R.I.P. 'Joe Pera Talks With You'

The show managed to be sweet without ever becoming saccharine

Adult Swim
Nicholas Russell
Cancel Culture

I could never tell when Joe Pera was doing a bit. I still can’t. The mild-mannered, stiff-legged, contemplative comedian from Buffalo, NY seems like a spin-off character from an Adult Swim show, a kind of satire on the platonic ideal of the whitest guy ever: blond comb-over, thick glasses, heavy sweaters, pale skin, Midwestern affect. He speaks slowly, often licking his lips during his pauses, his arms hovering out at his sides, his voice even, almost monotone. He looks like he should be selling insurance or running a used car dealership or leading a youth group. He looks like the oldest 33 year old you’ve ever seen.

In a clip from 2013, Pera riffs on his downtown NFL team, the Buffalo Bills, and their poor track record. He starts by listing some facts, namely that the Bills haven’t been to the Super Bowl since 1994. The description box of the video states that this routine was performed in Boston “in front of Patriots fans.” After eliciting the good will of the audience by acknowledging how bad the Bills are, Pera makes a subtle turn. Instead of lambasting the Bills, Pera suggests the team intentionally throws their regular season every year so that the players, as well as the team’s fans, will spend more time with their family. “Is quarterback E.J. Manuel upset about the interception he just threw? Hardly. Because he knows that the worse he plays this Sunday, the fuller the pumpkin patches will be the following Sunday.” Then Pera talks about an imaginary fan who, instead of watching the game, hangs out with his kids. He goes into minute detail, even painting a picture of this fan’s wife recording this afternoon together for posterity. Pera’s sentimentality earns him some laughs, but it’s unclear if he’s joking.

By the time he got his own show on Adult Swim, Joe Pera Talks With You, which followed a fictionalized middle-school choir teacher version of Pera that nonetheless walks and talks just like he does in his stand-up routines, the line between fact and fiction had blurred significantly.

After watching a few minutes of him, you begin to wonder why someone would behave like that. Even in interviews, he appears to be almost childishly shy and polite, the same way he is during his stand-up. He can elicit the same secondhand embarrassment as Tim Robinson, of Detroiters and I Think You Should Leave, the sense that you are watching a man-child who cannot possibly function in normal society. And yet both Robinson’s chaotic naiveté and Pera’s calm, awed disposition make for personas that, instead of being overblown, are highly concentrated. Both are keen observers of people’s idiosyncrasies and delusions. Robinson, who shares destabilizing absurdist qualities with the likes of Tim Heidecker and Eric Andre (though admittedly less crass), makes his observations through negative representation: he’ll more often act out how not to behave, in the process shedding light on unspoken social mores or taboos.

Pera, on the other hand, is quieter and more straightforwardly earnest, and sometimes, it’s difficult to pinpoint where the humor is. Sure, the overall sensibility of his character in Joe Pera Talks With You, and by extension his public-facing behavior off-set, is funny enough. But after a while, it could easily turn saccharine, sickly, almost sinister, like Ted Lasso from Ted Lasso. Instead, Pera’s comedy is far more simple and less didactic, often dwelling in those moments during the day when one feels most reflective on their life, from large, upsetting events like a funeral to mundane errands like picking out a Christmas tree.

“There’s a real sense of freedom when you do it on your own,” Pera explains as he runs bases on an empty field in an episode about going for a hike. “No pressure to hit the ball. No baseman to tag you out. If you are an anarchist, you don’t even need to touch the base, but you’d miss out on leaving your footprint on that dusty white bag. 18 years ago, I broke a baseball record when I became the first kid in the Upper Peninsula to get banned from Little League.” Pera digresses constantly, just like the other characters in his show, tangents filled with wistful recollections that also hide genuine vulnerabilities. The new band teacher and Pera’s eventual girlfriend Sarah, played expertly by Jo Firestone, says at one point, “I’ve dated men from each branch of the U.S. military and I still keep in touch with two of them. We’re friends, but it’s primarily for intelligence.” It’s hilarious and, as we glean over time, in bits and pieces throughout the course of the show’s 10-minute episodes, a reflection of Sarah’s paranoia and distrust of other people. Similar threads play out with other characters. There’s Pera’s wily neighbor Mike (played by actor and frequent writer Conner O’Malley), his wife Sue (Jo Scott), and their rowdy kids. There’s Nanna Pera (played by Detroiters regular Pat Vern Harris), Joe’s grandmother. There’s Gus, Pera’s basset hound. There’s Gene (camera operator-turned-actor Gene Kelly), Pera’s best friend. There are the off-kilter, sometimes boring, sometimes unexpectedly cruel lives they lead.

Perhaps I’m overthinking it. Joe Pera Talks With You is the kind of project that gets easily touted as profound and meaningful, an “innocent” look at everyday life led by a lovable, slightly weird guy. It is partly that, and Pera doesn’t seem to mind such a reading. But one of the show’s real feats is in crafting a palpable ennui, the kind of life-considering stupor that comes from simply thinking a little too long about what you do every day, while also providing you with moments of heart-stinging hope. There isn’t much that’s ironic about Joe Pera and Joe Pera Talks With You, at least not in the winking way, the “just kidding” way. There are no winks.

Instead, Joe Pera is like stepping out on a break from work, taking a deep breath, and having a stranger say to you, “Nice out, isn’t it?” You register this as an intrusion, an annoying solicitation for conversation, before noticing that it is, indeed, nice out. It doesn’t change your life, but then again it doesn’t need to. These moments accrete and build into something resembling a life of intention and curiosity. That’s the hope anyway. That’s what Joe Pera Talks With You is like. That’s why it’s a shame that it won’t keep going. In a message on his website about the show’s cancellation, Pera wrote, “It felt like we cracked something — a different kind of tone that has now popped up a bit elsewhere.”

Nicholas Russell is a writer from Las Vegas. His work has been featured in The Believer, Defector, Reverse Shot, Vulture, The Guardian, NPR Music, and The Point, among other publications.