Joe Pera reveals the secrets behind TV’s quietest, most artful comedy

Joe Pera of "Joe Pera Talks With You."
Joe Pera, whose Adult Swim series “Joe Pera Talks With You” begins a third season on Adult Swim.
(Jesse Dittmar / For The Times)

These are trying times, but we may take some comfort in the fact that a third season of “Joe Pera Talks With You” comes to Adult Swim Sunday. That such a singular and delicate thing has survived, even thrived, in the roiling seas of television is a seemingly small but not inconsiderable mercy. Briefly stated, it’s a show about a soft-spoken, round-shouldered middle school choir teacher in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula who offers “presentational” videos — they have titles like “Joe Pera Takes You to Breakfast,” “Joe Pera Answers Your Questions About Cold Weather Sports” and “Joe Pera Gives You Piano Lessons” and involve talking to the camera. But everything veers off into something quite different, and often quite profound. Sincerely interested in ordinary human rituals and the wonders of nature — the show encourages an attitude of appreciation — it’s a comedy I am just as liable to watch with tears streaming down my face as laughing. Most episodes are cartoon-length and somehow packed with events while never breaking into so much as a trot.

Pera, 33, has been coming your way for a while now, leaving tracks in the web since college, making the odd late-night talk show appearance. He is obviously not exactly the person he plays on television — he refers to him as “the character” — but there is surely a lot of Pera in there; it is not a mask so much as a window.

Actor and Comedian Joe Pera.
Joe Pera around the Gowanus neighborhood.
(Jesse Dittmar/For The Times)

“We just give a quick glimpse in 11 minutes, and then drop notes of other stories going on, and make the world feel complete and real,” Pera said recently over the phone from New York.

Pera is insistent that the show is a collaborative work and after we spoke sent an email: “I just wanted to send the names of these people who have especially made the show possible since Season 1 and have given so much to it creatively.” In the Joe Pera spirit, here are the ones who are not mentioned in the interview that follows: writers Katie Dolan and Nathan Min; editor Whit Conway; composer Ryan Dann, whose importance cannot be overstressed; assistant director Laura Klein; and production designer Caity Birmingham, whose favorite movie, Pera told me, is “True Stories.” (See below.)


You grew up in Buffalo, N.Y. How does that relate to Marquette, where the show is shot and set?

People like to drink beer, and they’re huge hockey fans. Long winters. Buffalo gets a lot of snow, but Marquette gets much colder — it’s negative digits and a whole other level. “We get up early to start the car to get it warmed up and shovel the driveway” stuff. The thing that made my childhood particularly interesting in relation to the show is that I had two sets of grandparents that were both within, like, five minutes, so I would see them quite often. I think they had a large impact on my type of comedy and made their way into the show in a really strong way.

One set of grandparents were antique hoarders. The character and myself in real life are curious about things in the way that my one grandfather was; we’d drop him off at the bookstore and pick him up, and he’d have two shopping bags full of books that he would never read but just say, “Oh, I’m fascinated with that” and have great intentions about learning about it. He was always tinkering in his backyard, letting me start a fire there whenever I felt like it — you know, let a kid be a kid. The curiosity and slow-paced nature and being distracted by wanting to dive into subject matter is from them very directly.

In the new season, you’re dealing with the sale of your grandmother’s house. Are those difficult moments for you to play?

It wasn’t as bad as having to deal with her death in the previous season; that was tough to write and perform and edit while keeping the proper amount of weight and balancing it with the comedy. But Conner O’Malley [who writes for the show and plays Joe’s high-strung neighbor] was like, “You should continue to deal with it realistically, all that aftermath of death you don’t want to deal with.” Also the character was raised by his grandparents, and he has to kind of rebuild his life without them. So the sale of the house is moving away from ties to the past and figuring out who he is in another way.


Jo Firestone as Sarah and Joe Pera as Joe in "Joe Pera Talks With You."
Jo Firestone as Sarah and Joe Pera as Joe in the third season of Adult Swim’s “Joe Pera Talks With You.”
(Adult Swim)

How did you get interested in comedy?

My grandparents were funny, and my dad’s a pretty funny guy too; my mom’s funny in her own way, but my dad, he likes crackin’ jokes a lot. So I always wanted to try to crack a joke with him. I was never a class clown or anything, but I was constantly thinking of what would be the funniest thing that could happen at that moment. And when I was in high school, Dan Licata — who writes for the show now — we just started writing jokes, and we would burn CDs with our favorite stand-up bits for each other. We both ended up at college together where we did stand-up, and then we were doing it back in Buffalo and constantly making videos. And when we moved to New York together, we’d sit down and be like, “Let’s spend 20 minutes writing and read what we have to each other,” and the goal was just to make the other one laugh. That was something to test onstage.

As a teenager, you took a course with “Saturday Night Live” writer Alan Zweibel.

Dan and I, we signed up to take it together. Dan was really into “Jackass” at the time, and he jumped off a church roof with a large patio umbrella, thinking that he’d float down like Mary Poppins. But he broke both of his legs.

I’m sorry for laughing.

Ha! That’s OK, he deserves to be laughed at, but he’s got a great story I hope he’ll develop some time. I think Alan appreciated that I structured some actual jokes at the beginning of class — they weren’t very good. He was the first person I met that actually made a career out of comedy, and the fact that he was nice to me and would chuckle sometimes, I think that was important.

