Meet 'Please Like Me' Creator Josh Thomas (Again)

The writer-actor opens up about his show's second life on Hulu (and reality TV past).
Courtesy of Hulu

Josh Thomas created and stars in his own show, a series popular enough that Hulu swooped in to save it from homelessness when its network, Pivot, shut down. But Please Like Me, though beloved by its core group of viewers (and almost universally critically praised), isn't exactly a breakout hit. 

Thomas, 29, has been in the public eye in his native Australia for more than a decade, but he's still flying under the radar on this side of the Pacific. "When our show started, nobody knew who the f— I was,” Thomas tells The Hollywood Reporter. “I don't think I'd been to America since I was 8. So the first TCA panel, no one asked — they asked one weird question. And then I did the interviews all day, and all my interviews were like, 'So, tell me about what you do?' And then I'd just have to do the interview for them, like give a monologue. And then slowly as the show — and then it's on Pivot, so it takes a while for people to find. So over five years now, we're getting somewhere.”

Please Like Me is nominally a comedy about three 20-somethings in Melbourne, but "I've never been able to describe it ever," says the comedian.

"It's a portrayal of the young people I know. Some people talk about young people like they're all doing the same thing. A lot of my friends are baking, they like to do little craft things and go out and drink a lot and kiss," he says. "It really seems like my life to me, and there's a lot of other young people who see that and I think they haven't seen it on other shows, and I think that's exciting for them."

But Please Like Me, though very funny and easy to watch, also tackles mental illness more bluntly than most other shows on television. The pilot begins with Josh (Thomas) being dumped by his longtime girlfriend, coming out, then learning his mother attempted suicide.

"Everyone was like, ‘Oh, it's a black comedy!’ And I was like, ‘No, no, no, it's not a black comedy. It's heartwarming,’" Thomas insists. "I've never been able to explain it."

Even his own father isn't sure what to make of it. "My dad always is like, 'Oh my God, so miserable,' and I'm like, 'I don't think you're watching it right,’” says Thomas. “But we're trying not to tell you how to feel too often. Obviously we have a music track, but often we'll put a music track that's like the opposite of what's going on. We're not trying to tell you who's good and bad. People can take what they like out of it."

At 17, Thomas won an amateur comedy competition at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, which led to international stand-up tours, panel game shows (they're plentiful in Australia, though not in the U.S. aside from, say, Hollywood Game Night), and even reality TV.

Take, for example, the reality competition Celebrity Splash: "It's where famous people learn how to do Olympic high diving. Actually, I was really good at it — but not on the show. I did some really beautiful dives in practice, and I was doing a really high level difficulty dive," he explains. "I'm glad I got out, because I would've had to go higher and I'm just not strong enough to hold the water away from my face. I jumped off the 10 meter [feet first], but I didn't dive. My dive was a two-and-a-half somersault off the springboard, which is a very technical dive. You had to learn for six weeks, full-time diving.”

In that case, having a low profile stateside isn’t necessarily the worst thing. “If you've seen that, and then you watch [Please Like Me], then you're coming at this show with some different things going on. But Americans watch it fresh and get to take that character at face value.”

Thomas Ward, Thomas' Please Like Me co-star and collaborator, isn't surprised that his childhood friend has seen such success at a young age. "Josh is a super, super clever. He's got a really strong worldview and he's very quick and very funny, and that makes for a really effective personality and mind for making TV, because he can decide what's working immediately," says Ward. "He doesn't go to and fro that much on small decisions, only the really big things, and I think [that helps make him] the ideal showrunner. And so Please Like Me, that’s, like, his exact world. Having grown up with him I'm not surprised that it worked the way it did."

Co-star Emily Barclay echoes that sentiment. "He has a very clear creative vision and he really has a conviction. He trusts himself and his creative instincts. He really stands his ground and he knows what he believes in creatively and personally and he is able to really commit to the decisions he's made and back them up," she says. 

"On the flip side of that,” she adds, “he drives you crazy. There’s no arguing with him. He's too smart, and when he wants to do something that's what you're doing.”

That blunt confidence is something television reporters witnessed first-hand earlier this month as Thomas, in his return appearance to TCA, joked about the demise of his former network home.

“I get quite nervous at TCAs because the first TCA I went to was the Pivot launch and you guys were, like, mean,” Thomas joked on the panel. “Someone would put up their hand, and they’d go, ‘F— you.’ And then Evan Shapiro would be, like, ‘Well, I’m not sure if that’s the situation.’ That was a very difficult half hour. It was me, two gang members, Joseph Gordon Levitt, and Meghan McCain. And you guys were all just explaining why Pivot is a bad idea, which congratulations, I guess. At the time, I thought you were mean, and now I am sort of like, ‘Well, maybe we should listen to what these people have to say.’”

Hulu svp and head of content Craig Erwich is happy to collaborate with someone as open as Thomas. “He's a very special guy," he says. "He's a good person for us to align our brand with." And he wasn’t surprised that Thomas was so frank about the end of Pivot.

“[That bluntness is] a quality that makes the show good. So no, I wasn't surprised. And he did it with love, too. It was respectful. Also, it's a room you want to try and break down the walls a little bit.”

Speaking about Please Like Me's move to Hulu for season four, Erwich says it was a natural fit. “There are certain shows that we have that fall under a unique set of circumstances, like NashvilleMindy and Please Like Me, where we have the past seasons. So we know that there's a passionate and sizable fan base of our subscribers," he says. "So when the opportunity comes up to keep them satisfied and happy, we jump at it. It's not about rescuing a show that's canceled. We were already a home for it so it's kind of making sure there's no orphan seasons, keeping it all together.”

The platform move is just one part of the show's evolution since its 2013 premiere. “He sort of accidentally changes as I grow up because I sort of grew up alongside him," says Thomas. "It started when I was 25, I'm 29 now. So he's changed by accident just because [my life] has changed."

The same as Tom and all the other characters — they’ve sort of grown up, they've sort of changed, but we're never trying to do it. It just inevitably happens.”

Season four, says Thomas, might be more dramatic than ever, but at its core it's still the same. "It's those people hanging out and trying their best and making mistakes, it's just the mistakes get a bit bigger.”

However, with the loss of Pivot as a co-production partner, the future of Please Like Me is up in the air. Thomas, who currently is writing a YA novel, is absolutely ready for a fifth season. “I'd love to make more seasons. We'll see. I'm really happy with the way it ends, so I'm content if this is the last season,” he says. “But obviously we'd like to make more. I'd like to see them into their 30s.”

Erwich says that fifth season is “potentially” something he’s open to doing. “We'll have to see," he says. "I wouldn't rule it out. Let's see how season four goes, what the fans think of it and how it is, and then also where the producers [want it to go], but it's certainly always an option.”

Barclay, for one, is hopeful about Please Like Me's chances, even if it means more change behind the scenes. “I would be surprised if this was the end of Please Like Me, whether it was a different form or incarnation. I don't know what that means or what that would look like,” she says. “Maybe that's wishful thinking. But it doesn't feel to me like that's the end of the show.”

All four seasons of Please Like Me are available to stream on Hulu.