“I want them to choose me for me,” Josh Thomas says not long after stepping inside the butterfly conservatory at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. We’ve just been greeted by a greying volunteer with one palm-sized butterfly resting on his cheek and another feasting on an orange slice in his hand, and we’ve made it our mission to get butterflies to land on us, too. How hard could it be? As we snake through the sauna-like chamber on this freezing January day, Thomas, the acclaimed Australian comedian, points out his favorites and sizes up the butterflies like they are suitors competing on The Bachelor: Papilionoidea. “I feel like this blue butterfly has a crush on me but doesn’t want to commit,” he says as an iridescent morpho flops around his waist.
We’re here because on his new comedy-drama, Everything’s Gonna Be Okay, airing Thursdays on Freeform (with episodes available on Hulu), Thomas plays an Australian entomologist named Nicholas fumbling through adulthood as he takes care of his American half-sisters—one of whom is autistic—after their father dies. Each episode is named after an insect that appears in it, from blue death-feigning beetles to giant Asian mantises. The show even has a researcher who provides the writing staff with a dossier of insect fun facts. There’s a perfect metaphor in there—fragile people taking care of fragile things they don’t totally understand—but Thomas admits to putting little thought into it. “I hooked up with this boy and wanted to see him again, but he was leaving to go into the forest to learn about grasshoppers for six months,” he explains. “I thought that was very charming, so I stole it.”
Thomas can easily hold court on the migration habits of monarch butterflies, but when it comes to the bugs in this room, it soon becomes clear they’re just not that into us. “In my experience, they like people that have beautiful souls,” he says, giggling, as another one flies off after almost making contact. Thomas has floppy, sandy-blond hair, deep laugh lines when he smiles, and a borderline-cartoonish voice that makes every vowel a little treat. Today, he’s in a mischievous mood: Eyeing a branch where some butterflies are resting, he says, “My most overwhelming desire is to jiggle the tree—I’m not going to do it, but it would be thrilling.” Later, when I remark that owl butterflies’ striking wing patterns are a marvel of evolution, he turns to me and deadpans, “You know it’s God, right?”
The scene would not be out of place in one of Thomas’ television shows, which revere the comedy (and the tragedy) found in life’s small moments. Prior to Everything’s Gonna Be Okay, Thomas, 32, wrote and starred in the critically adored Please Like Me, a show based on his life that aired in America from 2013 to 2017 on the short-lived cable network Pivot before finishing its run on Hulu. The two series have plenty in common: whimsical musical cues, a well-intentioned but self-centered protagonist, families where the roles of parent and child are blurred. Thomas has a fondness for low-stakes storylines, from roommate pranks to broken fingers, but they often take place in the wake of life’s biggest curveballs: In the Please Like Me pilot, Thomas’ character (also named Josh) gets dumped by his girlfriend, realizes he’s gay and learns his mother has survived a suicide attempt.
It sounds like a lot. Yet Thomas, who’s currently on a North American standup tour, approached it all with a refreshing frankness. His depictions of gay life, rooted in neither a struggle for acceptance nor the usual stereotypes, felt genuinely groundbreaking; prior to its American debut, I remember hunting down bootleg streams of the show because I had been so captivated by a stray Tumblr gif in which Josh tells his love interest, “Coming out, to me, just seems so ’90s, you know?” His portrayals of characters with anxiety and bipolar disorder, many of whom spend time on screen in a mental-health facility, were so judgement-free and melodrama-averse that even the show’s heaviest episodes felt like a balm. “Often in TV, when something sad is happening, they want to play the violins for ages,” Thomas tells me. “[My characters] don’t wallow in the tears. They try to cheer each other up, and we try to do that with the audience.”
