Why the co­me­dian is still Mad as Hell

First watch

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents -

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.

Un­com­fort­able with

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,

Please Like Me

Josh Thomas plays some­one like him­self

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