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How to Find the Funny In Reality: An Interview With 'Please Like Me' Creator Josh Thomas

Photo of Liz Shannon Miller By Liz Shannon Miller | Indiewire August 8, 2014 at 10:35AM

The tradition of mining your real life in the name of comedy is a well-established one -- but it's rare to see a young man like Josh Thomas, creator and star of the Australian series "Please Like Me," get the chance to build an entire show around his personal travails.
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Please Like Me

In the first season, which premiered last year in the United States on Pivot TV, Josh coped with his strange friends, his family's drama, including a suicide attempt by his mother and the realization of his own sexuality -- the second season, which premieres tonight, continues Josh's journey towards full maturity. 

How do you take major life events and make them funny? Indiewire sat down with Thomas at the Television Critics Association press tour last month, just after Pivot announced that "Please Like Me" had been picked up for a third season, to find out. 

The show is such an intimate look at your life -- how closely is it drawn directly from real events?

I mean, there's some big things in the show that happen in my life. Like my mom tried to commit suicide and it's pretty obvious that I'm gay. But, plot-wise, character-wise, my parents are fully different. Obviously my life doesn't have like a very good narrative structure so it's fiction. 

It's a fictional show, but there's a few bits that are from my life. And, like, it's tonally quite true to my life -- my character and the way he reacts to events is very honest.

Is it sitting down, coming up with the scenario and asking, "Well, how would I react to that if I was in the scenario?"

Yeah. I just write how I think I would react.

When you try to describe the tone of the show to other people, is it even possible? Or is it just, "It's my life"? 

"I love that you think we have a writing staff." - Josh Thomas, "Please Like Me"

Yeah, it's so hard. I really don't know how to talk about the show still. Basically, we have these characters and I try to think about what they would actually do. And then we write the show based on that and not, like, based on much else. Obviously there are things we want them to do and there's places we want them to get, but we don't have a lot of discussions about what we want the show to be similar to. It's all just based on the people. And some of those people exist: Like, Tom Ward is my best friend. I'm me. And it kind of goes from there. But I don't know, what is the tone, you think?

I've seen people compare it to "Louie," but it doesn't have that dream hyper-realism... I don't know. It's very unique, which is something to respect.

We try to be really real. As real as we can be, knowing that stuff has to happen. You need plot, and life doesn't have a lot of plot. 

There's a part of me that almost wants to compare it to "Curb Your Enthusiasm." Except for the part where there's something about that show where it feels very performed -- you can feel Larry David winking at the audience. With this, it's a much more honest tone.

Yeah. We try to ignore -- I don't want anyone to be aware of cameras or anything like that. We try really hard to hide all of the production and hide all of the performance. Which is why I hate behind-the-scenes. These guys [pointing to a Pivot PR representative] make me do behind-the-scenes. I just hate it. I just think they are shouting, "Santa Claus doesn't exist!" You know what I mean? Because they are trying to pretend it happened. You want people to sort of believe this world exists. Want it to be like reality TV. Someone said to me once, it's almost like an extension of reality television.

READ MORE: The Need to Get Seen: How Can Unknown Cable Shows Score Some Buzz?

With all these niche networks, you have room for niche storytelling -- this show would never exist in the 1950s, when there were only three networks.

Yeah. Yeah. But I don't even think this is niche storytelling. It's quite, I feel like it's quite broad. But, then it's just the specific tastes of the people are quite niche. It's definitely not for everybody, but the stories are universal.

How do you go about working with your writing staff? 

I love that you think we have a writing staff.

Well, you have two credited writers.

We have two people. That's me and Tom Watt, who is in the show. Tom Watt is a third of the writing staff. That's how screwed we are. He's a third of the writing staff! And then we have Liz Doran, who is very clever. I've never written television before, and she's written a lot, so she made sure that I was writing a television show.  

She's looking over your shoulder, saying "You need to have a period here, you need to have a scene heading..."? 

Yeah. Exactly. She formats -- she literally does that. She had to explain to me what yellow pages and blue pages are when you go into production, and she makes sure there's enough plot to carry an episode. She's also quite funny and she comes up with jokes and story -- I mean we kind of plot it together. She also makes sure I do it. Because I'm not very good at paying attention. She's kind of like a personal trainer. 

"Like, my mom is overbearing. You could play that in any country in the world. And that's what I'm interested in," Josh Thomas

But I feel bad, because she also has a huge amount of creative input -- I don't want to make it look like she just wrangles me. And then Tom kind of, he's not big picture, he does scenes and if I want jokes and stuff then we get him to do -- like if you ever see a meme from the show where somebody picked out a line, Tom probably wrote that. Which is surprising when you look at him. But, mostly it's just me in a room. I just love the idea of a writing staff.

I didn't mean to make you feel uncomfortable.

No. You didn't make me feel uncomfortable. You made me feel on top of the world. 

You all work together...

I mean we sit in my lounge room. We literally sit in my lounge room. Sometimes I lie on the floor and we just chat about what we think the characters would do. 

Since getting the Pivot deal, how much do you do to make sure that everything can play internationally?

So few things have come up that haven't. Because the stories that I'm interested in, you know, like my best friend's girlfriend is annoying is not something -- it's not unique to Australia. Like, my mom is overbearing. You could play that in any country in the world. And that's what I'm interested in. 

So, congratulations on Season 3. Did you know before they made the announcement today?

Yeah. I knew. Well, I have to agree to it. If they announce it without asking, that would be bad manners.

What kind of plans do you have for taking it forward?

I have no idea. I mean we haven't even finished making Season 2 yet so it's like -- I have four ideas for stories. A little bit of me needs to see how people react to this season. Not that I really care. I'll still do my own thing anyway. But, yeah. Season 3. We do a picture look on Friday and we start Season 3 on Monday.

So you are diving right into it?

Right in, yeah.

Well at least you know you are working.

At least I have a job, right? That's good news. It's a good job, too. I'm having a lot of fun.

This article is related to: Please Like Me, Josh Thomas, Pivot , Interviews






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