The Bizarre, Wholesome, Outsider Comedy of Joe Pera

Convinced to watch Adult Swim's 'Joe Pera Talks With You' by a friend, Film Crit Hulk discusses how the show taps into something profound.

Joe Pera in Adult Swim's Joe Pera Talks With You.
Adult Swim’s Joe Pera Talks With You. Turner/Adult Swim

Discovery in the Ebbs

In the streaming age, we come into things at weird times.

We’ll eagerly watch the entirety of something the second it is released. We’ll discover new things via algorithm. We’ll catch up on entire shows when they’re a few seasons into their run. Even now, somewhere out there, there’s someone who has just started watching The Wire. As a result of this, cultural conversations come with ebbs and flows of viral tides. But they do so in a way where those conversations stack on top of each other with each successive wave. After all, our big cultural reevaluations seem to come when something pops onto Netflix and people suddenly get an intro to Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, or rewatch entire seasons of The Office. What this means is that rarely does the popularity of something have “a moment.” Rather, it builds up gradually over time in these short bursts of exposure. And we join in on them whenever the heck we manage to do so.

This is particularly true of the smaller of the internet-friendly shows like Nirvana the Band the Show or My Brother, My Brother and Me. With little promotion outside of their own fan bases, they are fully dependent on the groundswell of the internet, which means they really rely on the slow build of sharing and word of mouth. So what starts with drops of water in a bucket turns into a steady stream when more and more viewers get into it. My point is this: my friend Andrew has been telling me for months to watch Adult Swim’s Joe Pera Talks With You, which was released last May. In true internet fashion, I just finally got around to it. And not only am I smitten with the show, but I’m now imploring you to watch it too, because it really taps into something hilarious, special and profound.

A Sweet Young Grandpa

“Is he really like that?”

This is the one popular refrain I keep hearing in discussions of Joe Pera’s comic persona. And it’s a valid inquiry. Joe steps onto the stage and immediately exudes a unique brand of folksy, Midwestern awkwardness. He’ll saunter over to the mic with hunched posture, fidgeting and shaking obsessively. His milky white skin bleeds into his bright white blond hair, as if his body’s singular color tone is only broken up by his thick glasses and patented sweater. He then speaks with one of the most quiet, sparse and deliberate demeanors I’ve seen since Steven Wright came onto the scene. Only he’s not really telling one liners, nor is he fabricating some persona for effect. His comic timing is even hard to describe, because it’s mostly about letting the space breathe extra-long before he lets you into the punch lines. And that’s the whole key with his delivery: He doesn’t hit you with it, he lets you in. If you’re unsure of what I’m talking about, it’s all beautifully exemplified in this clip from Conan.

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I’ve never seen a comic manage to invoke abject fear, likability, quiet confidence and our pity all at once. And in terms of his comedy’s construction, it’s sort of a fascinating “tight five,” because he just tells two jokes, then leaps into a weird masterpiece of crowd work with the question “how tall will my sons be?”

It’s weird to think that he’s just playing a guessing game for a few minutes, and even weirder to think about how it is entirely dependent on him being able to awkwardly coral the audience into joining. And even though he’s ultimately making a joke about how his sons will somehow be 10 feet tall, you almost believe him. The same way you believe he actually knows how tall a 4-year-old birch is compared to a 6-year-old birch. There’s a sincerity to the reality he’s crafting, and when he presses reality, he’ll always pull it back. For example, when he talks about giving his sons H.G.H., he quickly follows it up with the assurance “I wouldn’t do that.” And this sincerity is so, so, so important to what he does.

Because you don’t have to believe his jokes, you have to believe in him. Not just for the “aw shucks” comedic effect, but because of how important your affinity is for his very being. He even ends his comedy set with a pleasant conversation with a woman in the audience, just about how she’s proud of her son. There’s literally no joke, but it’s both hilarious and startlingly effective. In a medium where we demand the high-volume joke-per-minute, there is something so transformative about the way Pera invites our own softness. Heck, his entire twitter bio is “People say I remind them of their grandfather.”

Pera is from the great lakes region (specifically Buffalo, New York, though Joe Pera Talks With You is filmed in the Midwest), but it’s not that he’s the “type” of person who’d be from there, it’s that this persona is him. Even in the sit-down portion during talks shows, Pera fidgets and answers tersely just the same. But it’s not like the industry is putting this awkward guy up as the butt of the joke. He’s completely aware, and you can tell he’s in (enough) control and absolutely gets what makes him funny. Like a lot of comic performers, you get the sense that he’s himself, just turned up by 8 percent.

