TV

Josh Thomas On ‘Please Like Me’, Butt Stuff, And The Art Of Awkward

Season two of Please Like Me premieres this Tuesday on ABC2. It's nail-bitingly funny.

Awkward people usually fit into one of two categories: Those so bereft of ideas that they lack the capacity to maintain conversation, and those who, when posed a question, are so overwhelmed by the infinitude of answers or outcomes they fall all over themselves trying to convey just one.

I have always suspected Josh Thomas would fall into the latter category.

“Um, no, I don’t get nervous about the show. The nerves kind of bleed out over time, so you aren’t hit with all the panic at once. I don’t know. Interviewers see it, question me and then it goes to air and then when the reviews… Sorry this is going to be shittiest… I’ve just done 5,000 interviews — uh, god, I’m sorry, that wasn’t even an answer. This is going to be terrible.”

Thomas’ semi-autobiographical comedy Please Like Me returns to ABC2 on Tuesday next week, with the characters a few years older than when we last left them. In series one we watched Josh (the fictional version) come out, get nude with another dude, and grapple with one of the more dysfunctional families we’ve seen on our screens in recent times. But some time has passed since then. “He’s grown up a bit,” Josh says of his eponymous character, “because I’ve grown up a bit.” There’s a few new faces in season two as well, including total legend Denise Drysdale as a psychotic patient named Ginger, and a manic depressive Hannah Gadsby entering the show with one of the most painfully glib moments ever written for Australian television.

But between some daggy dancing, and Josh’s peek-through-your-fingers-level-of-awful attempt to hit on his new housemate Patrick (Charles Cottier), it doesn’t take long for the show to bring back that signature brand of car­crash humour that’s propelled the Brisbane-born comedian to international success. Now signed for multiple seasons on America’s new Pivot network, Please Like Me has already been nominated for a bunch of awards, including a highly respected GLAAD media award. It’s also seen Josh’s writing style compared to the god of situation comedy, Woody Allen.

“I don’t know, I don’t think I have a ‘style’,” Josh says. “It’s just how I talk when everybody stares at me.”

“When I started stand-up, I was a child,” he continues. “There was no way for me to talk without sounding a bit odd. When I was doing [Network Ten game show] Talkin’ ‘Bout Your Generation, there was no acting. You just had to sit and react. For me to sit there and do a “performance” on that show would have just been exhausting. That was just me reacting honestly to Shaun Micallef pouring chocolate sauce on my head.”

It’s an honest quality that he’s tried to hold onto consistently through his career, whether it’s screwing up answers on #TAYG, or diving into pools on the very short lived game-show Celebrity Splash. “I mean, most producers never try to get me to ham anything up because I just tell them, ‘No. I’m not going to pretend that’s how life happens.’ … They’re picking extreme moments, asking me things like, ‘Who was the most annoying person today?’ But I answer honestly and say everyone was lovely. God, producers hate that.”

Thomas, like the best in his business, is an observer. His attention to detail leaves viewers hyperventilating with laughter at what should be the most basic of anecdotes. (This isn’t hyperbole; I’ve seen it happen in real life.) For Josh, the joke is not the failed date; instead it’s how long you spent working out how to do up a bow-tie that doesn’t even match your shirt in the first place. Sure, there’s a risk of alienating an audience pre-disposed to the plainer than plain, clearer than clear-style jokes of The Big Bang Theory, but that’s what makes Please Like Me so damn refreshing. We don’t need a punch line coupled with a laugh track when the set-up is already nail-bitingly funny.

For instance, the coming out scene from season one. “Writing it, everyone was trying to build a huge dramatic scene around Josh coming out,” he explains. “Asking me, ‘How does this make you feel?’, and this and that and blah blah blah. But the truth is, when I was coming out, I was just really worried about putting things, like, in my butt. So we made the story about that!

“Everyone’s always making it about how their Dad is gonna react, or family stuff. But really, I think the prevailing fear for most young homosexuals is putting stuff in their butt. That’s the scary part. And to specifically talk about the mechanics of anal sex? I couldn’t believe they let me. I mean, that’s a huge deal.”

Writing realism requires a decent understanding of pathos, and it’s with considerable skill that Josh utilises his adult characters — played spectacularly by David Roberts (Dad) and Renee Lim (Mae) — as vessels for his heavier material. In one of the most memorable television moments of 2013, the final episodes of Please Like Me seamlessly switched the focus away from Josh and towards his father’s crumbling relationship, and his mother’s mental health.

Debra Lawrance is exceptional as Josh’s bi-polar mother, tackling entire monologues of undirected ranting with just enough sensitivity to keep her character this side of a caricature.“The mum had to be ruthless,” Josh says. “She’s quite spot on when she’s not manic or depressed.” According to Thomas, she’ll be spending basically all of season two in the psychiatric hospital.”We spend a lot of time there, but I tried not to get too detailed with the specific disorder. We did a shitload of research and met so many people … But the more I learn about how people with disorders’ lives play out, the more I realise it is so different for each person.”

“I was really nervous, because I know there are going to be people with similar disorders [who might think], ‘That’s not how it happens, that’s not how it’s like,’ but it’s so different for everybody,” he continues. “There were so many stories and possible outcomes, it’s endless. I had a psychiatrist who told me about a patient who took out a twenty million dollar loan and bought a building! People really go into these manic episodes and do out-of-this-world stuff. So for us deciding what mum was going to do was tough, because I don’t want people to look at it and think, ‘Well that would never happen.'”

Thomas prides himself on having a clear plan for his crew, and professes to being ultra sensitive about what he depicts of real life on television — even more so than the panels who review his show before it goes to air. And with a third season of Please Like Me already signed, he’s reaching a far greater crowd than he would on any Australian panel show, with a persona more recognisable than some stand-up veterans twice his age.

But while he may have convinced most of the world to like him, he seems to have left someone out. “Oh my god, I would never hang out with me. Oh my god. Just never. I’m so self absorbed. I could never talk about me that much if I wasn’t me.”

Season two of Please Like Me premieres at 9.30pm on Tuesday August 12, on ABC2.

Brendan Maclean is a solo artist, actor, writer and a casual presenter on triple j. He tweets at @macleanbrendan