Will Forte was already a semi-accomplished sitcom writer when he joined the cast of Saturday Night Live in 2002. He had written episodes of Third Rock From the Sun, That '70s Show, and the less well-remembered Jenny McCarthy Show. But it was on SNL that he found his first major success, with one of his most famous characters, MacGruber, even going on to star in his own movie.
Since leaving SNL as a full-time cast member in 2010, Forte has pursued an eclectic mix of projects. He played a major role in Best Picture nominee Nebraska, a frequently recurring character on 30 Rock, and the voice of Abraham Lincoln in The Lego Movie. His most prominent role, however, is in Fox's sitcom The Last Man on Earth, which wrapped its first season Sunday, May 3, and is available in its entirety on Hulu Plus. In the show, which Forte also created, he plays Phil, a survivor of an unspecified apocalypse, whose awful personality is only revealed when he stumbles upon other survivors.
Though the show debuted to great reviews for its pilot (which featured only Forte on screen for much of its running time), it has proved divisive in subsequent episodes, with some (including myself) finding the show's presentation of Phil as a terrible person to be subversively hilarious and others simply finding him too much to bear. I talked with Forte recently about why so many people don't like Phil, what he learned as a first-time showrunner, and how little he knows about season two.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Todd VanDerWerff: I binged this first season and ended up really liking it, but a lot of my friends who watched it week to week got frustrated with it. To what degree were you building it as one unit, versus individual episodes?
Will Forte: We came into it thinking about it as a whole season. Obviously, we had to get down to the particulars, but more than anything we were thinking about the whole arc. We have the benefit of knowing where Phil ends up. Other people don't. I tend to like a little bit of mystery in stuff.
I'm proud of it. I'm sad that some people didn't share that, but the room and the cast, that's what's important to me, is how they feel about it. I wish other people had stuck with it, and some people did. We lost some, but I'm certainly not going to change what I like for those other people. I'm going to write it the way I think is best, and the people who are fans of that will tune in. The other people, that's unfortunate. I wish they did like it, but you're never going to win over everybody.
TV: Phil often seems like the most awful person on TV, but you're careful to make the joke on him. How do you balance that for the audience?
WF: That's the tricky part. Sometimes we did it. Sometimes we didn't.
Certainly we want you to be on Phil's side, but we also realize we're making you follow this guy down through some dark moments. He loses it a little bit. I think it's a pretty heightened situation that he's going through, obviously. He's been on his own for so long that I think people forget his mind is still kind of cloudy from his situation of [thinking he's] the last person alive.
But that's the trick. We learned a lot of lessons from this season. I'm very excited to go in and to get a crack at a second season. I'd never run a show before, and I started out in the business writing, but I was a low-level writer when I went off to SNL, so I had no business running this show. [Laughs.]
We're really proud of it, but it certainly doesn't mean we couldn't do some things a lot better.
TV: What are some things you learned from the first season?
WF: We wrote scripts that were too long, so you get to a point where you're trying to edit this stuff down, and you have to lose a lot of the nuances of the characters and the situations. Everything seems a little more broad. You lose little connectors that make things seem a little more organic.
That's an important thing to me: telling the story in a more economical way, so everything feels more real and organic. Even crazy situations that seem a little big and broad and over the top, everything will seem a teeny bit more realistic when you're able to fully show [the character moments]. We learned who these characters are.
Every part of this process is something that's not a new thing now. I've got the best writers around. We've all been working together now for a year, so we know each other, and there's a lot of shorthand. The cast is all so fantastic, and we all got to know each other really well. This crew is just amazing. So every part of the process is going to be streamlined and well-oiled.
TV: Your writers' room is full of people who've done great stuff elsewhere. How did you convince people to come on board a TV show that could have easily seemed unsustainable?
WF: I had the benefit of knowing what we were going to do with it, so when I met with these people, it was, "Oh, here's the plan." They saw right away that it would be a fun thing to attempt.
These people are like family to me. I'm working with two of my best friends, one of whom I worked at SNL with, John Solomon. Emily Spivey and Liz Cackowski I've worked with for years at SNL. Emily I was in the Groundlings with. Andy Bobrow I was in the Groundlings with 20 years ago. Erik Durbin, we worked at Third Rock from the Sun together. There's like 100 plus years of friendship in this room.
TV: Obviously the show is not a hard-core tale of what it would be like to live through the apocalypse. Instead, it's kind of a satire of modern life. What were you hoping to say about our modern world using that setting?
WF: I hope to really tackle this much more in the second season, but it is a way to examine the things we do in current-day society that don't make a lot of sense. You can examine them on a real micro level.
You can only do so much in the time we're given. It's only 21 and a half minutes, so some of these things we didn't really get to tackle in the same way. We favored the stuff that was interpersonal stuff.
Anything can happen, but it seems like we've probably reached the limit of humans coming in for the time being and can really look at some of these societal rebuilding things that we didn't get a chance to in the first season.
TV: So much of the discussion around the show has been focused on Phil, but Carol (Kristen Schaal) is just as important of a character. How did you develop her character?
WF: Carol was part of the original pitch. Kristen Schaal was the person who we thought of from the very beginning. We even mentioned her in the pitch, so she's always been just as important to this thing as Phil. We knew that we would be arcing out the season with her starting at a certain place and ending at a certain place.
I can't say enough about Kristen. She's asked to do this really hard role, and I don't know anybody else who could pull it off.
TV: You end on some big moments in the first-season finale. As you're discussing season two in the writers' room and production meetings, what are some themes or ideas you keep returning to that you're interested in exploring?
WF: I'm not going to tell you much about season two, because I have no idea what we're going to do for season two. [Laughs.]
We have little ideas here and there, but we haven't figured out a season-two arc yet. The season-one arc poured out of this one weekend of thinking stuff out and for the most part remained intact, with little intricate details changed around a bit. But the general strokes of season one came out pretty quickly.
Season two, there's a lot of stuff to think about, because there's so many ways to go. We leave at the end of episode 13 with a ton of ways to go with every character. Everybody in the cul de sac, they could leave and go somewhere. Phil and Carol, who knows where they'll end up? And obviously the final scene with Jason [Sudeikis, who plays Phil's brother, an astronaut stranded on the International Space Station]. Who knows what will happen there?
I have ideas for them, but until we really get in there and think out how everything can work in concert, we won't know exactly. That, to me, is the most exciting thing. If I knew what we were going to do, that would mean other people could probably guess what we were going to do. That would mean there was one logical way to go. This excites me to be in such open territory.