A squirming Will Forte is a sight to behold. The lines around his mouth form a parabola of panic. His eyes plead. His voice rises an octave to the tenor of prepubescent tantrums. It’s a mess. These displays of abject terror, though, native to Forte’s characters in his heyday on Saturday Night Live and the one he plays on his new show Last Man On Earth, may actually be outward expressions of fears that have long consumed the comedian.
They’ve also served him well.
Although Forte has been undeniably fearless in his willingness to go wherever a joke or a premise takes him, the onscreen discomfort king freely admits that he has been dogged by uncertainty every hilarious step of the way. Lucky for fans of twisted humor, solid storytelling, and, surprisingly heartfelt acting, Forte has never been so scared that he slipped into paralysis. Instead, he somehow worked up the courage to leave his post-collegiate job at a brokerage firm and try his hand at sketch comedy with L.A.-based troupe The Groundlings. From there, he soon started connecting the dots between sketch shows, sitcom writing, acclaimed movies, and, most recently, a hit network sitcom that he co-created and stars in. If fear was a part of what made all that happen, then please, by all means, pass the fear.
As the first season of the post-apocalyptic comedy, Last Man On Earth, comes to a close on May 3rd (it’s already been renewed for a second season), Forte talked to Co.Create about some of the choices that propelled him through his unusual career path, and why not being appropriately afraid can sometimes be the scariest proposition of all.
Forte’s first job as a professional comedy writer was at The Jenny McCarthy Show, an underrated MTV sketch series where Forte worked with peers like Jon Glaser and H. Jon Benjamin. From there, he went to Late Show with David Letterman, a level-jump that may have happened too early on.
“Writing for The Jenny McCarthy Show helped me with my confidence,” Forte says. “At the time I was super stressed about it and I wanted to make sure I was doing a good job, but when I look back it was a very wonderful stress-free job to start out in. I went to Letterman right after that, that was my next job, and that was the most terrifying thing ever. It was so stressful. What an honor to work at that show but I don’t think I was fully mentally prepared. David Letterman is one of my heroes, he’s one of the people who shaped who I am as a comedian. I always wonder what it would be like if I’d had a couple more years of experience before going there. But I just wasn’t prepared to do it.”
Getting on SNL is a dream for 95% of all comedians, including Will Forte. When his dream came true, though, he declined it at first in favor of a steady job writing for That 70s Show. “I was scared that I would go to this job that was a dream of mine and just totally screw it up and then my dream would be shattered,” he says. When Lorne Michaels extended the offer to audition again the following year, Forte faced his fear and ended up joining the cast. It was even scarier than he thought it would be.
“When I started at SNL, I’d forgotten my thing,” he says. “What was so great about the Groundlings is it gave you an opportunity to really figure yourself out as a performer, your strengths and weaknesses. But after that, I went off into writer mode for many years. Now I had to re-learn how to perform a teeny bit and relearn how to do that stuff in front of an audience. It was terrifying. I overthink everything in my life but this turned out to be a really good place to ovethink. I took advantage of over thinking. Like all the time I would be over thinking everything. I felt all this pressure, like, don’t screw up these wonderful peoples’ show and it just messed with my head for a while, but I think it made my performance better. Honestly, it was like season six before I was truly comfortable.”
Released in the summer of 2010, MacGruber was an SNL-based box office bomb that has slowly become a cult classic. (Have you watched it yet? You should really watch it.) Even though it was a high-profile flop, though, Forte thinks the movie could have done something worse than lose money.
“I’ve always liked weirder stuff,” Forte says in an understatement. “My main thing on SNL was that I was never gonna change my sensibility to get on TV—I was just gonna write what I liked writing and hopefully have a hit on that show somewhere. When we made MacGruber, I didn’t care as much about what everybody thought as I did about getting to make the movie we wanted to make. We didn’t make this movie for mass appeal. We basically just decided to do what made us laugh and we were very proud of it. It was a tough pill to swallow when it came out and just shat the bed. But in the end, it doesn’t matter how your stuff does financially; if you stick to your guns and do something you’re proud of, that’s all you can ask for. So much of that other stuff is out of your control. If we had tried to make it more commercial, who knows if more people would’ve seen it. Probably they wouldn’t have, and then I’d be super bummed out that we compromised.”
A lot of comedians make coordinated efforts to segue into more serious material, but for Forte, it was a matter of opportunity. When his agent suggested he go out for one of the lead roles in Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, Forte complied and was shocked to eventually get the part. He remained shocked throughout the start of the production, and only calmed down upon receiving some wise advice.
“Doing MacGruber, the director is my buddy, Jorma [Taccone], who I’ve known for years, and it was comedy so I’d gotten a little bit of confidence at that. But then I went to do Nebraska, it was just terrifying because it was actually no wigs, no mustaches, just me being, well, very close to myself,” Forte says. “I also love Alexander Payne, so in the same way I didn’t want to screw up all the SNL people’s show, I didn’t want to screw up his movie. In my head, throughout the first bit of the process, I’d always be thinking ‘Oh, I bet he’s wishing he had picked somebody else, I know he’s regretting it.’ It took me a while to really get comfortable. What helped was Bruce Dern always talking about looking for the truth in the scene. At first, I was like, ‘Uh, what’s he talking about?’ And then it really hit me and it made a ton of sense. In every scene, you’re just trying to play it as honestly and as real as you can. Even in sketch comedy, you’re trying to find the truth of the scene. It’s a more absurd truth, but you’re just finding and committing to it.”
When Forte developed Last Man On Earth with executive producer Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, he was originally just going to write on it. That did not last long. “As we went through this process of writing it and forming the pitch, I just realized, ‘Oh my God, I can’t let somebody else do this.’ So I threw my hat in the ring and Fox said they would love it if I would do it.” Taking ownership of the show, though, lead to some tough supervisory choices.
“A lot of these people who are in our writers room are dear old friends that I’ve worked with forever. It’s weird to suddenly be their boss when they’ve always been just my friends and my peers,” Forte says. “So it was a really fun experience to get to pitch all these jokes with people, but then when the period came where I would have to assign people tasks, I was not good at that because I wanted them to be able to go home and enjoy their time with their families. A lot of times I would end up saying ‘You just go home,’ and then do it myself because I felt too guilty. So I need to get better about delegating in season two. I feel too guilty now.”
The famously hectic schedule of SNL ended up being excellent practice for the long days Forte would have to spend writing, supervising, and starring in Last Man On Earth. Rather than dread the endless hours, though, he’s learned that they can send him into a transcendental state of creative nirvana, and embraced it.
“A lot of times, great stuff comes when you’re super tired,” Forte says. “You don’t overthink stuff, your guard is down. It can either be your shittiest stuff or your best stuff. There is no trick. It’s just you have to do it because you have to do the show. You have deadlines and you just have to get it out. Sometimes it works in our favor and sometimes not, but either way, you have to do it. These people in the writers room are the best in the business. We have such a crazy talented group of people in there. So there’s always at least one awesome writer who’s firing on all cylinders at any given time. When everybody is down, somebody is there to pick up the slack and we somehow always get it done. Or we have so far, at least.”