On the first day of writing for Season 3 of “The Last Man on Earth,” Will Forte sprang a surprise on his team of writers: a Barcycle. They met at Forte’s house in Santa Monica, tossed around ideas for a while, then climbed onto the contraption, a bicycle built for 16 with built-in drink holders. For the rest of the night, they pedaled from bar to bar, joined by the show’s cast at their first stop.
“It was a fun first day,” Forte told TheWrap shortly after that excursion. Then he paused and broke into what might have been the slightest of frowns, though to tell the truth the guy is always kind of smiling. “We did not get a lot done. More hangovers than good ideas. But it was really fun.”
Talking to Will Forte, you hear phrases like really fun a lot. And why shouldn’t you? His career has had plenty of zigs and zags since he quit his job as a broker at Smith Barney and began taking classes with the Groundlings, but the 45-year-old Forte has been a writer for successful shows (“The Late Show With David Letterman,” “That ’70s Show”), a cast member on every comic’s holy grail, “Saturday Night Live”, and an actor who somehow parlayed a comedy career into a serious role opposite Bruce Dern in a Best Picture Oscar nominee, “Nebraska.”
“My dream jobs growing up were somehow being a part of the Letterman show, and then ‘SNL,'” he said. “And I got to do both of them. I’m the luckiest guy in the world.”
And now he’s going into his third season as the star and showrunner of “The Last Man on Earth,” a curiously adventurous sitcom on Fox. The show is about a hideously self-destructive man who, in the aftermath of an unspecified plague that wiped out almost the entire planet, might not be the last man on Earth, but is certainly the most disliked one–at least among the small band of misfits (played by Kristen Schaal, Jason Sudeikis, January Jones and Mary Steenburgen, among others) who are left alive.
“We never make it easy,” he said of his character, Phil Miller, whose scheming and conniving is so pathetic and transparent that every time you start feeling sorry for the guy, he does something so reprehensible that you hate yourself for feeling sympathetic for the schmuck. “But it’s been really fun to get to take the risks that Fox has let us take, to be pretty weird. I feel really good about the choices we’ve made.”
That he’s in the position to be making those choices, though, comes as something of a surprise to Forte. Growing up in northern California, he graduated from UCLA with a degree in history. He followed his short employment in finance with sketch comedy with the Groundlings, then a stint on the short-lived “Jenny McCarthy Show.” Then nine months with Letterman. Then a few sitcoms, including “That ’70s Show,” which he loved but left when Lorne Michaels offered him a job on “SNL.”
“I was terrified for the first several years, and I missed all my friends at ‘That ’70s Show,'” he said. “With the stress of having to perform in front of a live audience, there were definitely times when I missed the safety of the writers’ room. But ‘SNL’ is a unique, wonderful place, and nothing would have happened without Lorne giving me a shot there.”
But he left the show in 2010 after eight seasons, right around the time that the film featuring his most famous “SNL” character, MacGruber, made less than $10 million. “Coming out of ‘SNL’ when ‘MacGruber’ had just tanked at the box office, I essentially thought, ‘Well, I guess I’ll go back to writing,'” he said. “I didn’t know that there was going to be any acting stuff for me out there anymore. Maybe small parts in supporting roles, but that’s about it.”
After a couple of down years, though, he got his first dramatic role in the small indie “Run & Jump,” and then his crucial role in Alexander Payne‘s “Nebraska.” “That just came out of nowhere,” he said. “I just assumed that I’d go back to being a writer, but I’m so thankful for the weird twists and turns that life takes. Just when you think your life is headed in one direction, it takes a turn.”
And would he have been happy just going back to writing? “I would have been satisfied,” he insisted. “Once I started getting writing jobs, I just thought, ‘This is great, I love it.’ ‘That ’70s Show’ was one of the best jobs ever. The hours were amazing, the people were so nice and it was a show that I really liked. I just kind of stopped thinking about acting. But it’s fun to perform, and I think that desire was still in there a little bit.”
“Nebraska,” he said, directly led to him, Chris Miller and Phil Lord being able to get “Last Man on Earth” off the ground in 2014. The initial idea was to introduce a character who truly appears to be the last living human during almost all of the first episode, before introducing a second person, a ditzy woman who annoys him tremendously (Schaal), at the end of the pilot. They decide it’s their duty to repopulate the planet, but she won’t go along unless they get married — and as soon as they do that, along comes a beautiful blonde played by Jones. Complications, as they say, ensue.
“In Season 1 we knew that we wanted to keep people guessing where the show was going, and a lot of the surprises came in the form of character introductions,” he said. “In Season 2, the challenge was figuring out how we could be unpredictable without relying on character introductions. We really got to focus on the group that was there, and I think the stories grew from that.”
But after a first season in which he had a back-breaking workload as star, writer and showrunner, Forte said the the second season was just as grueling. “In fact, I think it was harder,” he said. “Season 1 was trying to figure out what the show was, and so everything took a long time. Season 2, we did more shows so it was just harder. We started falling behind, and then toward the end we were just racing every week.” He shrugged. “Season 3, we’ll see. I’m stepping back this season and trying to see if I can be less of a control freak, which is hard to do.”
One of the more notable stretches of the second season came mid-season, when Mike Miller, the brother of Forte’s character, Phil, arrives. Played by Sudeikis, Mike is an astronaut who’s been orbiting the Earth until now — and in a bout of sibling rivalry, he shaves the hair and beard on half of Phil’s face.
“I was the one who pitched that idea, and I could not wait to do it,” Forte said. “I thought that I was going to be able to never go out in public, to have it be a surprise for the show. But then the TCAs for Fox were during that period, and also the Critics’ Choice Awards. For a while I was going to wear a sheet on one side of my head, but finally we just thought, ‘You know what? Go out in public like this, and maybe people will get interested in why my hair is like that. If we are able to attract other viewers, that’s great.’ It was weird to walk around like that, but you get used to it.” He put on a wistful look. “I kind of miss it.”
Another bonus: He’s gotten photos from fans on Twitter who’ve opted for the same look. “That’s really fun,” he said. “That’s a real commitment.”
And did he take responsibility if, say, a boss didn’t appreciate the look and a “Last Man on Earth” fan found himself out of a job? “No,” he said quickly, grinning. “I’m not legally bound to support these people in the event of unemployment.”
See more of TheWrap Magazine’s Comedy/Drama/Actors Emmy Issue: