Josh Thomson grew up on a farm in Timaru. His Tongan mother and engineer dad (a Pākehā of Scots descent) first met when his father was working on an airport in Tonga. When the couple moved back to New Zealand, she was the only Tongan in Timaru.
In a 2017 Sunday magazine profile, Thomson argued that being one of the few Tongans in town was formative for his comedy. "I guess there was always that element of making fun of myself before anyone else could. And I became quite good at it. And I guess that kind of gave me permission to make fun of the establishment, whatever the establishment was, because wherever I was, I wasn't it. So then it became [my thing] to make fun of everybody."
His sense of humour was noted by teachers and classmates. At boarding school in South Canterbury he played rugby, was dux, and had a brief moment of fame as the lion in The Wizard of Oz. At Otago University he got a Degree in Theatre Studies, and began doing stand-up comedy in order "to meet girls and party."
He also met acting coach Michael Saccente, who encouraged Thomson to pursue comedic acting. After getting through to the finals of a Dunedin comedy contest, he was offered a spot on stand-up show Pulp Comedy.
Moving to Auckland in 2003, Thomson continued studies in the Meisner technique (which pushes an instinctive approach to acting). He was also responding to the challenges of freelance life — occasional ad and film gigs, mixed with house painting and work in a fish and chip shop; plus tax bills, and a diet of free contra beers and old frozen veggies. He has mixed memories of appearing on a hidden camera reality show. Many of the crew were fired, but he got the chance to learn about camerawork and editing. The show led to him directing on kids show Studio Two, on which he played a breakdancing fortune teller.
Around 2006 Thomson began a long collaboration with creative collective The Downlow Concept (Jarrod Holt, Ryan Hutchings and Nigel McCulloch). In this extended interview for TV series Funny As, Thomson describes them as an "amazing group of comedy nerds". First Downlow did a mockumentary radio show for George FM, then a series of comedic short films, which Thomson starred in and helped devise. In 2006 48 Hour Film Festival winner Brown Peril: The Tim Porch Story, he played Tim, a pompous badminton star beset by athlete’s foot. In Only Son (2010), he was a shy metalworker whose romantic efforts are consistently scuppered by the ghost of his Dad. Thomson was nominated for a Qantas Award for the role, against actors who'd been given far longer than a weekend to act their roles.
Thomson still gets recognised thanks to ads for Cash Converters and Fresh Up (sculling the sponsor’s product after a sauna). After getting an early break playing one of the hostel staff on 2007 comedy Welcome to Paradise, he won roles on a run of shows: Hounds, Short Poppies, Step Dave, Terry Teo, and Coverband.
In the 2017 Sunday profile Michael Saccente praised Thomson's self-effacing method, which often leads to him stealing scenes: "He doesn't care if his belly is showing. He doesn't mind taking the piss out of himself." Saccente points out that good actors are those that aren't watching themselves all the time.
Thomson has supplemented his acting and voice-over work with further directing and editing gigs — including two shows that were nominated for Aotearoa TV awards in 2011: A Night at the Classic, and Bigger, Better, Faster Stronger. Thomson has especially good memories of the former. It mixed comedians performing at Auckland's Classic Comedy Club with mockumentary elements. Thomson directed, wrote and edited on the first two seasons of comedy Jono’s New Show, followed by The Jono Project and the popular Jono and Ben. The first season of Jono's New Show won a Qantas Award for Best Entertainment Programme.
Thomson has done time on the panel (and the editing bench) of the long-running 7 Days, which sees comedians bantering about the latest news headlines. Thomson became a regular guest, thanks to his digressive, often surreal riffs. He also returned to stand-up comedy, as part of the annual live tour featuring 7 Days comedians.
Thomson had a breakout year in 2017. He was cast as a leading man Gary, the hapless real estate agent turned Pacific island chief in movie Gary of the Pacific. The role was specifically written for him by The Downlow Concept. Downlow member Jarrod Holt called Thomson New Zealand's "greatest comic actor".
The same year Thomson was invited to join Jesse Mulligan and Kanoa Lloyd on Three's prime time, week-night show The Project. Thomson’s role was to be the funny guy — he won an NZ Comedy Guild Award for his work on the show — but occasionally he added pathos. In February 2018 Thomson brought attention to the topic of miscarriage, by sharing his and his wife’s personal experience of it. Although he stopped co-hosting The Project in March 2018, he continues to make occasional guest appearances.
Thomson's work with The Downlow Concept includes 2016 restaurant review web series The Critic and The Pig, in which Thomson plays the latter role. In a 2016 NZ Herald profile, Thomson said "I am big. Someone's gotta talk about it. It might as well be me." Vaughan Smith — who played the critic — said that Thomson reminded him of "the funny kid in class". The comedian identifies his talents more modestly, as enjoying the moments in-between the punchlines.
Thomson's long harboured dreams of doing a kung fu show came true thanks to locally-shot co-production The New Legends of Monkey. The show is a remake of cult Japanese series Monkey. Thomson plays Pigsy, one of a quartet of travellingadventurers.
In 2017 he mined laughs from emails with his real-life father, for Subject: Dad. It won Best Web Series and Director in the Factual category of the 2018 New Zealand Web Fest.
The same year Thomson starred in short film Twenty One Points, which competed at prestigious short film festival Clermont-Ferrand. Thomson plays a man who lives with his Mum (Robyn Malcolm) and a robotic friend who may not be real. He has also done voice work for animated shows Kiri and Lou, The Barefoot Bandits and Crumbs.
In late 2019 he donned horns for Wellington Paranormal's Christmas episode, to play Satan— who accidentally gets booked at a shopping centre instead of Santa.
Profile written by Ian Pryor; updated on 18 September 2020
'Josh Thomson - Funny As Interview' (Video Interview) NZ On Screen website. Director Rupert Mackenzie. Loaded 3 October 2019. Accessed 30 January 2020
Kerry Harvey, 'Going ape for The New Adventures of Monkey' (Interview) Stuff website. Loaded 17 September 2020. Accessed 18 September 2020
JSteve Kilgallon, 'Joshing around: the Tongan of Timaru' (Interview) - The Sunday Star-Times (Sunday pullout), 19 February 2017
Chris Schulz, 'Josh Thomson is New Zealand's funniest man - he just doesn't know it yet', (Interview) - The NZ Herald (Time Out pullout). Republished 2 January 2017
Sienna Yates, 'Josh Thomson's hellish role on Wellington Paranormal' (Interview) - TV Guide, 5 December 2019
'Josh Thomson turns Dad's emails into new show Subject: Dad' (Interview) - The NZ Herald, 1 February 2018
Unknown writer, 'Josh Thomson to leave The Project, replaced by Jeremy Corbett' - Stuff website. Loaded 16 March 2018. Accessed 30 January 2020