“Joe Pera Talks With You” regrows your soul

August 24, 2018

Late night programming block Adult Swim has built its brand on off-color, caustic comedy, but earlier this summer, something completely different premiered: the sincere, meditative, and caring “Joe Pera Talks With You.” It’s an incredible work of empathy, rooted to an entirely unique character—the kind of show that just might make you feel better after watching.

Perhaps “Joe Pera Talks With You” could only exist on Adult Swim, a network where twelve minute episodes are the norm. Twelve minutes forces inventive efficiency: showrunners have to get to the point as fast as possible. Usually, this means something dark and crass and absurd, but “Joe Pera” takes things in an entirely different direction—there are no Satanic rituals, severed limbs or diarrhea, just a character and atmosphere that make you want to keep coming back.

“Luxury. Refinement. Power. These are three words I would use to describe the 2001 Buick Park Avenue,” is how Pera begins episode three. He’s talking to the camera, slowly and deliberately, as he drives in his car on a late autumn day in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. “Joe Pera,” played by the comedian of the same name, is a man of indiscriminate age, who usually walks with an unhurried, shambling gait and always has his shirt tucked in. The character emanates the same aura as Mr. Rogers—kind, considerate, perhaps slightly aloof. Joe Pera ends his treatise in his car, the 2001 Buick Park Avenue by saying, “It’s just a really nice car that doesn’t make people feel bad about how nice it is. And it’s got OnStar.” All of the episodes are framed like this: expository forays into this solitary young/old man’s life.

The show has a dry, subtle sense of humor, but it doesn’t make fun of Joe in a mean-spirited way. He’s an elementary school choirmaster who loves his hometown, Marquette, Michigan, and he spends a lot of time telling us about it. In the first episode, “Joe Pera Shows You Iron,” he teaches us not just about iron but also copper, azurite, tourmaline and, of course, Lake Superior Agate. But the Midwestern ephemera is really just window-dressing; “Joe Pera Talks With You” is about the character. While each episode is framed as an exploration of a particular theme—snowmobiles, breakfast, The Rat Wars of Alberta, Canada—they’re really brief portraits of a thoughtful, melancholy and sympathetic character.

In the fourth episode, Joe finally meets his match in the form of anxious doomsday-prepper and fellow music teacher Sarah Connor, played by Jo Firestone. The show finds empathetic comedy in how its “outsider” characters fit in with the real world. Joe Pera has a physical awkwardness to him: he carries himself like he’s not exactly at home in his body. Sarah, too, is just slightly short, and there’s a great scene where she gets mad at Joe and tries to angrily drive away in her truck, except she can’t quite climb in because it’s too high off the ground.

We’re treated to a children’s musical centered around the Rat Wars of Alberta, Canada—something Sarah suggested to Joe do after they first went snowmobiling together. It’s rooted in a weird fact (Alberta has been rat-free for the last 65 years thanks to vigilant patrolling) and turns into something absurdly funny and endearing. I still can’t get the song out of my head.

It’s awkward for sure but not in a way that suggests the show is making fun of Joe or Sarah. These characters walk the line of being simultaneously lame and endearing—no small feat. They’re both weird, unique people, and their interactions with each other and the world are captivating and hilarious to watch. There’s something vulnerable about Joe’s old man shuffle, how he walks hunched forward with his arms hanging over his side, like a geriatric penguin. It catches you off-guard. I didn’t feel like I was laughing at his awkwardness but with him because the sincerity of the writing and performance got me to care. In terms of Adult Swim characters, Joe Pera is about as far from Rick Sanchez as you can possibly get.

Something that best summarizes the series comes in the third episode with the 2001 Buick Park Avenue: “Joe Pera Takes You on a Fall Drive.” The premise, again, is simple, absurd and a little melancholy. Joe wonders why jack-o’-lanterns “scare him so goddamn much.” (He immediately apologizes for swearing). Gene, his geriatric best friend, tells him that when you carve a jack-o’-lantern you put a piece of your soul in it, just like your grandmother baking cookies. You lose that piece—but you can grow it back by going on a fall drive. It’s a ridiculous situation, but the solution is convincing. I’ve never seen a show like this before: a show that’s funny, but also contemplative and soothing—a visual balm.

There are few shows that are both entertaining and edifying. I felt like I came to know Joe over time, and even though it was at times awkward and weird, the show really got me to care. “Joe Pera Talks With You” provides a brief respite from the noise of our daily, media-saturated lives, a hilarious, wholesome and compelling show that might just regrow a piece of your soul.

Currently, the entire first season is streaming for free on Adultswim.com.

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