FreakSugar contributor Chris Snow discusses his love for Adult Swim’s Joe Pera Talks with You.
In the summer of 2018, I was suffering a mild bout of insomnia and found myself listlessly flipping through the wasteland that is cable television past 11:00 PM on a Saturday night. I was hoping for some mindless program present enough to keep me sane but boring enough to generate the right amount of boredom to inspire sleep. In a few clicks I found myself on Adult Swim, that unpredictable realm of strange wares which leaves you either flinching at the stomach-churning antics of hillbilly squids or nodding in unexpected appreciation for some new ground-breaking anime series.
Before me was an odd image: a quiet, be speckled young man who spoke, shuffle walked and slouched like a grandfather welcoming a grandchild into his kitchen for humble cookies and low-fat milk. No Georgia-forged squids, no giant robots… just a young man with an old soul telling me about the mineral bounty of iron and copper hiding in the upper peninsula of Michigan. For reasons I could not understand I was enthralled, captured whole by this odd little fellow’s elderly gestures and calm yet determined voice.
15 minutes later I realized something that both confounded me and inspired a ribbon of joy to twist freely through my tired being: the little man with the glasses and quiet, modest demeanor had made me deliriously happy and unfoundedly hopeful. It was in that moment that I realized just how stressed I had been over the last few years. The demands of my job, the political venom being spit in all directions by a polarized American constituency, Mueller reports, wars, pro this, anti that… I had been so clenched with anger, worry and a general malaise of sadness that I had not realized how miserable I was until Joe Pera kindly waved me over to his sweetly shaded side of the street.
At a mere 15 minutes, each episode of Joe Pera Talks with You seems on the surface a very simple experiment in avant garde television. A man speaks to the camera as if it were a disembodied visitor into his small, uneventful life. It could even be mistaken for a whimsical attempt by the Michigan tourism board to attract people to the upper peninsula by offering lectures on imports, exports and the general culture of people living around the northern Great Lakes.
Gradually, however, as the plot arc begins to take form, any notion of dull simplicity fades. There are quick, sometime biting insights about mortality, morality, and the often-unbearable march through the seasons of a human life. Joe, a middle school choir teacher whose best friends include his elderly neighbor Gene and his beloved grandmother Nana, deals with his own bouts of insomnia, the shallow pursuits of his same-aged peers, the terror of staring into the eyes of a freshly carved jack-o-lantern and the gentle but sad passing of time. Obsessed with food and the geology and history of his home state of Michigan, Joe shuffles through his life with controlled and realistic optimism. Joe is a people watcher who beholds his fellow teachers, neighbors and acquaintances in a respectful, appreciative yet sober light.
Superficially Joe seems naive and shy, but a close viewing reveals his love of the disparate vagaries of human interaction and, deeper still, a hardened understanding of a sometimes cruel and indifferent world. In season one, Joe’s planned, regimented life is shaken by the arrival of a new teacher at his school, a strange, nerdy band teacher obsessed with doomsday prepping and the current stock of food and supplies crowding her fortified basement. Season one contends with a variety of wonderfully unexpected conflicts (including Joe’s childlike and belated discovery of The Who’s “Baba O’ Riley”) which culminates in a troubled love story. It is unequivocally beautiful, simple, complex and addictive.
In the winter of 2019, season two landed with a more story driven series of 15-minute vignettes which have gotten better with each week. I won’t spoil the story arc, but in eight episodes I have laughed, frowned with anger and nearly wept openly in front of other grown men. My obsession with Joe Pera Talks with You has been personally surprising and has left me wondering if I even know myself at all. I would have never believed a 15-minute skit involving a quiet, anachronistic choir teacher talking about how the sound of various liquids being poured into a glass can be soothing could induce such joy and sadness within me.
Joe Pera has altered my very concept of the world: before, I remained pessimistic and often outwardly angry at a world slipping into a dangerous mix of glib indifference and violent opposition politics. Now… well, now I realize that seasons change, small things end up being the foundation of powerful love and irrevocable loss and, in the end, it’s perfectly acceptable to have lived an honorable life and then, when the leaves change and the hard and final winter comes, to slip comfortably into the memories of the friends and family that survive you. Joe Pera and his 15 minutes of calm explanation of the world have brought me closer to God, peace and the understanding and acceptance that makes death a transition and life a misery worth living.
Or he and his writing partner/costar Jo Firestone could have just created an adult version of Mr. Rogers that clicks with Generation Xers. That’s the entertaining mystery of this show. On one level, it’s an original, composed comedy. On another level, it’s a pioneering work of art that translates love, death, joy and fear into palatable morsels that are easily digested. Its hard to say, but regardless, Joe Pera Talks with You, which airs 12 AM EST Fridays on Adult Swim, will either provide you with a quiet, respectful laugh or it may very well deliver an absolute salvation of spirit in a dying world.
Perhaps it depends on what the viewer brings to the plain, coffee cup crowded table holding vigil over Joe’s small kitchen. If you decide to visit Joe, be sure to bring food, a passing curiosity of the lighthouses lining the shores of Lake Michigan, and be sure to give his faithful basset hound Gus a pat on the head before you go.
And if you love all things Joe Pera, check out the Joe Pera’s Breakfast Crew group on Facebook!