Awkward Laughs, Big Issues, And Ejaculate-Filled Croquembouche: A Day On The Set Of ‘Please Like Me’
"THIS IS TONY ABBOTT'S AUSTRALIA," Josh Thomas screams, for some reason.
Spoilers! You might want to get up to date on Please Like Me before reading.
The third season of Please Like Me is shooting on location in Brighton — a ritzy beachside suburb in Melbourne’s south — and Josh Thomas is quite upset to see me. He tells me that the day before my visit, a respected middle-aged guest star had slapped a croquembouche onto the floor. Just slapped it. “That would have been much more fun for you to watch,” he says.
Josh is very worried about the fact that I now have to stand around and just watch people talk with the knowledge that, not 24 hours prior, an ornate, 10-inch-high dessert was being energetically batted to the ground. “We bought three of them to get the shot right,” he tells me. “But buying three croquembouches to throw on the ground sounds very decadent for the ABC. Maybe don’t tell anyone that.”
“THIS IS TONY ABBOTT’S AUSTRALIA,” he yells with his arms in the air.
The Ever-Increasing Love For Please Like Me
Depending which way you look at it, Josh Thomas’ semi-autobiographical comedy has either had an incredible or an incredibly disappointing reception.
On the negative side: the ratings have looked consistently dire. Late-last year, the first episode of the second season premiered to a national audience of 103,000, a figure 90 percent worse than that evening’s episode of The Block and around 30 percent shittier than the midday re-run of Dr Phil. This didn’t place it in too much jeopardy with the national broadcaster on ABC2, but it did lead to a bunch of outraged headlines and balking testimonials — how could such a great show with the best of Josh Thomas’ signature humour and pathos flop harder than he did on Celebrity Splash?
Something more positive: those numbers are only part of the story. Overnight ratings don’t include those who watch on ABC iView or illegally download, so they’re not representative of certain groups including young people (who increasingly prefer to stream shows) and those tuning in from overseas. And those are the two groups who seem to really fucking love Please Like Me — them, and the critics.
At the end of its second season, Please Like Me was named by Entertainment Weekly as one of the best shows of the year alongside Game of Thrones, Mad Men and Louie. Indiewire also gave a glowing recommendation, and The AV Club deemed it “one of the year’s best shows”. Internationally, it was nominated for a GLAAD Media Award, a Rose d’or and an International Emmy; and at home it scored the AACTA Award for Best TV Comedy, Best Direction at the Australian Directors Guild Awards, and Best Comedy Writing at the Australian Writers Guild Awards.
Then there was this, which pretty much speaks for itself:
All I ever want is to be curled in bed watching Please Like Me. This show soothes my existential unrest. I love you @JoshThomas87
— Lena Dunham (@lenadunham) June 4, 2015
“That was nice, but then I fucked it up didn’t I?” Josh tells me. “I embarrassed myself. I sent her a little Twitter DM and now she hasn’t replied. Maybe I’ll message her again. I’m not sure what I should do. [Although] she did have Sarah Palin call her a paedophile that same day, so maybe she was busy.”
Much of this success came after the show was picked up as the flagship program of new US cable network Pivot, but Josh is still very relaxed about the whole thing. “It’s like an underground show,” he says. “I got recognised in a cupcake store in New York — that was good — and by some homoesexuals in a gay bar. So, we’re really hitting our demographic. That market is cornered.”
Now, the third season the show has moved from the smaller youth-focused ABC2 to the flagship channel. But — unlike what was suggested in a News Corp interview when the show first aired — he doesn’t think any network decisions have anything to do with him (or the show) being “too gay”. “I didn’t really say that,” he tells me. “Some journalist really kept telling me that was why [the show was originally put on ABC2] and then I kept tried to avoid the question. He was saying, ‘I reckon they do it because of this’ and I was like, ‘They might have, I don’t know’. Then all of a sudden it’s printed as ‘JOSH THINKS THEY THINK IT’S TOO GAY’, and then I’m getting in trouble. I just had no idea.”
Alternatively, he does think his most-recent birthday cake was a bit “too gay”. In the days before shooting the croquembouche scene, the crew celebrated Josh turning 28 with this:
They got me the most terrifically camp cake. pic.twitter.com/Zb5Sp61fAa
— Josh Thomas (@JoshThomas87) May 26, 2015
“The only way it could have been gayer is if each of the profiteroles were filled with ejaculate,” he says. “Put that on Junkee.”
Writing That Resonates
As the cameras start to roll on what will be the third episode airing tonight, I find out the “boring talking scene” is really not boring at all. There are around fifteen crew members packed into the dining room of a palatial Brighton home, and Josh’s on-screen boyfriend Arnold is preparing to come out to his homophobic parents (Geoff Morrell and Gina Riley). This is the first time Josh’s eponymous character has met Arnold’s family. He’s making stilted small talk about his coffee cart and Arnold’s brother’s DJ girlfriend; the conversation’s repeated at least a dozen times to get the awkward silences timed to perfection.
At the end of each take, director Matthew Saville bursts out laughing. Literally, every time. Each added sideways glance, folded arm or punishing second of silence makes him lose it — and he’s not the only one. Guys with boom mics, script co-ordinators and the show’s producer Todd Abbott are all cringing and giggling. We may not have all come out to our parents, but we know the feel of this situation. The discomfort is a little too real.
