While Joe Pera isn’t a brand, his name is evocative of a particular style. One that’s kind and quiet, unhurried and thoughtful.
His show Joe Pera Talks With You was recently canceled after three seasons on Adult Swim. The modestly sophisticated show reflected Pera’s unique voice and sensibilities. It was a curious deviation from today’s media and discourse, which made it feel as refreshing as the crisp Upper Peninsula mornings where the show is set.
What began as a few one-off specials for Adult Swim blossomed into a series that was able to be authentic, poignant, and silly all within the span of an 11-minute episode. Its singular tone was thanks to the work of Pera and his writer/performer friends including Jo Firestone, Dan Licata, and Howard Schultz devotee Conner O’Malley. Filtered through the prism of director Marty Schousboe, it was both meditative and sharp. Pera and his entire production team, many of whom had little to no experience creating a full-fledged TV show, were able to make obscure concepts like bean arches, breakfast rituals, and doomsday prep resonate with an unlikely late night audience.
As a sendoff, Pera took time from his stand-up tour to pack the Bell House in Brooklyn for three farewell shows that played each season in its entirety. Along with a Q&A session after each season, surprises included Pera and Schousboe unloading enormous duffel bags of the show’s more memorable costumes into the audience and JPTWY favorite Brad Cam himself (comedian Brad Howe) roller skating onto the stage and leading the audience in the Macarena.
Paste caught up with Pera after his sell out run to reflect on the finer points of Joe Pera Talks with You, the show’s cancellation, and what’s next for America’s premier expert on the benign wonders of life.
Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
I thought I would start with a question I overheard someone at the farewell shows say they were too shy to ask. Whether you like to admit it or not, you’re one of Western New York’s favorite sons. Why did you choose to set the show in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula rather than your hometown of Buffalo?
Joe Pera: We first decided to set it there when we were making the Christmas Special. We looked around at the places that would get snow in October when we had to shoot it so that it’d be ready for December. Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Michigan were in the top five. Michigan felt the best and appeared similar enough to Western New York, but also was a bit of a blank slate for my own imagination to put stuff on and to research. It felt new to me, which was important to pick the details to focus on. And I’m interested in hockey and beer and fish fries and stuff.
Then when the mining history came in, it just seemed like a very nice place to set a show. The main street of Marquette, just kind of opens out onto Lake Superior. It felt appropriate for that character to exist in that town. It’s a big enough city that they’ve got a little bit of everything and all different sorts of people, but not so big that they can run into people they know regularly.
Something that’s always been interesting to me about the show is the tone and manner in which the characters interact. It’s almost like a grown-up Sesame Street in the sense that everyone is free and open to walk up to each other and just ask what they’re up to. How did you arrive at that?
Pera: I guess a lot of the humor in the show is about addressing things as straightforward as possible, in a way that almost feels strange. If you’re just wondering something or wanting to say hello, Joe wouldn’t be nervous about doing that.
I remember we were rehearsing some show at a theater in the East Village and some guy just walked in one day. He just came in and sat down for no reason and nobody knew what he was doing. I guess if you’re not nervous about social norms you can enter into anywhere and say “What’s going on?” and learn something or observe. It just seems so strange, like why wouldn’t you walk into a theater and just watch what’s going on in the middle of the day or ask people what they’re up to?
I don’t think we meant it quite as a Sesame Street type thing but I guess just like having the ability to bumble around an environment at a slower pace and look at the details. I guess it’s like a video game where you just go up to people and start a conversation.
How would you describe the character of Joe Pera?
Pera: Close to myself. I was raised by grandparents at a slower pace and kind of took up their rhythms and then combined with “what if I didn’t do comedy but I chose a path where I stayed in Buffalo and became a music teacher” like a lot of my friends did. And just thinking about the details of that experience.
Even though the show centers on this character that likes to describe things, there’s this thread of loss that stitches all the episodes together. Of course, there’s Nana’s death but also the photographs in the Halloween episode, the students before their solo auditions, I would even say the pumpkin episode. I’m curious what was behind that.
Pera: A lot of it came when my last grandmother died. When I was writing the first season, we had like six weeks to write all the episodes. I didn’t really have time to process it. So I think I probably did it through the scripts, that pumpkin episode in particular. That’s why it feels so potent. I was close with all four of my grandparents and I was losing them slowly. It was a meaningful part of my life. I wanted to put that into the show. Yeah, I think they are a major thread throughout the whole series.
And then other writers lost family members between Season 1 and 2. I think it was Conner O’Malley who actually felt strongly about doing that in the second season. I was trying to write that episode about the obituary. I was trying to capture my own grandmother into the show, to give her an honest obituary while still creating a watchable fiction show. So I would go to the library on the weekends, very tired from the shoot week, to make sure that it was just right. It’s a weird thing to attempt for a comedy show and I didn’t want to disrespect my grandmother. I wanted to eulogize her that season and pay tribute, which is an intimidating thing to do.