Still, Thomas’ genre-blurring style can be confounding to even his most enthusiastic supporters. Critics have occasionally struggled to place him, making comparisons to other auteur showrunners he doesn’t quite see. Even now, whenever he hosts audience Q&As, the first question he gets is almost always about freely mixing comedy and drama. Thomas finds himself in the strange position of making television that’s been deemed capital-I Important and having to attend to all sorts of people who turn to him for explanations and deeper meanings, eager for Thomas to give them a vocabulary for their feelings. Yet Thomas insists he’s just making television that’s true to life—sometimes things go well, sometimes they don’t, and usually they happen simultaneously. He shrugs off praise in ways that can seem outright dismissive of those just trying to pay a compliment. “When people say, ‘I came out because of you,’ that’s not true,” he says. “You didn’t! You came out because you’re gay and had to at some point. Maybe it made you feel nicer because you got to see someone be gay with a beautiful soundtrack. But you were gonna be gay anyway.”
When it was announced, nearly everything about Everything’s Gonna Be Okay, from its Disney-owned cable network to its subject matter, suggested ambitious career moves on Thomas’ part. He dispels those notions, too. So why Freeform, currently trying to shake off its “family channel” reputation? Thomas says it had expressed interest in taking over Please Like Me after Pivot shut down, so he knew the team trusted his vision. (The show has thus far has been a critical hit, if not exactly a ratings one.) Why autism? He had watched a documentary called Autism in Love and thought everyone in it was just lovely, plus an ADHD diagnosis at age 28 made him interested in people whose brains work differently. And what about the gay makeout sesh that opens the pilot? Okay, that’s a little bit of a statement—“It’s a shield to get the homophobes not to watch,” he says—but it’s also a fun way to get a lot of premise out of the way early.
You can plan all you want, Thomas explains, but so much of what ends up on screen is just an accident. When Thomas—who rose to fame in Australia as a successful teen stand-up comic—started pitching Please Like Me, he’d never stepped foot on a set before and had only a semester of TV/film studies under his belt. Accordingly, he makes television like someone who never learned how: Consider a standout episode of Please Like Me in which Josh and his friends debate whether to kill a pet chicken named Adele that turned out to be a loud rooster, not a hen, then finish the episode with a surprisingly moving singalong to Adele’s “Someone Like You.” Success and a little stubbornness have allowed him to keep making choices even he can’t believe he gets away with—like a surreal drag sequence that interrupts one episode of Everything’s Gonna Be Okay and has nothing to do with, well, anything.
“Do you ever watch The Great British Baking Show?” Thomas asks as we head outside to a nearby cafe, donning a mottled coat and a pair of round, tinted sunglasses he thinks make him resemble a young Elton John. “Paul Hollywood is like, ‘What kind of texture is your cookie going to have?’ before they make it. Actually, if they just made the cookie and pretended that was on purpose, it would be fine! But they have to stake what they’re trying to do at the beginning. I don’t like when people ask me what I was trying to do, because I don’t really know.”
When we meet up, Thomas is a little anxious about how viewers will receive the show’s sixth episode, which features a provocative storyline about autism and consent. But that’s not the part he’s worried about—he’s actually concerned with the episode’s unrelated third act, in which Nicholas and his boyfriend, Alex (Adam Faison), go on a poorly timed vacation to Mexico and get into a fight after Nicholas flips a plate of ceviche over Alex’s head. It sounds dumb, but it works: The ensuing argument unspools their entire relationship dynamic in just a few minutes, and it shows how grief can express itself at the worst times, bursting through a wall like the Kool-Aid Man. Thomas’ creative team, however, cautioned him against putting something so frivolous in one of the few issues-driven episodes of the series.
“Nobody wanted me to do that,” he says, laughing. “I think people are going to think the ceviche is some metaphor about consent. But sometimes you just have a weird week and go to Mexico!” Sometimes, the ceviche is just ceviche.
These are the kinds of nitty-gritty conversations Thomas now has with the gaggle of producers and executives in his ear. The autism material, vetted by a handful of autism consultants and played by neurodiverse actors like Kayla Cromer and Lillian Carrier, is rarely a source of tension. The real conflict, he says, is over the small plot details—or, rather, the lack of them. “Thats the big fight I always have now with every executive: They want me to drive plot more,” Thomas says. “But I don’t really like plot. I just like hanging out with characters.”
