In an episode of Josh Thomas’s new podcast, How To Be Gay, he plays a snippet of a much older show, from the late 2000s, which he hosted with his best friend and longtime collaborator Tom Ward. He was just 19 at the time, and decided it was a good opportunity to come out. On mic.
“What else is new? Not much?” the younger Thomas mumbles. “Yeah, I have a boyfriend.”
You can hear the nerves in his voice even as he feigns nonchalance: “I try not to make a big deal about it.”
That was over a decade ago. In the years since, the comedian and showrunner has 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 spilling out in a rapid-fire stream of consciousness that changes topics like lanes. He frequently casts off hefty sentiments and intimate secrets as if they were weightless, and with the same cheeriness that someone might use to exchange a perfunctory greeting. Nothing is too sacred to be said aloud.
“Anytime I’ve had to talk about [coming out], it’s always been so annoying to me,” he tells Guardian Australia. “I hated coming out!”
Now 35 – he celebrated his birthday earlier this week, and says he’s still “feeling pretty dusty” – Thomas has spent more than half his life in the public eye. How To Be Gay is a survey of how queerness and its public perception have changed in that time, named after the words he typed into Google as a questioning teen in suburban Brisbane.
“Where I live [near West Hollywood], it just seems like everyone’s queer … To run into a straight person in my life is so insane,” he says. “Unless they’re doing my accounts.
“Being queer for me these days is so frothy and cute and fun – it’s just dancing and kissing. And I’ve kind of forgotten what was hard about it when I was young. And I’ve forgotten that for other people, it’s actually still really hard.”
How To Be Gay is comprised of personal ruminations and sweeping interviews. Everyone from ex-boyfriend Tom Ballard to David Sedaris, whose books Thomas used to read in his childhood bathroom, feature in short, documentary-style clips, waxing lyrical on their first loves and early brushes with sexuality. Thomas sometimes treads new ground, too, moving away from his familiar observational comedy: in one episode, he talks to a Chechnyan refugee called Angel who was kidnapped and tortured by his government.
“I really was very nervous,” he says. “I am not Anderson Cooper. I don’t really know how to do that. And then I popped on and Angel said ‘Josh!’ in this pretty gay way. I just felt so calm, I felt so comfortable … And then we spoke about Lady Gaga for a while.”
Created over three years, How To Be Gay takes a scattershot approach to its topics, which range from the amount of girls Thomas dated in high school (a lot) to homosexuality in ancient Babylon. The expansive interviews serve as glimpses into queer narratives outside Thomas’s own – admittedly idiosyncratic – experience.
In the early 2010s, he became something of an Australian household name as captain of team millennial on the zany, Shaun Micallef-fronted gameshow Talkin’ Bout Your Generation. But being made the voice of his generation – quite literally – came with unique pressures. He found himself thrust into the middle of a conversation about sexuality he was never really interested in participating in.
“During [those years], talking about gay rights was very, like: gay suicide, this is an emergency, being gay is so hard. If we don’t do gay marriage, then everyone’s gonna kill themselves.”
He pauses to let out a horror movie shriek. “I understand the reason: trying to get the rest of Australia to wake up. But I just found it so taxing. I just was so sick of it.”
Things changed with Please Like Me, the 2013 Emmy award-winning series which Thomas created and starred in. It up-ended both the stuffiness of Australian television and the doomy discourse of queer misery with its forthright depiction of gay life: mostly mundane, punctuated by fleeting crushes and terrible threesomes, the spectre of STIs and the awkwardness of anal sex.
“All the gay stuff was light and fun and easy,” Thomas says. “And it was a reaction to all the rest of the 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 is scary … when you have an underrepresented group and you’re making a TV show – [it’s] going to become the one example of that group. And that’s all people can look up to.
“But I don’t feel like Please Like Me was a terrible place to look. It’s just, like, gay people baking sometimes.”
The show went global and he moved to the US to make his follow-up, Everything’s Gonna Be Okay – which ended its two-season run on American network television last year. In both series, Thomas essentially plays versions of himself: a neurotic gay man burdened with family dysfunctions and dating woes.
For Thomas, art had always imitated life. But on Everything’s Gonna Be Okay – a show lauded for its portrayal of an autistic lead character (played by Kayla Cromer) – the inverse held true. In the tail-end of the show’s production, Thomas was diagnosed with autism as well – confirming a nagging suspicion he had held all along. 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 some stuff … getting people to feel comfortable and talk about themselves – I wouldn’t say I’m the frontrunner for that job. Which I think got us interesting interviews because I’m so direct, and nobody sounds like they’re bullshitting or being performative.”
That unguarded, often self-effacing honesty has long been his trademark. “On stage, or on my TV show,” he says, “I think I’m – probably to a fault – too honest … [But] I definitely feel like after Everything’s Gonna Be Okay, I had nothing really left to say about myself.”
Which isn’t quite true, as it turns out. He has one more – completely unprompted – confession to make. “I was a bit weird about – I’ve never really …” he stops and starts. “Why am I telling you this now? I’ve never really in an interview, or on stage, or anywhere said that I only top.
“And for some reason that was private to me. Just because it’s so humiliating. Like, just grow the fuck up and put it in you.
“That was kind of my last secret.” He leans in closer, grinning mischievously. “I don’t know what I’m saying now. What’s the next question?”