Last Man on Earth Writers’ Room Walkthrough Part 3

Our look inside the Last Man on Earth writers' room continues with season 2 episodes 5 and 6.

Editor’s note: 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 our walkthrough with executive producer Andy Bobrow looks at the fifth and sixth episodes from Last Man on Earth’s second season. Click here for the previous installments.

The Last Man on Earth Season 2 Episode 5 – “Crickets”

Written by Tim McAuliffe ; Directed by Jason Woliner 

Phil finds out Todd’s secret in “the house”; Melissa gets a cut on her finger.” 

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The cricket food Carol makes here is deeply unnerving. Director Jason Woliner has kind of been your ace in the hole this season, hasn’t he? He’s gotten a lot of the more complicated set pieces from the series and always sticks the landing.

Jason shot a couple for us last year and he was just such a great mesh with our show. We booked him for as many as we could get this year. He’s a weapon. It’s a real tough job, directing TV comedy. The schedule is always really tight and everyone always wants you to make it look “better than a TV show.” We’ve been very lucky with our directors. We’ve gone with mostly up-and-coming directors, people who have made a mark on cable but not in network yet. Woliner is one. Peter Attencio was another last year, who is now too busy for us.

We also picked up Payman Benz for a couple episodes this year, and he’s really wonderful. John Solomon is an old friend of Will’s who was unproven in network episodic TV, but he’s just amazing. And Dave Noel is a writer who also has an editing background and he really did a great job on an episode coming up. Editors make good directors. Claire Scanlon comes from that world as well, and she’s been awesome for us. So we feel like we’ve got the best directors, and hopefully they enjoy working with us so we can get them back for more.

While Tandy is redeeming himself this season, we kind of get to watch the others plummet a few depths as Tandy and Carol try to heal everyone. After spending so much time on Tandy last year, was it nice to figure out what was wrong with everyone else? 

Yes! To be honest, we didn’t even brainstorm on it much. We didn’t sit around saying, “Okay, what’s Gail’s problem?” We just kind of stumbled into it when we saw how right she looked with a glass of wine in her hand. And then it was like, “Well what’s funny about her being the doctor? Hmm, probably that wine in her hand.” I feel like, on our show, the character development is very much driven by visuals. Like January Jones just looks really good with a gun. So we run with that and Melissa becomes the badass. And there’s some really great Melissa downslide stuff coming towards the end of the season.

Gail’s drinking pretty constantly at this point. Should we assume that this is fallout from what happened with Gordon? 

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Yeah, like I hinted at above, something about her character just seemed right with the wine. Maybe it’s the southern drawl and that Tennessee Williams vibe. Emily Spivey kind of channels Gail and had a lot to do with the formation of that character. And when we had Mary hugging that CPR dummy in that scene, she threw herself into it with such gusto, it became a clean connection for all of us from the sadness to the booze. I mean, that said, we’ve written Gail as a woman who has partied a lot and enjoys life, so it’s not like Gordon’s death started this whole drinking thing, but it sure kicked it up. 

So Melissa cuts her hand in this episode. When I first saw this I thought the direction that it was heading was that Melissa’s hand would slowly become infected and gangrenous over time, eventually needing to be amputated. Was this ever on the table? Or merely misdirect for what’s coming?

Love it! But sadly, I don’t think we ever considered Melissa’s injury getting big. From the beginning of this season, we knew that we were going to do this big surgery thing in episode 10, so if it had come up, we probably would have shot it down so as not to rob from the impact of surgery.

Was it always this bacon incident to bring Tandy and Todd back together? Did you guys weigh other options, or did it all come down to food in the end?

We had been talking about frozen food since last year. I kept pitching it as a quest – like they see a photo in a magazine article about some government bunker, like a missile silo, and the only photo that the magazine was allowed to publish was a pic of the kitchen. And Tandy’s looking at this old magazine and he sees a frozen pizza in the photo. And he reasons that the freezer is probably still working, so he leads everyone on a Goonies-style quest to find that frozen pizza. And that, I’m afraid, is the Community experience coming out of me. 

That’s a pretty typical start for a Community story, but not Last Man. I must have pitched that 25 times and it never got any traction. But the idea of a working freezer had some staying power, so it morphed into this bacon idea. As I remember, it took some fiddling to try to get the idea of a bacon freezer to be the thing which bonds Tandy and Todd. It could have gone any number of ways. But a shared secret seemed to win the day. A shared secret is a pretty great way to repair a relationship. I’m filing that away for future me when I’m stuck on a story. 

