Comedy directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller are risk-takers whose boldness is paying off in spades, recently with the box office smash The Lego Movie, as well as the Jump Street films—risky, execution-dependent projects that became sensations as a result of the directors’ skill and pure comedic sensibility. Having emerged in the industry with the animated MTV series Clone High, Lord and Miller recently returned to TV with Fox’s The Last Man on Earth, a series that pushes the boundaries of network TV. In it, former Saturday Night Live and Clone High star Will Forte is Phil Miller, the presumed last survivor of an apocalyptic-event that wipes out humanity. For most of the first episode, we follow Phil in his desperate existence—a lonely, talking-to-himself man who comes up with some bizarre things to pass the time, such as hoarding cultural and historical artifacts and lounging in a swimming pool filled with booze. We sat down with the directing duo, who co-executive produce LMOE with Forte, to discuss their long-time collaboration with the actor, their love of serialized TV, and the current evolution of comedy.
Is it satisfying to be involved with a show that pushes the boundaries of network TV?
Phil Lord: We feel very lucky to be producing this show, at a moment in time when the audience is starting to demand a lot more from television in general. We’re in this golden age of TV and it’s bleeding over into the networks, and network comedy might be one of the last places that hadn’t been hit this hard, although that’s not really fair. Now it seems conservative, but Modern Family was a very surprising show when it happened, right?
Lord: But I just think in general people are up for this kind of thing. There’s so much content out there, anything that sticks out, or distinguishes itself, or takes itself and the audience seriously enough to try to be great, gets embraced a lot sooner. And one of the big surprises for us was that the audience really embraced the craziness of the show and the weirdness of the show. And anytime the show got conservative or felt like it just was a good old sitcom, people really weren’t as interested, which shocked us. We thought we were being really sneaky, like, going, “OK, it’s dangerous for two episodes and then it kind of just settles into a nice neighborhood single cam comedy,” and the audience said, “No, we like it weird.”
You’ve referred to the series in previous interviews as a “serialized comedy.” Is there a secret to seeking out new twists and hooks for each episode?
Chris Miller: That was really intrinsic to the treatment for the first season that Will wrote up. It had lots of twists and turns and surprises, and it seemed like it was a fun thing you used to not be able to do on network television, especially with comedy—it has to be able to be easily digestible so that if you miss five episodes you can hop back in and it’s no problem. But now, the way people watch television, and with so much of it being online and streaming and with people having DVRs and everything, it felt like being able to do something that was highly serialized like this was possible now, and it also made it feel like an event you would want to consume live. It’s just so hard in television these days, to make something that you have to watch when it happens.
Is this idea of a serialized comedy unique to Last Man on Earth, or do you have specific influences that you can attribute to the series?
Miller: Other people are doing it now. Silicon Valley is another one, and Veep.
Lord: Arrested Development was incredibly serialized. I think the difference is just that the audience is willing to stick around, or maybe that the audiences have all gotten so small that the bar is very low for success. I don’t know.
Are you ever daunted by the creative possibilities with a project like Last Man, where the plot could really go in any direction?
Miller: That was what was kind of extra exciting about it, and even there was a little writers’ brainstorming session about season two, and Will had some guideposts of things that he wanted to do. But the fact that it’s so wide open—it’s so exciting for a writer to be on a television show where literally anything could happen. You can go anywhere, you can do anything, and it’s so stimulating for your imagination. Normally in the writers room you’re like, “OK, well, here’s the scenario and who wants to do another variation on the same scenario?” And so, even though the writing of the first season was not an easy process by any stretch, it’s been a show that the writers are so excited to get back to work on, and other writers are clamoring to be a part of, just because it’s so creatively fulfilling.
You have a long-standing friendship and collaboration with Will Forte. How would you describe your collaboration with him here, and is there something about him as a performer that particularly appeals to your sensibility?
Miller: We met Will at the Austin Comedy Festival when he was doing a crazy two-man show, and his brand of comedy seemed so unique and unlike anybody else’s that we sort of demanded to become friends with him. (Laughs.) And we loved watching him develop as a performer and as a writer, and he has this unique ability to be ridiculous, and vulnerable, and subtle, and over-the-top, and random, and sweet all at the same time. It’s not something you see every day.
Forte has been a huge comedic presence for a long time, but he’s just beginning to be appreciated as a dramatic actor with his work in Nebraska. Were you always aware of the range that he presents?
Lord: He’s always been a really capable actor and a guy who was interested in more than just being funny, but also being truthful and risk-taking. And I feel like his comedy has always had a kind of pathos to it where he plays these incredibly desperate characters. He reminds me of Buster Keaton because his eyes communicate this kind of sympathy for this person that I think translates well to more dramatic fare, because you love this guy. So, I don’t know, they’re sort of the same thing to me—like the thing that makes him funny is the thing that makes him neat to watch in a drama.
What was your approach to creating a distinct aesthetic for Last Man on Earth?
Miller: There’s a conventional wisdom that because it’s a comedy it doesn’t have to look good, and it doesn’t have to have a cinematic feel, and I think that’s just not true. We were very strident about making sure this show had a real cinematic feel and with a concept, you sort of have to take advantage of the scope of the world. And so, certainly budgetarily, it’s not easy to make something look like a movie on a TV comedy budget, but we have found an amazing DP, this guy Christian Sprenger, and he was able to get a great look for the show, and we were able to make the show feel like it was something different than what you see on TV comedy normally.
Do you have any advice for creatives trying to break into the comedy business?
Lord: Our advice is really boring. It’s always to make things, and fail early and often. Certainly, we have been failing now for 18 years and it’s finally starting to work out, like we’re finally starting to get any good. And something that Rob Riggle said when we were doing press on Jump Street, somebody asked him that question. I think it applies to directors as well as actors and comedy writers. He just said it takes seven years. You should enroll at (Upright Citizens Brigade), even if you’re not going to act, just to learn the culture of comedy and performance and the entertainment business, and you just move to L.A or New York and get into your cohorts of people and start working, whether it’s for free, or for money, or whatever. And I don’t know if there’s any other way to do it than that. I mean, I suppose you can come completely from the outside, but even then—the example we always cite is The Lonely Island guys who appear to be an overnight sensation. They get on SNL, they do “Lazy Sunday” and then they become this huge phenomenon. But those guys made three failed pilots—we produced one of them. Before then they made shorts in their apartment for, like, four years and were PAs, and they worked really hard to get to the point where they could become an overnight sensation, and I think that’s a very common story.