It’s really dark, though, too. Is that something you worried about putting on network?
Lord: If you’re going to do something, you need to take it all the way. The television audience has gotten sophisticated. They’re watching comedy in a different way. They’re used to seeing cable comedy that pushes boundaries and they’re aching for it in network, and Fox agreed. We developed the show at 20th [Century Fox] for a place like Netflix, and they said “no, we want it on Fox—we want to shake up our comedy lineup. We want to something that scares us a little bit.” So we all stacked hands with Forte and said either we’re going to die on our own hill, or people will go crazy for it.
Miller: Shows like Walking Dead are the biggest hits on television; audiences are ready to see stuff like this. Even though it has a lot of pathos and loneliness, though, it also has a lot of hard laughs and big jokes. As we’ve shown it to audiences, we find that people can really relate to it. It’s got this universal core.
Lord: We come from testing movies with friends and family screenings, which isn’t that typical in television, so we had a few screenings on the Fox lot with our nerdy comedy friends and they responded really well. But we realized we were probably doing ourselves a disservice by not showing it to a general audience, so asked Fox to recruit whomever they would for any other sitcom—bring them into a theater, tell them they’re going to see a new comedy, and then we’ll show them this. Trial by fire. So in come all of these folks from all different walks of life who are not comedy nerds—many of whom were in their fifties. We were like, “Oh, boy. This is going to crash and burn.” And they went crazy. No matter how crazy the comedy is the underpinnings are so genuine that I think it lands.
You guys directed the Brooklyn Nine-Nine pilot as well, and that was another one that felt very assured from its first episode.
Lord: Oh good, I’m really glad to hear that.
Miller: Well it was a really great team. Dan Goor and Mike Schur are super smart and great writers—we’re big fans of Parks And Rec. And we’ve been longtime friends with Sandberg and have worked with him many times in the past, and we were comfortable doing a cop-themed comedy from making the Jump Street movies, so there was a confidence going in. I’ve rarely had an experience where everyone is like, “This is good, people are going to like this, so we should just enjoy ourselves.”
You guys are kind of ballooning right now. I feel like everything you keep taking on…
Lord: Yeah, we’re getting too big to fail.
Miller: Like Icarus, he never failed right?
Lord: He was also another flight metaphor.
Miller: Exactly, I understand like that Icarus fellow with his balloon wings.
Lord: Like if you blow up a balloon, like a lot, it just gets bigger and bigger forever and never gets so thin that it pops. That’s my understanding.
Miller: That’s science. That’s just science right there.
Lord: Balloons these days! You know, material science has really progressed. They’ve got balloons that literally you can blow them up to the size of a football field and they’ll stay intact.
Miller: So, anyway, yes?
How do you keep it all straight? What’s your week like? Do you do one week on one franchise, or like one day with one franchise?
Lord: You’re making it sound so organized.
Miller: It’s very catch as catch can. Our brains are not so great switching gears within the day, so we try to keep it day by day. Today we’re at the soundstages for Last Man On Earth, then tomorrow we’ll be over at the Lego offices. That’s the only way we’ve been able to stay relatively sane. But you know, ask us in a few months if we’re still alive.
I feel like every new idea is another heat check, like you guys are just seeing if you can do another.
Lord: We’re just throwing up stuff to see if they miss. [Laughs.]
Does it feel like that when you’re coming up with the ideas?
Lord: We love a challenge. We try not to pick things because they look cool or they seem like they’re going to be good—we try to pick things that feel like no one else could pull this off. There’s only one crazy way that it might work, or this feels like a really funny prank to pull off. A long time ago, someone said to us, “I wish you guys would do something that seemed like a good idea.”
Miller: The stranger something is, the more skeptical people are going to be, but there’s a little bit of a buy-in because it’s something new. Hopefully one day we’ll have enough benefit of the doubt that people will go, “You know what, I’m going to trust them on this one.”
I think that’s happening already.
Lord: That would be lovely. It definitely keeps you honest. I wish more people went into projects certain that they were headed for a brick wall because it makes you not rely on some kind of notion that you’re going to have big box office numbers no matter what you do. Once you do that you’re in a trap, so maybe there’s something about it that gets us going. We know from the outset that this is really dangerous and we better bring it.
Do you ever think the success you’re having is a timing thing, like audiences have caught up to you at just the right time?
Lord: I think you want to stay like a half step ahead. If you get a full step ahead of your audience you’re in big trouble.
Miller: With the Internet, you’re not competing against other movies or TV shows that are coming out right now, you’re competing against the catalog of everything that’s ever been made. So if you want to stand out, you’ve got to do something that feels like you’re doing a new take on it. You can’t play it safe. I think that’s why we’re attracted to projects that seem like a challenge: if we can execute, then the audience appreciates the degree of difficulty and goes “wow, you made a movie out of Lego bricks.”
Lord: It’s such a rare thing to go to the movies and be shocked. I had that experience with Edge Of Tomorrow—you go into this movie thinking it’s just a generic action movie, and then you’re like “oh my god, this is the best Tom Cruise performance of the millennium.” There have just been so many movies made that it’s really hard to surprise people.
Are you guys going to keep doing this—developing new ideas—or are you going to rein it in at some point?
Lord: [Laughs.] Just coast.
Miller: Well, we’re writing a Lego sequel, so however new that idea is…and we’re developing a bunch of movies and TV shows with a bunch of places and talented people. Hopefully our careers will be long enough that we can do a lot of different types of things and have very lengthy, diverse careers. But who knows? The balloon will just continue to inflate until it doesn’t.
Lord: In terms of the amount of work we’re taking on I think we’ve hit…
Miller: Our peak.
Lord: I don’t know how we could do anything else. We’re growing as a company, we’ve got great people that work with us that make our lives possible. We’re aching to develop some more original material and once we get through this, we’ve created some problems for ourselves by being lucky. And when you’re lucky, then you have to replicate that luck on behalf of all your partners. And suddenly the thing you thought you were done with becomes a franchise and now you have to sort of stay a little bit. Which we’re happy to do, it’s really fun to do, but we can’t wait to get a little bit of time to just come up with something out of whole cloth again.
Interview by Brendan Klinkenberg