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It’s a tiny moment, but Melissa and Carol bonding over Erica’s eye rolls is one of my favorite scenes between them. It’s a lot like the “Body Lockers” scene between Tandy and Todd later. You have such a big show, but do you relish these smaller bits between pieces of the core group when you’re able to indulge?

Yeah I love that scene. We saw some magic in Carol and Melissa back in episode 104 when they had that moment alone and Melissa asks Carol why she and Phil don’t live together. And Carol says it’s a marriage of convenience, and both of those actors do such a great job. The chemistry between them is great. You see Melissa fall in love with Carol right there. 

And Melissa is such a harsh character most of the time, which we love, but when she relaxes with Carol, that goes a long way towards softening her character and making her a good guy. So we’re always looking for ways to get them checking in with each other.

The Last Man on Earth Season 2 Episode 6 – “A Real Live Wire”

Written by Erica Rivinoja ; Directed by Jason Woliner 

Phil and Todd rejuvenate their old friendship from Tuscon after doing time together; Phil and Phil 2’s growing tension between each other over Carol reaches its tipping point.” 

Let’s talk liquid waffles for a second, because it might be Tandy at his grossest up until this point.

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Erica was on set and tells me it was real waffle mix and real syrup and he did at least five takes. I guess Will had gotten a taste of regurgitated cheese and he was just chasing that high.

Gas expiring—much like food expiring—is very much my jam here. It’s a solid premise and obstacle for an episode, but it’s also just another example of these characters learning that they’re slowly running out of time. I assume this building dread was all part of the plan? 

Building dread I guess, but in my mind it’s a great way to frame the situation for these knuckleheads. They’re on the Titanic and refuse to do anything about it. “Broken World” is a phrase we end up saying a lot. It comes up in production meetings all the time, like when a script calls for a prop or a location and someone says “how do you want it to look?” and we say, “Well, just keep in mind it’s a broken world. Nothing works great, nothing looks great, everything’s janky, everything’s duct-taped.” 

As far as the gas and details like that, our Writers Assistant, Max Kessler, took it upon himself to be our source for end-of-the world wisdom. He reads up on this stuff. Most of the time, he’ll say something like, “The weeds would be waist-high by now and there’d be vegetation infiltrating buildings.” And we’ll go, “Okay, yeah, sure, excellent point, but is it plausible that the virus slowed down vegetation?” And we end up fudging a lot of stuff that way, like the famous “where are the bodies” discussion (which we do address later this season). 

But the gas detail, that’s one thing Max pointed out that we thought we’d better address. And it also gave us, like you said, a good start for a story. A good source of tension between Phil and the group, that he’s all business and they couldn’t care less.

As a result, Phil not only brings up the idea of leaving Malibu in this episode, but also starting to think about the future and actually fixing the world. That’s a crazy, crazy feat to take on, but is it the sort of thing you’d like to see the show getting into? Repopulating and building a new society? 

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We could certainly go there. I mean that’s Carol Pilbasian’s original plan. I have to admit, we’re all a little nervous about doing a show with a ton of farming and building and irrigation and stuff. So far, the show has been finding humor in the fact that these people aren’t bothering with that stuff. They’re modern and weak-willed and just stupidly hanging onto the crumbling infrastructure all around them. So we like that Phil brings it up, since someone would. But we also really like that everyone’s response is YOLO. Phil is right. But they also have a point.

Making that decision is sort of the demarcation line for the show when it starts to become being about a very different thing at that point. It’s a risky trigger to pull. There must have been a lot of discussion in that area.

It really felt like the elephant in the room to us. We fancy ourselves a show that will hit people with harsh reality once in a while. That’s kind of our secret sauce, right in the pilot, when Phil starts to kill himself. So from the start we’ve kind of been playing with “Yeah, this is really dumb and these people are funny, but what would you really do, if it were you? How would it really feel if it were you?” Quite often, really in any writers’ room, someone is going to say, “Well if it were me…” And hopefully that’s how a sitcom keeps itself moored to something people can relate to.

So from the start, someone in our room would periodically bring up, like, issues of “Wouldn’t at least one character bring up farming? Shouldn’t someone at least suggest they live closer to a river?  Would repopulation really make sense to everyone?” So at this point in the series, it was just a critical mass. We had brought up those issues so often in the room that we figured it was time for someone to say it on camera. I guess it didn’t feel that risky to us because we still have characters who don’t want to face reality, and who will continue being dumb and funny. 

