Comedy television is a bit of a mixed bag right now in primetime. Shows like CBS’s The Big Bang Theory net the biggest audiences yet lack substance. Others like Adult Swim’s Rick and Morty are exceedingly substantive but short in accessibility. The happy balance between those two ends of the spectrum has typically been shows like Brooklyn Nine-Nine, The Office, and New Girl: Sitcoms with easily recognizable archetypes paired alongside clever writing. One largely unvisited land in the realm of comedy though, is currently occupied by one show, in The Last Man on Earth.
Comedy is built around the idea of escapism. It makes us laugh, shows us a ridiculous world where everyone is innately gifted in quips, and generally demands little of us. “Frustration comedy,” on the other hand, violates these tenets. Its general philosophy is simple: Put a character in a comedic scenario and systematically make his or her life a living hell. Obstacles are thrown in the way, enemies are everywhere, and the whole world seems destined to gang up on our protagonist. A truly skillful comedy is one that can take a frustration comedy and make it eminently watchable.
The Last Man on Earth, starring Will Forte as the titular “Man,” is a masterclass in frustration. Its series premiere began innocently enough. In it, we see a man by the name of Phil Miller (Forte), doing all the things we would do if there was no one else left alive on planet Earth: steal dinosaur skulls, bathe in margarita mix, use a handgun to open every glass door you can find — you know, normal stuff. From there, he happens upon people one by one, becoming more unlikable by the second. He lies, cheats, steals, womanizes, and at one point, even comes dangerously close to committing murder. And yet somehow by season’s end, we still end up wanting to see more Phil.
At its core, frustration comedy keeps an audience wanting the best for the protagonist. Through all of Phil’s heinous acts against his fellow man, we still want to see him be generally OK in the end. That will to see him succeed is what keeps people tuning in, thinking that this will be the week we finally see his redemption. After receiving just that in the Season 1 finale, Phil was left driving off into the sunset with his slightly cooky yet loving wife, played by Kristen Schaal. The recent Season 2 premiere then fed into that, showing their happy life together as the two search for a new home.
Of course it wouldn’t be a true frustration comedy if the world of The Last Man on Earth allowed anyone to be happy for long. It didn’t take long before Phil accidentally left his wife behind at a gas station somewhere around Tucson. The subsequent moment of panic was driven by the fact that he had no recollection of which station it could have been, and in a world without phones, electricity, or long-range communication, that makes for dire straits. In truly frustrating fashion, the show gave us as taste of the happiness we craved for our main character and then took it away. That need for catharsis is what drives this rarely utilized genre of comedy, and no one strikes that balance better than creators Phil Lord and Christopher Miller.
There’s still plenty of season left for The Last Man on Earth, much of which will likely surround Phil’s search for his wife. Season 1 saw him banished from Tucson for his various misdeeds, and we’d be surprised if he didn’t stumble upon that very same community of people during his travels. More importantly though, this show gives us a comedy with no equal on television today. Done the wrong way, frustration comedy can send audiences to the exit in half a season. The Last Man on Earth, however, keeps us invested the whole way through, with plenty more to come this season.
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