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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Visual gags take center stage on a prank-war episode of Last Man On Earth

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“Comedy is subjective,” says the age-old adage. While that axiom has too often become an easy cover for those who don’t like their comedy to come under any scrutiny, it’s still a fair metric for the success of certain strains of humor. For example, if a person doesn’t enjoy slapstick, it’s hard to imagine that they’ll find, say, Three Stooges films to be amusing, or if someone doesn’t particularly like fart jokes, they may not like a certain scene from Blazing Saddles. Obviously this isn’t a hard-and-fast rule, and some comedy has the potential to break through certain individual barriers, but it’s a telling way to gauge whether or not a joke will play in all time zones.

Case in point: “The Fourth Finger” largely rests on visual gags, namely the image of a half-shaved Will Forte. Introduced at the very end of last week’s episode, but teased months earlier, the shot of a half-shaved Phil was designed to be a jarring and absurd gag (it’s like a hairy version of Two-Face), and credited “The Fourth Finger” writer Erik Durbin doubles down on it this week with a prank-war episode between Phil and Mike. Although, “prank war” doesn’t best describe the situation because it implies there’s a two-sided battle, not a one-sided assault. Mike messes with Phil by shaving half his face, spraying him with blue ink that Phil must cover up with ghastly white makeup, and then makes him spread poison oak over his genitals. Plus, he places Phil’s bed at the edge of a cliff, making him fall onto a black air mattress on the beach. “The Fourth Finger” features a lot of psychological and physical damage to Will Forte’s character, but director Jason Woliner keeps returning again and again to the face. It’s effectively the bedrock of the episode’s comedy.

Now, for those who don’t find a half-shaved Forte (not just his face, but all the way down his body) to be as inherently funny as The Last Man On Earth creative team does, it’s possible “The Fourth Finger” won’t work for you. A lot of the jokes just rely on the ridiculous nature of that image, especially how Phil’s frantic frustration looks with half his hair gone. Speaking for myself, there’s something funny watching Phil nervously try and fail to get back at his brother while sporting the worst haircut of all time. LMOE is really good at letting Forte exercise many different comedic modes as Phil—exasperated anger, panicky self-preservation, acerbic douchebaggery—and while Phil’s new look doesn’t suddenly make those modes any more or less fresh, it does put a nice spin on them, even if it’s just for this week. As for most things related to comedy, mileage will certainly vary on this front.

Along with Phil and Mike’s prank war, there’s also another Todd B-plot this week that focuses on his struggle to balance dating Gail and Melissa, and on a larger scale, to give “100% Todd” to everyone when they need it. I wish there was more to the storyline, but that’s basically it. Todd feels over-stretched emotionally and physically, but vows to give himself to people whenever they need help, like when he shaves half his face as a sign of solidarity with Phil. It’s a pleasant plot, but not quite interesting or substantial enough on its own to warrant an entire portion of the episode. It’s clear that it’s table setting for the weeks ahead, so maybe Todd’s selfless brand of selfishness (“being there for everyone” is as much about Todd as it is about everyone else) will be explored further down the line.

But “The Fourth Finger” mostly follows Phil and Mike as they fight and then come back together over their shared grief. It’s interesting that Phil can’t keep up with Mike’s physical pranks, but can easily devastate him emotionally with a fake letter from their mother (covered in poison oak no less.) Phil is much more skilled at going for the jugular than casually joking around, even though Mike’s version of “casual” can be extreme (again, he put Phil’s bed on the edge of a friggin’ cliff.) It’s easy to see where this goes: Mike reads the letter and believes it to be real, only to be heartbroken when he finds out it’s not; Phil feels guilty and gives him the many real letters his parents wrote and tells him how much it sucked to play second-fiddle to his brother all these years; they both apologize and admit they miss their parents. While the broad strokes of the storyline’s conclusion are certainly predictable, it doesn’t make that last scene with Forte and Sudeikis any less affecting. It’s the first time that I really believed those two were siblings with shared history, and demonstrates how well LMOE can slip into tender drama, even in such a broad episode like this one. As we enter the final stretch of the season and the various threads of the season come together—Erica’s future child, Phil and Carol’s sterility drama, Mike’s place in the group, Todd’s relationship struggles—it’ll be interesting to see where LMOE handles the series’ tone especially when the drama starts to pile up. The series itself is kind of like that fourth finger: It can function as two very different things depending on its mood.

Stray observations

  • Patti Forte voices the Miller boys’ mother in this episode.
  • Funniest joke of the episode doesn’t go to either Forte or Sudeikis, but to Kristen Schaal with her delivery of Carol’s insane Denzel Washington dream—she imagines helping him deliver two Siamese twins that she must take care of because Denzel has his “movie career”—and especially her coda: “I’ve had that dream 50 times and I do not know what it means.”
  • The facial hair jokes for both Phil are funny, but the ones saved for Todd are even funnier: “It looks like Hitler’s mustache is sliding off your face”; “You look like a melon with a mold problem”; “It looks like the floor of a barbershop took a dump on half your face.”
  • Mike guesses Phil’s safe code in one try: 6969.
  • Phil sings “This oak is poison” to the tune of Bel Biv Devoe’s “Poison.”
  • “I’m on our side. Maybe you’d realize that if you just stopped focusing on your tits!” “Carol, you gotta start listening to yourself when you talk.”
  • “Like, I’m just not going to sleep anymore.” “That’s not a solution.”
  • “Why would my older brother give me poison oak as a housewarming gift?”