Joe Pera is not the first person you’d think of to host a television show about his life. He might not even be the 51st person you’d think of. In his own words, Joe Pera is a soft-handed choir teacher who lives in awe of Michigan’s geological splendor. He spends his days living at his own gentle pace in the city of Marquette, nestled under the belly of Lake Superior, where he looks after his only living relative, Nana Josephine, and his sleepy basset hound, Gus. Only nominally in his early 30’s, Joe radiates a delicate diffidence that hovers somewhere between childlike and ancient—a lightly fermented second childhood that matches the energy of the elderly company he prefers to keep, far from the raucous intensity of local bars or the teacher’s lounge populated by his peers. Joe suspects that something about the teacher’s lounge turns people into lust-crazed animals, so he prefers to enjoy his humble ketchup sandwiches in the comfort of the Buick Park Avenue he inherited from his grandfather. If he’s feeling especially zesty that day, he might even drive by the Dairy Queen afterwards. It’s hard to imagine a life like Joe Pera’s commanding your attention even over a dinner date, much less a TV show that plays in the wee hours of the morning on Adult Swim.
But the tranquil simplicity of his life has given Joe a great deal of down time to think about all the things that matter to him, like beans, jack-o-lanterns, and the Rat Wars of Alberta, Canada. In Joe Pera Talks With You, he tempers these thoughts into 11-minute passages that reveal a greater depth to the smallest parts of life we take for granted. Living at such a measured pace has given Joe more room to relish excitement in unexpected places. He can stay awake for three days on the euphoria of hearing The Who’s “Baba O’ Riley” for the first time, or he can face his fears of mortality by laying the pumpkin he carved to rest in the same way he hopes to leave this world, tumbling down one of the 300 beautiful waterfalls of the Upper Peninsula. Joe Pera Talks With You provides wholesome escapism that anyone can appreciate in guilt-free morsels—and its lazy atmosphere is especially potent in times of unparalleled stress like these.
However, Joe Pera is not really a choir teacher from Marquette, Michigan. Joe Pera is a comedian who grew up in Buffalo, and spent years hustling and refining his persona in the aggressive world of New York City stand-up. There must be a worldly man with a fastidious mind dwelling quietly underneath his Junior Grandpa demeanor, which means the real Joe’s passion for mining deep humanity out of esoteric topics isn’t limited to soothing subjects like fir trees and agates. Joe Pera the choir teacher can’t express these greater anxieties so plainly, so we see them reflected in the new band teacher who captures his heart, a secret survivalist named Sarah Conner. (The show’s numerous tongue-in-cheek movie references provide another glimpse into Joe Pera the comedian’s love of film.)
Like most couples, Joe and Sarah’s first fight isn’t over anything important, but its very lack of importance is what makes Sarah angry. After many relaxing episodes spent listening to Joe ramble about breakfast and fireworks, Sarah demands he turn his attention to Real Stuff, to the world that’s been raging beyond anyone’s control—there’s rising sea levels, drone strikes on civilians, and much closer to home, a desiccating power grid that could go down at any time and take their city with it.
As Joe and Sarah take a break in the last episode of season one, Joe can’t seem to keep his mind on things that used to matter to him, like his high school’s hockey games. Even if only for Sarah’s sake, maybe it’s time he focused his energy on more important questions, like “Will America pay for what we’ve done?” It’s a transformation anyone in 2020 will recognize, an urgency to turn our wandering minds to the “right things”, lest we be unprepared when the horrors of the real world roll up to kick down our front door. Maps of old mining towns and rusting railroads are folded up to be replaced by charts tracking COVID infection or the unprecedented spread of natural disasters. The simple joys that filled Joe’s heart seem insignificant now, but dwelling on the darkness of the world outside his childhood home only drills a void into him that no amount of trivia from a Farmers’ Almanac can fill. Joe grows weary as Sarah’s mind speeds ahead of his on all the Right Things to think about, and his once-soothing show slows to a lonesome stop.
I write about cartoons for a living—well, at least it’s made me a living now and again. So, it’ll shock no one to learn that I’ve never been good at thinking about the right things either, spending more of my adult years than I’d like to admit in arrested development. Long before the urgent climate of the Trump Era blew in, I was criticized by my family for not caring enough about the “real stuff” that consumed them as evangelical conservatives. And as I grew older, I found partners and friends frustrated by how little I thought about the real stuff that consumed them as progressive activists. (I hope the quotation marks make it clear that I don’t think of both sides the same way, only that I’ve found myself lonely at both ends of the pendulum.)
I try my best to care about the right things, especially these days. I don’t want to shut out anything important, but in a brighter world, I know I wouldn’t think about real stuff much, because for whatever reason, I’m wired to think about cartoons instead. Growing up nerdy means coming to understand from a young age that the things that matter most to you don’t matter at all to most people. That real stuff starts mattering to us more as we get older, especially when we see it affecting the people we love. When Joe sees how important all this real stuff is to Sarah, he’s even willing to give up the aimless, placid tenor of his show if it means keeping her in his life.
Just like Joe, I didn’t spend my time wondering if America will pay for what we’ve done before the last few years, when it’s become impossible not to think about that. But I also never thought about beans, jack-o-lanterns, or the Rat Wars of Alberta, Canada. Nobody considers those to be the right things for you to care about, so I never had to feel bad about that. But they were the right things for Joe Pera to think about. Watching his show made me think about those things in my own way for the first time. It brought new and unexpected flavors of peace and joy into my life that I wouldn’t have known, not if someone like Joe didn’t choose to think about something that doesn’t seem to matter to the rest of the world. If I get the chance to carve a pumpkin this Halloween, I’ll think about giving it 1/16th of my soul like Joe did, but I’ll dispose of it the way I’d like to go out, not gently over a waterfall like Joe, but in as messy and explosive a fashion as possible. It’s the right way to process mortality for me this year.
In hard times like these, I often wish that I was knowledgeable or passionate enough about the real stuff weighing down our world to write about it. I worry that I’m not spending my time writing about the right things. Gems like Joe Pera Talks With You remind me that the Right Things to spend time thinking about are just what’s right for you, because when you care about something enough to dig as deep as you possibly can, you’re bound to find something human down there that makes it real to someone else, who’s never thought about a jack-o-lantern that way before. Anyway, if you’d like to see how Joe’s relationship with Sarah plays out, I can’t recommend this wonderful little show enough. You can start with this free special on YouTube, which was made specifically to help people relax during the pandemic, in Joe Pera’s own unique way.
Thanks to AndalusianDoge for commissioning this review. You can commission my work on Ko-Fi here! Thank you for your support. ❤