The Gay Comedy You Never Knew You Wanted
By Samantha Henderson
Photo of Josh Thomas by Michael Muller
Josh Thomas’s face is all over New York City buses, so it may seem logical that his new television show, Please Like Me (which already aired in the his native Australia but premieres on Pivot August 1) would be a proverbial Sex and the City—but with gay guys. In fact, Thomas's creation is unlike most comedies available. "The show and the network are perfect for each other, so it was exactly what they were looking for," Thomas says. "They just really liked to show and wanted to keep it as-is. To get an American network to air your show and not try to make a shitty American remake with pretty actors—that’s incredible."
Chalk it up to Australian originality or his own individual quirks, but Please Like Me takes an anti-earnest approach to often-grueling experiences such as coming out or caring for a mentally ill family member—all while somehow maintaining a lighthearted sense of reality. Thomas isn’t looking to score big belly laughs, rather, he intends viewers to relate in to what’s happening on screen in uncomfortable ways that may cause a chuckle. He’s not wearing Manolos or a nameplate necklace, but Thomas could be the sympathetic, wise, Australian Carrie Bradshaw we didn’t know we were missing, so we caught up to him to ask him about why he wants to be liked by American audiences.
Out: How long were you developing the show?
Josh Thomas: So long. When we pitched the show, I had never even kissed a boy before, and I came out after we started pitching it.
Oh wow! Did you have a storyline laid out?
No we just sort of pitched it and said, “Well, we’ve developed a lot of things…”
It’s supposed to be kind of based on personal experiences and semi-autobiographical, correct? How true-to-life is it?
I mean, it’s just fiction. I’m playing me and my name is Josh and my dog is actually my dog and my mum—she has some mental health issues and that storyline is kind of vaguely true. The way we react to it and my attitude towards everything is very honest, but it’s still fiction.
Is the coming-out story similar at all?
In that way, no. It didn’t happen like that. I mean, I didn’t write the show to make some political statement about coming out. I just wrote what I thought would be entertaining and also how people reacted and what happened to me. The coming out goes on over the next episodes [not just episode one].
I figured as much since the coming out only really starts in the first episode and Josh (the character) starts out with a girlfriend and doesn’t even realize.
Exactly. But it was, in my real life, I just kissed a boy one day, and I really liked him and I was like, “Ohhhh, well this is a thing everybody,” and everybody just said, “OK!” You know, it wasn’t that dramatic. In the show, there’s no craze about it, there’s no big, sad scene because it’s just kind of how it happened in my life. But some people, that’s how it happens—you hear a lot of stories like that, but for me, just nobody cared. People were just like, “Oh, OK.”
I thought that was very interesting, since even from the first episode, it seems not extremely dramatic and just pretty lighthearted. People’s personal experiences obviously differ, but I think on most TV shows, coming-out stories—they seem to think they have to be super super dramatic.
Well, most things in television are really dramatic. You’ve got to make it interesting so everybody puts in conflict. We have a character that comes in and does that a little. A tiny bit—not really. In my real life, we didn’t have a big sit-down coming out. That seems very '90s to me. I also have an older brother, and he’s gay. He had already come out and that wasn’t a big deal. I know that it’s not like that for everybody. A lot of shit things happen to kids.
So you said that you’re not trying to tell any particular coming-out story or what not. But now that it’s airing on Pivot, which is such a socially-conscious network, do you hope that the show will have the effect of a social message somehow, even if that wasn’t your intention writing it?
I think just by telling a story honestly and sharing your experiences—people with similar experiences—like the suicide thing. It’s not necessarily going to be their mum, but they might have someone close to them attempt suicide, and it’s not shown or discussed a lot on television. But honestly if we could tell that story, I think it’s a helpful, emphatic type of thing. With the coming it, it’s one example of a coming-out story, and being able to talk honestly about that is helpful.
