‘Please Like Me’ Creator and Star Josh Thomas on the New Season, Filming Gay Sex, and Mental Health on TV

"Gay sex? It's my favorite!" Flavorwire reports from the Television Critics' Association Press Tour.

Josh Thomas is the eminently likable Australian behind Please Like Me, a semi-autobiographical comedy series that premiered on the now-defunct cable channel Pivot in the U.S. and has just returned for a fourth season, which is streaming on Hulu as of Saturday. We caught up with the very funny and delightfully blunt Thomas at the TCA Winter Press Tour this weekend to chat about filming sex scenes, jittery network execs, and the new season’s big plot turn. Warning: Spoilers for said turn occur halfway down. Beware.

Flavorwire: First, I wanted to ask about gay sex.

Josh Thomas: It’s my favorite.

I particularly loved the first time you and Arnold have sex, in Season 3. I feel like on the show, sex between men isn’t like, “Ooh, gay sex!” It’s more like, “Aww, gay sex!” It’s sweet rather than titillating.

We’re not allowed to show bodies, so.

Would you if you could?

Of course. My motto is always just, show it. In [Season 1, episode six], mom vomits on the ground and Josh finds her — I want to see the vomit, I want to see as much as we’re allowed to see. But you’re not allowed. That’s why we don’t show bodies. I do want it to be a very real-feeling sex scene, so it’s like, what can we do? They get the condom out, and you sort of see [Arnold’s] face as he gets penetrated.

When you’re writing and/or directing those scenes, do you feel like you’re responding to what you’re not seeing on TV that you’d like to see?

I really try to think of it from the point of view of what would be good. We’re always trying to show, honestly and straightforwardly, what’s happening between these people. Those scenes get all caught up in network notes calls — is it too long, is it too short. You end up talking about it so much, and I was just sort of like, “Guys, this is actually just a good scene, it really takes you where we need to take you, it’s emotionally powerful, we’re not trimming it.” I try not to think about the fact that they’re gay because if you start filming it thinking they’re gay, and we need the gay sex scene to be this way, then that sort of seems like a double bluff. We shoot it the same way we would shoot a heterosexual sex scene. Which we never do.

Is that a conscious choice?

No. I get to the end of every season and think, “Oh, we should put a straight sex scene in.” I guess we could throw them a crumb, but I just don’t want to.

What exactly did ABC [Australian Broadcasting Corporation] object to about that sex scene?

People aren’t sure, that’s what it is. People are never sure. You lose perspective; you stop being able to really see what’s happening. Everybody’s walking around like, “Is this too much, is this against our standards?” Nobody really knows, and they just lose their minds. It’s not just for gay sex. We’ll have a comedy scene where the joke is that it just keeps going, and everyone will like it and the next week they’re like, “It’s too long.” You think it’s too long now because you’ve seen it seven times, and it’s boring. So [I’m] always trying to bring the show back into focus and see it for the first time.

You were so young when this show began, and it was built on your own experiences. But for most of your twenties you’ve been making the show. Do you find it hard to tap into your own life for material now?

What’s worse is that I’ve had the same boyfriend for five years, we’re like, so happy together. I mean, we’re open, which I feel like I really need creatively — I need to be able to date other boys, otherwise, what the fuck are we gonna write about? Also because I want to put my dick places.

Do you get inspiration from other shows?

I try and avoid watching other things when I’m making the show. The beginning was based on my standup, that’s how we sold it. Everyone’s always like, “It’s like this and this and this,” but there actually weren’t many shows like it [when it premiered]. It was pre-Girls. So we just always try and make it about the actual world instead of Transparent or something.

 

*ALERT! ALERT! SPOILERS AHEAD IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN ALL OF SEASON 4!*

 

I want to ask about Rose’s suicide toward the end of Season 4. Since the show was initially based on your own mom’s suicide attempt when you were a teenager, was your family ok with that decision?

I wanted to take her out of the show for personal reasons. Also, we’re having this conversation about suicide [on the show], we’ve explored all these different elements of it — Ginger commits suicide [in Season 2], how is it like for Mom experiencing that. And the only real thing left to talk about in that conversation is, well, what happens if they succeed? My mom was fine about it. I didn’t want her to watch it, but she watched it and she was ok.

Did you clear it with her before writing it?

Oh, I clear everything. Especially that. [My family gets] top approval on the scripts, they read all the scripts and if they don’t like something, it goes away.

Do you consult with mental-health professionals when you’re writing?

Yeah, in Season 2 [Rose] moved into a psychiatric hospital so we did tours of psychiatric hospitals and did a lot of interviews. There’s a place in Australia called the Black Dog Institute, and they help us out a lot. NAMI [National Alliance on Mental Illness] here [in America], they go through the scripts with Pivot. There’s two things: There’s getting it right — mental health is something that’s very broad, and it interacts with people’s personalities in such an intimate way that everybody reacts differently.

But then there’s this other side where you have to be responsible and not show it in a way that makes people want to commit suicide — you don’t want to encourage them, you don’t want to make it look like a good idea. And that’s something we consult with NAMI about. So the episode where Rose kills herself — Josh is crying, and then we cut to her dead body in the morgue and her being put into this cupboard with all these other bodies, and the fridge closing. You run this real risk of her killing herself and everyone being real sad about it, and people who are borderline suicide thinking, “I’d like that day of attention,” so we have to be really careful about that.

Do you know if you’re getting another season?

We don’t know.

And Pivot’s —

Shut down. So that’s not a good omen.

But Hulu’s a thing!

We’ll see. If you see them, you can ask for some money.

 

Please Like Me Season 4 is now streaming on Hulu.