What happens when you star in an Oscar-nominated movie and then follow it up with a critically acclaimed TV show? Just ask Will Forte. After an eight-season run as a fan favorite on Saturday Night Live, Forte was cast in Alexander Payne’s 2013 dramedy Nebraska (as Bruce Dern’s character’s hapless son), which became an awards darling and showed audiences a tender, more nuanced side to Forte’s typically zany sketch-comedy antics. Lightning struck again this year when Forte collaborated with longtime friends Christopher Miller and Phil Lord (the comedy maestros behind hit projects like The LEGO Movie and 21 Jump Street) for Fox’s Last Man on Earth — a bona fide hit in a television era when having both solid ratings and critical acclaim is not merely just difficult but practically unattainable.
The success and charm of Last Man on Earth falls squarely on Forte’s shoulders. (Seriously. The pilot episode is just him talking to himself.) Forte plays a guy who literally has the run of the world after a viral event wipes out all of humanity. (Or not.) Riding high from respectable ratings and a rapidly growing fanbase, we spoke to Forte about the difficulty of finding success, the idea of being fearless in comedy, and that one time when his mother confused him with a gay porn star.
So, where are you right now?
I’m in Chatsworth, California, which is where our stage is. We’re kind of at the tail end of the post-production process.
People are loving the show.
Oh, jeez. Thank you very much. We’ve been working so hard on it, so it’s been great that viewers are responding to it.
It must be gratifying, because so many shows tank.
So many! With my track record, I’m not used to something like this. It’s really exciting. I’m used to being in things that don’t do well. Like MacGruber, I was so proud of that movie — which is crazy because it’s a dirty movie with a bunch of dick jokes — but I loved it, and it bombed! So I learned a very valuable lesson that you cannot control if people are going to go see it or not. What you can control is the quality of what you’re working on and how proud you are of it. Throughout this process, the whole time I wanted to make sure that I put out a show that I could be really proud of whether people watched it or not. Fox was really good about letting Christopher Miller and Phil Lord and all of our wonderful actors and crew put together the show that we set out to make, and that’s very rare. It has been beyond rewarding. It’s been going very well and it’s been exciting, because I’ve been on the other end of it for sure and it’s not a ton of fun. If people weren’t watching it, it would obviously be disheartening, but I’d be able to live with it because I’m really happy with it and that was the goal. No compromises — just try to make the best show you can and then crossing your fingers.
I think the reason why the show works so well and people are responding to it is that not only is it a great idea, but the execution of it is on point. It’s also a premise that’s been done a lot in dramas, like I Am Legend, but it’s never really been done in a humorous way. Did you guys watch similarly-plotted dramatic movies and think about how you’d make them funny?
We didn’t but I’ve seen that movie before, and I know Chris and Phil have seen Omega Man with Charlton Heston, which is what I Am Legend is based on. For me, it was way more about this [documentary] show I saw about five years ago called Life After People, which is about what happens to the world after humans disappear from the earth. It focuses on what happens to the infrastructure and it was so fascinating.
What a hot streak Chris and Phil are on.
I know, oh my God. We’ve been friends for a long time and wanted to try to write something together, and they have had a similar fascination with this concept. We initially sat down for three days trying to come up with ideas, and we actually settled on a different idea. But as we were packing up our stuff to leave, we brought up the pitch for Last Man on Earth one more time and adjusted it the slightest way, and it wound up pouring out. That weekend we sketched out the whole arc of the first season and went from there.
Let’s shift gears a bit. Since this is a chat for Playboy, I’ve heard tell of a story about your mother looking you up online and confusing you with a porn star… It was so funny. My mom is the most hilarious person of all time. She left me a voicemail that said, “Willy, there is a gay porn star on this website. And Willy, it looks almost exactly like you. Is it you? Did you do gay porn?!”
And she was honestly curious about this?
Definitely curious. And to my knowledge I had not — but you never know. I’m 44 and my memory is spotty. So she sent me this picture, and it’s this guy in this little chainmail g-string and some kind of weird shoulder chainmail and a hood. And he kind of did look like me.
I feel like, in a weird way, comedians and porn stars have a lot in common.
Okay. I’m curious about where this is going.
I feel like they both have to be super comfortable with themselves being exposed — whether you’re getting photographed nude or getting laughs. And you have to be completely fearless. And I think the most fearless performers are almost always the most funny. Do you agree with that?
I mean, it definitely helps. I don’t know about comedians being comfortable with themselves, because what a lot of comedians do is work out their lack of comfort through comedy. The fearlessness part, I’d say you’d have to have that to do anything where you’re performing, whether it’s dancing, acting, or comedy. When you say the funnier you are, the more fearless you are… I’d say it takes awhile to develop that. When you’re first starting out, it hurts when you try something and fail. I don’t even know if you ever get immune to that — it’s kind of a bummer when you’re trying to get laughs and you don’t get any. But when you’re scrapping to try to make it, each time you bomb it’s a major bummer. Over time you get more comfortable with yourself and figure out who you are as a performer and develop confidence that way. But that’s in anything you do. You’re always going to do something better when you’re confident.
I wanted to ask you about the infamous sex scene in MacGruber with Kristen Wiig.
A very sensual scene.
Oh, of course. It’s probably the most sensual scene ever committed to film. How did that come together — give me an oral history, for lack of a better word.
There was a show that my friends Carrie [Aisley] and Chris [Sussin] did for Oxygen called Campus Ladies and I got to play a part in that. In my scene, they wrote in a crazy orgasm. Years later when we were writing MaGruber I called them up to ask if I could do a version of that orgasm for MacGruber and they were totally cool with it. The MacGruber version is a little crazier, but it definitely owes a lot to that show. And being able to do that with Kristen — who’s like a sister — was very comfortable and awkward at the same time. [Laughs.] We had tiny things covering up our areas with a lot of sweating and pounding and hair flying.
Speaking of hair flying, you grew the sickest beard for Last Man on Earth. How long did it take you to grow that? Did people treat you differently off-set?
It took about six months for it to come in fully. I did get treated much differently, because I wasn’t cutting any part of it. I didn’t do any grooming at all. There are a lot of people with beards these days, but they trim them. But mine was a mess, and that’s what made people think I was a crazy person. I had to wear a black suit or tux to make people think I wasn’t insane.
How did it feel when you finally shaved it off?
I’ll tell you, it was bittersweet. I miss it a little bit. I don’t have the perfect face, so I like having a little scruff to cover up the many flaws. So the beard was almost like a security blanket.
Rob LeDonne is writer and comedian who currently contributes material for a wide variety of outlets including Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update, *Rolling Stone, Billboard, The New York Observer, *and The New York Times. You can follow him on Twitter: @RobLeDonne.