Review: How this critic found art in the 11-minute episodes of Adult Swim’s ‘Joe Pera Talks With You’
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.” Each episode — “Joe Pera Shows You Iron,” “Joe Pera Takes You to Breakfast,” “Joe Pera Shows You How to Dance” and so on — begins as a sort of documentary, with Joe introducing himself to the camera, before sliding off into other business.
You may know Pera and his alter ego from MTV’s “Pancake Breakfast Critic”; his appearances on “Conan” and “Late Night”; the Funny or Die series “How to Make It in USA,” in which he attempts to get started in stand-up; JASH’s “The Perfect Week” (with Nathan Min); or his own YouTube channel, which hosts “Shootin’ Hoops with Joe Pera,"an instructional series that never gets around to the instruction.
Adult Swim, for its part, has already produced the animated “Joe Pera Talks You to Sleep,” in which Joe offers “guided meditation to help visualize yourself as a grandparent or a whale,” and the 2016 Christmas special “Joe Pera Helps You Find the Perfect Christmas Tree,” a sort of dry run for the current series, which fills out and refines the character, gives him a job, a Michigan home, context, history and initmations of a story arc.
Socially awkward yet determined, not quite at home in his body, of indeterminate age (“Your face tells me you’re 10, but your bald spot tells me you’re 63,” says a local wag, “so which is it?”), with a flat, halting manner of speaking and every button that could be buttoned buttoned, the character snugly fits the Adult Swim aesthetic — what might broadly be described as a deadpan marriage of the banal and the bizarre.
Though his manner is highly reserved, Joe finds nearly everything wonderful and worth talking about. (“My name is Joe Pera, and I think breakfast rocks, dude,” he says to the camera. “I’m sorry. I guess I’m just excited and overwhelmed by the possibilities of Saturday morning breakfast.”) He is the sort of person unthinkingly described nowadays as being “on the spectrum,” but if he misreads social cues it is not from a lack of empathy but an excess of it: He frets over other people’s feelings, even when they’re not in fact feeling them.
“I’d kind of like to join in,” he says at a co-worker’s wedding, “but being dateless ... I’m not sure how to do it in a way that isn’t off-putting, threatening or offensive.”
And though Joe has a fondness for facts and a keen interest in human behavior, there are holes in his understanding of how the world works. When a family invades his house and makes an offer to buy it, because a For Sale sign has mistakenly or maliciously been put on his lawn, Joe wonders whether the mere presence of the sign requires him to sell. This question haunts him throughout the episode.
“Joe Pera Talks With You” is sweeter than most other Adult Swim offerings, less interested in mayhem than in order, less about alienation than connection. Written by Pera and fellow comics and comedy-writer collaborators Conner O’Malley (who appears as the father of the family interested in Joe’s house) and Jo Firestone (who plays Sarah, a new teacher at Joe’s school), it has an unconventional protagonist one roots for and feels for conventionally. There are flickers of darkness, but most of what might be called conflict takes place in Joe’s busy mind: “Because I am a single man in a place where it’s cold most of the year,” says Joe, “I have plenty of thinking time.”
I couldn’t say how closely Pera’s world view aligns with Joe’s, but my impression is that we are to take the character seriously and that the series actually celebrates what it seems to mock through seeming celebration. It is ironically ironic. Similarly, the camera applies a layer of luminosity and polish to its subjects that makes them seem all the more genuinely present, paying respect to pancakes and landscapes, rocks and buildings, well-chosen faces and the contents of a pastry case. (“Lemon meringue, smallish cheesecake, I don’t know what this yellow one is,” says Joe as they go by.) It makes a temple of an ice cream stand.
Like many other “Adult Swim” series, this one is more formally interesting and sophisticated than a thumbnail description might suggest. It’s possible that I read more than is intended into these shows; but complexity is complexity, whether intended or not, and I don’t have a problem regarding as art an 11-minute comedy about a person trying to understand the world as he attempts to explain it, even if the people who made it just had being funny on their mind.
‘Joe Pera Talks With You’
Where: Cartoon Network (Adult Swim)
When: Midnight and 12:15 a.m. Sun./Mon.
Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)
Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd
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