What would you do if there were no constraints on your behavior? Not like your parents went away for the weekend and you have enough money for Boone’s Farm, but like zero rules, because no one would ever be there again to enforce them?
You’d go batshit insane, that’s what you’d do. You’d do the most depraved stuff imaginable: break things, drink everything you could find, gratify yourself sexually, steal valuables left and right, make the entire world your personal toilet, and live out every solo fantasy you’ve ever had. You might do flat out ignorant things like building the world’s tallest Jenga tower or turning an inflatable pool into the world’s largest margarita. You’d have a ball. You know you would.
Either that, or you’d somehow try to maintain the life you had, acknowledging the rules that no longer apply. You’d attempt to follow laws, unless doing so would leave you dead. You’d force yourself to stop when the light was red or the sign was an octagon. You’d start a garden, attempt to cultivate your own fruits and vegetables, still not relying on raiding every grocery store within your personal radius. You’d desperately attempt to stay sober. You would try to fix things left in a state of disrepair, for example a city’s water supply. You’d probably pray, hoping that your God would guide your thoughts and actions.
Those are the two viable answers. The only other alternative is death. The third answer is you’d kill yourself. You’d jump off a bridge or find a loaded gun or do something even more gruesome, in order to escape a world not without rules, but one without purpose or companionship. Maybe it would happen accidentally, but you’d find a way to join everybody else.
And there you have it, the premise for FOX’s incredible new comedy series, The Last Man on Earth. Will Forte plays Phil Miller, and I’ll bet you’ll never guess his character’s motivation or situation. Those things I described above in the second paragraph, those are the realities of Phil’s life. He’s stolen framed Jordan jerseys and has Washington Crossing the Delaware, not a reprint, but the real thing, tacked to a wall of the mansion he now inhabits. He has billions of dollars of art in a luxury bus he “borrowed”, lounges in Sylvester Stallone’s robe from Rocky, and he’s also apparently won two Oscars.
As I watched the first episode of The Last Man on Earth, my immediate question, outside of the joy of watching Phil Miller make the entire world his personal Etch-a-Sketch, was how long this concept could possibly go before it became dull in an old hat sense. Look, I love watching a man unload a truck bed full of bowling balls on an unsuspecting pyramid of glass aquariums as much as the next guy, but how much is too much? Before going any further, let’s make this point perfectly clear. Will Forte has long been overlooked as one of the best sketch comics and just purely funny people alive. He doesn’t break character, he can crack anybody up, and he’s fearless. He’s also smart about his approach to humor. The guy is uproariously funny and incredibly talented. He’s one of the most underrated Saturday Night Live cast members, perhaps ever. With The Last Man on Earth, he’s found the perfect spot to apply his craft, and he’s probably going to end up with an Emmy nomination this year.
One of the early clever moments finds Phil mocking Tom Hanks while watching Cast Away, jeering at the idea of talking to a volleyball. Phil ends up talking to ten different sports balls, including the cue ball he shoots pool with. Correction: the cue ball with which he shoots pool. We’ll talk more about grammar in a moment. They all have names, my favorites being “Terence”, “Trent”, and “D’arby”.
All of a sudden, Phil decides the third option might be the right one, painting a target on a boulder and planning to barrel into it at top speed with one of his stolen vehicles. At the last second, he sees smoke rising in the distance, and realizes he isn’t alone. It’s at that moment I realized why this is a television series and not a 90 minute black comedy. He may be the last MAN on Earth, but not the last person.
I see Alexandra Daddario on my screen and I immediately smile, because I’ve thought for years (since White Collar) she’s probably the most beautiful woman on the planet. It’s probably what Phil believes also, because once he finds a campsite and a pink bra, he hallucinates her as their owner. But, luckily for the comedy side, it’s actually Kristen Schaal. If Forte was an inspired casting choice, Schaal (Flight of the Conchords, The Daily Show) is every bit his equal. She’s nuts, regularly off center, like a happier Andy Kaufman in terms of her own comedy. Watch her infamous hour long special from the Fillmore if you’re unfamiliar with her strange side. She’s weird, she’s odd, she’s got a funny voice, but she’s always endearing and she’s also the woman you know is probably the smartest one in the room, even while you’re confused at the owl dress she’s wearing on Comedy Central.
