Last Man on Earth Writers’ Room Walkthrough Part 5

We look at the midseason finale in the fifth part of our Last Man on Earth Writers' Room Walkthrough.

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 episodes nine and ten from Last Man on Earth’s second season. Click here for the previous installments.

The Last Man on Earth Season 2 Episode 9 – “Secret Santa”

Written by Kira Kalush ; Directed by Nick Jasenovec 

 “Along with most human life, the virus wiped out normal traditions and holidays. As Christmas approaches, Carol spearheads a ‘Secret Santa’ gift exchange to spread some festive cheer.” 

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Part of what makes Last Man on Earth so unique from the rest of what’s on television is that its ridiculous premise prohibits a number of stock sitcom episodes from being done. That being said, you guys finally indulge yourselves and turn out a holiday episode. Did you have reservations, or were you guys just going crazy and wanted to have some fun? 

We had talked about doing secret Santa for a while, and I think it scared Will for the very reason you brought up. I think what made Will more comfortable with it was when we married it to Phil’s illness. That gave it a reason for existing in Will’s mind.

Also, shout out to Kira Kalush. This is her first staff writing job too, and she’s such a great addition to the room. This was a juicy episode, really from the moment we put a card on the wall that said, “Secret Santa,” we all knew it would be a big one, and Kira worked it like a pro.

Not only is this episode such a fun time for everyone, it’s by far the best Kristen Schaal episode of the season. Did Carol being a Christmas fanatic just make sense to you guys?

We briefly toyed with the idea of going against type and having Carol not into Christmas, but ultimately it’s like: why do that to our viewers? Everyone who likes the show would want her to blow it out. And while we do like pulling the rug on viewers, this didn’t seem like the time.

Were you looking for an episode to specifically highlight Carol again? 

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We are so lucky to have Kristen Schaal. That woman is a laser-guided laugh missile. Initially we put a card on the wall that said, “Carol gets lost inside her decorations and can’t find her way out.” That felt too sitcom-y to Will and we will never forgive him for that even though he’s probably right.

Were Carol’s Christmas decorations your production designers dream come true, or a nightmare? That insanity must have taken forever to pull together.

It should have been a dream come true, but I’m afraid it ended up being more of a nightmare. We had said in the script that Carol overdid the decorations, but what no one really counted on was just how vast that space is. Our set decorators went out and bought a ton of stuff, but when we came in on the Monday of shoot week, it was clear that it wasn’t making a big enough impression. It wasn’t overwhelming the house. Kira came to me with a sick look on her face. “Don’t we need a lot more stuff?” She was right though, so we had to go talk to the director and our set dec people and it was tense. 

The clock is ticking and we can’t slow down the schedule, and we’re telling them we need way more stuff. And they bought more stuff, and they dragged all the stuff from other rooms, and they had to get creative with moving things around from room to room without anyone picking up on it. Shout out to Erin Boyd and Zach Kramer and their whole team, who busted their humps to decorate that huge house in a matter of hours. 

Was there discussion at any point of any characters being a denomination other than Christian? I know you got into this a fair bit back on Community, but what was the timbre like here?

Yeah, we had stuff in the script that got cut for time. Before Carol starts the Secret Santa, she says “Oh, and don’t worry, if you follow another religion, they’re all fully represented as well.” And she points to a tiny little cubby with a small dreidel, Kwanzaa candle, and a Ganesha print. I doubt you can see it, but on that shelf behind Carol, that stuff is there. We shot it and cut it for time. 

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There was an earlier joke I really loved, which was Carol says, “Wait, does anyone here not celebrate Christmas?” And no one raises their hand, and she just says, very pointedly, “So all the survivors are Christian. Noted.” But that was probably too scary.

The gifts that everyone ends up getting are all fantastic and pretty insightful glimpses into who they are. What else was being kicked around for this?

One big one we wanted was R2D2 for Carol. Erica gets her R2D2, the real prop, and Carol says “Oh, the robot from Star Tours! My favorite ride!” And then inside a compartment would be the dress. Even though that property is owned by 20th Century Fox, it’s a licensing hassle to get permission. We couldn’t get that approved in time. It’s a bummer because Carol was gonna bedazzle it. For the rest of the season, we were going to have a fully bedazzled R2D2 in our show.

