Almost everything Josh Thomas says sounds either sarcastic or self-effacing. Except when he’s welcoming you.
When we met up with the Australian comedian last month in the Hyatt Regency lobby in South Austin, he immediately offered us a drink (declined) and sushi (one piece taken — he was insistent). Thomas, sharp in a pink floral jacket, was in town for a special screening of "Everything’s Gonna Be OK," his new Freeform comedy. He said it was his first big day of press for the show.
"I feel like everyone expects me to be bored, but actually I’m just lost," Thomas said. "I just can’t remember why we made the choices we made."
Thomas is perhaps best known for "Please Like Me," a critically acclaimed comedy-drama that ran for four seasons and touched on issues like LGBT dating, mental health and suicide. In "Everything’s Gonna Be OK," he plays Nicholas, a neurotic 20-something visiting his father in the U.S. When his father dies, Nicholas steps in to take care of his teenage half-sisters, Genevieve (played by Maeve Press) and Matilda (who is on the autism spectrum and is played by Kayla Cromer, a neurodiverse actress).
We talked about the show with Thomas, who also serves as creator, writer and executive producer. This conversation has been edited and condensed.
American-Statesman: The pilot starts with a date, which serves as exposition. Sometimes on first dates, especially as a gay person, there’s a tendency to unload a lot. There’s a joke that people tell their coming-out story on every single first date. Was that scene inspired by any particular dating experience you’ve had?
Josh Thomas: Usually if I’m going on a date with a boy, they know everything about me already, because I’m not that symmetrical. So if they’ve agreed to go on a date, it’s because they’ve seen my show. Usually it’s them unloading to me, which is great. I’m ready for it.
You have that first scene, which is on a date. You have a scene where Matilda is trying to flirt with her classmate. It seems like there’s an echo there. Can you walk me through developing two scenes that depict a similar thing but in very different ways?
That wasn’t on purpose. That’s just because it’s a pilot and you need people to fall in love. (Laughs.) ... Things are made a lot more haphazardly than that, to be honest.
Would you say that your writing process is more organic and not coming in with set ideas about what you want to communicate?
I’m definitely not trying to echo themes or make a point. I'm usually writing what I think is interesting, and what I think (the characters) would actually do. … Honestly, the shock is that Genevieve, the third one in the family, isn’t flirting with someone. That’s the huge twist! In the pilot, she’s got no one she wants to hit on? Crazy.
Let’s talk about the sense of empathy — and maybe it’s not on purpose, and I can throw these questions away.
The empathy’s on purpose!
Is the empathy on purpose? OK, let’s talk about the empathy. In "Please Like Me" and in "Everything’s Gonna Be OK," the writing and the way the show is shot, it helps you to feel very acutely for the characters, especially characters who are encountering a world that doesn’t always work for them, or respond to them, or doesn’t seem made for them. Can you talk about where that sense of empathy in your writing comes from?
Wait, is the empathy on purpose?
I like different people, and the characters that I write, I really like. I guess I’m just on their side, which you hope you are as an author.
That’s important, otherwise you get boring television.
Can you think of any other shows or movies that did a good job of giving you characters where you’re on their side?
I don’t have, like, a media studies degree. I’m not that smart. This year I watched every episode of "Seinfeld" again. I don’t really know what’s going on out there.
This is kind of the opposite of "Seinfeld," though, isn’t it? Because you’re not empathizing with those characters, because they’re not empathizing with anyone.
I don’t agree with that at all.
I’m on Elaine’s side. I’m on their side. I don’t empathize with them, only because I’ve never seen them that sad. I mean, how long do you want to talk about "Seinfeld"?
As long as you want to.
The first season, actually, they had a lot of smaller, more interesting emotional moments, so you do really empathize with them. But going forward, they don’t — well, I do want them to win. That’s empathy, isn’t it? What’s empathy?
Empathy is feeling the emotions for the other person. Sympathy is, "Oh, I see you’re sad. That sucks." Empathy is, "Oh, you’re sad. I am now sad with you."
Yeah, I guess in Seinfeld they’re never really that sad. I guess there’s scenes where Elaine can’t find a job and she’s a bit down and out.
I kind of want them to get the soup, you know? When they’re in line with the soup guy (in the episode "The Soup Nazi"), I want them to get the soup.
You like characters where you want them to get their soup, whatever their soup might be.
I think as the author you should be doing that. I think that characters where someone’s just supposed to be terrible, and it’s like, "Oh, that person’s so terrible," that’s boring. Those characters suck. Like the bad Bond villains.
They’re kind of one-dimensional.
Yeah, (I like) the good villains where you can kind of see their point of view a little bit.
Right, because no one thinks they’re doing the wrong thing. Do you think that creates a more complex morality for a viewer?
I don’t have villains ever, but I have people that aren’t that likable. People that find the world challenging or are outsiders or that would otherwise get pushed aside. I like bringing audiences’ attention to them, and making them like them. (Thomas pauses.) I got so bored by myself.
It seems like you’re not afraid to deal with unpleasant situations. Where does that come from in your work?
I just get bothered with TV when sad things happen, they’re often so black-and-white sad, and everyone’s just sad all the time, and they just sit around talking about how sad it is, and how much they miss the person, and then they’ll tell some story about something the person did that’s quite sweet.
Whereas in my real life, when sad things happen — if I was going through a difficult time with a friend, I would spend the day wanting to make their day a bit easier, and a bit lighter, and try to make little jokes and try to make them laugh, no matter what’s going on. So in this show, and both shows, I try to treat the audience like I would my friend if they were going through that same situation.