Head back to the third paragraph and you’ll have her character in a nutshell. Carol is Phil’s polar opposite and has no problem correcting his use of prepositions to end a sentence, his ignorance of stop signs and handicapped parking spots, or his general lack of hygiene or “give a shit”ness. With the wealth of options a female character affords the writers, my questions were answered. Can you imagine finding out after years of solitude that someone of the opposite sex existed and wanting to get as far away from that person as possible? I mean, she’s got boobs. She’s got an ass. She’s got lips. She can talk to you…but probably after two years, it’s mainly the sex. Okay…it’s definitely the sex. When Phil quips, “I think I need some space,” you realize the people making this show know what they’re doing. It’s not that the line itself was ingenious or unexpected, just that it was the right line at the perfect moment, said to a gallery of sports balls with Sharpie-created faces.
It’s just really solid writing, period. That’s all I really want to spoil. I now just want to tell you why this show feels so special.
Rarely do we come across a television show, particularly a comedy, that fires on all cylinders on its first attempt. Not since Arrested Development or Flight of the Conchords have I watched a comedy pilot where my instant reaction was intense excitement to see what’s next. Never have I felt this strongly in favor of a comedy’s opening salvo. Even the best comedies, most of the time, have pilots that are severely lacking. Look back to most of your favorites. Hell, Seinfeld’s entire first season, in the eyes of many, was completely unimpressive. The Last Man on Earth, created by Forte along with Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, who surprised us all with the quality of both the 21 and 22 Jump Street reboots, is quite possibly the most ambitious comedy I’ve ever seen. I have no idea how someone could possibly come up with it, but that’s why I’m writing this post from Kentucky and I’m not in a directing chair in Hollywood or New York.
One thing I wanted to touch on briefly is a shift this century in the starting point for a comedy series. The 80s and 90s was largely built on Cosby, on Seinfeld, on Home Improvement, on stand-up comedians who brought their act to primetime. Thus far in the 2000s, most of the best shows have come from an improv or sketch background. Look at 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Community, The Office, and most recently, Broad City. The old way still works, but the new way has changed so much about the way we view comedy, and it’s been a hugely positive influence. I shudder to think where we’d be without the influence of the Groundlings, Second City’s, or the UCB’s of the world. We wouldn’t have SNL of course, but we also never would have had some of the finest comedy efforts of all time. As for LMOE, the sketch and improv influence is obvious and it’s everywhere.
The Last Man on Earth is so ballsy that it actually defies description. What’s clear in the show’s first two episodes, “Alive in Tucson” and “The Elephant in the Room”, is that we all just need to sit back and enjoy this ride. Forte wrote the former, the great Andy Bobrow (Community, Malcolm in the Middle…oh and the Groundlings) the latter. I’m left wondering if we’ll see flashbacks, a few other survivors of the virus that wiped out humanity and seemingly all animal life, the end of Phil’s beard, and innumerable other things. This show has a blank canvas. It can do absolutely anything. I thought the idea itself put the writers in a very precarious corner, but in truth, it put them in a globe-sized (literally) playground.
Based on what little I’ve already seen, I simply want to see more, oh so much more. The Last Man on Earth, my friends, isn’t merely a tour de force, it’s a tour de Forte. Go ahead and roll your eyes, but I had to use that line. I couldn’t have come away more impressed with the initial execution of such a bold idea than I did last night. I know it sounds glowing, and it should, but I’m not calling this the greatest comedy ever. I’m saying it was a hell of a start. This thing, at a very early stage, feels like a bona fide knockout, with or without the approval of Rocky Balboa for the use of his robe.
Can we fast-forward to next Sunday already? I just want to see what they’ve got for us next.
Follow me on the twitter machines @GuyNamedJason. I’ll gladly engage with you in conversation when I’m not refilling my toilet water with beer or dancing to The Kinks. I’m an Apeman. I’m an Ape-Ape-Man.