I wasn’t writing it to get [gay] marriage legalized in Australia. I was just writing it. It’s not an It Gets Better video. It’s just a thing that happened and by talking honestly about that, I think we make some kind of social message. Also, just getting to watch gay storylines about—that’s something, when you’re gay, to get excited about.
Gay storylines are still kind of rare or is supposed to create some shock factor.
Yeah, having an opportunity to let people watch a gay romance—that’s what I really like watching, and that’s what I wanted to make.
I read that you decided to pitch the show as a drama, even though it is, for all intents and purposes, a comedy. Why did you decide to do that?
Well, we pitched it as a comedy and a drama, but it was done through the comedy department. It is supposed to be a comedy.
It definitely induces laughter, but it’s not a typical comedy.
It’s not a sitcom, right? I was trying to make it as true-to-life as you can make a TV show. Sometimes funny things happen and sometimes sad things happen.
I think a lot of the moments that are funny are more nervous laughter-inducing because you see what’s happening as familiar and are awkward situations that happen to a lot of people. You don’t laugh really intensely, more nervously since it’s so relatable.
Yeah, I think that’s what we’re looking for, because I don’t really know what I’m doing.
Photo still from Please Like Me by Giovanni Lovisetto
Did you do anything else other than not writing very scripted jokes—apart from the writing, was there anything else you discussed with the actors or that you tried to do to make the portrayal as realistic as possible?
We didn’t try to talk like funny people. We didn’t really cast funny people or comedians. Usually sitcoms cast comedians and people who do their own jokes and stuff. The actors on our show are not comedy actors. They are just saying things that I think are quite funny as opposed to show where they’re saying wacky funny things. And the director of the show, Matthew Saville, he doesn’t do a lot of comedy. He does mostly drama. We just got him because the show is kind of drama.
The only other show that seemed even slightly reminiscent—not because of the characters or the content—was of the British Skins because it doesn’t really seem similar to most anything else. Did you specifically want to make a show that was different from anything?
Everyone compares it to a different show, which always makes me happy because it’s not really like anything. When you make a TV show, every step of the way they say, “What do you want this show to be like?” and you’re expected to say, like, “It’s a cross between The Office and Skins and also Everybody Loves Raymond!” That’s the second question that everyone asks. They want to know what shows you like and what you want it to be like. And I said, “Oh, no! That’s not what we’re doing.” I stubbornly refused to ever answer that question, which was quite difficult for everybody.
The point is that it hasn’t been done before—that’s the dream. I’m not sure. I think we did it.
Yeah it didn’t seem like any American comedy or sitcom. So, the show was originally supposed to air on ABC1 in Australia, but it got moved to ABC2 because they said it wasn’t ideal for the demographic. Did you run into any issues like that in the US?
No. We’re with Pivot. They would complain that it’s not “gay enough.” They wish there was another episode where we just talk about gay feelings. Their whole thing is social action, change, and talking about issues, so no one had any problem with it. One of the things they liked was that we didn’t treat it like an afternoon special. It’s not been to air yet, so we don’t know what the people think.
I came across the Please Like Me Internet campaign. Did you have anything to with that launching? How did that start?
Pivot is part of Participant+ Media, so they do all those movies like An Inconvenient Truth or Charlie Wilson’s War—things with social consciousness. They always do social action campaigns. Every show they do has a thing like that. Ours is people talking about their feelings, which kind of contrasts with the show because Josh, the main character, doesn’t like talking about his feelings.
The title of the show really invites that message and allows people to talk about difficult personal struggles. “I have all of this going on, but please like me anyway.” It’s also good because it’s not all coming-out stories. It’s just people sharing whatever they’ve struggled with. And what is going on with the show now?
We’re just trying to get series 2 confirmed.
Well, there seems to be a lot of advertising and hype, at least in New York. I saw a bus the other day with your face on it.
Yeah some article said that I’m like Carrie Bradshaw now. Finally! My dreams are coming true.
Well the one I saw didn’t have you in a small dress or scantily clad, so not exactly like her.
Well, that’s what we’re looking for—to go full Carrie Bradshaw.