So if the world as we know it suddenly ended — let’s leave the details aside for the moment — how would you spend your time on a depopulated but otherwise mostly intact planet?
Most people probably haven’t thought this one through in much detail. Actor Will Forte, though, finds himself thinking about it a lot.
“What would I do if I was the last person on Earth?” he asks in his deadpan California drawl. “Nothing too elaborate. Going around breaking stuff, bowling outside. … I’d get my hands on a flamethrower and see what it’s like when different things burn. A lot of wish fulfillment.”
The post-apocalyptic fantasies –- or others, like standing on the pitcher’s mound at Dodger Stadium and belting out the national anthem in his underwear — aren’t just idle daydreaming: Forte is the show-runner and star of a comedy series coming from Fox on March 1, “The Last Man on Earth,” in which he is the sole inhabitant of a planet that’s lost its population to a virus.
“It’s got a little bit of everything,” he says. “The situation lends itself to a certain amount of darkness. Because of the concept, everything is so heightened: Very high highs, very low lows. It’s got such a built-in tension — sadness and happiness. This is a world where you can do anything you want, but there’s no one to share it with.”
When he started thinking about the show’s premise, Forte’s imagination started running away with him. “How long does it take electricity to shut off? What happens to the concrete, the vegetation growing in skyscrapers? We thought it would be interesting to make a comedy about something usually dealt with in serious fare.”
Forte, 44, is probably best known as a comic actor, a kind of wide-jawed, hangdog version of Bill Hader. After breaking in as a writer for “Late Show With David Letterman” and then as a Groundling, the former UCLA history major and onetime Donkey Kong champion worked as a writer and actor for “Saturday Night Live” for about a decade. Along the way he became a busy film actor and the voice of characters in kids’ movies “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs” and “The Lego Movie.” (Both were written by Chris Miller and Phil Lord, executive producers of “Last Man.”)
Forte found himself wanting to try something in a slightly different key. “I was on ‘SNL’ for a long time,” he says. “It was the best job in the world, but I was doing sketches — a lot of absurd characters.” The film roles were similar. “Most of them were really over the top.”
An important turning point came with his role in Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska,” the bleak black-and-white film in which he plays the son of Bruce Dern’s addled, ornery Woody. The film has uncomfortable laughs but is hard to see as a comedy, and Forte’s role is mostly poignant, his character’s place in his father’s hallucination complex and conflicted.
“I learned so much being in that movie,” Forte says. “It gave me more confidence in that side of myself.” He just needed a place to ply it.
When Lord and Miller formed a production company at Fox in 2013, one of their first thoughts was that they wanted to work with Forte again. “We didn’t even care if he acted in it,” Lord says. “We valued him so much as a writer.”
As they batted around ideas with Forte, they picked up a reticence from him. “He felt like he didn’t want to go back and do network comedy,” Lord says. “There are too many perils.”
But the abandoned-planet idea resonated with Forte. “Will got really inspired and lit up,” Lord says. “At that point, we got out of the way.”
Working on the show, with its odd mix of goofy and hopeless, allowed Forte to tap into both his comic and dramatic sides. “Last Man” also — at least in the trailer promoting the show — encouraged him to indulge his recent interest in not-terribly-good singing. He rarely shows up on late-night TV without belting something out.
“Sometimes in comedy sketches, you’re purposely singing bad,” he says. “But after a while, you get a grasp of your vocal range.”
His seems to veer toward songs by Foreigner, Air Supply and Tony Orlando and Dawn. “I’ve got a lot of respect for real singers — it’s so scary. Nobody would buy an album of me singing, but I love to harmonize. If you asked me in college about singing, I’d have said it was one of my least favorite things.”
Forte’s biggest challenge these days is not carrying a tune but spearheading “Last Man” as its show-runner. He wrote for “Letterman,” “SNL,” “Jenny” and “That ‘70s Show,” but it didn’t entirely prepare him. “I was a lower- and midlevel writer. The interesting thing [here] is to figure out how to shape a whole season. It’s been really fun, but it’s a tremendous amount of work. I’m a control freak at the same time.”
As dryly eccentric as the show sounds, Lord and Miller says they are aiming for something big, not a cult favorite. “I think the world’s ready for this kind of thing now,” Miller says. “You see all kinds of risk-taking on cable and on Internet channels. Networks are starting to take bigger risks than they have before; it’s exciting to be on the first wave of that.”
Forte has his own way of summing up the show’s complex and ever-changing tone. “Sometimes it gets really real,” he says. “But sometimes it’s nuts.”