The Last Man on Earth: Dissecting the Psychology Behind the Apocalypse

Our interview with Last Man on Earth’s Andy Bobrow gets deep into what made the ambitious show so special.

Editor’s Note: We’re diving into best comedies currently on television this week. To see all of our coverage from Den of Geek’s Comedy Week, click here.

One of the most exciting, unpredictable shows from this year was no doubt Fox’s The Last Man on Earth. This is a show that started with a cast of one set in a post-apocalyptic Tucson, and continued to balloon in exciting ways that I don’t think anyone, even Fox, could have anticipated. 

Thankfully and wisely, Fox renewed Last Man for a second season and I can’t recall a time when I was more excited about a comedy returning. Last Man offers up such limitless possibilities and ended on such a high note (literally, thousands of miles above the Earth) that the second season could even manage to outdo the first. Even if the series completely phoned it in next year, having a weekly comedy that’s drenched in Will Forte’s style and presence is a gift in itself. 

Will Forte, Phil Lord, and Chris Miller did an impressive job of assembling a real murderers’ row of creative talent to populate their show about an unpopulated world.

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As production starts to begin on the show’s second season, we checked in with Andy Bobrow, a writer and co-executive producer from the series (who just ended his four-year stint on Community), about what made the show’s first year so special, the unusual themes about it that excited him the most, and where he hopes the next season will be headed.

DEN OF GEEK: Last Man on Earth‘s pilot is probably one of the most unique, memorable first episodes I’ve ever seen, let alone for a sitcom. Did the first few episodes establish a benchmark that you kept reaching for?

ANDY BOBROW: I know that in hindsight, we sort of didn’t achieve it. No, I don’t think so. It’s not like we were going, “Is this as good as the pilot?” It was more just a matter of, “Where do we go now?” Will had almost most of the season planned out, especially in terms of the character introductions. So we knew that–when we sat down to start working on episodes–we knew that he had already sort of announced, “Okay, in episode two he meets his Carol; they don’t get along; he corrects her grammar…” He had all of that figured out, “She’s set on getting married, and then when they do get married they crash into Melissa…” So he knew that was going to happen in episode four–I think there might have been some discussion of when it would happen. At a point it was earlier, and then we thought maybe later…He also knew that it would then be the three of them for a bit and he would try and talk them into an arrangement. The minute he gets that approval this guy is going to show up, and it’ll be this fat guy. All of that was figured out.  

To return to the original point though–We sort of didn’t think of those early episodes as a benchmark, but were just running so fast, and focused on the one’s we were making at the moment.

DEN OF GEEK: So many of these episodes end on huge cliffhangers–Melissa even calls the show out on it. So you weren’t trying to write yourselves into corners creatively there, Will knew all of those beats? 

ANDY BOBROW: Yeah, he really had–let’s see, he had Melissa’s introduction figured out, Todd’s figured out. After that he had some notion that at some point maybe some other characters showed up, but the one thing that he did know from the start is that at the end another guy named Phil Miller would show up.

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Wow, that much so early on. That’s crazy.

He knew that from the beginning, that at the end of the season another Phil Miller would show up and he’s everything that the first Phil Miller isn’t. He’s going to just put him to shame, and Phil is going to spiral so far downwards from it that he’ll be kicked out. So Will had that all done. He didn’t quite have the middle nailed down–but yes, the main plot points and introductions were all part of the plan from the beginning. 

So at no point did we really write ourselves into a corner, but we did feel–and I think it shows–that we hit a little bit of a slow spot in the middle of the season. And it’s because it’s always dangerous when you have the ending of a season figured out and then you have several episodes to get there.

Of course. Inevitably you’re treading water.

Yeah, and something big has to happen every week, yet you’re holding onto this big thing in your back pocket but it can’t happen yet.

That’s good that you’re getting back into it so quickly though.

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It is, and in terms of Dan Sterling (the new showrunner), he’s a great guy. But the sensibility of the show isn’t going to change any next season. Especially since Will is still very much–it’s his show. What we needed was an experienced showrunner from a big network show perspective who can sort of keep the trains on time and help Will out in terms of–Will did everything last year, he was nearly in every scene, he broke all the stories with us. We’d write scripts, but he’d still do a final pass on all of them.

