Last Man on Earth Writers’ Room Walkthrough Part 1
We're going inside the Last Man on Earth writers' room for an episode-by-episode breakdown of season two.
Editor’s note: Our recurring feature, The Fourth Wall, looks to knock down barriers between entertainment industry talent and the audience. This platform for creators, actors, and industry insiders brings readers behind the scenes of the production process. In our latest installment, we removed the curtain on the writers’ room for the second season of Fox’s hit comedy, The Last Man on Earth
This part of the walkthrough looks at the first and second episodes from Last Man on Earth’s second season
Right from its isolating opening moments, Fox’s The Last Man on Earth has proven to be unpredictable television. The series, co-created by its star, Will Forte, looks at a group of misfit survivors trying to get by in a broken, empty world. Now in its second season, The Last Man on Earth writers are finding new ways to play with their off-kilter concept that has taken them all the way to the corners of outer space and back again.
With the show’s second season promising to return from its mid-season hiatus in a big way, I touched base with Andy Bobrow, executive producer and writer for the series. Bobrow took me through an unprecedented tour of the show’s second season, as we discuss all of the big decisions that got their story to where it is now.
The Last Man on Earth Season 2 Episode 1 – “Is There Anybody Out There?”
Written by David Noel & John Solomon ; Directed by John Solomon
“Carol quickly learns of how wrong her decision was to accompany Phil on his new journey away from Tuscon.”
DEN OF GEEK: How much of a plan did you guys have for the second season when you ended the first one? We learn that six months have passed since season one’s finale.
ANDY BOBROW: There was no plan at all at the end of season one, except that we knew we had Tandy and Carol go off on their own. And we liked that it gave us an opportunity to get back to basics with them. There was some criticism in season one that we expanded the cast too quickly, and in hindsight we agreed. So we thought of this as a way to give ourselves a little do-over and get back to the OG’s, Tandy and Carol.
Of course there was some concern at the network – they really wanted to launch the season by putting the whole cast in the promos. We wanted people to wonder if the cast was even in the show anymore. We compromised at bringing them in at the end of episode two. We would have gone longer, but there’s a financial reality to deal with. The actors’ contracts were in place since season one, and it’s standard for series regulars to get paid whether they are in an episode or not. So we’re saying, “We want to re-launch the series with just Tandy and Carol,” and the network is saying, “We’re paying Mary Steenburgen and you’re not going to use her? We’re paying Mel and Cleo and January and Boris to stay home? For how many episodes? We need clips for our promos. How are we going to promote the show?”
The network promotion model is very much a game of “Remember that thing you like? Well it’s right here and it’s just how you like it.” They wanted the cast on the billboards and we wanted people not even to know that the cast was coming back. As far as the six month jump, we initially just assumed we’d pick up where we left off, but as the discussion evolved we knew the people who ran him out of town were not going to just let him back in quickly.
DEN OF GEEK: What were some of the other ideas that you were kicking around before ultimately ending up with this angle?
ANDY BOBROW: One idea was to start season two on Jason Sudeikis. Just do a whole episode of him in space and make it like the pilot. Just one guy for 22 minutes, passing the time, going crazy, mirroring what Tandy did. We had him learning new languages, learning to juggle. I thought it would be great to see him juggling in zero gravity. The balls just sit there. So that was one thought but Jason had very limited availability so we couldn’t have done that even if we wanted to. Will wasn’t too hot on that one anyway.
Another rejected story for Tandy and Carol was a honeymoon in Vegas. We’ve talked about Vegas forever, but we may never pull the trigger on that. The discussion always grinds to a halt when we talk about the reality of the elevators not working. We thought about really shoring up their new relationship by having them get into some sort of peril, like a flash flood, where Tandy gets to be a hero. But ultimately, the simple story of them getting separated was perfect. We’re always looking for the stories that only our show can tell. What’s perilous for these people that wouldn’t be perilous for us? Getting separated in a world without phones is a huge deal.
What more than anything did you hope to be saying to the audience with this return to the show?
Two things: One, Tandy has changed and it shows in how he treats Carol; and two, we are still committed to surprising people with abrupt turns from comedy to drama.
Tandy’s beard is back, first and foremost. When you learned you were getting a second season, was that one of the first things that you knew had to return?
What’s funny is from the moment we started season one, the network was very nervous about that beard. They worried that people wouldn’t recognize Will Forte, and for those guys, it’s all about the marketing and the launch. I remember so many discussions about that beard. “When is it coming off? Can it come off sooner? Can we put him on the billboard without it?” Will always wanted his character to shave for Melissa. And then once we all saw him without it, it was unanimous – we all completely agreed that the show needs the beard like Nike needs the swoosh. So yeah, from the moment it came off, Will was growing it back.
