For over a year now, Will Forte's entire life has been completely devoted to "The Last Man On Earth." Completely. "For that first year, I went to a wedding and I maybe went out for dinner once, and I went to a birthday party. I could count on my two hands the times that I didn't work," he told Indiewire at the 20th Century Fox studios earlier this month, just before the show's midseason premiere.
Things got slightly easier in the show's second season, currently running Sunday nights on Fox, but for the creator and star of the post-apocalyptic comedy it's still a more-than-full-time job. "I'm part of the writing and part of the editing, too, and I can't do that stuff during the week while I'm acting," he said. "I gotta act and then I write afterward, so it's like seven days a week. I catch up on the editing on weekends and the writing on weekend nights."
But while that might sound like a complaint, Forte acknowledges that there's a reason he's thrown himself into it. Or, as he put it, "If I didn't like the show and wasn't proud of it, I certainly wouldn't be OCD and control freak-y about it."
That control freak attitude feels instrumental to one of television's most unique series, which since its premiere a year ago has established itself as unpredictable on a level we rarely see, especially in the comedy landscape.
Here in the middle of Season 2, Phil Miller (or as he's now more often called, Tandy) is far from the last person left on Earth after a devastating plague wiped out the vast majority of the planet's population. Instead, he's been joined by an ensemble cast of survivors, including Kristen Schaal, January Jones, Mary Steenburgen and Mel Rodriguez. Not only that, but as we saw in last Sunday's episode, "Pitch Black," Phil's astronaut brother Mike (played by Jason Sudeikis) is back, from outer space, and heading to find whoever else might still be alive in this desolate world.
Mike's return is just one of the many twists that have come so far, because "Last Man's" commitment to surprising its audience was a fundamental part of the show right from the beginning. That's according to Chris Miller and Phil Lord, who also took some time to speak with members of the press prior to the show's return last week. The "21 Jump Street" and "Lego Movie" directors, who first worked with Forte on the cult animated series "Clone High," directed the first two episodes of the series and continue on as executive producers.
"We don't wanna do something that feels extra safe because why bother?" Miller said. "I feel that in today's television, there's so much television you really want to stand up and not do something safe, so anytime you do something crazy — the way a lot of episodes, half this season, go — the more you stand out. I think audiences appreciate that you are pushing the boundaries of what a TV show can do... I'm really excited about where the show is going now and how fun and daring and funny it is."
"I'm glad, when we shot the pilot, we never guessed that this was what was gonna happen," Lord said.
Added Miller, "This is a show where at the end of every episode you are like, 'I have no idea what the next episode is gonna be or what is gonna happen next.'"
Like, for example, have an entire episode without the star of the show. "Pitch Black" was an anomalous installment for "Last Man on Earth" because Forte didn't appear on screen once. Instead, the story featured Sudeikis and Mark Boone Junior, as the former made his way back to what remains of human civilization.
Forte praised Sudeikis' work, saying, "With Jason you do get a little vacation. That guy is so good. He is so funny and such a great actor. He just makes everything better. It made our job as writers much easier. He makes us all look really good."
But despite that, it didn't mean too much of a break for him. "I was there all the time. I'm a control freak, I tell you," he said. "I sit down there and make sure everyone pauses at every comma."
"He doesn't go halfway on anything, and he really pushes it in a way no other performer that I know does," Miller said, mentioning as just one example: "Later on in the season, [Phil] shaves half his body, and [Forte] had to walk around for months with half hair and a half beard."
"It makes me so happy, except for when I have to sit next to him at a Clippers game and that's what he looks like," Lord added.
One of the other benefits of "Pitch Black" was that it got "Last Man" back to its roots a bit. "When we first started the show, we didn't know what the public's appetite would be for how long they want to spend with one character," Forte said. "Looking back, we wish we had really slowed down and lived in those experiences for a while before introducing more people because you can really never go back."
Hence, "Pitch Black," as well as the Season 2 premiere, "Is There Anybody Out There?," which featured Phil and Carol (Schaal) largely on their own, exploring America's new emptiness. "There is just something about staying with one or two characters in this empty world, not having any other story line to cut away to, where you can just dig into those moments and have fun with how they would pass the time and feel the actual solitude," Forte said.
Did Forte even know where the show was going to end up, here in the second season? Not exactly. "Going into the first season, we knew roughly what we were going to do for the basic arc of the whole season. But there were certainly things that we learned about ourselves on every side of the production of it. Acting-wise, writing-wise, editing, everything — you are figuring out what the show is," he said.
And there are plenty more twists to come, according to Forte. "Fox is so good to us because there are so many things in the second part of this season which could be very promotable. And we are such difficult people because we always want everything to be secret. A lot of times the sections of the show that we can let them promote are such small slivers. How the heck do you make an ad from this?"
Fortunately, the audience seems pretty happy to be along for the ride. "We totally underestimated the audience's appetite for surprise and invention," Lord said. "We thought we were gonna get them to take their medicine with this crazy pilot, and then eventually it would just turn into a normal show. But the feedback was, 'No, we want the crazy stuff.'"
If "Last Man on Earth" gets renewed for a Season 3, Forte is looking forward to a more sane work/life balance. But he doesn't regret what it's taken to get this far. "It's a really hard job," Forte said. "But it's one of the most fulfilling I've gotten a chance to do."
"The Last Man On Earth" airs Sundays on Fox.