that it would rub off on me so I wouldn’t make everything too weird. Being such good friends with them, we just talked everything out, and always when there was a 2-on-1 situation, whoever was the 2 would have the say so. But they’re such great guys, and this whole experience has been the best.
My next question is MacGruber-related. You know, I interned at SNL when you were there, and one thing they had me do was scan through a bunch of MacGyver DVDs to find explosion scenes to use in “MacGruber” sketches.
[laughs] Oh that’s really funny. I didn’t know we used MacGyver explosions in those!
I think they did! I mean, I hope so…
That’s hilarious! I didn’t know that.
So anyway, you starred in two projects that fans really want to come back: MacGruber and Clone High. Can we safely assume that these will eventually return in some form?
You mean MacGruber 2?
Oh my God, is that right? You know, I’ve never really talked to them about it. That would be so exciting, I loved Clone High. I mean, that was my first job! My first acting job. So that was a wonderful honor to be on that show, and then they let me be Abe Lincoln in The Lego Movie too. That would be great.
The only thing I know anything about — and I don’t even know much [laughs] — but as far as MacGruber 2, we were gonna write it a couple months after it just bombed massively. We’re still always thinking about writing a second one just because we didn’t care what people thought — we loved it, and we loved the group and just thought Let’s find a way to make it even if it’s just ultra low-budget. We never stopped talking about it and we would always get together and start writing little pieces of it, and we probably have an outline that’s about two-thirds written that’s pretty in-depth. I’m still doing some post-production stuff for Last Man on Earth, but as soon as that’s over, John Solomon and I, who is working at Last Man on Earth too, we’re gonna start writing and I think hopefully carve out some time with Jorma [Taccone], who’s super busy with other stuff too. So we all think about it all the time and can’t wait to start writing, and it seems like there are some very real possibilities as far as people who might actually let us make it. There are a couple avenues that are going to be left unnamed — I don’t want to jinx anything — but as I said before, we’re gonna figure out a way to make it.
So we should have faith it’ll happen.
Well the other thing is, who knows when it would be though? Because we aren’t going to make it just to make it. We’re really proud of the first one and we don’t want to do anything that would shit on the first one at all. So we’re only going to try to make it if we think it’d be…um…um… good. We need to find the perfect dick jokes.
The Last Man on Earth airs on Fox Sundays at 9:30pm.