Can the end of the world be funny?
It sure can be serious: One of TV’s most popular shows has been showing just how un-funny the end of the world can be for five seasons now. In fact, The Walking Dead has pretty much rubbed our faces in not only how bad it is when the world ends, but how it continues to go on ending every day as the survivors lose their humanity inch by inch. There are zero laughs (except when Carl stuffs himself with pudding). It is well-written, a question I have to ask before praising anything in this column - most of the time.
But can it be something that’s not jut bleak and bloody? Can laughs be wrung out of the most divine joke of them all; namely that the machine of civilization has seized up and perished?
Answer: Yes. If you’re willing to squint.
Squinting is crucial when it comes to Fox’s new series “The Last Man on Earth.” The premise is, thus far, as stated: Will Forte appears to be the only survivor of a virus that has wiped everyone else out. The squinting begins when you have to set the hyperbole of the title aside - no network show is going to permit 22 minutes per week to be a one-man operation. So, there’s a woman. Also, while Forte is shown scouring the U.S. and parts of Canada in a big RV, he’s not exactly done due diligence on the entire planet.
The fact that Forte is an interesting actor helps. He does sad and thoughtful and absurd all at once, most nimbly shown off in the movie Nebraska. All three are needed to enjoy Last Man, but by the time the show gets moving, squinting’s not enough. We’ve all seen too much of this kind of thing not to have some crucial questions that invariably invade any attempt at funny. Like:
- Where are all the bodies?
- Where are all of the car pileups on the highways?
- Why would anyone choose to live in the inhospitable, arid desert of Tucson following civilization’s collapse?
- Why (other than for purported comic reasons) would a man who can appreciate fine paintings decide it was OK to use a fountain as a toilet, rather than dig a trench?
A well-written series can get away with anything, even when it does veer off course. Set the tone, set the mood, set the tension between the conflict and the characters in just the right way and you’re free to experiment. Last Man Standing, however, isn’t all that well written and so it doesn’t fly. Whether you like Forte’s character or just find him sexist almost is beside the point - the fact that I’m left with questions rather than chuckles as the show goes on means they haven’t set this world up very carefully. I’m constantly aware that this is going to be a sitcom and it will follow sitcom rules, like never leaving the immediate vicinity or considering things in a practical manner.
That leaves me sad, and a little bored. What could have been!
Yet the end of the world can be funny, if you do set it up right; this is why I have hopes that Comedy Central will let Matt Porter and Charlie Hankin make more episodes of New Timers, a web series whose heroes don’t seem to fully grok the challenges they’re facing now that the end has arrived. We first meet them 281 days after “the event,” just two guys hanging out and making condiment dip in a tool box to take to a gathering.
The party they’re expecting to attend turns out to be an escape from the hellhole the city around them has become - a handsome hero has fixed a car so they can flee with a handful of others who have been invited. But the gathering turns into a “who is more equipped to survive the apocalypse” bicker-fest (one of them suggests his narrow wrists come in handy more than you might expect), and the hero drives off alone. The cluelessness, the vague nature of the disaster, and the general reflective, mundane complaining that goes on is what makes this funny. It’s sly, and it’s subtle: You totally know guys who would be like this when the world ends.
It may also help that each episode is less than 10 minutes long; funny and the end of the world may work a lot better as a sketch than a thought-through narrative series.
The problem in the end is this: If Last Man insists on being what it has so far set itself up to be - yet another half hour of men and women clashing over their various differences - then who cares if it’s set in the apocalypse or not? If the only point of having to grow their own food is so they can be at odds over fresh vegetables - why should we bother? It’s plug-and-play battle of the sexes, with two members of the sexes who really do have much bigger battles to wage. The most interesting thing that series could do right now is to have both characters remember that it’s a big - and now empty - world out there, and start chasing down some actual plot.
Are you a fan of end of the world stories? What are your favorite shows and movies about it? Write us here.