And like a lot of other performers, it took him some time in getting to understand how to use his voice. Earlier on, Pera appeared a few times on The Chris Gethard Show as “Zero Fucks Boyd,” the rebel who gives zero fucks about anything. The joke was of course that he delivered all these zero-fucks lines still talking in his trademark low-key, gentle cadence. Also that his examples of rebellion were also predictably milquetoast. But I will admit it was still weird to hear him swearing. More importantly, Zero Fucks Boyd betrays a more important aspect of Pera’s persona, which is his sincerity. The character puts his quiet demeanor on blast and highlights a juxtaposition rather than turning it into a strength. In other words, we get hit with it, rather than coming into it. But this may be only part of why Pera’s true skill perhaps doesn’t lie in such false characterizations, nor may it even lie in stand-up at all…

Where Pera has really found creative success is in the litany of video projects he’s put together with frequent collaborators Jo Firestone, Conner O’Malley and Nathan Min. His site is filled with short films that reveal his trademark style: slice-of-life moments punctuated with ponderous thoughts on the nature of humanity and a few awkward jokes. And while you see the videos get better in terms of cinematic execution over the years, it’s amazing to notice how much of the core conceit has been there since the beginning. It even goes all the way back to 2012’s A Perfect Sunday, which turns a harmless “how you doing?” conversation into a sad vignette of love in the face of unavailability. Adult Swim took notice of these works, which evolved into a couple of short specials “Joe Pera Helps You Find the Perfect Christmas Tree” and “Joe Pera Talks You To Sleep.” And then, it finally culminated into his latest show.

The Wholesome Auteur

Joe Pera Talks With You might be the weirdest things I’ve ever seen.

I mean that. But the problem in describing it that way is that it’s not weird in the conventional ways. You’re never like “WTF am I watching?!?!?!” And it’s not all that abstract or unknowable. Instead, the show is weird because of its aching gentleness. It’s weird because of its random tangents, its deliberate manner and its surprising depth. In short, it’s weird much like Joe himself is weird. But the conceit of the show is also relatively simple: each episode, Joe talks about a given subject of great interest to him. Those include iron minerals, breakfast foods, fall drives and even navigating awkward social situations like dancing at a coworker’s wedding. These topics are all part of his clear affinity for the kinds of themes we associate with the small-town, Midwestern experience.

But while these topics are explored in a sincere manner, they also become vehicles for Joe’s profound thoughts on life itself. The approach is perhaps best showcased in a meta way when Joe lights some fireworks, stares into the sky, and gets lost in his own thoughts…thoughts of how people watch fireworks. That is to say, the way they marvel at the sights, experience nostalgia, and even think of ex-girlfriends. But as this is also a comedy show, so there are, of course, moments punctuated by jokes and creative juxtapositions—moments that would seem downright absurd, except for the fact the show rarely hangs a hat on them at all. Like when we flash back to one of his old Halloween costumes and see…

A scene from Joe Pera Talks With You.
A scene from Joe Pera Talks With You. Turner/Adult Swim

Yes, that is him and his nana dressed as the Ghosts from The Matrix Reloaded…for Halloween, 2013. The show doesn’t really rub it in your face. It just states it and lets the scene move on. All the comic moments feel like this, like when a little girl sneaks a sip of beer or Pera drops a meatball on his pants. They’re jokes don’t really matter to the scene and could pass us right by as we focus on something more important. Which is part of why I have the hardest damn time describing the show to those who haven’t seen it.

Take one of the best episodes of the series, “Joe Pera Reads You the Church Announcements,” which already speaks to a dichotomy of the American experience. To half of the people in this country, they have no idea what it really means to read the church announcements. And to the other, they know the mundane sanctity of this action all too well. But in this show, it’s not really about the experience of either group. Instead, it becomes an excuse for Joe to let loose about the fact that he somehow just heard “Baba O’Riley” by The Who for the first time in his life.

He doesn’t know the song’s famous history, nor our familiarity, nor does he even really care that he’s come into it so late. The song just immediately infects him and the flashback sequence devolves into a strange, off the wall affair in which Joe listens to the song endlessly on loop (as many of us did the first time we heard it when we were young). The sequence not only reminds you of the power of hearing a truly great song, but the sheer joy of seeing someone stoic get overtaken by the same level of unadulterated joy. It’s as if he’s reverted to a little boy, shouting to the rooftops, telling people to listen. Such a lovely turn for the sheepish young man who just a few episodes prior accidentally went along with selling his house instead of correcting a misunderstanding. And it’s exactly part of what makes Joe, well, Joe.

