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‘Joe Pera Talks With You’: In Praise of Joy

Joe Pera cared and Joe Pera shared, but mostly Joe Pera talked with you. Celebrate the legacy of Adult Swim’s ‘Joe Pera Talks With You,’ the ultimate in anti-cringe.

Ringer illustration

On Friday, Nathan Fielder will bring a close to the first season of his mind-boggling, skin-crawling HBO series, The Rehearsal. No matter how you feel about the show, one thing that can’t be denied is that it’s pushing the boundaries of cringe comedy. So, in its honor, The Ringer hereby dubs today Cringe Comedy Day. Join us—if you can stop clenching your teeth and covering your eyes—as we celebrate and explore everything the niche genre has to offer.

Joe Pera Talks With You, the midwestern gem of Adult Swim, was canceled last month. The show enjoyed three seasons on the network, three seasons of funny, unique, thoughtful programming. Three seasons of episodes with titles like “Joe Pera Shows You His Second Fridge,” “Joe Pera Helps You Write,” and “Joe Pera Talks to You About the Rat Wars of Alberta, Canada, 1950-Present Day.” If cringe comedy is the theater of the uncomfortable—crank up tension, break with laughter, repeat—then consider Joe Pera Talks With You the anti-cringe. A warm blanket of a comedy. Mellow, joyful, and good-hearted. A balm. Watch and relax.

When Stephen Colbert described the show before Pera’s interview on Late Night, he called it, “One of the funniest and most beautiful things I’ve seen in a long time.” This is true, but vague. HBO Max is more specific:

A teacher in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula explores subject matters such as pancakes, blueberries, eggs, toast, sausage, bacon, English muffins, coffee, orange juice, maple syrup, waffles, cornbread, and strawberries.

This is true, but lacking. In a 2020 interview on NPR’s Bullseye with Jesse Thorn, Pera describes the show himself:

“It’s a bunch of things. It’s meant to be kind of an informational show at the start and I guess each time it gets away from that. So I’ve been saying it’s kind of like CBS Sunday Morning as done by a middle school choir teacher and oftentimes he gets distracted and also there are jokes.”

True again. The show was a bunch of things. Part sitcom/part infomercial/part educational program/part love letter to Baba O’Riley, it was also about a bunch of things. On the face of it, Joe Pera Talks With You was about a middle school choir teacher in Marquette, Michigan, who enjoys hanging out with his best friend Gene, going to the grocery store, and taking fall drives. But the surface is barely getting grazed. The show was about being good to each other and good to the earth. It was about looking out for the people around you and taking time to enjoy life’s pleasures. It was about warm apple nights and the Melsky-sphere and listening to your drunk significant other tell you about Wine Wednesday at Diane Luten’s. It was about guitar ties and the life of a Jack-O-Lantern and the epitome of luxury—the 2001 Buick Park Avenue. (“Combining engineering excellence and a classic interpretation of style, the Park Avenue is truly one of America’s most beautiful automobiles.”) It was about bionic eyes and surviving on cactus, bean arches and a lovely villancico from 16th century Spain called “Riu Riu Chiu.” It was also about gratitude.

It’s easier to critically discuss a serious piece of art than a funny one. Dramas are much more likely to lend themselves to the English class treatment. Writing about comedy is tricky. If someone’s not careful, they come off sounding like the loud guy at the bar hollering movie quotes, repeating someone else’s bits. I will take that risk. As is sometimes true with great basketball players, it is also true with comedies. Sometimes it’s best to wave all the other words out of the way and let the jokes take over. Clear out. Fred the Sample Guy is here. It’s bucket-getting time.

Fred the Sample Guy: Hey Joe!

Joe: Hey Fred. How’s business?

Fred the Sample Guy: Well, for me, it’s always good. You know, I’m in the free business.

Joe: If you don’t mind me saying, Fred, you’re the leading man of the grocery store.

[Fred responds in French. I don’t know French. Fred seems flattered. Accept the mystery.]

Joe: I don’t know what that means, but can you tell us a bit about what you do?

Fred the Sample Guy: You know, Joe, I got to tell you—I got the best freaking job in the world. I get to give away lifelong memories for free and provide people with risk-free eating adventures in the middle of their day.

