‘Joe Pera Talks With You’ taught us how to appreciate life’s small treasures

by | Jul 7, 2022

With the crushing news that Adult Swim has decided not to pick up Joe Pera Talks With You for a fourth season, I did what I think any Joe Pera fan would do in a moment like this—I ate a turkey sandwich.

It was a humble little sandwich, two slices of wheat bread with three slices of turkey, some cheese, and a few squirts of barbecue sauce to give it flavor. It was a sandwich pressed on a panini, nothing too fancy but just enough to give it a crunch and warmth. As I ate the sandwich, I turned on “Joe Pera Takes You on a Fall Drive,” a Season 1 episode where Pera goes on a fall drive and holds a river funeral for a jack-o-lantern he carved in order to help restore his soul. While dressed as one of The Twins from The Matrix Reloaded, along with his grandmother, Joe was convinced in that episode by his dear friend Gene that, if you carve a jack-o-lantern, you lose a bit of your soul with it. Concerned, Pera takes the pumpkin for a proper burial and drives his grandfather’s old car to help, well, revive the soul he lost to his pumpkin.

The beauty to that early episode is that it captured what Joe Pera Talks With You maintained for each and every at-bat for three seasons. The David Lynch-ready absurdities that marked Pera’s quirkier side was always balanced out with some Great Lakes wisdom about life’s simplest pleasures, always backed by the star’s soothing narration and Holland Patent Public Library’s smooth acoustics.

In a vacuum where entertainment always feels like it has to leapfrog what came before, where tempos are always high and energy is currency, it felt shocking to find such profundity in such a lovely little program where an episode could be focused on tasks like going to the grocery store, reading the church announcements and helping you get back to sleep after you awoke to a thunderstorm. In a world of Rick and Morty and Game of ThronesJoe Pera Talks With You kept the porch light on in the cold and always had a hot cup of cider waiting for you by the fireplace.

Pera’s television series will most likely be remembered for launching the Buffalo comic into the zeitgeist, for helping elevate rising comedic voices like Connor O’Malley, Jo Firestone, Dan Licata, Marty Schousboe, Nathan Min, Carmen Christopher, and Katie Dolan. The “Joe Pera Reads You the Church Announcements” episode gave the show its first viral breakthrough, with The Who lending its song “Baba O’Riley” to Pera and company for fictional Joe to hear it for the first time on the radio one night and exuberantly celebrate the discovery. Pera even wrote a book as an expansion of the show’s unique humor and began touring as an in-demand comedian. For the frantic landscape on Adult Swim, Joe Pera Talks With You was a nice reprieve, a calm oasis that still gave you singular humor but also, something else, something much more thoughtful.

It was that “Baba O’Riley” episode where the show’s real profundity hit me like a lightning bolt in an open field, watching Pera’s fictional self jump up and down on the couch, dance with his dog, invite the pizza man to party and, ultimately, lead his church in the opening lines to The Who song. That song is such a cultural mainstay, the head of The Who’s catalog, and a tune long overused in pop culture. However, for Pera’s fresh ears, it was a rare opportunity to again appreciate something we’d all long probably sat passively for, something you’d just let play in the background with not much thought.

If Pera’s dry Millennial wit was the drawing factor into his Adult Swim series, it was the show’s ability to unearth unexpected power in simple things that are going to keep it as one of the best shows to air on television in the last few years. In the midst of a Trumpified America that stokes fear, encourages violence, and strips rights, a headline cycle that seemed to set itself on fire every morning, a pandemic that threw us all out of pocket, a social media sphere that zaps us of empathy and nuance and a time where we see the lessening of civic values and norms, Pera reminded us that, yes, it’s possible to find something beautiful in everyday tasks, in everyday people and places, in spaces and things we’ve long taken for granted. The Pera worldview gives as much hope for a “warm apple night” as anything else out there, that stirring sense of being able to take value in what’s right in front of you to counteract the doom and gloom of what’s going on beyond your doorstep.

