The last time Will Forte and Kristen Schaal were on the same TV show, they were at their respective weirdo bests. He was bewigged and in drag playing a Jane Krakowski impersonator-lover on 30 Rock. She was a sociopathic, sexually-charged intern with a criminal background and unhealthy obsession with Liz Lemon.
Years later, who would’ve guessed that those would be normal circumstances?
Forte and Schaal were—and stop reading here to avoid spoilers—reunited Sunday night on the small screen in Fox’s Last Man on Earth, which scored big ratings with its premiere. He’s the show’s title character, a man named Phil Miller who descends into a hedonistic lifestyle of no pants, pooping outdoors, and filling inflatable kiddie pools with margaritas (to both bathe in and drink from, duh) when he finds out that, following a mysterious virus, he is the sole surviving member of the human population.
She’s the big twist.
Shrouded in secrecy during Fox’s rollout campaign for Last Man on Earth was the fact that the series title was, while technically correct, slightly misleading. As it turns out, at least one woman survived, too. Her name is Carol. She seems crazy, and crazy-uptight—at least compared to the apocalyptic bachelor party Phil has turned his existence into.
And Schaal, a veteran connoisseur of kooky comedy best known for her off-center work on Bob’s Burgers, 30 Rock, Flight of the Conchords, and The Daily Show, cruelly had to keep her promotion to leading lady on Last Man on Earth a secret from everyone so as not to ruin the doomsday twist.
Sounds frustrating, right?
“I was a little bit, yeah,” Schaal tells The Daily Beast, offering up the first of many squeaky giggles that simultaneously offends your ear and warms your heart (her specialty). But, proving that her wide-eyed kewpie doll face is no ruse, she maintains a glass-half-full attitude about having to keep the biggest break of her career a surprise.
“Sometimes I like to not tell people what I’m up to,” she says. “Because with the world of showbiz, you just never know what will pan out.” Her alibi while she was on the Last Man on Earth set? That she was hard at work lending her unmistakable voice to roles on Bob’s Burgers and Gravity Falls. And that’s certainly not a lie.
Schaal’s unique, high-pitched speaking voice—she breathes helium while we breathe air—lends itself to a lucrative, hard-to-pull-off type that has made her talents in high demand since first making a splash as an obsessive fan with a big heart and stalker tendencies on Flight of the Conchords. Her characters are not exactly deranged and not exactly sweet, but a terrifying and hilarious combination of both. More, they’re unmistakably hers.
Her comedy perspective, in part, reflects a zany upbringing on a cattle farm outside Boulder, Colorado. “I think growing up on a farm in a certain amount of isolation, with not a lot of friends nearby, makes you entertain yourself and kind of grows your imagination—being alone is quite good for all that,” she once told The Guardian. “You make up stories, talk to the animals, let them be an audience, a bunch of cows.”
Cows, apparently, have forgiving ears. But once Schaal was made aware that her voice was distinct (to say the least), which didn’t happen until she was studying at Northwestern University, she wisely learned to embrace it. Usually.
“Not long ago I tried to disguise myself for Halloween so I could get drunk and wouldn’t care if I ran into a Flight of the Conchords fan, but as soon as I started talking, people were like, ‘Hey, it’s you!’” she remembers.
The result is a quietly prolific career in comedy as an irrefutable champion of the oddball. Now, thanks to a TV climate that’s become ever more hospitable to absurdist points of view, quirky creative minds, and audaciously off storytellers, the oddballs are rising. Schaal is having her leading lady moment.
“I feel like that’s something that I’m drawn to, the offbeat characters for sure,” she says. “Everybody has an offbeat tone to them anyway, regardless of who they are. Everyone feels a little bit like an outsider. So it’s easy to relate to.”
Carol on Last Man on Earth, however, is a special case. “Usually with outsider characters, I only work a couple days on a set,” Schaal says. “You only get a taste of them, and then they’re like, ‘All right, you talked to the lead, now go back home!’ So it has been really fun to get to persist as an oddball character for the whole story.”
So what’s Carol’s story?
Superficially, she’s the polar opposite to Forte’s bearded, belching, bean-out-of-the-can eating Phil. Phil enjoys washing down a can of Spaghetti-O’s with a squirt of Cheez Whiz. Carol would like to grow a vegetable garden. Whereas Phil charges through the world with the same reckless abandon he treats his hygiene, Carol insists on maintaining the structure and order that society had abided by—when it still existed.
Phil, for all his drunkenly, slovenly bliss, is still horny as hell. The discovery of a female survivor, then, should mean one thing: sex time! Carol’s view of the situation, however, is far less carnal: an opportunity to dutifully repopulate civilization. Provided they get married first.
Phil is not pleased.
The starkness in characterization between Phil and Carol creates a precarious comedy tightrope for Forte, Schaal, and the show to teeter down. New Yorker television critic Emily Nussbaum raised the point on Twitter: “If they’re BOTH flawed, it’s funny, otherwise it’s just ‘what if you were stuck with a crazy bitch.’”
It should be fairly obvious when a show is titled Last MAN on Earth there is high risk for sexism. Spectacularly, Last Man on Earth doesn’t fall prey, though Schaal admits that it was a concern.
“In the pilot, you’re so on Phil’s side, because you’re in his world. You’re seeing it from his perspective,” she says. “He’s a character you instantly care for. When Carol comes in, she doesn’t have the benefit of things being from her point of view. So I was very nervous about the imbalance of that. But as the show goes on, you sort of sway back and forth with whose side you’re on. And exactly [to Nussbaum’s point], I think Phil is definitely flawed in a lot of ways—some of them worse than Carol—and vice versa.”
Still, aspects of Carol’s Type-A personality were difficult for Schaal to tap into. As it turns out, playing one of the last humans on Earth is a surprisingly excellent catalyst for self-examination.
“That’s definitely not who I am,” she says. “I’m more on the messy side. I’m looser. But that being said, I really don’t like to break the rules at all. So there’s a little bit of me in her.” It’s also wholly unfair to reduce Carol to just her more rigid attributes. “There’s a joy to her!” Schaal says. “Yeah, she wants to follow the rules and she just wants to hold it together. But she’s also just really happy to be alive.”
Which, actually, goes to explain the whole marriage insistence—a divisive plot point for viewers, who found it off-putting and retrograde that the girl would demand being married before having sex, and then be met with such appalled reaction by the guy she’s with.
“We got to spend the whole first half of the show watching Phil have all his wishes fulfilled and doing all the things he always wished he could do,” she says. “And now we’re seeing Carol get all the things she wanted. And I think she always wanted to be married, and, now, she’s going to get it. Maybe in the old world, that was never a possibility for her, but now that absolutely is.”
“That was also really hard for me to grasp, the getting married thing, at first,” she admits. “But again, I just turned a corner with her. Hell’s yeah she wants to be married and she should!”
On the note of “hell’s yeah,” toward the end of our conversation I point out that it’s been exactly 10 years since New York magazine included Schaal on its list of “The Ten Funniest New Yorkers You’ve Never Heard Of.” Now she’s the lead on a Fox comedy.
She’s flabbergasted because she remembers the article vividly, and begins chronicling exactly how its publishing led to her stand-up comedy break at the HBO Comedy Festival, which led to her casting on Flight of the Conchords, all of which eventually led to Last Man on Earth.
So now, no doubt, people have heard of her, right? That amazing giggle again, then: “A few more.”