If you ever needed an example of how unpredictable the TV business has become, consider the breakout new series that’s actually seven years old: “Last Man Standing.” The Fox sitcom was left for dead last year, when ABC — which didn’t own the Tim Allen show — canceled it after deciding the economics no longer worked.
Fox, however, does own the show — for now — through sister studio 20th Century Fox TV. Initial talks to immediately relaunch the show fell flat when Fox didn’t have room on its schedule. But then came New Fox.
As it prepares to reinvent itself as a standalone network, Fox is repositioning itself as more of a network with broad appeal, which includes stocking up with live events like Thursday Night Football. With the NFL on Thursday, “we saw an opportunity on Friday night for comedy,” said Fox Entertainment president Michael Thorn.
But Fox didn’t have many sitcoms on its shelves and as Thorn noted, it’s hard to launch a new comedy night without an established half-hour. That’s when Fox floated the idea of reviving “Last Man Standing.”
“When we knew Tim was up for doing it, we jumped at the chance,” Thorn said. “He’s obviously a huge TV star, and we felt the show could resonate for our audience.” Of course, the recent success of “Roseanne” also lit a fire, as both that show and “Last Man Standing” are family comedies with a lead character who leans conservative.
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Clearly, the appetite was there. The show’s Sept. 28 premiere averaged a 2.7 rating among adults 18-49 in Live+7 ratings, as well as 12.4 million multiplatform viewers, making it Fox’s most-watched Friday telecast in 18 years. Thanks to the sitcom, Fox has won Friday nights among adults 18-49 for six consecutive weeks — its longest streak in more than seven years. Or, as Thorn said, “So far so good.”
IndieWire sat down with Allen and “Last Man Standing” showrunner Kevin Abbott to discuss how they managed to revive the show so quickly, as well as their reaction to its early success. And then there’s politics: Allen, who in the past has openly questioned whether ABC canceled the show because of his political stance, is now bothered by the fact that his character’s jabs at liberals and Democrats are being confused for his own beliefs.
Allen and Abbott explain why they tackled the issue of politics in their first episode — but beyond that, prefer to focus on the show’s family dynamics. The interview has been edited for space and clarity.
How surprised were you to see those numbers when the show came back?
Tim Allen: Luckily, I was at my mom’s 90th party so I was really distracted, which is good for me. I don’t like getting involved in ratings.
Kevin Abbott: I texted you a congratulations. In this day and age, it’s really hard to parse what ratings mean, who’s watching, how they’re watching. So it’s all the more impressive to get those live numbers.
TA: I certainly bumped into a number of people who had never seen the show when it was on ABC, that had found it in syndication. So I was hoping it would get maybe a little bit of boost. I did not expect that number. Obviously, those numbers were big because it was coming back. We’ve settled into our more stable number, but the stable number is still phenomenal. Better than I expected.
You guys were six, seven seasons in, hard to make noise. In a weird way the cancellation…
TA: … Made a little noise. You really have a greater respect and gratitude for what you’re doing. Everybody had a new vigor about them and were all, “It’s new but it’s not new.”
KA: That break and the shock of it all allowed us to come back with a renewed appreciation. It gave us a rest and everybody came back really fresh and energized and it allowed us to play with some of the storylines. It feels like a new show, but with a big head start because we know the characters and we know what works. It really turned out to be, “Thank you, ABC.”
You were able to cobble back together the same soundstage, a lot of the same crew, and most of the same cast. What was the most challenging part in getting the band back together?
KA: It’s almost like, “You broke up with me. Now you say you love me and you want me back?”
TA: That was really challenging. [Fox TV Group chairman] Dana Walden called out of nowhere and said, “I just want to get a feeling. Would you be interested.” I said, “I would be very interested. But there’s so many bowling pins that have fallen down, I don’t know whether we can pick this up. These are three things I need from you. There’s this, this, and this.” She said, “Give me 48 hours.” I mean to the minute, I get this text, and she’s like, “I’m in.”
What were your stipulations? What were the things you needed for this to happen?
TA: I wanted to make sure we got everybody back. I didn’t want to have it where two kids were killed in a plane crash. She said, “That is a challenge, but I think I can make that happen.” I wanted the same crew, as much as we can knowing that it’s been 18 months. Some people have moved on. Slowly but surely, these weird things came in. I happen to know the facilities manager here [at CBS Studio Center]. He goes, “You know that the set’s open?” It was a weird 24 hours. I get a hold of Fox and told them they’d have to move now and commit and they said, “Done.”
KA: As long as I had Tim and Nancy [Travis], I can do the show.
There aren’t many shows that still do 22, 24 episodes a season.
KA: We’ve got Kevin Hench, who’s been on our show forever, and he’s now running the Gabriel Iglesias show on Netflix. I think they’ve got a 10-episode order, and he’s coming over here bitching and moaning about the grind of the show.
TA: I think eventually, you come back to broadcast television. This isn’t streaming. Streaming to me is processed food. You don’t know when that was made, you don’t know, there’s no expiration date on it. This stuff was made recently. You get ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX, and to all of us on broadcast, we’re doing this right now. This is fresh television.
KA: Everybody’s been trumpeting the death of the four-camera sitcom for a decade and a half. It is now getting a little more promise, I think, with the networks. They’re finally realizing they pull in the numbers, and just from a strictly business standpoint, they’re less expensive to make, they syndicate better, they’re just reliable. For the people still watching that haven’t cut the cord.