I keep using the word “Midwestern” to describe him, but I don’t mean to paint that area with a singular brush. It’s just that Joe’s persona so clearly gets at that stereotypical idea of a person who values politeness, decency and integrity—who is somehow both quiet and forthright. Who both exudes that hangdog sheepishness and yet has an unabashed love for their own interests. Like how Joe loves songs and collects sheet music, and teaches a choir even though he cannot sing. The way he nonchalantly brushes off a young child’s question about why he’s babysitting her on New Year’s Eve instead of partying with adults. You get the sense her comment could sting, but he instead comes back with the folksy response that the best party is here with her.

With Joe, it’s always about putting others first. He even monotone-ly considers the pressure of the evening, “This might be the first new year’s she remembers, as she cannot drive, her good time is my responsibility.” This decency and vulnerability is at the heart of what this show richly explores. It’s a conversation that’s not meant to languish in a series of vignettes, but instead is revealed as the show goes on and a deeper narrative emerges…

Quiet Desperation

It turns out Joe Pera Talks With You is also a romantic comedy.

Well, sort of. And consider a bit of the following section to be spoilery, but it’s deeply worthy of analysis. Because a little way into the series we meet Sarah (played by Jo Firestone). She’s awkward in similar ways to Joe and more confident in others. They joke around. They dance at the wedding. He clearly likes her, but they work in the same school (she as the band teacher) so of course they’d rather just keep running into each other, having pleasant conversations, and building up goodwill en route to hanging out together. Later he describes this situation to his nana by saying he’s been “spending time with a woman.” And when pressed about whether she’s good looking, Joe hilariously answers that she’s “like an old woman was made into a young woman in the best possible way.” And for a long time, we think we’re experiencing romantic comedy conventions in the most low-key, conflict-free manner. But in the penultimate episode, things take a surprising turn.

The details of this turn are important. It begins with Joe talking about the rat wars of Canada, an obscure and absurd piece of history. He mentions that he’s always thought of turning it into a musical. It’s like many of the deeply internal interests that Joe has been quietly sharing with us through the show. Sarah loves the idea and tells him they should put it on as a school play. Inspired by her support, he absolutely goes for it.

The resulting play is, of course, both terrible and charming. But Joe at least understands it’s as good as it can be for just a few days’ work. Again, this all plays into the ways that Joe is not the butt of the joke. He’s aware of his effect, and he just doesn’t care because he’d rather have his passions shine through. But this also means that Joe genuinely believes the audience needs a 10-minute oral introduction in order to understand the history and conflict leading up to the play.

This leaves Sarah a little frustrated. She knows the audience will be able to understand it through context clues, and also gets that everyone is really there to watch their kids, not Joe’s history report. Joe’s anxiety quietly builds; he wants to keep it short, but when the moment comes, Sarah ends up cutting him off and starts the show. He’s genuinely upset, perhaps more than he realizes, because this so strikes at the heart of who he is—at his love of obscure interests and his passion for music and creation. He really doesn’t understand why, after supporting the idea, she’s cut it off. So he confronts her in the kindest way he can.

But that’s when we come to realize what Sarah’s really upset about. She starts going on a rant about how the world is falling apart, how the apocalypse is near, and she’s even been building a survival shelter. And she’s angry because Joe’s the least suited person for the apocalypse that she’s ever met. Not just because of his glasses, or lack of preparation, but because of everything about him. And so she’s mad most of all because she’s come to like him despite all these qualities.

It’s important to understand that this really doesn’t come out as mean on her part. She’s clearly experiencing her own internal anguish, and they’re both more concerned for each other than anything else. But it goes deep. At first Joe was mad because the conflict tapped into one part of him, but now this really matters, because the issue between them calls everything about Joe’s identity into question.

Joe Pera Talks With You.
Joe Pera Talks With You. Turner/Adult Swim

When we get to the finale, Joe seems lost. His interest in the topic of the episode, “Cold Weather Sports,” goes completely by the wayside, thus erasing the show’s central form. His quiet confidence is erased. He’s suddenly insecure and begins to try to “train his eyes” to not need glasses. And yet, he has visions of chasing after Sarah in her snowmobile. On the outside, he seems much the same, but he’s rattled and unhinged within. It actually reminds me of the famous Thoreau quote about how most “men lead lives of quiet desperation.” It is also a quote that is frequently misapplied with the follow-up, “and die with their song still inside them,” which is a terrifying quote for so many, not because it calls courage into question, but bring up the very notion of confrontation. And that’s something that Joe seeks to avoid at all costs. He would rather die than make someone uncomfortable. He even tells us, “I try to avoid movies with violence.” And Sarah’s doomsday preparation? Well, that strikes at the very opposite instinct. It’s the story of avoidance vs. compensation.