He overlooked all the editing, too. It’s an easy way to burn yourself out. The main thing that Dan Sterling will bring beyond his great sensibility and comedy, is a speedier process to it all. 

That makes sense. Where did the name Tandy come from because it’s honestly the best worst name possible?

I don’t know! I know that Will came in giggling one day–it might have been John Solomon, but it was some collaboration between the two of them. They sort of came in with this stupid idea that Phil should lose his name–that seemed like an obvious thing. There are two Phil Millers, so why not? We had a lot of fun riffing on that idea and even had like a five-minute scene getting into how weird it all was.

The next day Will and John came in and said that they play Jenga for the rights to the name, and he loses. It was a really classic comedy room thing where Will goes, “He should have to go by his middle name, and his middle name should be really embarrassing.” We thought about it being a girl’s name at one point and kicked around a lot of options for a while, but yeah, at some point we just settled on Tandy.

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No, it’s really the best option out there. The reveal of Jason Sudeikis as Phil Miller’s brother was pretty wonderful and obviously Forte and Sudeikis have great chemistry from doing Saturday Night Live together. Was it his idea to cast Jason or just a happy coincidence there?

Yeah, no, he wanted to work with Jason and bring Jason in on some level, somehow. Yeah, I think he had known from the start that he had a more successful brother and that it would be Jason. Then it just became a matter of scheduling. We couldn’t get him. He’s hard to get. 

So finding time on his calendar to shoot was difficult. At one point we had flashbacks happening to their life together. But we knew enough by the time we were editing the pilot episode we knew that we were going to have Jason in some respect, so because of that we stuck him into the photo frame. When Phil moves into the house and picks up a picture of his family, we put Jason in that family photo. 

Oh man! I didn’t even notice. That’s wonderful. 

Yeah! Our thought was just, even if we don’t end up using Jason, it’ll still just be a fun little Easter egg. 

This show certainly took a lot of risks and definitely one of the bigger ones was turning Phil into a villain for most of the season. Did you guys want to push Phil even further, or did you find yourselves scaling him back? 

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There was a lot of discussion in the room because he was making us a lot of uncomfortable as well. Like Will would want to do the story–the main one that comes to mind is when they’re all playing tennis and he tries to really ruin Todd and does all these fat jokes. When we were writing the episode it was writing a few people the wrong way–or rather, people were starting to get worried out loud. Like, are we going to lose the audience here?

No, but I think it’s great that you go that far with it.

Yeah, well Will was real steadfast and said, “Well this is the sort of comedy that I like.” And there’s this sort of magic with Forte because he’s such a kind-hearted person that there’s a sweetness to him that comes out that he can’t hide and because of that his characters can do mean things. And it kind of works.

January Jones’ Melissa was viewed as too harsh and antagonistic towards Phil by some people, but I sort of saw her as the person that understood Phil the best out of anyone. She’s kind of seen him at his most honest and hates him for it. There seemed to be a lot of depth there, even if we didn’t get into all of it. How did you view their relationship and do you think we’ll get back to Melissa at some point?

That’s great. In our shorthand for her, the thing that we kept calling her was the “honesty police.” We knew that there’s got to be one character–because Phil is such a muppet, and Carol is definitely a muppet. On The Muppet Show a real person would wander in every once and a while. So that’s how I kept picturing her. That she’s the guest star on The Muppet Show basically. 

So we didn’t get that deep into it, but just knew that she has to be the one that calls him on his shit and in that sense she’s the voice of the audience. So when Phil says something ridiculous, someone on camera has to say, “You’re being an ass.” Otherwise the people at home are saying, “Well why does he get away with this?”

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Similarly, there was a contention point between critics and the community as to whether the show was about sexual and gender dynamics or rather the rules of society and what it means to be a “good” person in a world that no longer has a moral compass to it. What do you have to say about that? What did you think the show was about? 

That’s a really good question because obviously it’s healthy and good that people are interpreting it in different ways. That’s great. I wanted to touch on more–and maybe we will in season two–but I really do get turned on by the discussion of what is society and what makes a society and civilization. When issues like that would come up I’d get really excited and I’d be like, why don’t we do a whole thing that’s an exploration on law–why does law evolve? Why, when there’s one person in the world anything goes, but when there’s two people they start creating some sort of baseline? That’s definitely my crack cocaine. But we didn’t pursue it as much as I wanted to. 

