Published Jul 24, 2018Will Forte is delighted at the notion that his heroically strange comedy might follow in the tradition of The Far Side, by esteemed cartoonist Gary Larson.
"That is so funny, because I was just talking to somebody about Gary Larson and how amazing he was," Forte tells Exclaim! from his home in Santa Monica. "One of the things I started out doing was little cartoons, and Gary Larson was a huge influence. It's funny because I don't think of him often when I think of influences."
Forte broke out as a daring writer and performer on Saturday Night Live between 2002 and 2010. Growing up a fan of that show, plus David Letterman, Chris Elliott and his hero, Steve Martin, Forte's work on SNL was a unique mix of simmering stillness and far-flung mania, perhaps best exemplified by his biggest hit, "MacGruber," a recurring character sketch that spawned a cult film as well.
For those who know his history, it's interesting that Forte will be hosting a gala at Montreal's Just for Laughs Festival because the festival is considered one of the preeminent gatherings for standup comedians in the world. Forte got into comedy writing behind-the-scenes and eventually as a sketch performer when he realized that standup comedy wasn't for him.
"I started writing with a friend and while I was writing, I discovered the Groundlings, which is a sketch and improv comedy theatre," he recalls. "While I was there, I tried a little standup and very quickly found that I am not good at standup and stuck to writing and sketch comedy.
"But over the years, I'd do little sets at charity events and stuff like that. I don't really do traditional standup, but I've stood on a standup stage and done some weird stuff and that's kind of what I plan on doing at JFL."
While some might not see much distinction between standup and sketch in terms of the comfort level either type of performer may be able to achieve before an audience, Forte has a different perspective.
"There's kind of a protection in sketch and improv, where you're doing a character. So, if you bomb doing that stuff, you can put it off on the character. Like, 'Oh they just didn't like the character.' But if you're doing standup and people don't like it, it can seem much more personal: 'Oh, they don't like me.'
"You're a little more safe in the sketch comedy zone, but if you bomb on stage either way, it's a real bummer. It takes a while to get used to it."
It's fascinating to hear Forte suggest, on one hand, that he couldn't handle the potential rejection of doing standup and yet in his writing and sketch, he has truly pushed the form to its outer limits, likely alienating many people along the way.
"That's a good point," he says. "There's a nice middle ground that you hope to somehow discover. Very early on, I made the internal decision that I was going to stick to my guns and do the stuff that I liked, which was the weirder, more absurd stuff. You just have to make that choice because that means not as many people are going to like it. People's senses of humour are so specific and so that cuts out a huge part of the population who may not get what you're trying to go for.
"If I were to bomb doing something on stage, but it's something that I love, it's much easier to deal with that than doing something you didn't really love with all of your heart but you thought people were going to like it and it still bombed. So, part of my internal mission statement is, 'I'm not going to please anybody else, I'm just gonna do what I think is funny and I hope people like it.'"
That philosophy was certainly adopted by Forte and the cast and crew of the Fox sitcom, Last Man on Earth, which ran for four years and was just cancelled this past May. Truly one of the oddest and funniest sitcoms ever, Forte and his writers seemed to have free reign to make the post-apocalyptic show however they wanted. Though appreciated by comedy aficionados for its compelling daring, it presumably didn't reach audience ratings that Fox deemed viable, and the network, unfortunately, shut down production.
"Yeah, I come out of that experience very, very proud of the show," Forte says. "We were able to keep it weird and credit to Fox for letting us continue with the weirdness. It's sad that we couldn't keep going, but I'm also very appreciative of the time that we did get because we were a real pain in the ass for a while. Some of the storylines were so bonkers but they let us do it."
Because we live in an age where cancelled TV shows seem destined to find new TV networks or online homes, it's not necessarily impossible that Last Man on Earth could someday return.
"Oh man, I loved the people that I worked with so much, I would be delighted to be back together with everybody," Forte states. "If somebody were to give us that chance, I would jump at that."
As for now, Forte is focused on his Just For Laughs show, which he describes as more storytelling than sketch, per se. He mentions that Maria Bamford and Michael Ian Black will be performing in it, or at it in some capacity, and that his own pieces may involve at least one song. He also has no idea how the whole thing is going to go over.
"If people aren't liking it, they're going to have to sit through it for ten minutes because there's no changing course," Forte says, laughing. "It's like, 'Ok, this better work.' I write out a very intricate set of things I want to do and if it doesn't work, it's like, 'Oh shit, it's not working, but this is what I'm doing.' Sometimes it doesn't work and you have to be prepared for it.
"I did this same thing once before at a charity event that Bob's Burgers was doing and I had a trial run for one of the bits I'm planning, so that gives me a little bit of confidence," Forte adds. "But you never know."
Check out the Will Forte Gala at Montreal's Just for Laughs Festival in Montreal on Wednesday July 25.