Monty Python got it right in the closing moments of Life of Brian (1979), with the titular mistaken Messiah and his cross-mates cheerily singing “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” as they await their painful and inevitable deaths – sometimes you’ve just gotta laugh, don’t you?
Of course, Brian and the boys were singing about their own personal extinctions, a show of stoic, rueful humour in the face of individual catastrophe. It’s something else to be able to crack a one-liner when faced with the end of the human race – that’s a tragedy on a whole other scale.
Yet we manage it, in fiction if not in fact, and more times than you might imagine. It’s perhaps the ultimate comedic test – to be able to make light of the final bummer. The end of everything: all human endeavour, the entire sweep of history, art, literature, science, discovery, being swept away. To even encompass it successfully is difficult; to grasp it and then laugh at it – and, crucially, make other people laugh – is a real achievement. And in doing so, you open up the opportunity to grapple with some of the big questions: being, meaning, life, the universe, and everything (we’ll get to that in a minute).
The Last Man on Earth (not to be confused with the 1964 Vincent Price film, which took the notion much more seriously) certainly takes the ontological bull by the horns. Created by and starring comedian Will Forte, and executive produced by Into the Spider-Verse/Jump Street directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, the series follows Philip Miller (Forte), the titular survivor of a global pandemic, whose aimless post-apocalyptic existence is upended when he discovers he’s not the last person standing, first encountering Kristen Schaal’s Carol, and then a growing number of other leftovers. Phil, who has been living a kind of terrible, super-slobbish day-to-day existence (he uses a swimming pool as a toilet, for one thing) must re-learn how to be human again.
It’s absurdist in a way, but all the best apocalyptic comedies are. The granddaddy of the genre is, of course, Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). Kubrick’s only out-and-out comedy (although Barry Lyndon has its moments), it’s a pitch-black satire of the existential terror that comes from knowing that all life on Earth could end in the blink of an eye thanks to the most ludicrous and minor of mishaps, and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it. The film’s genius lies in the way it takes a serious treatment of the subject – author Peter George’s 1958 potboiler, Red Alert – and renders it bleakly hilarious simply by highlighting the inanity inherent in Cold War paranoia and the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction.
The British have been across this for ages, of course – the “keep calm and carry on” stiff upper lip attitude is ripe for parody when contrasted with the prospect of complete annihilation. When they weren’t busy offering utterly depressing takes on the End Of It All like Mick Jackson’s 1984 depression session, Threads, they often explored apocalyptic themes through science fiction.
In The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy (radio show, book, TV series, movie or computer game – take your pick), Douglas Adams kicked off the action with the destruction of the Earth by an alien armada to make way for a new hyperspace bypass.
Similarly, in the long-running sci-fi comedy series Red Dwarf, the inciting incident is slovenly space technician Dave Lister (Craig Charles) being frozen in time for three million years, awakening long after the human race has gone extinct to find himself marooned in deep space. At their best, both works used comedy to explore loneliness and alienation in an unarguably hostile universe. At their worst? Well, there were a lot of puns. Still, for hilarious explorations of the existential angst that comes from living in a godless universe, they were on the money more often than not.
“Godless” is key, really, for this kind of thing to work well. After all, if you throw in an afterlife, then the end of this life isn’t really that big a deal. That’s why for all its charms, the all-star comedy This is the End (2013) isn’t as great as it could have been. Certainly, directors Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg packed the cast with their funniest and most game mates, including Jay Baruchel, James Franco, Danny McBride, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson, Emma Watson and more, but having our heroes get to heaven after the apocalypse lacks a certain bite. Likewise, the series Good Omens (2019), a riff on the Biblical apocalypse recently adapted from the Neil Gaiman/Terry Pratchett novel for Amazon, loses points purely for concept: if there’s a God and an ineffable plan, then whatever happens can’t be all that bad.
No, the best apocalyptic comedies put us right on the spot, stuck between “the worst has already happened” and “the worst is yet to come”. They play with the terrible paradox that the world has ended and yet we are somehow still here, grappling with our shortcomings but without the endless white noise of modern pop culture to distract ourselves from our existential angst. That’s why The Last Man on Earth works so well; the human race has been decimated and society has crumbled, taking with it all our humdrum responsibilities and hassles but, through Phil, we’re still here, dealing with our nonsense.
The Last Man on Earth airs on Fridays at 9:00pm on SBS VICELAND. All four seasons are streaming now at SBS On Demand.
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