Indeed, there are probably Bravo reality programs with more scripted content than Thomas’ shows, where the big life events are often just a formality and the episodes can feel like loose vignettes stitched together. During press junkets for Please Like Me, Thomas would often answer reporters’ questions with some variation of, “It’s not Lost, you know?” as if to say: Nothing really happens here. Character development is similarly moot. In Thomas’ universe, nobody really changes or grows up. That he even named his show Everything’s Gonna Be Okay feels like a sly joke, as nothing ever seemed to work out in Please Like Me. Characters who struggled with illnesses didn’t always get better—sometimes they died out of the blue. Couples who seemed like relationship #goals broke up the day they moved in together. Just about everyone ended up back where they started by the series finale.
That might sound depressing, but the way his shows resist familiar narrative arcs—or any kind of arc at all—is part of what makes them so comforting. We are trained to cope with difficult moments by recasting the story around them: by telling ourselves that failure comes right before victory, by describing obstacles as battles and journeys, by assigning meaning to the random. In stripping away the usual cues that tell us how to feel and process, Thomas’ shows ask: What if you just took all of life’s messiness head on, without spin? Wouldn’t that be liberating?
It’s a message Thomas is still working on putting into practice in his own life. He recalls his terrible 30th birthday in 2017: He was traveling through Europe when he missed his train stop at the Copenhagen airport and barreled right on to Sweden, where an IKEA located just over the border was waiting to mock his misfortune. When he finally got through passport control and onto another train, he realized he was missing his backpack, which contained a laptop full of writing projects he hadn’t backed up.
“I was like, ‘Oh fuck, I really thought by the time I was 30 I’d be a grown-up and not lose my shit all the time,’” he says. “I thought when I was 30 I was going to move to America and start a whole new life and be a whole new person. The thing is, you leave everyone else behind, but you still bring you with you. And that doesn’t change. You don’t all of a sudden have a charged phone.”
I suggest that this is the reason people connect to his material so deeply, the reason he gets stopped all the time in gay bars and on the street by people who want to confide in him about their mothers, their relationships, their problems. Nobody really has their life together, and watching well-meaning people trudging up the hill of responsibility, no matter how big or small, reminds us to be a little kinder to ourselves. Everybody has their burdens—why read too much into yours?
Thomas pauses to consider this. “I was diagnosed with ADHD when I was 28,” he says, “and the thing that they teach you is to just accept that you’re not going to have the things you need, that you are going to be late. Try your best, but when you fail, you just have to forgive yourself.”
Near the end of our visit to the conservatory, a postman butterfly, with its bold splashes of color on its wings, settles on Thomas’ hand, prompting him to mutter excited profanities under his breath. I, however, am not so lucky. I hover around the two corners that seem to offer the best chances of contact, shooting daggers at a small child who has no trouble making winged friends. A volunteer says that holding out our arms won’t help, but I’m doing it anyway, looking pathetic as I try to project tranquility. “It’s starting to feel like the end of the night,” Thomas teases. “You know, desperate on the dance floor.”
And then, just as I’m about to give up, a ragged butterfly whose wings are so beat up that a volunteer later has trouble identifying it lands on my head. “Maybe it’s here to die,” Thomas says as he whips out his phone to document for me. But then another one joins in, a healthy-looking lacewing butterfly with gorgeous leopard print-like spots. And then a giant owl butterfly lands on Thomas’ arm, and we are gasping and laughing with wonder and relief. Have they chosen us for us? Have they decided we have beautiful souls?
I considered all of that, but I don’t think that’s what Thomas would want me to take away from our time together. Sometimes the ceviche is just ceviche. Sometimes a butterfly is just a butterfly. And no amount of overthinking is going to get me any closer to understanding what I already knew: That in the moment, it just felt nice, and sometimes that is enough.