Later, at lunch, Josh’s co-stars Keegan Joyce (Arnold) and Tom Ward (Tom) tell me about this over some chocolate pecan pie. Tom also writes the show alongside Josh (a collaborative effort that’s made even more impressive by the fact other cast members regularly contribute material for their own characters).
“The thing is, horrible situations are the best platforms for making jokes,” Tom says. “The more dark the thing, the easier it is to create tension, and the more tension you have, the easier it is to get a laugh. All these issues [in the show] are really good for comedy.”
Though we’re only a few episodes into the new season, these issues are stacking up quick. There are enduring problems with Hannah’s depression, Arnold’s anxiety, and Tom’s upsetting sexual encounters; and now Josh’s dad’s partner Mae has admitted to cheating on him when she was pregnant with their child, and Arnold has decided to finally come out to his parents.
“I think there’s a broader focus for season three,” Keegan says. “Mental illness is still explored, but I like the fact it’s quite understated in this series — it’s normal.”
“We just think about people’s real lives at that age,” Tom adds. “Those issues just evolve naturally”. It makes a lot of sense when you consider how much of the show is based on real life. In season one especially, Josh’s first relationships with men and the mental illness of his mum came from his own experience. Hannah Gadsby regularly discusses her own mental health issues, and writes her own material accordingly. Members of the cast shared their own experiences of coming out as gay, lesbian and pansexual before the release of the current season.
“It was really easy to write last season for [my character] Tom, because I had such a terrible year in real life,” Tom says. “We [take these] things and exaggerate them … Sometimes I get to make really funny jokes in the show and that’s also an exaggeration. It’s good and bad. For instance, I kiss Caitlyn Stacey in the show. That’s an exaggeration of what’s possible in real life.”
“A lot of it is [real], but a lot of it isn’t,” Keegan, who plays Arnold, adds. “I’m defending you here, because a lot of people think Tom in the show is real-life Tom. It’s not. He’s a nicer guy in real life.”
While this all makes for empathetic and affecting comedy, it also has some real-world significance.
Josh has (repeatedly) used his experiences, and his new international platform, to advocate for better treatment of LGBT kids:
— Josh Thomas (@JoshThomas87) October 15, 2015
The show’s affectionate and forthright depiction of gay sex in the season three premiere elicited a strong reaction from fans, too.
I've literally never ever in my whole life ever seen gay sex portrayed like on Please Like Me. This show is a fucking gift and a treasure
— Lazarus (@lazarusthefirst) October 25, 2015
Loved those sex scenes on #PleaseLikeMe. Mostly because I couldn't imagine seeing that on TV growing up; partly because I just like anal.
— Benjamin Law (@mrbenjaminlaw) October 15, 2015
— Elm St Movie Bad Guy (@mitchfel) October 16, 2015
Even more impressive: last year Josh spoke as part of a lobbying group at Capitol Hill about the desperate need for improvements to mental health education and treatment facilities in the US.
“It sounds a lot posher than it is,” he assures me. “They had experts there too. I was meant to be just sort of funny and sitting on the panel. They just wanted someone to be a little entertaining, which I should be able to do. That should be within my skill set.
“Pivot have this underlying theme of social action. Every show they do as this social action thing connected to it. Ours is mental illness focussed, so they partner with the National Alliance on Mental Illness … Networks always come with their eccentric things, but that’s a really good eccentric thing to have — it’s them just trying to be socially responsible. It’s a good thing.”
What To Expect From Season Three
Keegan and Tom assure me there’s much more of this on the way. In fact, eager to talk about it, they kind of spill the whole plot of the upcoming season. Not just Mae cheating on Dad. Not just Arnold coming out to his parents. I know much, much more (and I can tell you none of it).
“You can write about how Tom’s weight balloons with his fat cheeks,” Keegan offers, in-between mouthfuls of pie.
“This time it deflates, but it looks like it inflates because of the order it was filmed in,” Tom says.
“Don’t say that. Just say he’s getting fat again. No one will know, they can’t tell.”
“Don’t do that. I saw that episode where I wanted to go throw up after lunch because I remembered I had my shirtless scene. You guys wouldn’t let me and then I watched that scene and I look fucking disgusting. No one’s going to know that it’s my reaction to gluten. PUT THAT IN. It’s a reaction to gluten. It’s not my real body.”
Speaking more generally about the season, Keegan tells me it’s all really about relationships: “It’s about the dynamic of relationships when other things are thrown in there.”
“Josh is looking after everyone,” Tom says. “He’s looking after Arnold, he’s looking after mum, he’s looking after Claire, he’s looking after Tom (even though Tom’s problems seem more trivial compared to the others), he’s looking after his dad and Mae. Everyone. It just builds and builds and builds until the last episode.”
“There’s one hot-button topic that we deal with as well,” Keegan adds. “I liked it when I read it because it’s not a big political thing. It’s not like they’re trying to make a statement every time something comes up; it just happens. It’s normal. It shows the light and dark of it.”
That mix of light and dark might actually be the most defining aspect of the whole series. This is a show whose first episode opened with a big ice cream sundae and ended with a suicide attempt. Last week, it effortlessly told the story of a troubled gay kid asking for his family to accept his sexuality and a middle-aged man struggling with his partner’s infidelity, with a spontaneous rendition of Sia’s ‘Chandelier’.
On paper, it all seems ridiculous or absurd. On set, it’s much more fun and honest. But on screen, it feels a lot like life. You should be watching this show.
Please Like Me airs Thursdays on ABC1 at 9.30pm.