Joe: What’s the adventure today?

Fred the Sample Guy: I was hoping I was gonna see you. I know what kind of freak you are for ham.

Joe: I love new ham.

Fred the Sample Guy: It’s a new product called German Select Honey Ham from Schweinskopf Meats. Joe [puts his hand over his heart] let me tell you, this stuff is just—I mean wow—it is just out of this world freaking phenomenal.

Joe: I’m excited.

Fred the Sample Guy: And I personally guarantee that this ham is gonna change your life.

Joe: It tastes like honey.

Fred the Sample Guy: Is that phenomenal or what?

Joe: It’s absolutely phenomenal.

Fred the Sample Guy: Just a phenomenal ham. Joe, do you need this?

Joe: Yes, yes, yes.

[Fred pumps a fist and hands Pera the ham.]

Joe: Thank you, Fred.

Fred the Sample Guy: My pleasure. I hope you enjoy that ham. Let me know how it goes, will you? I mean that stuff is amazing. Phenomenal. Did I mention that before?

Long live Fred the Sample Guy.

Pera thinks human beings are fascinating, wants them to care for one another, look out for each other. Connection is what matters—connection with the world and the people around us. When Pera’s stuff gets discussed, two of the bigger words in the word cloud tend to be kind and gentle. He can be uniquely sweet in his comedy. Not sweet in the Jimmy Fallon cottoncandy-rainbow-puppies-oh-my-goodness-we-love-you-pal-now-check-out-this-impression-of-Neil-Young-singing-I’m-a-Little-Teapot sort of way. Sweet in the goes-to-the-Superior-Dome-to-walk-with-his-late-nana’s-old-beauty-parlor-friend-Carole sort of way. The “F” button isn’t working on her computer. He’ll come over soon and take a look.

Some comedians reach for the be-good-to-each-other thing and it reads false, saccharine. Pera hits the notes because he means them. Even when he would dare poke fun at someone, he makes sure to apologize. In the fifth episode of Season 1, “Joe Pera Talks You Back to Sleep,” Pera spends most of the 11:31 running time in bed. The night thunder woke him and he has something special to show us—his sheet music collection. Holding up the sheet music for a song called, incredibly, “Always Think of Mother,” Pera shows off the cover art.

“I love this piece because the composer looks like a little hamburger boy,” Pera says. “Sorry to tease.”

Here’s the thing—the composer does look like that. Exactly like that. The guy looks like he was burging out regularly and with great intensity.

His eyes scare me. I want to move on.

The show’s excellence was due in part to its specificity. Joe Pera Talks With You was exacting in its execution, precise. I once heard an old writer wax something to the effect of, “Look for the detail next to the detail.” So, don’t just say a character had a bruise. Say it was shaped like a Winnebago. Say it looked like deep space. Say they got it in Oaxaca wrestling javelinas. Or to use an example from Joe Pera Talks With You, don’t just say there are rumors of a three-antlered deer roaming the Marquette wilderness. Say Gene’s friend Timeric thinks the three-antlered deer is an Old Testament demon. Say the deer was photographed. Say the photographer was former Michigan State Representative Steve Lindberg. Show the demon.

Steve Lindberg/Facebook

Joe Pera Talks With You was obsessed with the details. This is a testament to Pera’s vision, but also the show’s director, Marty Schousboe, editor Whit Conway, executive producers/writers/shining stars Jo Firestone and Conner O’Malley, and the rest of the incredible writing staff: Katie Dolan, Dan Licata, and Nathan Min. No series as distinctive, thorough, and quietly stylish as this happens without a village of talent behind the camera.

And so the show is filled with unspoken storytelling flourishes, hyper-particular creative choices designed to deepen our understanding of Pera’s Upper Peninsula and the people that live there. During the first episode of Season 3, Joe and Gene go to a furniture store. They park Gene’s Buick Enclave and get out. It’s the lone vehicle in the lot. Gene needs a chair. He tells Joe he’s been thinking about this decision for the last 16 weeks. Something as important as the seat on which you will daily rest your tuchus, these things must not be rushed. If all goes well on this visit, Gene will finally make his purchase. Joe has cleared his entire day to help his best friend decide. As they approach the front door, an employee crosses the frame and unlocks the door. The two friends arrived bright and early, the moment the store opened. They will be there for a while. They will sit in many chairs. They will take their time. It’s the move to have them arrive at the store the moment it opens that says so much. These are men that know—chairs are serious. Always have been, always will be. But that’s not all they know. From the sixth episode of Season 3, “Joe Pera Takes You For a Flight,” clear out again:

Pera V.O.: A lot of people think that The Wizard of Oz had a happy ending, but not me because Dorothy missed out on the opportunity to take a hot air balloon ride. Willy Wonka is a better film because they end up in the sky. That’s how good fantasies go. Up to the sky. In all the best dreams, we’re able to leave the ground.

