SNL alum, writer and star of the bizarro, action movie farce MacGruber, and co-star to Bruce Dern in the Academy Award nominated feature film Nebraska, Will Forte might be the most versatile comic performer to emerge from Lorne Michaels’ stable at the dawn of the twenty-first century. While SNL has long been a hotbed for genuinely talented, alternative-style performers in the past, Forte might just be the closest thing we’ve seen in terms of tone and nuance to the original retinue of “Not-Ready-For-Prime-Time-Players.” Equally capable of the brash, egocentrism of Chevy Chase and the oddball charm of Dan Akroyd in his prime, all the while being centered by the calm, tenderheartedness of Bill Murray’s unparalleled compassionate humanity, Forte embodies the countercultural essence of late night comedy, an essence that has made him hard to type-cast, and accordingly adaptable to a wide array of roles, comedic and dramatic, on television and in film.
This past March, Forte made a bold step forward creatively with the debut of his new network sitcom The Last Man On Earth, which premiered on Fox to minor critical notice initially, but has since evolved into one the most personally effusive debuts on network television in recent memory. Using an unspecified, post-apocalypse scenario as its narrative premise, Forte has cast himself in a world in which he may fully explore all of the idiosyncrasies of character that always made for the very best sketches and characters from his years working on SNL. The show, in effect, encapsulates the dichotomy of loneliness and isolation that we all feel, and from which we turn to society as a necessary evil that which gives order to chaos and the great unknown. Despite Forte’s rage against the machinations of religious dogma and bureaucratic hypocrisy, he finds himself capitulating to the will of others, amidst comparative hermitage, in order to live in a community, his ultimate expulsion from which is the final punch line to a show that gives the like minded HBO drama The Leftovers a run for its money.
In the two-part, pilot episode of the show, desolation gives rise to lethargy and sloth. Forte’s Phil Miller is a lonely man forced to seek the temporary comforts of materialism, hedonism, and alcohol, whilst pining after an ache for companionship that he soon finds to be located outside of self-involvement and a certain fire in his loins. In one shot in particular, with Phil gazing wistfully at an image of a woman in a bathing suit, whilst sitting at the edge of a diving board over the pool adjoining his recently annexed manor, previously empty and abandoned, the impactful and comprehensive tone, humor, and heart of the entire first season is evoked. In this one shot, composed amidst the wildest of daydreams of every heterosexual male, Phil living in the reputed lap of luxury, not a care in the world, there is only the existential pain of mere being. Despite the character’s earlier protestations against needing company of any kind, Phil discovers a begrudging urge to be depended upon, and a desire for the restrictions of personal responsibility.
When Phil receives just that in the form of Kristen Schaal’s character, a shrill and domineering Christian named Carol Pilbasian, Phil immediately retreats into himself, seeking to be the last man on earth once more. Therein lies the show’s gradual evolution into what becomes a dialogue on topics as vast and varied as gender roles, the existential function of law and order, and the intractability of contentment. In Phil Miller, Forte is able to grapple with a pain deeply felt within our own culture, that of the man lost amidst society, his function and position within the culture uncertain and amorphous, giving rise to an alienation that which has always served to define Forte’s most sympathetic characters.
On SNL, Forte tended to play odd eccentrics, whose bizarre attributes were at times the butt of the joke, but were more often than not more complicated than the studio audience might give them credit for being. In Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, Forte played a character that might have fit just as well into a five to ten minute sketch on SNL, only within the framework of the independent drama Forte’s latent pathos was given room to grow, his inherent intimacy finally allowed a platform from which to show itself for what it really was, and always had been. Like Phil Miller, Forte was an SNL cast member oddly out of place in his designated society, his sincerity incongruous amidst the snark and irony of the new millennium. In essence, Forte was the lost man of late night, his isolation one of temperament and dramatic timing, separating him from his supporting players in tone, and rendering his earnest engagement of character funny in an offhand way, while being subtly more complicated than his audience was willing to entertain.
Which is why The Last Man On Earth might just be the break out TV show of last season. Forte has for a long time now been a mainstay, supporting player on numerous television sit-coms, as well as a leading character actor in feature films. Until now, however, Forte has been living in the shadow of other comic performers possessed of a certain disaffected gravitas and nihilistic gruffness, a la Will Arnett, or frequent collaborator, co-star, and fellow SNL classmate Jason Sudeikis. But coming off of his stunning turn in Nebraska, The Last Man On Earth might just be the thing to launch Forte into even more challenging and diverse roles. The world of iconoclastic dysfunction that Forte has created for himself is one that defies easy melodramatics, making The Last Man On Earth a comedy that is refreshing in its compassion for its characters, no matter how broad the comedy set pieces may at first appear.
If you missed show’s first season run over the past two months, consider binge watching the first thirteen episodes now, as Forte’s most recent starring role will leave you clambering for more from one of SNL’s most underutilized cast members. In its selfless sentimentalism and unequivocal honesty, The Last Man On Earth will leave you contemplating your own temporal conditioning, mere being a heavy burden to bear, but one that the show capably hefts upon its shoulders.