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The Last Mulaney On Earth

May 20, 2014

Forte 3 John Boy 4


(Left: Will Forte, Right: a tall child who looks very tired)   Each year from late April to early May, Television networks from ABC to YES host their annual “upfronts”.  What does this mean? Since television (or at least the kind that you still overpay each month for) is still monetized primarily by revenue from advertisers, and advertisements are purchased months in advance by drunk media buyers in their mid-20’s on behalf of the clients they represent, the upfronts are the network’s chance to convince advertisers that certain shows while garner high ratings among certain demographics.

What does this mean?  Usually this means networks offer first looks at certain TV properties that had previously only been discussed (conceptually) on the internet.  What does this really mean?  The upfronts are an excuse to hoststar-studded parties that show YouTube clips of shows that won’t come out until next year while your ex-girlfriend gets her picture taken with Miguel.

Normally I’m not one to pay much attention to these kind of things, but two shows previewed at Fox’s upfront last week caught my attention.  Namely, The Last Man On Earth starring Will Forte (also writer and producer) and Mulaney, starring that standup comic (also writer and producer) you should already know about.  While both may be comedies, there are two very different reasons for my intrigue.

I had no knowledge of  The Last Man on Earth (which Forte is also writing and producing), which occupies a weird, uncharted space for network television comedies.  From what we know so far, some kind of unexpected “event” in the year 2022 has wiped out the earth’s population, except for Will Forte’s Phil Miller, who hates his job at the bank and loves his family.  Within the context of societal and interpersonal relationships, Miller appears exceedingly average to the point of network television cliche.  But the question that this trailer posits (especially when considered in conjunction with the blunt title of the show) is what would the average man on earth do in the absence of both  constraints AND any kind of perceivable threats?  What would he do if he was the last man on earth?  From what we know so far, the answer to that question is “hoard pornography and rub peanut butter on priceless art”.

The interesting element in play here is that Miller’s id isn’t geared towards survival, but rather companionship: “[Miller] is sad and so, so very lonely. But… there’s a small kernel of hope that somewhere out there is another survivor. And maybe one day, they’ll run into each other… And if that survivor happened to be a woman? Well, then that would be a great day. ”   It’s a premise more heartwearming than your standard post-apocalyptic tale.  If not for the fact that it looked like they really might have rented out Dodger Stadium for Miller’s stirring rendition of the national anthem,  The Last Man on Earth could easily work as some kind of Mark Duplass-helmed mumblecore dramedy(two words I’m still convinced Lena Dunham made up in college).

But can Forte (literally) alone carry the show’s presumed premise past the point of immediate cancellation?  Last Man on Earth  doesn’t  feel like anything that’s been attempted in earnest for TV, and especially not “we get the Super Bowl once every three years” Network TV. While his dramatic turns in both Nebraska Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! speak to his range as an actor,  it will be interesting to see if- when, really- a (female) lead will be introduced.  To this point, her presence has been fueled by industry rumors, but nothing has been confirmed as of yet.  Either way, Phil Miller is eventually going to get tired of his porn stash, and it remains to be seen if the show’s premise will run dry along with him.


Out in the cold, unfeeling void that is the internet, a man on Twitter once had the courage to ask “What if Seinfeld still on TV today?”  In a way, Mulaney is an attempt to answer that question.

With the upfront trailer released last week, in which an eponymously titled show cold opens on its central standup comic  performing old, harmless material, Fox sent  a sharp-elbowed jab to the solar plexus of anyone who’s even heard of Seinfeld.   If not for the fact the  feng shui of his kitchen is oriented differently- and that said kitchen is probably in Greenpoint- the set would even be pretty much the same. But while Mulaney does mine Seinfeld for inspiration, this excavation doesn’t seem to reach the depths of what made that show so essential in the first place.

As one would expect with a show famously about nothing, Seinfeld was largely unmoored from any driving episode-to-episode story arcs that lesser sitcoms relied on for foundational stability. While there were some exceptions, each episode of Seinfeld was largely self contained, thanks in part to Larry David, a neurotic, relentless social psychologist/assassin.  Instead of being a Seinfeldian observer of our social conventions, John Mulaney (the character) is in many ways a product of them. Jerry Seinfeld (the character) was often a detached observer whose apartment was a venue for David to air his grievances,  but John Mulaney seems to carry with him the kind of central, story-arc-creating drive that, in a way. Whereas Jerry Seinfeld dated casually with an almost cold level of indifference, John Mulaney needs to find someone.  Whereas stand-up was just something Seinfeld did, Mulaney wants to make it.

With a job that revolves around dealing with Martin Short’s ZANY antics and friends that seem legitimately concerned about his well-being (Seaton Smith and Nasim Pedrad from SNL), Mulaney shit bows to the kind of framework a major network television would require of an unproven talent in this realm.  Which is a real shame, because there are certainly moments when the voice of  Mulaney (the writer) shines through in spite of the obstacles placed in his path.  The one moment where he looks at Seaton Smith and says “what if we just, like, heard a gunshot” after Nasim Pedrad  goes to her room saying she “found a solution” feels ripped from a discarded Mulaney standup routine, cadence, delivery, subject matter and all. The issue is, no other moments from the trailer really seemed to pop out.

Other major comedic personalities like Louis CK, Amy Schumer, Nick “Ruxin” Kroll and Eric Andre (watch The Eric Andre Show.  Seriously.  Just do it.  Right now.  I’ll wait.) have creative control over shows that faithfully attest to the unique voice and comedic sensibilities that have carried them this far, but  Mulaney feels like a betrayal of integrity to the many loyal fans of this proud, asian-american woman.  Hopefully, he’s still able to mine enough humor with the tools he’s been given and, over time, wrest back some control over his own show from Fox. For now, the pretzels might still make you thirsty, but they just won’t taste the same.


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