Why the comedian is still Mad as Hell
MOST of us probably know Josh Thomas as the young comic with the much imitated drawl, slightly weird Irish accent and stream-ofconsciousness riffs from Shaun Micallef’s Talkin’ ’ Bout Your Generation. It was of course the often unruly quiz-style game show on the Ten network that pitted the wit and wisdom of three generations against each other. Thomas was the representative of the newbie gen Y alongside baby-boomer broadcaster Amanda Keller and comedian Charlie Pickering from the disgruntled generation X.
The show was good for all of them, a big hit for Ten for four years, the cast’s bitchiness funny and occasionally illuminating as diverse experiences and perceptions were highlighted and parodied, guided by the remarkable Micallef.
But Thomas benefited most in many respects, emerging as a comedy hero to his young fans, both of the show and his increasingly successful stand-up gigs. Mind you, he came to TV with many awards from comedy festivals, including best newcomer award at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival in 2007.
With his new ABC series Please Like Me, which kicks off this week on ABC2 with a double episode, the 25-year-old has become a TV star in his own right. And, surrounded by some first-class talent, he also has written the show and is an executive producer.
Inspired by Thomas’s award-winning standup comedy show of the same name, the sixepisode series was in development for more than three years — so long that in the original story-line Thomas’s character was still ‘‘ pretending’’ to be a red-blooded heterosexual. Just as, it seems, Thomas himself was, until he came out. The comedy show changed, as did the plot for his series.
‘‘ In the original pitch I was making out with girls and then we changed it to boys,’’ he said during pre-production.
Thomas is Josh, kind of playing himself at 20, his 21st birthday just around the corner, sharing a house with his best (and only) friend, the lugubrious Tom (Tom Ward), but instead of his life becoming grounded, it falls apart. His girlfriend Claire (Caitlin Stasey) drops him, telling him he’s gay. And Tom’s good-looking friend and odd colleague, Geoffrey (Wade Briggs), who is very gay and strangely drowsy, spends the night with him, perplexing Josh.
‘‘ I can never really trust when someone that good-looking is into me — I just don’t get it,’’ he tells Tom after his strained first sexual encounter with Geoffrey. ‘‘ If they are mediocre-looking I can appreciate how low their standards are, but when they are that pretty it’s, ‘ Oh, what are you hiding?’ ’’ (Geoffrey is played with quiet wit and a nice physical presence by Briggs, a newcomer to TV, who is good indeed.)
It’s been a Big Night in Josh’s adult life but then he discovers his divorced mother, Rose (Debra Lawrance), living alone in the fivebedroom family home and battling bipolar disorder, has overdosed on paracetamol and a half bottle of Baileys. It looks as if he will have to move back into the family home to look after her.
There’s a touch of The Catcher in the Rye’s Holden Caulfield about Thomas in this very clever coming-of-age comedy, which is directed with economy and flair by the awardwinning Matthew Saville ( The Slap, Cloudstreet and The King). Like Holden at the start of The Catcher in the Rye, when Please Like Me begins Josh, despite his aversion to confrontation, stands poised on the cliff separating childhood from adulthood.
His inability to negotiate the chasm leaves him on the verge of emotional collapse. Intelligent and sensitive and already a bit jaded, he finds the hypocrisy and ugliness of the world around him almost unbearable, and through cynicism he tries to protect himself from the pain and disappointment of the adult world he’s entered.
his own weaknesses, Josh often displays as much phoniness, meanness and superficiality as anyone else he encounters. He appears selfish and impatient at times, too, but there’s an underlying sweetness that is beguiling.
Forced to accept his gay identity, which he does with nonchalance — except for his first bedroom encounter with the somnolent but handsome Geoffrey — he re-evaluates his notions of family, adulthood and love as painful truths emerge about all of them.
There’s also a touch of the young Graham Kennedy (some of us can still recall the early days of In Melbourne Tonight) about Josh, and his creator too, indistinguishable as they seem to be. There’s that mischievous look that makes his face potentially funny even at odd moments when he’s trying to be serious. His mouth has a tight line to it, drawn slightly down at the edges, the sort of natural comic’s gob that needs firm control from facial muscles to stop a huge joyful grin.
Like Kennedy, there’s something irresistible in the way he seems to be feigning a reluctance to be there, creating an impression that he has been chosen for the job of funny person the way people are drafted for jury duty. It really is an outstanding piece of acting, not only his mastery of the naturalistic style his script demands but the gentle physical comedy he adds, occasionally almost dancing his way through moments.
There’s something about this clever young bearer of happiness that makes you think about the way some comics so subtly can change between comic and tragic masks. To quote Colin MacInnes from his wonderfully nostalgic study of the grand days of the British music hall, Sweet Saturday Night, when you watch Thomas ‘‘ the grin of comedy seems to be groaning, and the groan of tragedy seems to be grinning’’.
He gives you the sense that any difficulties experienced in gaining a foothold in this most precarious of professions are simply an inescapable part of growing up. It seems to have given him the ability to laugh off any distress when it cannot be averted or denied. He really is quite a singular talent and may just turn into one of our great TV stars. SPEAKING of comics, Thomas’s old mentor Micallef was suddenly everywhere last week,
Josh Thomas plays someone like himself