I’ve found Pera’s sensibility recently as my wife and I have made it a regular habit of going to Costco. It’s long been a task I’ve dreaded, going to the store, but after watching “Joe Pera Takes You to the Grocery Store,” I challenged myself to soak it in. As of late, my wife and I have made Costco trips one of our regular bright spots, complete with one of those Kirkland meal options post-shopping. It’s such a silly thing to get excited about, but that’s the Pera way. In a world where our schedules don’t always allow us to do a lot outside of simple things, those simple things take on so much importance. Pera’s ability to harness those oft-overlooked routines and turn them into something all at once deeply hilarious and surprisingly poignant made his television show one of the true balms in an otherwise frenzied media landscape.

It’s just not often a television show can somehow tie in the 2001 comedy Rat Race into the plot of an episode where Pera’s grandmother dies, but Joe Pera Talks With You pulled it off. That character arc is the show’s most powerful, with Pera’s cherished Nana going on to meet her maker and Pera’s grieving process playing out in the only way a show like this could. Letting go is never easy, whether it’s a jack-o-lantern going down the river or a grandmother you’ve known your whole life passing on, but the show’s ability to zero in on the little things made its most tragic moment hit all the harder. The ending to “Joe Pera Shows You How to Do Good Fashion,” an episode within that arc, remains the show’s most beautiful moment, a reminder that life goes on, and that it’s still beautiful even when it hurts.

It was also a show with deep reserves of empathy for its lead character and its surrounding world. Where most shows would’ve tried to poke more fun at the fictional Pera’s stately demeanor, Joe Pera Talks With You rather allowed Joe’s personality quirks to be endearing and accepted. While sometimes they were weird and hilarious, the Season 1 episode “Joe Pera Shows You How to Dance” took the high road to establish that, in this universe, you don’t have to play the fool to be a little different. Rather than make Pera learning to dance at a wedding the butt of the joke, it wound up being a funny-yet-heartwarming moment of what happens when people just enjoy the moment and let themselves be a little outlandish.

The show’s laughs were aplenty, from a musical about a Canadian rat infestation to an entire episode where Pera tries to find an age-appropriate movie to show his choir. The side characters, from O’Malley’s hapless mechanic Mike Melsky and Gene Kelly’s jolly best friend Gene to Brad Howe’s overeager car salesman Brad Cam and Yvonne Richlen’s sweet old lady Carole, always gave each episode that underlying spark that helped buoy leads Pera and Jo Firestone’s doomsday survivalist/Pera’s girlfriend Sarah Conner (pun intended). It was one of television’s most unexpected ensembles.

While it never took off like wildfire, Joe Pera Talks with You garnered such a devoted audience because of how it found both hilarity and poignancy in such little things that pass us by daily. It’s impossible to watch the totality of the show’s three seasons and not want to find more joy in the micro, especially when things get so difficult in the macro. Pera’s show found such a compelling rallying cry for us not to let these wonderful little things get past us, to enjoy those afternoon hikes, quiet drives, and catfish dinners just a little more than we already did.

The wackier parts of the show will be deeply missed (especially that montage in “Joe Pera Waits With You” where Pera’s hair goes Super Saiyan), but there will also be a gap on television now of that quaint little Adult Swim show that reminded you every episode that life can still be good with things aren’t so good if you just cherish the people around you and the little things that make life worth living. What a time in our lives to get such an affable fellow as Pera to remind us that everything was going to be alright.

While the pumpkin may now float on down the river, the wisdom Pera gave his audience remains intact. Joe Pera Talks With You will stand as one of the best comedies of its time, and don’t be surprised if the church of Pera grows tenfold in the years to come. Whether this is really the end, or it finds a way to live on elsewhere, the show was and always will be, to borrow a phrase from a convict-turned-grocery sample man, simply phenomenal, and we’re going to miss it dearly. Give Gus our love, Joe, and thanks for the laughs and lessons. We need them now, more than ever.