Other gift ideas: The wheel from Wheel of Fortune; The AIDS quilt; A CVS gift card for ten million dollars; Baby clothes worn by Blue Ivy and North West; The Vice Presidency; Gail was going to give Todd a live lobster she found at the Long Beach Aquarium. Erica was going to give Melissa a yacht called “Chartres Attack”; We considered a piñata full of diamonds; and someone was going to wrap a gift in an insanely rare newspaper, like one announcing Lincoln’s assassination; We had Bob Barker’s microphone wrapped in the painting “Nighthawks” for no reason; and Melissa was going to give Todd props from Shawshank Redemption, like the jewel hammer and the girlie poster. I hope by telling you all this, you aren’t disappointed in the stuff we did use.

Tandy’s gift to himself is beyond perfect, too. Really nailed it with the wanton destruction. 

Thanks. Originally, instead of Pitbull’s yacht, we were thinking Tandy blows up The Queen Mary. But people said it’s common knowledge that the Queen Mary is not seaworthy, it’s just sitting on pylons in Long Beach. I’m not sure it’s common knowledge, but whatever. We blew up Pitbull’s yacht. Incidentally, our inside joke for the name of Pitbull’s yacht is “Snatch A Wave.” Pretty sure that’s a Tim McAuliffe joke. Shout out to Tim for being funny one hundred percent of the time.

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We learn that Mike Miller has been in space for three years in this episode. That’s some time before the virus broke out. Did you guys figure out what his mission in space was exactly? Was it virus-related in any way?

No, he’s just a scientist up there hatching worms. We had talked about delving into what happened. We talked about how Mike is up there with a crew and it’s before the virus, or maybe when the virus just looked like a smaller epidemic, and then they’re getting reports about the virus and NASA is telling them they’re going to keep them up there longer until the virus dies down, and then everyone at NASA starts dying and all that. And then his crewmates off themselves, but he can’t bring himself to do it. But ultimately, none of that moves the story forward so we’re not getting into it. You can just keep it in your back pocket like we’re doing.

Now this is a cliffhanger! I’d say that the first season of the show almost made a game of trying to top itself when it came to cliffhangers. It seems like Melissa is being genuine here, and the Shawshank callback is a great touch. Did you guys have a real discussion about what Todd’s answer to her proposal would be, or was it already figured out? In spite of what’s happened, there’s still a very real connection between Todd and Melissa.

Yes we had lots of discussion about his answer, basically gaming out how it would go if he said yes, or if he said no, or if he couldn’t answer. And we had strong arguments for each possibility. But we had to choose one, and the one we chose is going to lead to some of that good Melissa stuff I talked about earlier.

The Last Man on Earth Season 2 Episode 10 – “Christmas (AKA Silent Night)” 

Written by Tim McAuliffe ; Directed by Jason Woliner 

 “Phil is diagnosed with appendicitis. Someone in the group has to step up to execute the surgery. Melissa has to deal with Todd’s refusal of her proposal. Mike makes a decision about returning to earth.”

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Mike’s cliffhanger last episode feels a little manipulative with how quickly you get him out of that situation. What was the thought process here? Was the fake-out at the end of the last episode done just to inject some extra suspense into its ending?

You’re trying to give me an out, but I guess the answer is it just didn’t work for you.

No, I wouldn’t say that. It’s a crazy powerful ending. I just meant if it was always a story beat or if you guys felt that you needed an extra “big moment” to happen here.

We loved the image of him blowing himself out into space to kill himself – mirroring Phil’s attempted suicide in the pilot. And we loved that as soon as he does that, he sees something that changes his mind and he has to fight his way back to the ship. 

Appendicitis feels like a pretty believable ailment to turn to with Phil. Was it always going to be what ended up taking him down, or did you toy with other problems?

No appendicitis was our first thought. I think we spent a couple minutes seeing if there was something better, but we agreed with your assessment. We really wanted it to be something that’s easily fixed in our world, but life-threatening in theirs. I suppose tetanus, or some kind of infection also fits that bill, but the advantage of appendicitis is it gets real bad real fast. 

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Are there any symptoms of Phil’s appendicitis in previous episodes that people can hunt down? I looked pretty carefully but came up empty.

No, we only had Boris portraying side pain right before he collapses. I think we did a little research to make sure that’s plausible, but check me on that. There is one little quasi Easter Egg in there, which is that the Hope Diamond is generally considered to be cursed. We talked about having Carol point that out to Tandy, but it would have detracted from the tone of that episode. Just know that if you believe in superstition, Tandy may very well have caused Phil’s predicament. 

