Last Man Standing shocked the industry Friday by delivering the biggest audience for a Fox comedy in nearly seven years (8 million viewers and a 1.8 rating). So now what? Below, showrunner Kevin Abbott takes our questions about the behind-the-scenes reaction to the ratings and what’s next in store for the Baxters.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So how many people did you think were going to watch — because I know you weren’t expecting that?
KEVIN ABBOTT: Yeah we weren’t. Fox was hoping for 80 percent of what we were doing on ABC so about a 1.0. Because I knew it was doing gangbusters in syndication, I was optimistic for a 1.3, 1.4, thinking if everything breaks right that’s what we’ll get. So I’m an idiot. I don’t think anybody expected this. It’s a little hard to absorb. I looked at the number and I thought it was a misprint. It’s very gratifying. But yeah, nobody expected this.
How did Tim react?
I hadn’t checked the numbers until noon on Saturday and my phone was crammed with messages when I finally checked. I texted Tim to say “hey, wow, congratulations,” and his response was, “What did we do?” Tim is notoriously understated on this stuff but he’s obviously thrilled too.
Did you guys hear from anybody at ABC?
I didn’t. Matt Berry, another EP on the show, heard congratulations from [programming head] Vicky Dummer, who we love at ABC. I heard that our cold opening [mocking ABC for canceling the show] was circulating around ABC beforehand. There’s no ill will. We did that [opening] for good fun and because we’re terrible people. It’s just business and this is what happens. Actually, this never happens [laughs]. It’s probably not the best day over at ABC programming but it’s a good day for us.
On Twitter, Tim said next week’s episode is better. It concerns the death of Mike’s father bud (Robert Forster), which some critics have said it’s among the show’s best episodes, though also a bit atypical due to its subject matter?
Well, next week’s episode is a great episode. Do I think its atypical? No. We see ourselves as a family show not a political show. We’re a family show with a conservative character at the center. It fairly closely follows what we generally do which is to tell a story about the relationships on our show with heart and a lot of funny. So I think it’s a good example of what we typically do. The first show was actually a bit more atypical for us. Because our central character is a political beast [the election] felt like something that needed to be commented on.
There was some blowback online for the recasting (with Molly McCook replacing Molly Ephraim as the Baxters’ daughter). Did that hurt the actress’ feelings? What did you think?
We fully expected it. You don’t take a character played by an actress that’s beloved and suddenly switch them out. I’m glad they missed Molly Ephraim, that’s a good thing. And they’re going to go through the same process we did in casting. When Molly McCook walked in we thought, “that’s not going to work.” Physically that’s not going to work. And then she’s just so good. We thought maybe another character? Then we thought she’s the best actress, let’s go with it. We had some fun with it in the opening episode [about the physical differences between the actors] and then dropped that. It’s a little jarring then you grow to love her. The actresses feelings were not hurt — well, she said “very briefly” and then she got past it. We hope the audience starts to feel the way we do. She’s not doing an imitation of Molly Ephraim playing Mandy, she’s playing Mandy her own way. We put her in a tough situation in that first episode she’s replacing a beloved actress and we have her in opposition of Mike and Eve who are very well loved obviously. We had to do that for the story but she’s not going to be in opposition to Mike in the upcoming episodes and hopefully they can see her shine.
You’re tackling gun control in an upcoming episode. How does that go?
We’re still dealing with that a little bit. It’s a tough subject. Mike Baxter owns an outdoor store and sells guns there. We certainly have a viewership that embraces that and we want to be responsible at same time. It’s an ongoing discussion.
I hear you’re scrambling to add a Halloween-themed episode?
This year we did something a little different. Last few Halloween show we had people dressing up as other people, but we’re going with a prank-theme Halloween this year.
Trump hasn’t said anything about your show’s ratings yet. Would the president speaking out on your behalf be a good thing or a bad thing?
[Laughs] I’m gonna let that one go. I’ll pass on that one.
I thought that was a pretty effectively phrased no-win question.
Yeah, I don’t know I have the answer to that. Much like the show, we’re not going to say his name.
So wait: Not saying Trump’s name is going to continue forward on the show?
Yeah. We want to appeal to everybody and that’s a polarizing thing. We want to talk about things but we don’t want to be a trigger that immediately thrills or turns off people. The news cycle changes so rapidly I don’t think we’re going to deal with anything immediately topical because by the time we air it will no longer be pertinent. We’ll deal with the larger issues. We want to take a more universal tone and unite rather than divide in these times. We rather show people on either side of the political spectrum arguing with each other but remaining family.
Last Man Standing airs Fridays on Fox.