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Q&A: ‘Please Like Me’s’ Josh Thomas on coming out, Lena Dunham comparisons

When the Australian comedy “Please Like Me” made its under-the-radar American premiere on the fledgling Pivot network, it instantly became every TV critic’s pick for Best Show You’ve Never Heard Of.

The semi-autobiographical series is written by and stars 27-year-old Josh Thomas, who claimed the top prize at the prestigious RAW open-mic competition in Melbourne when he was just 17. 

In the pilot episode his character, also named Josh, comes out to his friends and family, prompting a collective shrug, and moves back in with his suicidal mother -- experiences all drawn directly from Thomas’ personal life. 

The charming series invited comparisons to “Girls” and “Louie” and landed on numerous year-end best-of lists (including that of Times critic Robert Lloyd). Currently in its second season on Pivot, it continues to draw raves. Thomas recently spoke to The Times via telephone from Australia. 

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You won a major stand-up contest when you were just 17. Can you remember what was in your routine?

I spoke a lot about how I’m bad with girls. I did a routine with my mum deciding to buy me condoms one day. It was kind of about being 17. That was my first gig, I had just finished high school. I won that competition but then I was really bad for a long time afterward.  

How did “Please Like Me” come about? 

We started developing it when I was like 20, or maybe 19. I had a girlfriend. When we started developing the show I was straight, and then I came out and we had to change it. And then we were in development for like four years. The process takes a long time in my country, because it was a made for a government channel. It’s slow. It’s like the post office. 

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How did you land at Pivot?

They literally just called. They originally wanted to do an American remake. We hadn’t been trying to sell it for America or anything. We were planning on going over there and trying to show it to people. But I wasn’t really sure if you guys would like it because you guys are pretty weird.

How so?

I mean you guys need to stop calling main courses entrées. It’s ridiculous. It’s a French word and it means starter. You can’t just reappropriate that word and make it mean a completely opposite thing.

Do you find the reception has been different around the world?

In every country it’s been really similar. I did this interview the other day with an Israeli journalist, which is a pretty weird thing. It’s pretty tense over there. I said, “How’s it going?,” not really thinking about the question. She told me it was going not that well, and then she goes, “Anyway, we’ll just get back to you and your show.” And then it was the exact same interview I’ve done here like 50 times. 

Why do you think it is universal?

I mean, I have no idea what I’m doing. We just try to keep things quite honest, as honest as you can in a TV show. 

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Do you find it difficult to translate your own experiences to television?

No, because it’s based on real stuff but it’s fiction. If we were trying to make a biopic it would be challenging. There are a few scenes in the show where the dialogue is almost verbatim how it happened in real life, the biggest one is when I go to visit my mum in the hospital for the first time. That’s quite a personal moment. It’s pretty similar [to what happened in real life]. I don’t mind putting my personal life out there. The whole point to the show is about not being ashamed of things that people do. People are a bit ... and that’s fine. 

You are frequently compared to Louis C.K. and Lena Dunham. Do you see the similarities, and are you a fan?

I’ve been avoiding [“Girls” and “Louie”] because I keep getting asked about it. At first I enjoyed the comparison but now I am just a bit panicky to watch. It makes me a bit anxious. I don’t think the shows are very similar. What they have in common is they have one person with a clear idea of what they want to make. I’d imagine the Louis C.K. and Lena characters are all quite similar to the creator. The whole show is their aesthetic. But the actual shows are quite different, aren’t they? It comes up all the time in our script meetings. They’ll always come up with story lines and it’ll be, “Oh yeah, that was in the ‘Girls’ Series 2 finale.” ... you, Lena Dunham! [Laughs.] The other day I said I wanted to do a YouTube video where the writers dance around to Sia. And they were like, “Oh yeah, Lena Dunham already did that on Jimmy Fallon” or something. [ed. note: It was on “Late Night With Seth Meyers.”]

One of the things that people find revelatory about the show is how your character’s sexuality is handled. He comes out to his friends and family but no one reacts as if it’s a big deal, and he jokes that the concept of “coming out” is “so ‘90s.” Do you think that’s something that is changing? 

I think for people my age, whose families are pretty well off and live near a city and are educated, it’s like that. For the world I live in in the TV show, it’s a pretty consistent experience. But then I get worried when people champion that as a better story. People are like, “Oh, it’s good that they didn’t make a big deal out of it.” Yeah, but it’s pretty valid to have a coming out story that’s just awful. There are a lot of kids getting kicked out of their houses. You’re still more likely to be kicked out of your house if you’re gay, which is pretty wild. There are kids getting bashed up by their dad because they’re gay. “Please Like Me” is just one story. That’s how it played out for me and that’s how it played for a lot of people, but it’s not like that for everybody. It’s a pretty privileged situation.

That’s how it was for you?

I have an older brother and he’s gay so my parents were just like, bored, do you know what I mean? “We’ve seen it, Josh, come back when you’re addicted to meth or something. You need to step it up.” My mum called me when I was on the train and said, “Your brother says you have a boyfriend.” And I said, “Mum, I can’t chat right now, I’m on a train.” And she said “OK,” and then we just never really spoke about it again. That was it. 

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Pivot is specifically targeted at millennials. How do you feel about being part of a network with such a specific focus? 

I always think it’s weird. I don’t know. I always advise caution with the word “millennial.” People who are young, they don’t identify with being young. I don’t think 20-year-olds realize that they’re 20. They realize they’re part of the demographic, but in their minds they’ve got other things, maybe their sexuality or their race, that would be the things they identify with more than their age. I don’t think that’s a thing we think about. I always sort of ignore it. But a TV network needs to aim at somebody, they need to have a demographic and that’s fine.

The show has been picked up for a third season. What do you want to do next?

I guess do a Season 4? I really like making this show. Everyone in America’s always asking me, “What’s next?” Chill out, America! People don’t do that in Australia. They’re so impressed with the fact that you’ve got a job. I already have my own TV show. That’s pretty good. It’s going alright. What else do I need?

Follow @MeredithBlake on Twitter.


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