There’s a lot is going on in this episode and it feels like it must have been a really handful when you were breaking it, especially with the midseason break that follows it. Can you talk about the process for this one and if it was given any special attention? 

Well the Mike Miller part of the episode was written and shot well before, so that made things easy. This double cliffhanger was something we came up with in May and we knew it was coming, and we were excited about it. The ending image of Phil flatlining and Mike careening towards Earth, that’s something we told the network we were going to do back in May. 

To be honest, often an episode like this is easier to break than one with less happening. The rest of the stories were really just a matter of thinking inside the box of “How is everyone helping Gail?” Sometimes having a clear constraint like that is easier than having a blank page where anything can happen. 

Was that “Body Lockers” scene improvised at all, because it feels crazily natural? 

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Absolutely improvised. I mean, we had the line in the script where Todd says he was in a body lockers group, but everything after that was Mel and Will being knuckleheads. When we started shooting that scene, Mel just mentioned off-hand that he actually was in a body lockers group in high school. So he did some moves for Will and then they were off and running.

Exhuming Gordon’s corpse is a bold move for the show to take, and it surely would have broken Gail if they actually showed any of this to her. Is this going to be some awful secret that dies between Tandy and Todd? 

I actually had not thought about that. Could be a really huge reveal at some point. Thank you for that. We had written on a card that Gail needs a body and Tandy and Todd dig up Gordon. For a little while, we figured Gail would have to suck it up and practice surgery on Gordon. But the more we thought about it that just seemed too gross, even for our show.

We were all relieved when we found that idea of the surgical dummy. That came about because we were looking online to see if an amateur could actually attempt an appendix surgery. We Googled appendix surgery and one of the videos had a doctor doing the surgery on a dummy. That’s how we learned they existed and we were grateful we found it.

I’ve touched on Jason Woliner’s directing on this show before, but man, that last scene where Phil’s pulse is quickening and Gail is freaking out is so well put together. It doesn’t even feel like you’re in a comedy anymore, and ending an episode like this on that sort of emotional resonance is the right way to have this connect.

Yeah, Jason has that strong sketch comedy background, and often in sketch, you have to mimic a dramatic style. Like if you’re doing movie parodies and stuff. So Jason really pulled out his drama chops for this. Will, and all of us writers, were unambiguous about how this ending needed to feel. It needed to feel like a good solid drama, no winking at the camera, no trappings of comedy whatsoever. No fucking around with this one. 

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Mike deciding to eject himself in space is a pretty tremendous decision. Were there plans to keep him up in space longer? Or was it more just a case of feeling like you had done everything you could with him alone up there, and it was time to move things on before becoming repetitive?

Yeah, that space story had to go somewhere. It either needed to end or move forward. I think on March 6th, you will be very happy with how we’ve handled it.

Cheating an audience is something that can really turn them on a show. You bring up some very real situations here, too. It’d be pretty unrealistic if someone with Gail’s skill level would actually be able to successfully remove Phil’s appendix, but that doesn’t mean the temptation wasn’t still there. Going into this episode, were Phil and Mike’s lives still hanging in the balance, or did you know exactly the fates of these two? 

Yeah, this was another one of those rare occasions where we knew what we were doing. The fates of these two characters was decided months ago.

I’d really, really love the idea if Erica’s baby is named Phil, after his presumably deceased father, because we technically then have another “Phil Miller,” meaning that Tandy has to remain as Tandy. There’s always going to be some other Phil Miller amongst them.  

That exact thing has been discussed. We are undecided, but she has already ruled out two very good name choices.

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You guys have a lot of balls in the air coming back from this finale. Not only are lives in the balance, but you have a reputation of returning from breaks with crazy premieres. With elements like a pregnancy to address now, was there the thought or temptation to have a considerable time-jump having taken place when we return? It’s a plausible way to keep the baby angle fresh and efficient.

You are consistently right regarding our story concerns. We have talked on several occasions about jumping the story, not just for 211, but in other episodes as well. Every once in a while it comes up, like, “Guys, if we don’t have a decent angle for this story, we could just jump ahead.” And up until now, we’ve only jumped once, at the beginning of this season. We reserve the right to jump at any point in the future, but I don’t want to spoil March 6th for you.

Our walkthrough on Last Man on Earth’s will continue after the season finale. The previous entries can be found here.