Will Forte isn’t afraid to admit to fear.
It was fear that led him to turn down “Saturday Night Live” the first time he was asked. Forte was performing with the famous Groundlings comedy troupe in the 1990s when Lorne Michaels spotted him from the audience one night.
That led to an audition, but when Forte got the offer, he said no. Forte was on the writing staff for “That ’70s Show” at the time, and wasn’t sure he wanted to leave a steady gig on a big hit show. But more importantly, he was scared.
“Scared on a number of fronts,” he told Indiewire. “I knew that being on ‘SNL’ was ultimately my biggest dream, so there was some weird part of me that thought, ‘Oh, if I do it and then fail, then I’ve destroyed my dream and if I don’t do it, then somehow the dream is still out there,’ which is kinda crazy. So I turned it down.”
He spent the following year thinking “about what a dipshit I was for not trying.” So when he received a second offer from “SNL” the following year, his “’70s Show” bosses told him that he should give it a chance. Or, as Forte explained it, they said, “You’re a crazy person. Go do this. We’re here for you if you eff it up.”
Taking that chance catapulted Forte into the league of modern comedy greats, and after eight years on “SNL,” he’s back in the scripted comedy world — albeit on one of broadcast television’s most unconventional comedies. Forte created and stars in Fox’s “The Last Man on Earth,” which focuses on the few survivors of a virus-ravaged Earth and mines that material for some truly dark but hilarious laughs.
Because Forte wears multiple hats on the production, he understandably seems a little bit exhausted by the demands of making the show. “Seven days a week, over fifteen hours a day. Sixteen, something like that. Over the period of the time that it built up, it can get pretty psychologically damning in a damaging way,” he said.
When Indiewire caught up with Forte, the star was visiting New York because “I’ve been trying to vacation as much as possible.” (He got the news about Fox greenlighting Season 3 while in Hawaii with friends.) Forte took time from his holiday to discuss transitions he’s made, from writing to acting — and both at the same time.
You wrapped Season 2 without knowing if you’d been renewed. How much Season 3 thinking were you doing at the end?
Oh, zero. I’m not gonna do anything about a season that doesn’t exist yet! At the very end of Season 2, the last week, all the writing for the episode was done. While we were doing the episode, the writers were taking around ideas. I think we have something fun at the end of the season that is unresolved that I can’t tell you about, obviously. But it affords us a little bit of leeway in how we wanna deal with it. I didn’t wanna say much more, but I’m excited. It’s a really fun way to end the season and it’s going to open up a number of possibilities for next season. We have a general idea of how we might handle it. But you never know until you get in there and start doing the very specific episode-to-episode stuff.
It’s a question I think about a lot with this show — how do you make sure you keep enough fuel for the story?
It’s been an interesting experience doing this show, because I have no experience putting together a show. I was a writer before I went to “SNL” and was a part of a bunch of writing staffs, but the more senior members of the group would map that stuff out. Not that we wouldn’t all talk about it, but [laughs] I would let my mind wander over that stuff. I would just wait until we got to the joke-pitching. So it’s very interesting to tackle it from that other side and actually figure out how to propel a story. I think there are times when we hit the mark and times when my inexperience with that stuff hurts us a little bit. But I think, for the most part, I’m so proud of the stuff we’ve been doing.
When you made that initial transition from writing to acting, was there a particular motivation for it?
I started out at the Groundlings doing comedy. My main goal for sure was to get to “Saturday Night Live,” that was a hundred percent what it was. I got the writing job pretty early on when I was at the Groundlings and the writing part was going really well, so I was very happy. I got to work with a bunch of wonderful people on interesting shows, and at a certain point I just thought, “Okay, I’m a writer! I guess I’m not gonna go to ‘SNL,’ obviously.” But I was really happy.
And just out of nowhere, this opportunity came up. I did a show at the Groundlings. I had no idea that Lorne Michaels was there in the audience, but he was, and I luckily had a good show that night and got invited to audition and not having any idea. I was working at “That ’70s Show” at the time and under contract, and I thought, I can’t even do it if I get the job. But my “’70s Show” bosses were super cool about it and said, “Go do it, and if it doesn’t work out, you have a job here when you get back.” So that was how that all worked out.
I started to do “SNL” after I had a lapse of performing for a long time. It was weird doing acting again because it had been a long time. If you don’t do it for a while, you kind of forget… I just kinda felt a little lost when I got back there because I was out of practice. Just, you know, super nervous. It’s a real pressure cooker over there. And so it took me a long time to get my feet planted. I would say I was incredibly terrified of performing for the first three years, for sure.
Would you call “The Last Man on Earth” the best of both worlds?
It is! There’s opportunities to get to write the words that you say. And we have a brilliant group of writers and we’ve all worked together for years. If we added up the years that I’ve been friends with everybody on the staff, it’s been like 170 years or something like that. Friends from the Groundlings, friends from “SNL,” friends from college. So that’s a wonderful thing to have, control over that stuff. And control over the direction of the show. It’s terrifying because if you screw it up, you have nobody but yourself to blame. But it’s exhilarating at the same time, because you really can try stuff and fight for stuff that you really like.
It sounds like it’s going well so far.
Yes! But that’s the thing that I’ve learned. The whole theory that if you screw it up, you can blame it on a bunch of different people — if you don’t [screw it up], then you take all the credit. I’m still getting the hang of that one.
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