Josh Thomas on autism, his podcast and being honest all the way: “Why am I telling you this now?” | TV comedy
IIn an episode of Josh Thomas’ new podcast, How To Be Gay, he plays a clip from a much older show, from the late 2000s, which he hosted with his best friend and longtime collaborator Tom Ward. . He was only 19 at the time and decided it was a good opportunity to come out. At the microphone.
“What’s up? Not much?” mutters young Thomas. “Yes, I have a boyfriend.”
You can hear the nerves in his voice even as he feigns nonchalance: “I’m trying not to make a big deal out of it.”
That was over a decade ago. In the years since, the comedian and showrunner moved to Los Angeles and made it big, with two TV shows – the critically acclaimed Please Like Me and Everything’s Gonna Be Okay – under his belt.
Despite everything that’s happened since, he still speaks the same way, his sentences pouring out in rapid fire stream of consciousness that changes the subject like the tracks. He frequently rejects heavy feelings and intimate secrets as if they were weightless, and with the same cheerfulness that someone might use to exchange a cursory greeting. Nothing is too sacred to be said out loud.
“Every time I had to talk about [coming out], it always bothered me so much,” he told Guardian Australia. “I hate to go out!”
Now 35 – he celebrated his birthday earlier this week and says he “still feels pretty dusty” – Thomas has spent more than half his life in the public eye. How To Be Gay is an investigation into how homosexuality and its public perception changed during this time, named after the words he typed into Google as a questioning teenager in suburban Brisbane.
“Where I live [near West Hollywood], it just seems like everyone is queer… To meet a straight person in my life is so crazy,” he says. “Unless they do my accounts.
“Being queer to me these days is so bubbly and cute and fun – it’s just dancing and kissing. And I kind of forgot what was hard when I was young. And I I forgot that for others it is actually still very difficult.
How To Be Gay is made up of personal ruminations and in-depth interviews. Everyone from ex-boyfriend Tom Ballard to David Sedaris whose books Thomas used to read read in his childhood bathroom, appear in short documentary-style clips, wax lyrical about their first loves and first encounters with sexuality. Thomas sometimes treads new ground too, straying from his familiar observational comedy: in one episode, he talks to a Chechen refugee called Angel who has been kidnapped and tortured by his government.
“I was really, really nervous,” he says. “I am not Anderson Cooper. I don’t really know how to do this. And then I jumped on it and Angel said ‘Josh!’ in this rather cheerful way. I felt so calm, I felt so comfortable… And then we talked about Lady Gaga for a while.
Created over three years, How To Be Gay takes a scattershot approach to its subjects, which range from the number of girls Thomas dated in high school (many) to homosexuality in ancient Babylon. The in-depth interviews provide insight into queer narratives outside of Thomas’ own – admittedly idiosyncratic – experience.
In the early 2010s, he became something of an Australian household name as captain of the Millennium Team on Shaun Micallef’s goofy game show Talkin’ Bout Your Generation. But becoming the voice of her generation — literally — came with unique pressures. He found himself thrust into the middle of a conversation about sexuality that he had never really wanted to participate in.
“During [those years], talking about gay rights was very, like: gay suicide, it’s an emergency, being gay is so hard. If we don’t do gay marriage then everyone is going to kill themselves.
He stops to let out a horror movie scream. “I understand the reason: trying to wake up the rest of Australia. But I just found it so trying. I was just so fed up.
Things changed with Please Like Me, the 2013 Emmy-winning series that Thomas created and starred in. She ended both the stifling of Australian television and the grim discourse of queer misery with her candid depiction of gay life: mostly mundane, punctuated by fleeting crushes and terrible threesomes, the specter of STIs and the awkwardness of sodomy.
“All the gay stuff was light and fun and easy,” Thomas says. “And that was a reaction to all the other stories being told about how hard it is to be gay, right?”
Please Like Me became an instant cult classic and, for many, one of the only queer touchpoints of its time. “It’s scary… when you have an underrepresented group and you’re doing a TV show – [it’s] will become the only example of this group. And that’s all people can admire.
“But I didn’t feel like Please Like Me was a terrible place to watch. It’s just, like, gay people cook sometimes.
The show has gone global and he’s moved to the US to do its follow-up, Everything’s Gonna Be Fine – which ended its two seasons on the US TV network last year. In both series, Thomas essentially plays versions of himself: a neurotic gay man plagued by family dysfunctions and dating issues.
For Thomas, art has always imitated life. But on Everything’s Gonna Be Alright — a show hailed for its portrayal of an autistic lead character (played by Kayla Cromer) — the reverse turned out to be true. At the end of the show’s production, Thomas was also diagnosed with autism – confirming a nagging suspicion he had always harbored. The discovery changed his understanding of himself as he worked on the podcast.
“I was more aware of the fact that [I’m] bad at certain things… making people feel comfortable and talking about themselves – I wouldn’t say I’m the favorite for this job. Which I think gave us some interesting interviews because I’m so straight forward, and nobody seems to be bullshitting or being performative.
This unguarded, often erased honesty has long been his trademark. “On stage or on my TV show,” he says, “I think I’m – probably wrongly – being too honest… [But] I really feel like after Everything is going to be fine, I had nothing more to say about myself.
Which isn’t quite true, as it turns out. He has another – totally spontaneous – confession to make. “I was a little weird about – I never really…” he stops and starts again. “Why am I telling you this now?” I never really said in an interview, or on stage, or anywhere that I was just doing great.
“And for some reason it was private to me. Just because it’s so humiliating. Like, just grow up and put it in you.
“It was kind of my last secret.” He leans closer, smiling mischievously. “I don’t know what I’m saying now. What’s the next question?