Josh Thomas wrote much of his Emmy award-winning comedy-drama Please Like Me while sitting on a sofa with fellow writers Thomas Ward (also his childhood friend and co-star) and Liz Doran. Creating his new show, Everything’s Gonna Be Okay, couldn’t have been more different.
Moving to Los Angeles – as an “alien of extraordinary ability”, according to his visa – he found that a typical “notes” session for the show might involve a conference call with 16 other people. For someone with a solidly self-deprecating sense of humour and a background in the solitary world of standup, that approach had to have been uncomfortable.
“I’m not used to it,” he confirms to Guardian Australia. “In America you have to be very brave, confident and vocal. I’d finish calls by saying, ‘So, the things that people need to do as a follow-up are … ’, and then there’d be an agenda of next steps. I’d think, I can’t believe what I’ve turned into. All that corporate speak – ‘I’m just looping back to this’, ‘If we could just lean into this’. But you have to learn not to be obtuse.”
Feeling like a fish out of water is in fact the premise of his new show for Disney-owned cable network Freeform, where it will premiere on 17 January – at the same time as the first three episodes land on Australian streaming service Stan. He plays Nicholas, a gay 25-year-old Australian who suddenly finds himself the guardian of two American half-sisters when his father, who lives with them in the United States, dies of cancer.
It took Thomas years to successfully pitch the idea of Please Like Me to the ABC; by contrast, Everything’s Gonna Be Okay – or at least the first two episodes available to preview – feels rushed at first. There’s some dizzying exposition in the opening scene of episode one, in which Nicholas answers questions about himself posed by a guy he has picking up in a bar (Alex, played by Adam Faison) between bouts of necking on. Later, Nicholas’s father (Christopher May) utters the immortal line: “I have a terrible cancer which I’ll give you some more information about later, but this is the news that I need to tell you now.” Cue sad music.
“Pilots are the hardest thing in the world,” Thomas says. “There’s always a lot of premise, which isn’t my favourite thing. My favourite thing is when you know the people and you get to hang out with them.”
The show certainly feels more like an American sitcom than the critically adored “home-cooked pleasures” of its predecessor. The humour is broader, the colours more vibrant, the high school tropes a little heavy-handed – but by the second episode the pace settles and the character quirks and meandering dialogue Thomas imbued Please Like Me with are allowed to take root.
Please Like Me was imported at the tail-end of a time when it was more common for US networks to remake international shows. In fact, that was initially the plan of Pivot, the US cable channel that acquired the rights.
“They wanted me to be in it, and the same director, and then they wanted other cast members to be in it, and then I was like, ‘Guys, why don’t we go with the show we already made?’ And then they did that, thank goodness,” Thomas says.
Thank goodness indeed – because for every Office remake success story, there’s a Kath & Kim disaster prompting the the San Francisco Chronicle to opine that America owes Australia an apology. As it was, Pivot put Thomas’s face on the side of buses in Los Angeles – and when Pivot ceased to be, streaming service Hulu quickly stepped in to take over the broadcast rights.
The trailer for Everything’s Gonna Be Okay depicts a funeral scene in which Nicholas’s half-sister Matilda (Kayla Cromer) gives a eulogy. While there have been high-profile comedies led by characters on the autism spectrum – Netflix’s Atypical being the most recent example, and Big Bang Theory the most contested one – Thomas believes this is the first time an actor on the spectrum has taken a starring role.
“Having gone through the casting process of auditioning people who are neurotypical and people who have autism, there was only one choice,” Thomas says. “I went in thinking it was more ethical, and I came out of it thinking, ‘This is just better.’ Kayla gives the character so much more authenticity.
“There are heaps of girls with autism who are really great actors. I spoke to a mum who said, ‘My daughter’s really good at acting because she had to learn how to mimic to survive and to study human behaviour to understand how neurotypicals work.’ I found that really interesting.”
Thomas was diagnosed with ADHD when he was 28, and he thinks that has given him a small window into people who aren’t neurotypical. “I like people who are really direct and I like outsiders,” he says.
Cromer’s character is outspokenly interested in sex, which flies against a stereotype that people with autism tend to be asexual and naive. “I wanted to, like, make autism sexy,” he laughs. “People with autism get horny. Girls generally can get desexualised, and people with disabilities get desexualised. [But] she grew up in a progressive family and would have absorbed all that. Autism is a broad church.”
As with season four of Please Like Me, season one of Everything’s Gonna Be Okay starts with a gay make-out scene, something he says has given his “poor mum” cause for concern.
“She saw the pilot and she was saying, ‘Don’t you think it might make people turn off?’ I said, ‘If they don’t want to see gay people kissing then I don’t want them watching my show.’ Do you know what I mean? I don’t want to hang out with homophobic people and I don’t want my audience to be homophobic, so I’m happy to put [those scenes] there. They hired me because I’m gay. It’s a plus for them.”
• Episode one and two of Everything’s Gonna Be Okay premieres on 17 January on Stan in Australia, and Freeform in the US.