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'Joe Pera Talks With You' Is the Best Thing Adult Swim Has Ever Done

The comedian plays a gentle, Mr. Rogers-like figure who navigates our anxiety-ridden world with unfailing kindness.

by Josh Terry
23 January 2020, 1:40pm

Adult Swim

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

Joe Pera Talks With You is unlike anything else on Adult Swim. Cartoon Network's nighttime programming block is known for the maximalist absurdity of Tim & Eric; The Eric Andre Show and its demented, ranch-obsessed host ; Rick & Morty's animated nihilism; and the bizarre and surprisingly violent short Too Many Cooks. But it's now also home to a show where comedian Joe Pera plays a fictionalized version of himself, a "soft-handed choir teacher" who lives in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and, though in his thirties, boasts the unhurried mannerisms of a senior citizen. As it approaches the end of its masterful 14-episode second season, the show has become an essential salve against cynicism: It's relaxing and gentle TV that revels more in its meditative beauty than its eccentric comedy.

While the shock-value fanfare typical of Adult Swim has its own inherent comedic value, there's a warmth radiating throughout Joe Pera Talks With You that feels equally, if not more, needed in 2020. This is doubly true given Pera's sincere commitment to his character. (The fictional) Pera's disarmingly earnest in everything he does, from his teaching job—where he rewards students with green apples—to his trip to the Friday fish fry with his Nana. Each 12-minute episode of the series finds Pera musing on one of the smaller things in life, like taking a hike, going to the grocery store, or waiting for someone at the beauty salon. With its ethereal soundtrack; Pera's calming, grandfatherly voice; and its surprisingly gorgeous cinematography, the show feels like a distant and often funny cousin to Bob Ross—or a millennial version of Mr. Rogers.

Where many comedies lean on vulgarity and edginess, Pera finds his beat in everyday gratitude and basking in the mundane, to surprisingly amusing effect. In this season's first episode, Pera decides to create a bean arch in his garden so that when the vines are fully grown, they meet at the crown of the structure. As he explains to the audience the many pros of raising your own beans, he looks up at the arch and says, “Imagine that… not having to bend over to pick a bean,” a simple observation so off-the-cuff and innocent that it's shockingly funny. It's unlikely that most of the show's target audience—twenty- and thirtysomethings—have spent much time thinking about the best way to pick a bean with such sincerity, yet here they are, taking a moment to consider it. With too much of modern day-to-day life spent being chronically online, overstimulated, and filled with anxiety, the good-natured humor in Joe Pera Talks With You provides a brief but deserved respite. Hey, why aren't we growing bean arches?

On a lesser show, Pera's character would be treated like a punchline: an oafish, painfully Midwestern rube whose wholesomeness is sneered at. Instead, Joe Pera Talks With You and its world actively root for him. One stellar episode from 2018's first season, "Joe Pera Reads You The Church Announcements," deals in the joy of discovering a song for the first time—in this case, it's "Baba O'Riley" by The Who, a track so ubiquitous his ignorance of it is both hilarious and beguiling. In a sleepless daze from spending the previous night calling into every local radio station to play the song (he doesn't think to Google it himself), Pera asks the congregation if they've heard of The Who. It's not just played for laughs; in fact, at the end of the episode the churchgoers join Pera on a sing-a-along of the iconic classic track and it's surprisingly moving.

Though he's awkward and doesn't quite fit in during most social interactions, it's clear the other characters genuinely like being around Pera. There's a small-town joy in seeing him interact with his community even though it's rarely seamless—an episode where the straightlaced Pera is a last-minute invite to a boozy bachelor party is a particularly funny example. But his relationships with his neighbors the Melskis, his elderly best friend Gene, and his coworkers are especially affecting, especially when he navigates his newfound romance with his girlfriend Sarah (Jo Firestone). Just as Pera's clear passion for each episode's topic of the week is infectious, his enthusiasm for life's ostensibly ordinary things rubs off on those closest to him. It's this refreshing kindness that makes Pera so easy to cheer on. The genuine, honest, and full-hearted life his character lives in rural Michigan isn't treated with scorn; instead, it's aspirational.

It's easy to get caught up and overwhelmed by the fast-paced and demanding nature of just being alive in 2020. But even when things get hard, Joe Pera Talks With You is there to remind us to take a step back and appreciate the smaller things that make up our days. Pera's thoughtfulness is the series' emotional centerpiece, and when true obstacles are thrown his way as the second season progresses, it's heartrending, even devastating. But no matter what, he endures, leans on those closest to him, and remembers to take stock on the simple things that bring him joy—to Pera, it truly is a beautiful day in the neighborhood.

Tagged:
comedy
Cartoon Network
Adult Swim
Essays
TV reviews
joe pera
joe pera talks with you