Melissa also brings up a very good point that bringing children into this world would kind of be crazy irresponsible. It’s definitely an interesting topic for these people. 

Yup. The credit for that idea really belongs to the women on our staff. Mainly Liz Cackowsky and Emily Spivey were really strong voices in that camp for a long time. All throughout season one, actually. I mean, I like to think that we’re all really evolved in terms of gender issues, but this was one where it really was a gender split, and the men in the room would never have addressed it. The women in the room were like, “No fucking way would I have a baby in this world.” And the guys were just kind of in denial about it until it became clear how tone deaf we would be if we didn’t address it. 

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Childbirth is scary in a visceral way for the people who actually have to go through it. It’s scary enough in our modern world, so it’s terrifying in a world without medicine. Through most of human history, childbirth was life-threatening for the mother. So yeah. I’m relieved that we didn’t drop the ball on getting that point of view into the show.

Tandy and Todd are kind of transported into a cartoon this episode as they fight with a renegade electrical wire. This seems like a pretty crazy obstacle to give them. How did you get to this place? 

Once we got Tandy and Todd back together in the bacon story, we really wanted to see them working on a project together. We didn’t really have them working together in season one, except kind of on the cow thing. But we always knew their dynamic would be perfect Mutt and Jeff, Laurel and Hardy stuff. When you say cartoon, I agree, and I have to admit I’m not entirely sure we hit the right flavor of cartoonishness on this one. The wire flapping around will probably strike some people as too much. I think we did a much better version of their dynamic in the morgue story, so lesson learned. 

But to answer your question, it wasn’t so much a matter of starting from the energy crisis, but just looking for some kind of infrastructure project that the knuckleheads could do together. For the story, we just wanted Phil 2 to mention some infrastructure project that he was working on before he decides to go on strike. It could have been any number of things, but the idea of a live wire flapping around made us laugh so we ran with it. It’s embarrassing to admit this now, but the original version of the story was even more cartoony with the wire making its way into the house and trapping everyone. 

We see the first real evidence of how messed up Gail is over Gordon. What was the discussion over her arc for this half of the season? 

The only real arc we plotted out for Gail was the doctor thing, and that’s something we came up with in season one, but never got to it. And initially when we came up with it, we assumed we’d be able to do stories about Gail learning medicine, studying it. And then when it was time to tell stories about Gail learning medicine, we could not come up with anything funny in that realm. It just kind of became this thing where we’d be talking about what everyone else is doing and then we’d say, “and of course Gail will have her medical textbooks.” We had nothing. Big whiff. But when we saw her throw herself at that dummy in 203, it opened up a different door.

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I mean, what was scripted was she does mouth-to-mouth and she starts kissing it and she cries because she misses him, so it’s not like we didn’t have a clue. But to us it was just a funny gag, and we didn’t realize how significant it would feel when she did it. She made it feel more like a story than a joke. I guess that’s the price you pay when you have such an intelligent actress doing your jokes. Mary Steenburgen puts meaning into things that we didn’t see meaning in. Erik Durbin was on set for that scene. He said just for fun in one of the takes, they just had Mary pick up the dummy and take it inside, like she had plans for it. So from then on, it was like an inside joke we would tell in the room. Like, “Well you know Gail is definitely fucking that doll.” And so we’re in this situation where we’re going, “What is Gail doing in this episode? Should she be studying medicine?” And that sounds boring as hell. And then someone jokes, “Well, we should just show her going to town on that doll.” And after a while, the joke that we thought we’d only tell ourselves became a joke that we embraced in the show. And when we followed the emotion behind that joke, it led us to Todd.

Phil really starts to become the antagonist and wet blanket of the season here. It’s kind of a fascinating, gradual shift, but it’s all the more interesting considering what ends up happening with his character. It’s almost like there’s some sort of prophecy where whoever is the “Phil Miller” of the group is destined to be the bad guy.

Interesting. We worried a little that we were pushing Phil 2 into bad guy territory too fast. And honestly, I think we did push it a little quicker than I would have liked. So I’m relieved you didn’t call us on that. The arc we planned for Phil 2 was he would hate Tandy, then screw up royally and find out what it’s like to be Tandy, then redeem himself. So it was definitely time for the train to get rolling on “Bad Phil.” And hopefully, all of his actions are understandable, if not entirely justified.

Our walkthrough on Last Man on Earth’s second season will continue tomorrow. The previous entries can be found here.