You don’t need to have a favorite regional mineral to love Joe Pera. The always-in-character comedian brings his lovably awkward young old man schtick back to Adult Swim with his new series Joe Pera Talks With You, which launches this weekend. As always, his mild-mannered pleasantness and love of small-town life remains a warm respite from our jaundiced, mean-spirited culture.
I’ve watched a few episodes of Joe Pera Talks With You, including Sunday’s premiere, and it captures the same tone as Pera’s fantastic Joe Pera Helps You Find the Perfect Christmas Tree special from 2016. Don’t expect the kind of anarchy or absurdity you might associate with Adult Swim. Despite its short running time (12 minutes after ads, in traditional Adult Swim fashion) it moves at a stately and measured clip, befitting Pera’s slow and steady approach. It’s a gentle show that can unleash a wicked bite when it wants to, and one of the best comedies of the year so far.
If you aren’t familiar with Pera, imagine a guy in his early 30s who dresses, talks and acts like he’s a kindly Midwestern grandpa. This isn’t like Nick Kroll and John Mulaney dressing up like senior citizens for Oh, Hello—Pera doesn’t try to hide his true age, and the contrast between Pera’s youthful appearance and his old-fashioned behavior is a key part of his act. And despite the use of the word “schtick” above, it all feels effortless and true. Andy Kaufman or Sacha Baron Cohen might’ve committed fully to their characters, but they had enough of them that there was always clearly distance between performer and character; this is pretty much the only Joe Pera we’ve seen, across stand-up, online videos and TV appearances, which makes the character feel real, to an extent, magnifying Pera’s already considerable charm.
Crucially, Pera’s rarely played as the butt of the joke. We might laugh at how earnestly he loves his home town of Marquette and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, how he beams at pride over “the world’s largest wooden dome” and the role iron played in forging the town, but the show’s not ridiculing him for that sincerity. A lesser performer would turn this kind of character into a stereotype, into a cross between a live-action Ned Flanders and a witless nerd parody from a 1980s sitcom. Pera never resorts to that. Despite Pera’s awkwardness and timidity, despite his good-natured fixation with prosaic minutiae like the perfect balance of a breakfast meal, the show doesn’t pity him or subject him to unnecessary cruelty. We’re not laughing at a cartoon nerd—we’re sympathizing with a good man in a world that doesn’t always know what to do with him.
Like most of his work, Joe Pera Talks With You can be seen as a reaction to the kind of cringe comedy that became huge in the ‘00s. It’s built on awkwardness, especially when Pera has to interact with other characters his own age, who are prone to the thoughtlessness, irritability and disrespect we expect today (and who are often played by the show’s co-writer and producer Conner O’Malley). There’s definitely humor in Pera’s discomfort, but there’s empathy there, too. Pera doesn’t wind up in uncomfortable situations because he’s petty or selfish, like Larry David or David Brent, but for the completely opposite reason: he’s so dedicated to respecting others and doing what he thinks is right that he routinely comes close to punishing himself to placate the kind of abrasive louts that O’Malley specializes in. Pera’s values and behavior might seem archaic today, and explain why his only friends seem to be senior citizens and children, but they only become a problem for Pera or others when they’re put in competition with the uncaring modern day masculinity that O’Malley represents. Instead of focusing on an asshole and his constant comeuppance, as so many comedy shows have done over the last 20 years (to drastically diminishing returns), Pera and his show looks at a good, simple man out of step with the often assholish society he has to live in.
Like Michael Schur’s various shows, Joe Pera Talks With You is an antidote to the pessimism and negativity that can be found in so much recent comedy. It’s able to do that without any of the sentimentality, cloyingness or focus-grouped cynicism of a network sitcom. And it’s unmistakably the work of Joe Pera, which guarantees that it’ll remain unlike anything else on TV today. To lift a name from another great Adult Swim show starring a one-of-a-kind character, you might want to check it out.
Joe Pera Talks With You premieres on Adult Swim on Sunday May 20 at Midnight ET.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s comedy and games sections. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.