How important is it to remind people that this show is about family, not politics?
KA: We always say that we’re a family comedy that has a conservative character at the center who has an interest in the politics of the day. But we are first and foremost a family show.
TA: I’ve always said that, certainly, relationships are politics. The political discourse between a male and female energy is politics. And children, that’s all political stuff. I like to mess around because I’ve been a standup fiery comic for 30 years. And I like pissing people off, and I said there’s nothing, especially in this area, that pisses people off more than a very funny conservative. A smart, funny conservative that takes shots and is certainly self-effacing. The left-wing point of view is so pervasive that they don’t even realize it’s a point of view. It is just a point of view. I think this character likes that, he likes to have another point of view. It makes him sharper and more interesting. But we don’t push it. I don’t think we’ve mentioned pro or con Trump once now.
Tim, I’ve seen you say that it is frustrating that people confuse Mike Baxter’s views and that character with you. Do you find that’s more the case now?
TA: I think it’s more now than I’ve ever seen it. My constant comment is, Bryan Cranston isn’t actually a meth dealer. Keanu Reeves didn’t kill 109 people. These are actors. I don’t know where it got confusing. I’ve done interviews where I have to ask, “Are you asking my character this question?” I did an interview and I said, “Are you asking Mike Baxter this question, because you heard something about the Clintons that the writers had written?” Now, I’ll put something behind it, because I think it’s funny to make fun of people that are full of themselves. Liberals have a very small window of sense of humor about themselves, so I love poking at it. Two years ago, it was the conservatives, or whatever it is. But right now liberals, particularly progressives, hide behind large concepts. If you don’t agree with them, if you don’t agree with that position, then you hate women, and you hate gay people, and you hate pro-choice people, whatever. And I said that doesn’t fit. But I like pushing that and sometimes these guys let Mike Baxter say it, and he’s more of a pragmatist. He reminds me of my grandmother. He just hates big government.
In a recent episode there were a couple digs at “The People’s Republic of California.”
TA: That’s me throwing in, my standup. I live here. And I know the councilmen. I go to the council meetings because my neighborhood has had some trouble.
Your first episode back was your most political episode. Why jump in the deep end so quickly?
KA: We talked it over with Fox and the issue was so out there, so standing in front of everybody. It felt like, we’ve always had a show that dealt with issues. And what bigger issue is out there than the divided electorate and how it’s been tearing apart families. It’s just been such a big byproduct of everything that’s going on. At first I was reluctant, quite honestly, because we are a show about a family and compromise and working together, and I don’t have the solutions for the nation. But we’re getting to the point of, look, we’ve got to figure out how to work together. Keep respecting each other because this is really tough, but the only way we’re going to beat it is to actually figure out how to work together and remember that we’re all part of the same family, parts of the American family. When that came together, I was good with doing this show.
Given the polarization in the country, do you feel that it is tougher as a comedian to say what you want to say?
TA: It is. It’s been in my personal life also. People have heard me say something, and then I’ve had people say, “I’m gonna mention that.” Like they’re going to try to hurt me on something I said on stage. Especially in live comedy. So now in live comedy, I have to explain to people what I mean by these words. See what’s underneath there, we’re the same people. I got to work this stuff out. I got to work out the potholes and the homeless people in my North Hollywood location where my studio is, I got to work this out. This arguing is not, it’s not helping. It’s not doing anything.
How do you feel like the results of the midterm elections might change things?
TA: I think because this president, however you believe, is very inarticulate. He may be getting things done very well, and I saw that interchange between him and that reporter. It was so unpleasant to watch on both sides, that the guy wouldn’t leave him alone, where did the sense of decorum go?
How does the state of the nation impact writing the show these days? Or writing the vlogs [at the end of each episode], and the moments where Mike gives his opinions?
TA: These guys write like we live. We’ll leave here, and I’ve got to go deal with my kid’s school. This crap on MSNBC, CNN, and Fox is meaningless. You watch it because it’s high drama, it’s like taking oxycodone. I think people are addicted to this angst.
KA: We try to deal more with issues and not personalities. Not the news cycle of the moment because the news cycle will have changed. The topic of conversation will have changed. “Murphy Brown’s” probably having a harder time because it’s already dated by the time it airs.
TA: What we’ve done is we’ve moved on. “Murphy Brown,” unfortunately, I loved that show [but] they’ve kind of stuck along with, forgive me… they’re still stuck in this angst, in this hatred. I can’t remember what comedian said it, but comedy’s about surprise. And there’s no surprise anymore. I know you hate the current administration. I know there’s hate, venom, we’re all going to hell, and the world’s all racist. I’ve heard this so much there’s no surprise, there’s no joke, there’s no drama. So there’s a lot of us, we’ve moved on. We’re writing a sitcom, we’re not trying to change the world. We’re just having an enjoyable time. Our job is to make you laugh.
Fox has “WWE Smackdown” expected to air on Fridays next year. Have you heard yet about where the show might move?
TA: Wrestling? When?
KA: News to us. I’ve got to get on the phone!
“Last Man Standing” will likely move to another mid-week spot next season to make room for the WWE, but for now it airs Fridays at 8 p.m. ET on Fox.