But what we’re really seeing is the struggle for the Midwestern soul.

I feel there is so little that is really understood when it comes to the regionalism and cultural differences of this country. The way the coasts regard “red state” America as a casual lumping of the South, the Midwest and the Great Lakes showcases both our massive reduction and misunderstanding. Each has distinct personality traits, values and ways of life. For example, Joe’s problem with toxic masculinity rests not with its aggression, but with his region’s emphasis on quiet stoicism. But it all understandably gets watered down into the binary political spectrum.

Perhaps it would be easier to just think of our country in terms of the difference between rural and urban. It’s easy to see life as “simple” in a small town. When looking at news stories out of cities where murder, crime and alternative lifestyles seemingly run more rampant everything gets lumped together as “wrong.” Statistically-speaking, we know there isn’t really all that much of a difference between these settings (we’re just stacked on top of each other in urban areas), but it nonetheless breeds a fear of the intersections of society, particularly along cultural and racial lines. The cities are deeply misunderstood, causing its inhabitants to, in turn, look down on most of America as “middle America” or ‘flyover states,” and therefore inconsequential—as if millions and millions of Americans were unaware of the greater realities in their country. Which might be one of the biggest misunderstandings of all.

Because Joe is completely aware, he’s just always had the privilege of getting to not think about it. Meaning, his personality merely reflects the Midwestern notion of quiet avoidance (best summed up in the moment of awareness where his grandmother tries to feed him instead of answering a question, and he realizes the connection himself). But it’s not that he doesn’t care about the plight of the world. He’s always cared, he has an empathetic heart. But now with his anxieties all unfurled, he begins openly contemplating the hard stuff, “like will America pay for what we’ve done? What happens when Nana can’t live on her own?” He even turns directly to the camera, “Can I ask you? do you think we’re just one electrical grid shutdown from turning on one another?”

He even turns to the kids in his choir with the same kind of sobering questions and gets the most thoughtful answers. The complexity of these notions paralyze him because they call his entire “softness” into question. Even as his grandma jokes that she’ll kill him with pots and pans if he gets married without telling her, he can only sadly muse that “the violence is ingrained in us.”

Which brings us to the way it all comes together with Sarah. You could argue that their survival bunker date is somehow about their willingness to mix eccentricities, but it goes so much deeper than that, to the very contradiction of our identity and experience. Joe wonders aloud about her choice to be a teacher, saying “you believe in the future, but you’re also afraid of it.” And she flatly responds, “I’m not afraid of it. I have this basement.” It’s a chicken and egg answer, but it reveals, of course, the fear is there. The basement is how she deals with the fear, just like how Joe chooses the path of avoidance and focusing on his many obscure interests. And in the end, neither is really interested in confrontation or putting up walls.

Within the scope of the story, we realize the battle for the Midwestern soul is not really a battle at all. Whether it’s those who avoid the questions or prepare abjectly for them, they’re both just caught in a struggle of quiet desperation. And the solution doesn’t come in the form of profound speeches, nor in stockpiling rows of insulin, but the simple moments of genuine connection that remind us that such fear is allowed. Our realization, likes Sarah’s, is that we can’t have vehemence for Joe’s softness because he so readily invites our own softness in turn. Real strength lies in the ability to be vulnerable together, to admit that we want to connect to another. And, most of all…

To acknowledge that we all just want to be understood.

Talking With Me

Joe Pera is so difficult to describe not because he is weird, but because he is remarkably complex. What could pass for simple low-key diction and some clever jokes instead reveals layers of ponderous understanding and self-examination. Joe comes at Americana not to build up some Rockwellian veneer, but to portray something far more honest. And in doing so, he creates a feeling that is as hopeful as it is curious as it is unsure. More than that, he’s willing to admit that he is unsure about what his place is within it. He wonders if the world has room for someone who would move out of his house simply to avoid a confrontation. Just as he wonders whether this same world has room for his eccentricities, his interests, his strengths and his lack thereof. And somehow, Joe Pera puts it all these thoughts together for this remarkable show.

I can call his art “bizarre, wholesome and outsider” with confidence because it feels accurate, and yet it feels so much less than the sum total of what is being offered. Because Joe Pera is simply a man who wants to be understood. But he also goes to great lengths to understand us in turn. And in the end, what he leaves us with may be hard to describe. But I understand the feeling of it. And it is a great feeling of warmth when this man talks with me. For even though he speaks of a life I do not lead, and a place where I do not live…

I feel so incredibly at home.

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