[Fred the Sample Guy is back. This time, he is soaring.]

Pera: Way back, there were dinosaurs who had this dream as well. And instead of getting bigger and more aggressive, they decided that the best way to survive was to go up and figured out a way to jump and not come down. And these became birds—mostly peaceful things, with little brains and beautiful songs. Not that flight made all birds peaceful, but I think the perspective helps. Plus, they know they can BM on anything they’d like … I wonder if the higher up we go, the calmer we’ll feel? What do you think? I’ve never been on an airplane so I can’t say for sure, but the other day Gene was telling me about the overview effect which might support that.

Gene: The overview effect is a term they give to a shift in awareness astronauts described after viewing Earth from space. Hard to put to words, but generally they say a greater understanding of our planet as a fragile ball of life, an appreciation for how precious things are, and also that borders are chowder-brained. I’ve been thinking the more people we can get to experience the overview effect, the better. It makes it more likely that we can avoid the dystopian future depicted in Ridley Scott’s Alien or Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner.

Once inside the furniture store, Gene gave the saleswoman, Rhoda, a gift and said, “I brought you and the gang some fresh rolls to eat with your crawfish.”

Long live Gene.

When you first hear Pera talk, it’s not immediately apparent that he has one of the great ASMR voices of all time. His cadence can be halted and slow, deliberate. Only when he settles into the pocket and you’ve had a chance to learn his rhythms does it start to dawn on you how comforting it is. Pera’s VO’s soothe. There’s no desperation to the delivery, no manic energy. He is there to entertain and opine and make people laugh, but he’s there to do it on his terms. There’s a patience, an unhurriedness to Pera as a performer, that’s boosted by the precision of the writing. It’s OK that you don’t know where it’s headed. He does. He knows what he wants to do and how he wants to do it. He speaks softly and carries a medium-sized stick. A branch, actually, that fell off a red maple near his house. It cracked off the tree during a storm and he’s looking forward to fashioning it into a cane.

Joe Pera Talks With You wants to teach. It wants to teach you that people get taller in outer space because their spines elongate. It wants to teach you that Lance Bass is a ham radio user. It wants to teach you about the usage of pretzels in Swiss wedding ceremonies and shows clips of pretzels being made. Clips, he says, that he likes to watch. He enjoys them and thinks we will, too. He is here to share—his advice and triumphs and failures, his thoughts and opinions and joys. And he’ll slip in some of his annoyances every so often. “Sorry to get down on dominoes, but it’s one of my core beliefs that you shouldn’t waste kinetic energy.” But Pera mainly wants to tell you something good. He wants to talk about what he loves, what makes him happy and calm and grateful. It’s a show that appreciated silliness, sincerity, absurdity, humor, feelings, and learning in equal measure. It’s a show that made you want to build a chair. It’s a show where, when Joe’s significant other, Sarah, asks to watch something relaxing, the video he shows her is of a Coneheads flash mob in New York City. The song begins. Lyrics like: “I love it girl, let’s party, and “Those dudes are so bouncy.” There are 10 dancers. Janeane Garofalo is there. “From 24,” Pera explains. She’s just watching until one of the dancers hands her a conehead of her own and pulls her onto the dance floor. Garofalo joins the group for 11 seconds. She gets after it. Then Artie Bucco from The Sopranos shows up. His aviators have yellow lenses. Like Fred’s ham, he looks phenomenal.

“OK, thank you, thank you,” Bucco says, “stop the music please.”

Bucco gets on one knee. He’s holding a ring the size of a bread plate.

“Jeneane Garofalo, would you wear my ring on your cone? Will you marry me?”