Yeah, but you can definitely feel it though. Like even by the end of the season it feels like Phil has learned these lessons and become a better person through society and that’s why he is able to move on at the end.

Yeah. Really what happened was Will Forte likes to do a certain kind of humor and he knows how he can be funny on humor. He just likes this sort of toddler character. This guy who just wants what he wants. So I think that’s really where every episode started from. “What can I do to be funny? What will be a good performance?” But then the deeper, psychological interpretations that come out of this are basically analyzing Will Forte and what makes him funny. 

But the ultimate themes are inherent in the premise. The gender politics things you brought up though, that did creep up on us. And I think it was a real function of us just figuring that this guy should just be chasing Melissa–that will be funny. But when we started putting episodes on paper we kind of felt that, yeah, this is loaded, this is gender politics, and women are going to have very strong opinions on it. If he continues to be a pig, he needs to have some sort of comeuppance, and then the cool thing that happened was when New Phil shows up and all the women act crazy for him.

And that I thought was really interesting. All of these women that were being put off by this apparently misogynistic show hopefully stuck with it long enough to see that the show isn’t misogynistic but that it’s just presenting both sides of that. 

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Right, and even when you’re doing these sort of more traditional ideas in a premise that’s as ridiculous as yours, you can kind of explore it from different angles. Do you think meshing those different sensibilities together is important to making something special?

Yeah there’s definitely a sense in the room that because the setup of the show has so many big literary themes running through it. It feels like a Biblical story. It feels like it has something important to say about humanity, and something important to say about theology, and all of those things are sort of inherent in the premise. People are going to find those messages in the material no matter what. I think. 

Those are the things that really turn me on about it – the exploration of what community is and what makes society move. I really liked the spiritual side of it. Is God playing a role in this show, because it sure seems like he is in many of the episodes… 

It feels like Phil is even justifying his bad behavior because he thinks God is condoning it at a certain point. There’s some great stuff there and I’d love to see more of that direction in the second season, too. It’s what makes the show different.

There’s a part of me that really embraces that stuff–and I mean, coming from Community — that’s a show that could be explained as a show about purgatory. But I feel like this show is a kindred spirit and it could also be about purgatory. It’s Phil’s purgatory.

And again it’s not until that he learns his lesson that he can move forward at all. It holds up, I think! 

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Right. Whether it’s God, or the universe, or Gaia, or whatever you believe in is specifically putting things in his path to teach him lessons. That’s basically how I interpret the show. I don’t know if everyone does, but it’s how I do.

Was there any difficulty transitioning from Community to this one? Were there any rules of lessons from Community that you tried to bring over to Last Man?

Yeah, Community, as wacky as a show as it was, it was very highly structured. It’s so formalistic of a show in terms of its three-act structure and it’s all because of Dan Harmon and his famous “story circle.”  Yeah, so I came off of Community thinking, “I know how to break a story.” But Last Man episodes are not structured that way. They’re not the traditional hero’s journey, mythic structure. I had a formula in my head that didn’t really match up with the way Will thinks, and it didn’t really match with our show. Last Man tends to meander more.

With Last Man sort of being “reset” for next season do you see it maybe returning to its previously more intimate vibe? Now that there’s a little more faith in you guys can you tow that line a little longer now before adding more cast?

We’ve definitely been having conversations about it. I don’t want to tease anything because nothing’s been set yet. But yes, we’re on the same page in terms of the audience and critics’ feedbacks that we could have stayed alone with Phil and Carol for a little longer before meeting Melissa. So that’s on the table. I don’t know if we’ll go in that direction, but we at least have the opportunity to leave them alone for a bit. 

It’s freeing to know that you can. 

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At the same time, we have established this really good supporting cast too, and we don’t want to lose that. We can really do anything. I joked that we should just do the premiere as an animated show with two cockroaches that are the last two cockroaches on Earth and they’re voiced by Phil and Carol.

Ahh, that’s great!

I don’t think we’ll do it, but we could. But that’s the Community coming out. That’s me learning from Dan Harmon. It’s me going, “Fuck it! We don’t have to do anything! Let’s do a cartoon! We can do anything.” 

Thanks Andy!

The Last Man on Earth’s second season is set to premiere in the fall on FOX.

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