Aug. 19--Imagine you're a network television executive and one day you get a pitch for a new half-hour show that goes exactly like this: "It's 'Josh, wake up again and try to get through the day, and this happens.' "
That's how Australian comic Josh Thomas, 26, described "Please Like Me," the hit show he wrote and stars in on the new channel called Pivot. Pivot did like him, just as Australia's ABC2 channel liked him when it aired the first season in February. The series has already been renewed for a 10-episode second season, both in Australia and in the U.S.
Not bad for a show with such a low-wattage premise, but that premise is one of the reasons "Like Me" is a hit with Pivot's target audience of Millennials, and no doubt with a lot of post-Millennials as well.
"There's not much of a premise," Thomas admits. "In the first episode, I get a boyfriend and my mom tries to kill herself.
"Not a ratings bonanza," he deadpans.
Thomas is often asked about his show's similarity to Lena Dunham's "Girls," which he hadn't seen when he wrote the first season of "Like Me." While the two shows are different -- "Like Me" is as much a drama as it is a comedy -- they both eschew traditional situational setups in favor of more natural depictions of daily life among people in their 20s and 30s.
"We're both about our generation talking about our generation," Thomas says by telephone from his Melbourne office. "It's not about old men in suits writing about 20-year-olds."
The idea for "Please Like Me" grew out of Thomas' stand-up act, which, in turn, is often based on events in his life. It took so long to get the show from pitch to reality that the initial concept from his own life -- "me being bad with girls" -- took a whole new direction: "I got a boyfriend and came out."
It wasn't a big deal. He just "kissed a boy," to paraphrase Katy Perry, and it took.
On "Please Like Me," Thomas plays a fictionalized version of himself as an unfocused young man named Josh whose girlfriend dumps him because she figures out he's gay before he does. His reaction to the breakup at a cafe is to regret he ordered such an expensive dessert.
Josh's circle of similarly directionless friends on the show includes his ex, Claire (Caitlin Stasey); his straight best friend, Tom (Tom Ward), who can't find the courage to dump his pushy girlfriend, Niamh (Nikita Leigh-Pritchard); and Geoffrey (Wade Briggs), a new guy at Tom's office who invites himself to dinner and becomes Josh's boyfriend.
Geoffrey may look like "St. Elmo's Fire"-vintage Rob Lowe, but he's as much of a mess as everyone else in Josh's circle. He gloms onto Josh and won't let go, despite the fact Josh is less than fully committed to the relationship.
"People respond to him in different ways," Thomas says of Geoffrey. "Like, 16-year-old girls think he's, ah, the perfect boyfriend. Older people are like, aw, that guy needs to get out. I think he's damaged. I think he's lonely."
At first, it seems funny that Tom can't dump his girlfriend, that Josh is uncomfortable because a very hot guy is into him, and that the very hot guy is sad and insecure, but "Please Like Me" isn't just a comedy.
In their own way, Josh and his friends are searching at different speeds and in different directions for people to like them in hopes of being able to like themselves better. The passive nature of the request "Please Like Me" reflects the uncertainty they feel that someone really could like them.
"When I watched the show ... three months after we finished it," Thomas says, "I was like, ah, I didn't realize this was my worldview. You get this summary of the show that's like everybody is really alone. I didn't think I felt that."
Both on the show and over the phone, Thomas doesn't radiate waves of self-confidence, or the kind of bravado and focus you'd think someone would need to become an Australian stand-up and TV sensation in only a few years. He was only 17 when he won the RAW Comedy Award at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival -- it was his first stand-up gig ever.
In 2011, he hosted the comedy festival gala, but by then, he'd done a lot more stand-up, finished the third season of his popular podcast "Josh Thomas and Friend," was in demand as a guest on various Aussie talk shows and was a regular on the wacky game show "Talkin' 'Bout Your Generation," where his wrong answers resulted in his real-life grandmother being slimed with guacamole.
Although he's done a lot of stand-up in Australia and elsewhere, he's only done a few gigs in this hemisphere.
Los Angeles foray
"I did a warm-up gig in downtown Los Angeles, which was fun," he says. "And I did ... it's not a joke, really, it's just a like silly sentence that I do about my dog where I say, 'He's 50 percent poodle, 50 percent cavalier King Charles spaniel, and 100 percent gangster.' And I didn't realize that gangsters are serious shooters. In Australia we just think they're just adorable, we think, like, 'gangster movies' and they're always really fun. And I'm in downtown L.A. and I made that joke and I felt like such an idiot."
Beyond cultural references, what's the difference between Australian and American humor?
"Well, ah, we're a lot less attractive," he says, adding that at American comedy clubs he finds "all these really pretty girls shows who are like talking about like struggles in their love life and stuff, and I just don't get it. I like my comedians to be 6 out of 10 or below."
In both the "Like Me" script and in his stand-up act, Thomas is a master of the oxymoronically constructed offhand remark -- a line seems offhand when it really isn't. In his live act, for example, he's fond of announcing, "This is the oldest I've ever been in my life."
Having just finished a stand-up tour, Thomas is putting live appearances on hold to write the second season of the TV show. Unlike the character he plays on "Please Like Me," the real Josh Thomas has found someone to like him and whom he can like back: He's had the same boyfriend for the past year and a half.
Thomas claims no master plan for his life and career, but whatever he's not planning is working very well for him so far.
-- For more about Josh Thomas and to view some of his stand-up work, go to http://blog/sfgate.com/dwiegand.
David Wiegand is The San Francisco Chronicle's executive features editor and TV critic. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @WaitWhat_TV
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