She says yes. They embrace. The song ends: “Your vibe, me likey.”

“OK,” Sarah says, “That was very good.”

When Pera was a senior in high school, he wrote to Christopher Guest. From the Adult Swim Podcast: “This is embarrassing now but I asked him what the secret to being funny was ‘cause he seemed to, you know, everything I saw was so funny. And he wrote back and just said, ‘Do what you think is funny. There’s no secret.’”

Thanks, Chris. Big help. Hope the pen didn’t run out of ink. Love Corky’s dance, though. It’s almost as good as Joe’s. Unfortunately, he just has more command over his hips. Those things tell the truth. Don’t feel bad. Sometimes you run into a sexual buzzsaw. Your loss is Sarah’s gain.

Here are some things Pera thinks are funny:

  • Grown men cheering for a GoDaddy commercial.
  • Giving a thumbs down to hard cider.
  • Sticking a gun in your mouth and headbanging to “Last Resort” by Papa Roach.
  • Naming his love interest after the female lead in The Terminator.
  • Sarah (Firestone) using her knife—a Benchmade Mini Griptilian—to open some cheese for Debin Jaconski-Hammershunk. “It’s like the Griptilian but mini.”
  • The name Debin Jaconski-Hammershunk.
  • Debin Jaconski-Hammershunk (Devin Bockrath) asking, “You go online much?”
  • Diane Luten (Annie Donley) saying, “Sarah, you have such a good energy, like an ox.”
  • Sue Melsky (Jo Scott) hitting a mailbox with a baseball bat and saying, “I was still playing hockey while 30 weeks pregnant with Nicole.”
  • Turtles wearing clothes
  • Turtles driving boats
  • Turtles driving cars
  • Barn stars
  • Basset hounds
  • Sweatshirts that say DON’T ASK ME. I’M DRUNK AND HIGH.
  • Gene saying, “The quality of the dining room sets is top notch.
  • Principal Neiman (Deanna Reed-Foster) saying, “Come in. I’m just buying some ink.”
  • Principal Neiman saying, “Might I remind you, young lady, that you are a student at Little Deer Middle School and not Chef Gordon Ramsey?”
  • A janitor saying, “If Jeff Dunham-Terry Fator fans saw Kermit the Frog riding a bicycle, they would cry blasphemy then bludgeon it, ‘cause something so free and beautiful should not be allowed to exist.”
  • A magician saying, “I’d like to see (finger quotes) God do that.”
  • A parrot saying, “Uh, that’s theft, bitch.”
  • Carlos (Carmen Christopher) trying to put on a T-shirt over his dislocated arm.
  • Hanging a clarinet on a basement wall right above a machete.
  • “I went to Donker’s with Bugsy.”
  • Mike Melsky (O’Malley) saying, “We do not condone any of that kind of language in the Melsky-sphere and we will be doing repercussions.”
  • Mike Melsky catching a crow.

Joe Pera Talks With You was not a show that celebrated the little things. It was a show that said, these things we’ve been told are little are not. They are massive. Going out for breakfast with someone you love, dancing to your new favorite song, telling a friend they’ve been good to you—those are the big, beautiful things, the things that give a life meaning.

The series was not Pera’s first time working with Adult Swim. The previously referenced “Joe Pera Talks You Back to Sleep” was a spiritual sequel to a 2016 AS production with a similar title—“Joe Pera Talks You To Sleep.” From that special. Clear out again.

Pera: When Stephen Hawking cheated on his wife, she must have felt pretty sad. It was a terrible thing to do, and I don’t want to defend him, but try thinking about it from his perspective for a moment. He spends all day thinking about the universe and how big it is. How our star, the sun, is just one of dozens of stars in the galaxy, which is just one of dozens of galaxies in the known universe, all set against handfuls and handfuls of time. If one guy cheats on his wife, what’s the big deal?

Thinking further down the same line of thought however, if we’re so tiny and insignificant, if you’re able to find one person in the entire universe who cares about you, why would you want to disappoint them?

So ladies, if we get married, I promise I won’t cheat on you. That said, good luck locking down this bengal tiger. I ain’t going to the zoo so easy. Just kidding. I can’t wait to go to the zoo.

Long live Joe Pera. Long may he talk.