How did you come to understand your comic voice?

I’m not a real fast wit, so I knew I had to write really good jokes. I learned over time that I wanted to take stand-up at my own pace — I guess maybe it was sort of a reaction to a lot of pretty loud and fast comedy at the time, in-your-face stuff. I like quiet a lot, so I just took my time, which required attention to making sure the jokes were really good.

In the odd and oddly lovely “Joe Pera Talks With You,” premiering in back-to-back 11-minute episodes Sunday at midnight on Adult Swim, the New York-based comedian Joe Pera plays a middle-school choir teacher of the same name in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, with a sideline in “presentation.”

May 18, 2018

You’re obviously different from the person we see on screen — you moved to New York and exposed yourself to the brutality of the comedy scene. What are the lines between you and the character?

The big thing is the career change. I didn’t want to do another show about a stand-up comedian. A lot of my friends from school became music teachers, and now I get to spend like three, four months each season in the Midwest shooting and pretend to have an alternative life, where I wasn’t a comedian but a choir teacher. A lot of my stand-up was talking about a little bit of guilt that I’d left my family in Buffalo to be in New York [City]. Like the breakfast club episode in Season 1. I was home, my dad was talking about some friends of his that go to breakfast regularly at a bagel shop, and he made [my brother and I] feel bad we weren’t with them. So I was doing a joke onstage, “What is the best breakfast club? It’s going with your full-grown sons.” It kind of came from that, the guilt that I’m not there.

The show is very beautiful visually. It’s as if “True Stories” were directed by Terrence Malick. How important was that to you?

Extremely important. All the videos that I made before, I was trying to match the tone of my comedy and the pace and kind of the stiltedness, but also, I wouldn’t call it minimalism, but just “let’s see how much we can do with one shot.” Marty Schousboe, the director of the show, really helped develop that style a lot further. Shooting in the woods is not always a fun thing to do, and getting that outdoor stuff, I know why more shows don’t do it, but it’s what I want to see on TV. I want to see some nature when I watch television — maybe I’m going to the wrong place for my nature. But it’s so beautiful on the Upper Peninsula, and, like, the enormity of Lake Superior there, it would be silly if we didn’t film that. I think it’s very interesting that the town sits at the foot of that enormous lake. I think it’s got like a fifth of the world’s fresh water in it, and it just looks very intense. It would be wild if it didn’t do something to the character.

Joe Pera in the Gowanus neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y.
Joe Pera out and about in the Gowanus neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., a thousand miles east of Marquette, Mich., where “Joe Pera Talks With You” is set and filmed.
(Jesse Dittmar / For The Times)

Do you cast locally? Some of your performers seem to be nonprofessionals.

We cast a lot of our friends from the comedy scene right off the bat. Gene [Kelly, who plays Joe’s best friend] was a cameraman working at “Seth Meyers” that Conner started writing bits for while he was working there. We find a lot of people while we’re scouting. We had to find the right-looking beauty parlor for last season, and the owner, Yvonne, was just such a wonderful personality, we were like, “Please, you’ve got to give this a chance.” And she was excellent; she spent her career doing hair and talking to people and making them feel good, why wouldn’t she read wonderfully on camera? I was doing YouTube videos with my grandparents for years, but then my grandmother was in the Christmas special we did. You just don’t know what’s going to happen, which is scary on a TV schedule, but it’s worth it. You always get that one moment or expression or delivery of a line you could never possibly plan.

It’s easy to get emotionally invested in the show. I’m so happy that you and Sarah are still together in the new season.

Yeah, it would be a shame to cut Jo Firestone [who plays Sarah and is also one of the writers] out of the show, she’s so funny. We never made a show before this, only videos, and we’re all kind of learning. I want it to feel like a community-made show and have the quality that somebody just picked up a camera and started filming around town and is doing the best they can. We make mistakes, but we don’t mind incorporating them because we think it’s funny.

Your “quarantine” special, “Relaxing Old Footage With Joe Pera,” with its images of nature (and downtown Milwaukee) is full of Joe-style jokes and observations, but it is truly relaxing.

I think we probably made that out of a desire to relax ourselves, but also we try to make good on the promises that are titles of the show. Like with “Joe Pera Talks You to Sleep,” I’m delighted when anybody says that it works for real. I want people to truly feel relaxed, and I think people wanted it real bad at that moment. [With “Relaxing Old Footage”], we had so much b-roll of this and that from previous seasons, we always joked about making a three-hour tree documentary, and we finally stitched it together in kind of a coherent way. It made me feel better to make it, and I’m glad if it made anybody else feel better.

Given Joe’s oddball character, there’s some temptation at first to take the show as ironic, but it strikes me as completely sincere.

If anything, the joke is how straightforward we are about stuff. I like the directness of it. I always use the example in the writers room, there’s a joke Dan wrote that unlocks a lot of the humor: “You know what I like most about barbecue? The smoky flavor.” [Laughs.] It’s just literally that. [Keeps laughing.] There’s something so funny — it’s just stating a fact. [Still laughing.]

‘Joe Pera Talks With You’

Where: Cartoon Network
When: 12:30 and 12:45 a.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)