August 2014

The Nation Reviewed

Josh Thomas on the set of ‘Please Like Me’

By Ronnie Scott
Behind the scenes with the young Aussie comedian

The sharehouse on the corner looks normal from the outside, like any of the sharehouses found all over Melbourne’s inner north. Its interior, though, is crammed with upwards of 30 people who are mainly concerned about a dog – John, a cavoodle – that is appearing in an episode of the television series Please Like Me. John’s owner, Josh Thomas, a 26-year-old comedian and the star and creator of the show, is dressed in grey trackpants with crocheted cuffs. John is dressed in a tux.

Cameras roll. When the scene wraps, the crew resume attempts to photograph the dog with their phones. The director, Matthew Saville, has a handful of “pest cards” to dispense to disruptive personnel on set, but he’s holding on to them for now. In a monitor, Thomas’ crocheted cuffs catch Saville’s eye, and he seems to approve of this “tragicomic” detail.

Two months later, I meet Thomas, now 27, in a sleek building in Port Melbourne, where he is editing this footage. He is more poised and clear-eyed than he looks on the show, where he is somewhere between beleaguered and ruffled. (In the words of his character, who is also named Josh, “I look like a 50-year-old baby.”)

Like his cavoodle, Thomas seems affable and inoffensive. But Please Like Me attracted controversy even before its first episode had screened in Australia in February last year. It was bumped from ABC1 to ABC2, leading some observers to speculate that it was “too gay” for the main channel. (The broadcaster, which claimed Please Like Me was a better fit for ABC2’s younger demographic, re-aired the show on ABC1 six months later.)

But Please Like Me is hardly a “gay show”. Its relationship dramas are rarely specific to gay men; they are the problems of any romantic enterprise embarked upon by twentysomethings, who are learning to practise empathy and the art of compromise. Gay milestones, like coming out, are comically downplayed, while the plot instead focuses on friends and, especially, family.

It’s not unusual for a TV series to mix humour and pathos, or for an Australian show to cultivate an offbeat, feel-good atmosphere, but Please Like Me has a complexity that is rare in half-hour comedies. It cycles rapidly through Gen Y show, family drama, friendship sitcom and gay programming.

In the first episode of season one, Josh’s mum (Debra Lawrence) attempts suicide, and the fallout continues into season two. Given that the show is ostensibly a comedy, Thomas “thought that was the radical choice”.

The first series performed decently in Australia. “It’s ABC2’s highest-rated scripted show,” Thomas says. “There are a lot of caveats there.”

In the US, Please Like Me took off. It was a vehicle to launch Pivot, a cable channel devoted to millennials, in August last year. Thomas’ picture appeared on the sides of New York buses, prompting Out Magazine to call him the “Australian Carrie Bradshaw we didn’t know we were missing”. (“It’s actually not impressive to be on the side of the bus,” Thomas says. “You just need to call the bus company. Send them a photo and a few thousand dollars, they’ll put you on the side of a bus as well.”)

After writing season one, Thomas spent a Sunday afternoon removing dialogue he felt was too Australia-specific, such as a reference to Julia Gillard. “It was the best decision I ever made,” he says. The New Yorker compared Please Like Me favourably to shows like Girls and Louie; critics at Time and Entertainment Weekly listed it as one of the best shows of 2013.

The second season premieres in the US on 8 August and in Australia on 12 August. Thomas is unsure why the show appeals to Americans, who are “bamboozled” when he speaks to them. “They never get my jokes.” (His live shows in the US do only “fine”.)

Between seasons, the plot has shifted forward an indistinct period of time, in part to relieve Thomas from portraying a 21-year-old. More characters join the show, including one played by Denise Drysdale and another by Hannah Gadsby. This is a tactical move: to expand the world is to keep it plausible. “We don’t want to finish the season with everybody having had sex with everyone else,” Thomas says. “Especially because it’s also my family.” He prefers to create smaller, less eventful episodes, and was frustrated that he felt required in season one to hit various emotional peaks, including a character death to conclude the series. “I wished there was more of just the friends hanging out and having a good time and doing whatever they do.” Season two, with ten rather than six episodes, has more room to depict these quiet non-events.

Despite the show’s marketing (“There’ll always be a gay kiss in the promo”), Thomas resists attempts to position Please Like Me as “gay” or “millennial”. He also rejects the idea that he is a representative of either category. Although he profits from this status – he is appearing in an advertisement campaign for Optus, acting fun, young and carefree – he dislikes it when observers think he’s done a poor job of representing their team. “It’s like, ‘Oh no, we’re not a team,’” he says. “Young people are not a team.” The risk of these assumptions is especially high for a person who spent four years captaining a team of Gen Y contestants on Talkin’ ’Bout Your Generation, the quiz show on Channel Ten.

The series’ title both invokes and gently mocks the impulse to win approval, whether from those encountered in daily life or from audiences. Thomas freely describes himself as “a bit of a shit guy”, which he feels is a good persona for a comedian; his character, who can be selfish, is meant to reflect Thomas himself. “It would really help my real life if he was just lovely,” he points out. “I could have scripted myself as a paramedic.” Instead, when plotting Please Like Me, Thomas devises fictional situations and then figures out how he’d likely behave in them.

“There’s just too much of me in my life generally,” Thomas says. Recently, he watched footage of himself making the same joke seven times; his job was to pick the most charming version. “I don’t think that’s healthy.”

Ronnie Scott

Ronnie Scott is the author of Salad Days and editor of The Best of The Lifted Brow.


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