Most comedians make specials, showcases of an hour’s worth of material they’ve honed on the road. Joe Pera makes meditation aids.
That’s what Joe Pera Helps You Find the Perfect Christmas Tree is. It’s also possibly the most G-rated program to ever air on Adult Swim (Friday, midnight). Pera, a New York–based stand-up, can tell you that a fresh Christmas tree has needles that snap back when you bend them. He can show you how to tell a spruce from a fir. (As he points them out, Pera intones: “This is a spruce. This is a spruce. This is a …”) But most of all, Pera’s special can introduce you to the kind of utterly distinctive comic voice who gets a half-hour on a notoriously anarchic network and uses it to wax rhapsodic about conifers. He just really likes A Charlie Brown Christmas, he tells me. It’s “a really nice show.”
Pera is technically a stand-up comedian, a descriptor that implies all kinds of things Pera is not: brash, snarky, aggressive, urbane. Instead, Pera is soft-spoken and almost painfully sincere, a demeanor that allows occasional flashes of deadpan to slip into his routine unnoticed. He looks like he was born in a sensible sweater, possibly in the 1940s. It’s the item he seems to be wearing in almost every public appearance, along with his trusty khakis. The vibe is very “third-generation accountant from Buffalo.” The Buffalo part, at least, is true: Just watch Pera’s six-minute argument (he calls it a joke, but it’s more of a yarn-spin) for why the Bills are the best team in the NFL; they may have a tradition of losing, but they bring families together.
Family figures into a lot of Pera’s stories. He’s fundamentally wholesome, a man who cares deeply about the people in his life: Where traditional stand-ups populate their jokes with fictional “friends,” Pera shades in his supporting cast. When Pera says he’s fond of picking his aunt up from the hairdresser and telling the other ladies, “This really is a beauty parlor,” you believe him; after his five-minute performance on Late Night with Seth Meyers, he sticks around for the sole purpose of saying hi to his parents, who are sitting in the audience. It’s heartwarming and uncomfortable in equal measure, a childlike display of intimacy acted out in front of millions.
Discomfort is essential to Pera’s persona in a way that transcends the neuroses one typically associates with comedians. Delivered with a mumble and masked by a halting stammer, Pera’s comic timing is deceptive but impeccable, particularly in tandem with his nonstop fidgeting. Though the default comparison would be Andy Kaufman — someone who’s as much a performance artist as he is a humorist, playing with our ideas of what we expect from our entertainers as part of the act — it’s not entirely a put-on. When I talk to Pera on the phone and ask about his style, he responds, briefly but honestly, “It’s just what I thought was funny, I guess.” It’s a representative answer. Even though he’s turned it to his advantage on stage, Pera is not exactly verbose off it. On how he broke into comedy: “I wanted to do it, so I just went and did it.” On influences: “There are a bunch.” He doesn’t elaborate. Maybe it’s because he doesn’t want to break character — but mostly the brevity comes off as genuine and endearing.
In the more controlled environment of a Pera-style non-stand-up special, with a script and without a live audience, Pera comes across significantly calmer, like a young Garrison Keillor with an Ambien prescription. Classic Americana figures even more heavily here than it does in Pera’s stand-up, like the lengthy section of Joe Pera Talks You to Sleep that guides us through the barns of central Pennsylvania — just kidding, it’s central New York! The joke is that it’s not really a joke, and that Pera’s character thinks you care about geographically accurate barn surveys as much as he does. Same with Christmas trees: While not particularly keen to talk about his comedic DNA, Pera’s more than willing to expound on the longstanding practice of tree worship across world religions. “I don’t like fake trees,” he informs us on Joe Pera Helps … “I’d like to say a few other things on the subject but can’t, because this is a family show.” This is, of course, not a family show; Pera’s insistence that it is only adds to the charm. So does the idea that imitation greenery presents a significant challenge to keeping his work clean.
But Pera is a comedian, and while the enthusiasm is genuine — it would have to be to host a multipart web series called Pancake Breakfast Critic — there’s a current of subversion beneath. Pera’s relationship with flyover country is warmer than the average transplant who fled to the coast: what Ron Swanson is to the alpha male, at once a parody and a sincere embodiment, Pera is to the vulnerable, kindhearted beta. Pera’s clean, wistful routine, where fathers bond with sons and people marry their college sweethearts, hinges on its contrast with reality, both his and the world’s. Pera holds up McDonald’s as a paragon of his youth, and so we laugh. There is no punch line: Pera just reads off the menu — essentially multimillion-dollar ad copy — the way most people would recall the specialties at their local diner. It’s sweet, but also sad; nostalgic, but also clear-eyed about the present. Pera says a tree has never catfished him 11 times in two days, and so we laugh. He’s enough of a victim to be the butt of the joke, yet not so destroyed we feel bad taking joy from it. The ease with which Pera takes it in stride is the point. “Geez, Louise,” he mutters. “That was bad.”
Pera is acquainted with darkness — he directed frequent collaborator Conner O’Malley’s dispatch from a Trump rally, after which, he said, they had “a nice fish dinner” — but doesn’t let it slip into the oblivious cheer until the precise moment it’s most effective. It’s a sneaky kind of sharp, the kind that can only come from someone who’s lulled you into security with his good-natured clumsiness. That’s what Joe Pera Helps … does, until you get to the very end. A perfect Christmas tree has been found. The holidays are here. We’re ready for one last auditory back rub. Instead, Pera reminds us the iconography he trades in — the cozy sweaters and the Christmas trees and the local diners — comes with a cost: “Guantanamo Bay is still open,” he mumbles. “Good night!”