The influence of executive producers Phil Lord and Chris Miller on Last Man on Earth is instantly apparent, as you realize the name of Will Forte’s character, Phil Miller, is a composite of their names. But it goes beyond that: Last Man on Earth has the signature mix of high-concept and heart they brought to projects like The Lego Movie, 21 and 22 Jump Street, and Clone High. Also, like many of their projects, it seems like it could’ve potentially been a terrible idea. But as fawning critics and early viewers (the show premiered to much bigger numbers than expected) can attest, they did it again. To figure out exactly how, John Horn, host of Southern California Public Radio’s new arts and entertainment show “The Frame,” spoke to the duo about making an apocalypse funny, working with Fox, and the dynamic of their partnership. (Listen to part of Horn’s interview with Lord and Miller here, and subscribe to “The Frame” at iTunes or Stitcher.)
Where did the idea of a postapocalyptic comedy come from?
Chris Miller: The idea had been kicking about as a feature idea, but Will [Forte] really sparked to it. Then after we talked about it for a couple hours and he got really excited, he spent a weekend writing a treatment for an entire season, the first season, which is basically what is happening right now.
Phil Lord: Right, when you watch each episode, you’re watching his pitch in extremely slow motion, if that pitch lasted seven hours.
So, this is a television comedy about the apocalypse. I wanna focus on the apocalypse part of that. There are no bodies! Where did all the bodies go, what happened?
Miller: They’re just out of frame. You can smell them if you’re on set, but we didn’t include them in the shots.
Lord: I don’t know if Will has a rationale for what exactly happened. In my mind, a bunch of animals gobbled up all the bodies, then they succumbed to the virus and then they died.
Miller: There have been a number of off-hand mentions of, “Hey, help me clear this body out of there,” or they drive by hospitals saying, “You do not want to go into there.” In general, we found that the more talk or visuals of dead bodies, the less hilarious it is.
Lord: You wind up provoking two questions for every one that you answer, and we didn’t want the show to be about what happened, what was the virus like. We didn’t care about any of that stuff. We were interested in, how does a man deal with this new reality?
When people think about these signature elements of end-of-the-world stories,” they think of the vigilantes from Mad Max, the horrible despair in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. But you have to come up with a comic tone about something so inherently horrible, so how do you go about getting the apocalypse to be funny?
Miller: We all along talked about, if there was an apocalypse, none of us would be really well prepared for it, because I find out how to do everything off the internet. I can’t really fix a car or tell you what all the elements of the Constitution are or anything. It was funny to think of an average person with no real skills. Not a person who’s stocked up their basement with emergency supplies, but what a regular person would do, and how they would solve the problems and learn to be a real person.
So it’s not just postapocalyptic, it’s life without Google.
Miller: I’m worried that all of that information is going to disappear. We don’t store it on paper anymore; we store it in some computer’s brain. In our initial conversation with Will, when this was a feature, that idea takes about ten minutes in a feature, and then you have to bring in vampire zombies or something. But in a television show, which is really about exploring a character, you can get a lot more granular, and those ten minutes becomes a whole series. What parts of society are essential? Can we throw it all out, or are there certain things we need to keep?
The show posits that if you were the last man on Earth, you would do things like loot the Oval Office for rugs, steal famous masterpieces from art museums, park in handicapped parking spots, turn little outdoor pools into little swim-in margaritas, and generally be totally decadent. Whose fantasy is this? Is it Will’s fantasy or yours?
Lord: It is so Will’s fantasy. The show is just like opening up Will Forte’s brain and seeing what the little hamster inside wants to do. He loves to smash things. You give the guy a steamroller and some breakables and he’ll be the happiest person on Earth.
Miller: There was a lot of talk about maybe the end of the world would be kind of fun, and maybe it might be the best thing that ever happened to this guy.
When you were thinking about the show, [did] you have in the back of your mind, or even in the front, the ideal outlet for that, or does it evolve?
Lord: As it turned out, Will took this very outlandish idea for a TV show and turned it into something that was really universal, and because of that, our partners at 20th Century Fox got really excited and felt like this could be a big network play. One of the things that the networks are struggling with is because there are so many great cable outlets, and so much experimentation and excitement in the cable space, sometimes they can seem left out. This was a way to make that play but still deliver on universal, red-meat themes. As we were doing early exhibitions of the show and showing our friends, we suspected that our hipster friends would think it was cool and funny, which they do. When we showed our parents and they liked it — and my parents hated the Jump Street films — that’s when we knew we had something.
This is one of the first, if not the first, for Fox to pick up direct-to-series, meaning you didn’t have to make a pilot. So what does that mean for you creatively, and for Will creatively, that the proof of concept doesn’t have to be in this one little test, and that you get to lay it all out and try to figure out how it’s gonna work without having to do this audition?
Lord: I don’t know if this show would have survived a pilot process. It’s so scary, and I do wanna give credit to the Fox people for putting their money where their mouth is. They loved this pitch, and they not only wanted it to be in their studio, they wanted it to be on their network. It’s a really scary pitch. I leaned over to one of the folks at the premiere the other night and said, “You guys have huge balls for putting this on the air.” It’s crazy. They’re really behind the show and we never wanted for resources. They’re promoting it, they’re really proud of it, and they understand that especially in today’s television landscape, you wanna take a big swing, and you wanna make something that’s bold and doesn’t feel like it’s been shaved down to a round ball just so it can make it through the pipes.
Is that something that you get as filmmakers? You’ve had great success with Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, The Lego Movie, 21 and 22 Jump Street. In other words, have you proven that you know what you’re doing and can tell a story, does that give you some entrée or at least a little bit of permission to say, “Trust us. We can make this work”?
Miller: We definitely had several of those conversations where we used the phrase, “Trust us. We can make this work.” The show has to be good. It has to deliver. What was great about it, what really made them believe in the show, was when they started reading the scripts and the executives were passing it around and couldn’t wait to see what happens next. They were like, “Don’t tell me what happens next! I just wanna read it in the next script!” The fact that Will and the writing staff were able to deliver a show that continually surprised everybody, and was hilarious but also kept taking new turns in a way that kept them on the edge of their [seats], was really why they ended up believing in it.
If you look at what you’ve done, do you think there is a consistent idea about how you guys think and approach comedy?
Miller: People seem to notice that our projects seem like they might not be the best ideas at first, and then we’ll surprise you. All of these things seem like they could be lowest common denominator, then we try to make something that actually has something to say and is intelligent and has a reason for being. We aspire to make Hal Ashby movies more than anything else, and they’re just not quite weird or idiosyncratic enough to miss the audience. I feel like once we finally make a movie we consider to be the perfect thing, it’ll be a commercial failure.
Let me ask you about your creative partnership. You guys have known each other from college, is that right?
What do you think you bring that is different to the creative process? In other words, how do you complement each other’s way of working?
Lord: I could probably speak to Chris: He is a genius of simplicity and boiling something down to its barest and most concentrated and funniest elements.
Miller: The thing I admire most about Phil is the ability to think not outside of the first box, but outside of the second box that the first box was in, and you didn’t even know there was a second box.
Lord: That’s also my Achilles heel, probably.