Was it always an aircraft carrier that Tandy was messing around with in this? Or was there some other equally over-the-top item being considered at one point
The original script just started with them in the White House. I think it was John Solomon, who co-wrote it and also directed it, who kept looking for a bigger opening image. I think he and Dave Noel came up with the bomber during one of the rewrites. It was just a matter of John saying, “Isn’t there some huge splashy image we can open on?” Will assumed it couldn’t be done, but our producer, Steve Burgess is unflappable, and as it turns out, he found us a way to do it. The first two episodes of this season were wildly over budget, just like the first two episodes of last season. Then for the next few episodes we had to try to climb out of that financial hole. As an aside, when you see an episode where they are mainly in the house or out by the pool, that’s an episode where we are saving money.
You told me in the past that that great “Paper Planes” joke was originally in the second episode, but then moved over here. Can you talk about the differences in how the premiere and the next episode originally were supposed to end and begin?
The difference was that originally, in the first episode, we see Tandy filling up the gas tank, but we don’t see Carol leave the RV. And then we cut to Tandy driving and singing the “world’s largest plate” song and then discovering that Carol is missing. So we didn’t show you how it happened or where she is. We left it as a mystery in that episode until the very end shot, where we reveal that she is alive at a gas station somewhere, but still you had no idea how they got separated. Then the beginning of the next episode was written as a flashback to the gas station moment, so the original plan was to have a mystery posed in 201 and explained in 202.
We also get right back to Mike Miller in space. You had spoken before about how the Sudeikis reveal in the first season was originally going to happen midseason rather than the note the season went out on. With him being in flux in the past, did now seemed like the right time to continue that story?
We knew we couldn’t end season one on Mike Miller and then ignore him for any length of time. We ended up shooting all of Jason’s stuff in two days and then spreading it out over the first ten episodes. In my opinion, it wasn’t ideal, but Jason had very limited availability.
Mike having worm friends like Phil does with his balls is such a nice touch, too.
There was some discussion of “what’s the difference between the two Miller brothers?” And our first instinct was to have Mike be the opposite of Tandy – totally buttoned down and scientific. But when push came to shove, you’ve got this wonderful comic actor in Jason Sudeikis, and you want to let him be at least a little goofy. It made sense to let Mike have the same sensibility as Tandy. He’s just more successful.
We also get to dig a little deeper into Carol in this episode, getting to see her home and learn a bit about her family. You don’t get a lot of opportunities for that in the show, that when you do are they extra important?
Early on we all kind of assumed the show could delve into flashbacks. But the more we thought about it, it’s like, Lost did that, and OINTB is doing that, and they’re doing it really well, so we just don’t want to copy. And when flashbacks were off the table, I think it added to our weirdness and our off-balance feeling and the vibe of alienation. These people are just thrown together randomly for no understandable reason. Ordinarily that’s not an ideal setup for storytelling, but for our weird premise, it totally works. Their backstories have nothing to do with why they are in each other’s lives, and whatever backstories they have are completely upstaged by the one thing they do have in common – the unfathomable amount of death they all witnessed.
And believe me, we’ve pitched on tons of backstory for Carol, like her job at the hot sauce factory and her mom maybe having a secret family on the side, and maybe some surprising prior marriages in Carol’s past. All of it ends up in a jokey place, and Will Forte has a real aversion to anything that feels like what a sitcom would do. He smells it a mile away and he just refuses to go there. So the little bit that we showed seemed like just enough. It’s focused on Carol being a blissfully unaware outcast, an oddball at total peace with herself, and almost entirely focuses on the brief period of time after the virus started. Even Carol Pilbasian lost her shit briefly. We love that. We love that the worst tragedy in human history is a pervasive force in these people’s lives.
The Last Man on Earth Season 2 Episode 2 “The Boo”
Written by Andy Bobrow ; Directed by Jason Woliner
“Phil goes on a search for Carol after he accidentally leaves her in a gas station in Oklahoma.”
With how strong Tandy and Carol’s dynamic is in the premiere, I really thought that this separation of them could be something that really took up a lot of the season, with the goal being eventually to reunite them. Did you guys ever plan to draw this out a little longer, or was it always a macguffin meant to get wrapped up pretty quickly?
