In a time when a debate over what comedians supposedly cannot say rages on, Joe Pera is finding plenty to say about things no one on television seems concerned with at all. Consider the episode titles for the new season of Joe Pera Talks With You, his Adult Swim comedy that kicked off in November: “Joe Pera Sits With You” (in which Pera talks about buying a chair) or “Joe Pera Shows You How to Build a Fire” (where he shows you how to build a fire”) or even “Joe Pera Discusses School-Appropriate Entertainment With You” (it’s better if you see that one for yourself).
When it premiered in 2018, Joe Pera Talks With You felt simultaneously like the strangest and most wonderful thing on television. The title describes exactly what viewers get: for 11 minutes, Joe Pera will talk to the audience about a subject in plaintive, monotonous-yet-warm overtones, as Pera — playing a fictionalized version of himself who’s a middle school choir teacher — interacts with his friends and neighbors in Marquette, Michigan, sometimes in ways that directly relate to the episode’s topic, sometimes in ways that are more abstract. For example, while the third season premiere is about buying a chair, it’s also about helping his friend Gene (Gene Kelly) cope with his discomfort about retirement.
All of Joe Pera Talks With You is like this: The mundane as a window to the soul, where nothing is really boring if you open up enough.
“The line Dan Licata, the writer, came up with a few weeks ago was ‘other TV shows feel like they were made by an energy drink,” Joe Pera tells me over the phone, “So this one feels like it was made by Apple Cider.’”
It’s tempting to describe Joe Pera as comfort television, thanks to its warm sentiment and Pera’s sanguine personality. But that feels like an oversimplification. There is darkness to the series: Viewers meet a character who clearly struggles with alcoholism, other characters struggle with grief, and some folks just aren’t very nice. The achievement of the show is in its efforts to embrace the beauty that exists alongside these things.
“I don’t want to make something that’s totally detached from the real world or some kind of a fantasy show,” Pera says, “but just kind of focuses on the nicer decent moments that happen and trying to pay attention to them.”
Over time, this is the appeal of Joe Pera Talks With You: it is a show deeply in love with people, and uninterested in making them any more or less glamorous than they already are. This is what also makes it hilarious, because people are inherently funny, especially when they’re not trying to be. In one season 2 episode, Pera attends an incredibly awkward bachelor party where he — thin and uncomfortable, completely at odds with the Michigan bros he’s accompanying — surprisingly finds his neighbors opening up to him.
“The bachelor party episode came from a bachelor party weekend I went to,” Pera says. “I was home in Buffalo and somebody at the bachelor party, I found out, goes to like a UFO Believers Club that meets in the Old Country Buffet. It’s like, you would have never guessed that until you talk to somebody!”
Joe Pera Talks With You is, in a nutshell, full of things you’d never guess. One minute a perfectly normal, droll-seeming choir teacher can be riffing on the Rat Wars of Alberta, Canada, the next he might opine about Elizabeth Hurley’s underrated performance in Austin Powers. (Pera loves Austin Powers. “It’s really sharp! Just bit after bit, loaded with good characters and fun moments and so much energy. Did you know [Mike Myers] was 33 when he made that?”)
All sorts of things can happen if you stop and talk to someone like Joe Pera. You just need to take the time.
New episodes of Joe Pera Talks With You air every Sunday on Adult Swim and stream on the network’s website. Seasons 1-2 are also available on HBO Max.