What Are You Watching? is a weekly space for The A.V Club’s staff and readers to share their thoughts, observations, and opinions on film and TV.
“And just like that, I can feel my soul grow back.” So says Joe Pera at the end of “Joe Pera Takes You On A Fall Drive,” the third episode of Joe Pera Talks With You, the live-action Adult Swim series that finished its first season this past Sunday. It’s a fitting capper to 11 minutes that find Pera—playing a fictionalized version of himself who teaches choir in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula—taking part in a favored autumnal ritual. It’s also an apt summary of what it’s like to watch Joe Pera Talks With You, undoubtedly the most placid program to ever air on Adult Swim, not counting the two specials the New York-based comedian made for Cartoon Network’s typically anarchic late-night block in 2016. Everyday life in 2018 is so loud and so abrasive, and Joe Pera Talks With You provides a soothing balm to all that.
None of which is to say that the show isn’t funny; it is, often uproariously so. But it’s a particular type of funny, of the soft-spoken, deadpan, and disarming type that Pera practices onstage and on the talk-show circuit. It’s one of his many gifts as a performer, the way his understated wardrobe, deliberate delivery, and nervous body language set an expectation for awkwardness, before Pera pulls the rug out from under the audience with the confidence of his pacing and the precision of his writing. Joe Pera Talks With You is formatted along the same lines, with the everyday topics in the episode titles serving largely as windows into Joe’s weird little world, which reminds me in all the best ways of The Adventures Of Pete & Pete, the humor writing of Jack Handey, and the films of Wes Anderson. (Other works Joe Pera Talks With You makes me think of: Fishing With John, The Joy Of Painting, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.) “Joe Pera Takes You On A Fall Drive” is about so much more than an afternoon spent inside Joe’s 2001 Buick Park Avenue, but to say too much more would ruin the joy of watching the thing unfold. Do yourself a favor and watch the episode, which is streaming for free on the Adult Swim website as of this writing. We’ll meet back on the other side of the following publicity still.
Now that you’re back, you hopefully have a better appreciation for what a wholly formed vision the show is, due in no small part to how acutely Pera has honed his comedic voice. It’s droll without sounding like it’s impressed with its own cleverness; it tells the stories of humble characters without also condescending to them. Joe Pera Talks With You is embedded in the title character’s head, but it still acknowledges when he screws up, and doesn’t pretend that everyone in Marquette goes through their lives as blithely or as inquisitively as Joe. He has a willing partner in mineral hunting and lawsuit-filing in his decades-older best friend, Gene (Gene Kelly, moonlighting from his regular gig as a camera operator on Late Night With Seth Meyers), but Gene’s wife Lulu (Alma Washington) doesn’t care for Joe, and isn’t shy about telling him so.
That sort of prickliness beneath the homespun surface is vital to Joe Pera Talks With You. It’s not a Twin Peaks situation, but it’s also not a show that sees small-town America through rose-colored glasses. In the series premiere, Joe gets a foil in the form of Mike Melsky (Conner O’Malley), the loutish father of the family that barges into Joe’s house after a “For Sale” sign mysteriously shows up on the lawn. (“I think I’m being pranked again by local teens,” Joe tells Gene—a joke and a piece of flash fiction all in one.) O’Malley is a frequent collaborator of Pera’s, and together they make quite the fire-and-ice pair: The former a confrontational performer adept at tapping into humanity’s seething id, the latter a guy who made a hilarious animated special that doubles as a relaxation aid. Mike isn’t a huge part of Joe Pera Talks With You, but knowing that there are loose cannons like him out there is, particularly when Joe starts drawing closer to a colleague, the perfectly named Sarah Conner (Jo Firestone). One of the show’s many innovations of comedic standards: Reinventing the bedroom-farce door-slam in a scene where Sarah repeatedly climbs into and out of the cab of a humongous pickup truck.
The switcheroo that Joe Pera Talks With You pulls every episode defines the arc of the whole first season: What’s billed as a series of discussions with a kind local oddball becomes the story of someone learning to share his passions and practices with the people who are willing to listen. Joe doesn’t fit in, so he’s built a space where he does, one where he’s free to discuss vintage sheet music, breakfast foods, and the pest-control practices of Canadian provinces to his heart’s content. The show puts a televisual gloss on the mundane objects of his fascination, presenting diner food in ornately arranged close ups and setting the action (so to speak) to the autumnal tone poems of Ryan Dann. It even affords this courtesy to Mike as he explains his never-ending pursuit of “the perfect egg bite.” Its elevation of the everyday tickles, but it makes room for the big laughs in Pera’s dry narration, the surreal image of a jack-o’-lantern bobbing through rapids, or a sound-effect gag involving a giant meatball.
Can’t you feel your soul growing back, too?