Like I said earlier, the money part of the equation really takes a lot of options off the table. It would be interesting to meander around and just stay with Tandy for weeks and weeks, or just stay with Carol, but the network financial model would have a very hard time accommodating that. Believe it or not, episodes with fewer characters end up costing way more money because you have to shoot so much material. Without dialogue to rely on, everything needs to be a big visual set-piece, like car bowling. Those scenes take longer to set up, longer to shoot, and you have to shoot a lot of them to fill 22 minutes.
A train isn’t always an easy thing to secure. Was it something else in the script originally? Did you want to do something even crazier and then had to settle with the train?
We got stuck on that detail for sure. But the question was not, “What can we shoot,” the question was, “What could Tandy plausibly do to communicate with her?” Fireworks? Nuclear explosions? Huge banks of speakers? (I think we did consider that one actually.) A radio station? (would be such a coincidence to say Carol happened to turn on a radio to the right station at the right moment).
I think what we found was, there’s basically no plausible way he could communicate with her. Our train gag doesn’t stand up to even the slightest bit of scrutiny. But it passed the test of being funny and also being the perfect Tandy solution. And hey, it’s within the miraculous reality of our show. It’s no less plausible than a spectacular car stunt in a Fast and Furious movie, and people love those things.
Tandy himself becomes a much more empathetic character this season. I was a big fan of Tandy’s antagonistic run during the first season and how different it was for a comedy. I was happy every time you guys pushed things further, but I’m surprised at again how comfortable this new angle is. Can you talk a bit on that new re-positioning for the character?
Yeah, I touched on it up above, but yes it was definitely a conscious decision. Tandy’s personality last year became polarizing. Not at first, but around episode six, some people started saying, “fuck this guy.” And the truth is, we pretty much corrected ourselves before we heard any feedback, because you know we shot all thirteen of Season One before they aired. That’s my ego kicking in, trying to say, “Hey, correcting Tandy wasn’t your idea, internet. We were already doing it.” I don’t know why I’m so compelled to point that out. Just insecurity. I’m thrilled you liked Asshole Phil, actually.
But even in the room, some of us were very worried that, for example, scenes like the “Don’t trust fats” scene would push viewers too far. Will knows what’s funny, and he knows that he is particularly funny when he is selfish, inappropriate, scheming, horny and failing. Some of us who come from a traditional sitcom background were like, “Those things are well and good, but Tandy is the lead character. Kramer could be those things, but Jerry had to be more likeable.” And Will was like, “This is funny.” And it took many of us out of our comfort zone, just like it did for the audience. And I’m proud that we went there because it’s yet another reason why this is not a typical network show. And I’m also really proud that we pulled it back in the right ways – we pulled it back unsentimentally.
I think a huge part of the equation at the end of last season, and also into this season, is to show that anyone can be a Tandy. When Phil 2 showed up, and the women started thinking with their genitals, I think that did as much to redeem Tandy as any of the other measures we took.
The whole “Melissa Chartres” thing [Melissa’s last name is revealed to be “Shart” during the first season]. Get into that a little bit. Was it just you messing with canon and seeing who was paying attention?
Yup. That was Dan Sterling’s pitch. We love that joke more than it’s healthy to love a joke. We still don’t understand why we have not been awarded the Nobel Joke Prize for that joke.
Why was it necessary to burn Tandy’s house down? Did they even burn it down?
This is a great example of how Forte’s brain works. He’s thinking in images and emotions above anything else. He goes, “And when Tandy gets there, the house is completely torched.” And we’ll go, “How did it get torched?” And he’ll go, “I don’t know, Phil did it maybe. Or they all did it. It’s just me walking through this husk of a house. It’ll be so rad.” And he’s 100 percent right. Tandy doesn’t know in that moment, so neither should the viewer (We actually did write some material explaining that it was Phil 2, and the rest of the group thought he was overreacting, and that was the beginning of their dissatisfaction with him, but who gives a fuck, right? Bo-ring.)
Talk to me about Will Ferrell. Obviously he, Will, and a lot of the staff have a relationship, but was he always the first choice?
We were so lucky to have Will. I feel bad talking about other choices. But yes, we did have a list of people we thought would be great for that cameo because you have to cast a wide net for this sort of thing.
Like I said, getting Will Ferrell was tremendous, so no disrespect to him, but here are some other names we would have been thrilled with: George Clooney, Leonardo DiCaprio, Clint Eastwood, Tom Hanks, Jack Nicholson, Harrison Ford, Bill Clinton, Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, Jeff Bridges, Robert De Niro, Steve Martin, Liam Neeson, Brad Pitt, Robert Redford, Nicholas Cage, Tommy Lee Jones, Tom Cruise, Bono, Paul McCartney, and Sylvester Stallone.
Our walkthrough on Last Man on Earth’s second season will continue tomorrow.