I’ve gotten a lot of comments and emails from people that have been through the grieving process and said it helped them. They felt we captured it in an honest way so that meant a lot but while we were making it there was a lot of stress.
I’d say Season 1 was about making sure to treat the town as honestly as possible so we wouldn’t get run out of Marquette and then Season 2 was about giving as realistic and honest treatment of death and grief as possible and still making it entertaining.
It was a lot. Before the show I’d never written anything close to this scale, or anybody else really. Me, Conner, and Jo had written in late night writer’s rooms but this was kind of everybody’s first go at a fiction series.
Yeah, you’ve put the death of your grandmother into the show. It has your name on it. Was it always meant to be so personal?
Pera: Yeah, it got a little bit hard to separate from the guy in the show at times. And I think that was good, but also made the writing tricky.
In the writers’ room, the things we wanted to choose for episodes were stuff that we cared about, not only what we could write jokes about like breakfast or the grocery store. That’s how each episode started. An important part of the episodes is, does it have a real feeling to it? I think it comes through and is embedded into it, those personal feelings.
I do think the Saturday morning breakfast is an important ritual. The perfect egg bite, that’s a Conner bit and he does it in real life. It was just like “we have to turn that into a thing.”
We did a tour of me, Jo, Dan, and Conner. Conner loves the supermarket so much and I do too. The first season I couldn’t sleep, I was so nervous about writing, and I would wake up and just go walk around the grocery store on our tour. As opposed to like a bar or something we just ended up roaming a grocery store in the Midwest looking for snacks.
You have about 10 minutes to tell a story and are still able to leave room for all these contemplative moments and also inch along each character’s storyline. It’s so impressive what you’re able to cram into such a short time frame.
Pera: I think maybe with it being a lot of our first big thing, we thought it could be our only opportunity to do it. It still might be but we wanted to put as much into it as possible. You get a lot of time to think about each little moment from writing to edit. The fact that Marty was involved and a lot of the writers gave notes, just spending a lot of time thinking about all the little details.
We wanted to leave space for the audience to have their own thoughts about a subject without drifting off completely. It feels like the attention span of media is shrinking. I don’t even know if we would be so bold as to leave the pauses if we were to make it today.
We’ve been talking a lot about Marty Schousboe. What about his work made him the right choice to direct the series?
Pera: He did a video called fuggedaboutit with Carmen Christopher, John Reynolds, and Devin Bockrath. It’s the perfect combination of stupidity and emotion. Carmen plays a brain dead man who studies and then does the “fuggedaboutit” monologue from Donnie Brasco for an audition. There’s so many unexpected moments. I just thought it was the ultimate comedy video.
You’ve talked about how the show’s cancellation is hitting you in waves. You said one of those waves came when you went up north to clear out the show’s storage unit. Can you tell me about that experience?
Pera: It was just… I don’t know. In the back of your head you think something might happen. It still might. We saved some of the costumes from the main characters just for the heck of it. Going through all the costumes and thinking about the shoot days. Like we found Sarah’s snowmobile jacket, Gene and his sons’ Milwaukee Art Museum coats and everything from the fashion show. It was very bittersweet. It was like moving out of a childhood home or something where you’ve got a lot of memories but also it’s fun to go through all the stuff. You get to remember how good or bad each shoot day was. It was a nice thing but yeah, there’s just stuff we didn’t have the heart to get rid of yet.
Do you have a favorite memory from the show?
Pera: There’s a lot. I remember when we wrapped the final shot of each season. But I loved in Season 3 when we made Jo Firestone’s dad, Fred the sample guy, fly. It was just so fun watching Jo’s father hoisted up in the air. We had the big hoist in a public park in Milwaukee and that was funny. Whenever family members were on the set, Conner’s dad and brothers had a funny scene and watching them interact is always funny.
Gene and Lulu’s backyard! That was a stressful but fun day because Ryan Dann had written the song “In the Dining Room” that’s supposed to be this classic song. We wrote the lyrics and then Ryan composed this beautiful song. It was silly and sweet at the same time. They were teaching it to the extras and actors to sing it. To hear people singing it out loud was a pretty surreal moment. Just a true feeling of creation to have all these people sing the song but it’s also very sweet and you feel the real emotion.
It’s always fun doing scenes with Jo Firestone. The wedding episode was very fun because we were making those dances up. There are moments where you feel like you’re just making your friend laugh and they’re making you laugh and you forget about all this stuff surrounding it. That’s when it’s at its best.
You had your farewell shows where you watched all the episodes along with a packed room. How did that feel?
Pera: It was incredible. It doesn’t matter that there’s not gonna be another season. We made something that mattered to people. People were laughing out loud. I don’t know. I think we did our job. Just to be able to get three seasons to make anything feels pretty lucky; to be able to do that with your friends and make something that everybody else can connect to and hopefully watch again. I felt like we wanted to make the Baba O’Riley episode or the pumpkin episode something that you could watch over again and have the same feeling.
How do you do that? How do you make something that people won’t get tired of?
Pera: I don’t know if there’s a formula to it. A lot of it was done by feel. Like the Charlie Brown holiday specials are just endlessly re-watchable every year. I don’t know, good characters and subject matter that you want to spend time with.
These are episodes I’m sure you’ve seen countless times in the edit room alone. Was there something you caught for the first time in any of these re-watches?
Pera: There are a couple of things. We tried to pack as many details in the each of the episodes and one of the costumes we found [in the storage space] was labeled “Count Dooku from Star Wars.” I was like “Marty, what is this? I don’t remember that.” And he was like, “remember in one of the [Halloween] photos you’re Count Dooku.” I was like, that’s a pretty good joke and I was reminded that Count Dooku is in the show at one point, so there’s tiny little details.
One thing that I wanted to bring up that I never have but want to leave open ended is when we’re driving in the final scene of the final episode to go to the property. In the previous scene, Mike has apologized for drinking and said “I’ll never drink and drive again.” When we were shooting, we happened to drive by a cop who pulled over a vehicle. In the back of my head, it’s funny to think that it could be Mike getting pulled over.
Did the shows feel like an end or at least an end to this chapter?
Pera: We never got to shoot a final episode or do a final season, so it was nice to have everybody there on stage, drinking beer. It felt like a proper farewell to me at least. Just to watch with a group, I don’t know if it’ll happen again. To see the way that people were enjoying it: anticipating stuff and laughing really hard. Some stuff we buried in the edit that we weren’t sure people would find or find as amusing as we did. To see that all the little jokes had been found by the audience that night was a very special feeling.
When do you think you’ll watch any of the episodes again?
Pera: A little while. I’m proud of the work we did but I’m not a psychopath. I don’t like watching myself that much.
You’re currently on a stand-up tour working our material for a special. Has that been helpful in the wake of the cancellation?
Pera: Pretty much, yeah. Me and Carmen Christopher were on the first leg and now I’m with Dan Licata and recently Ryan Dann has been doing music. So, yeah, it’s great. It’s kind of a focused goal and that’s the best way to kind of move on from anything is to figure out the next thing.
Are you worried at all about the tumultuous media landscape and getting something produced?
Pera: It’s definitely different but I feel like we have more footing than ever. Things are changing but it does feel like people have more power than ever to do what they want, like with all the self-released stand-up specials. It’s kind of neat to know that people can make their money back and put out a good product without involving a large network, if they choose.
It’s something I’m trying not to worry about mostly and just finding the right idea to pursue. That original Joe Pera Talks You to Sleep, which led to the whole series itself, felt like the right idea. Adult Swim had that same feeling.
Get a good enough idea and the right team to work on it and you can make anything. Like I know, with a bit of money, I could put together a really good feature film. There’s confidence that came from doing the show. We know how things work a lot better from a production perspective so if we had the right idea we would know how to run with a little budget. So in that way I feel like we’ve got more options than ever. If you’re creative, you can go and make whatever you want with the right amount of energy and smarts.
What’s something you learned while making the show?
Pera: I think the biggest thing was knowing how to convey your vision and feeling and allowing yourself to be open enough to share that with a whole team of people. To open up to other people’s ideas, too, and it gets better. I’m still not perfect at it yet.
That was hard, coming from a stand-up background. I knew how to make things work on stage. Maybe I didn’t even know what I was doing on stage entirely until I had to explain it to all these people.
Was there something in the show that you were particularly proud to pull off?
Pera: I think the main thing we found when we were going really big was that a lot of times the simplest stuff works best. Just a well written joke or that just having two characters interacting is as good as anything you could ever think about production wise or a big stunt.
I can’t believe that we put on a whole school musical. We wrote the lyrics, Ryan composed the songs, Vanessa Porter did the costumes, Katie Birmingham did the sets. To put on a whole school play that’s like two or three minutes’ worth of content inside an eleven minute show. I can’t believe that came together as good as it did. And Sarah’s fortified basement. I think those are also some of my favorite scenes. Just the two of us down there in this great environment Katie built.
And stuff like when we shot the Baba O’Riley episode. Katie just decorated the house entirely as it should be, she put that ice cream inside the freezer and she laid out all those props for me to find in real time.
Finally, what would Joe Pera say to Joe Pera right now?
Pera: Oh, wow. Probably something along the lines of “It’s okay, there’s too much TV these days anyhow. The less TV shows the better. There’s too many of them.”
More time to “touch grass” as the kids say.
Pera: If you take anything from the show, it’s go do an activity that’s not watching TV.
Joe Pera is currently performing on the Fall Everywhere Else Tour. Check his website for dates.
Kent M. Wilhelm is happy to discuss James Bond with you, regardless of your level of interest. He is a freelance multimedia film journalist whose insignificant brilliance can be found on Twitter @kw_hc.