Let’s get on the same page here: technology is bad. Yeah, it’s good, but it’s bad, too. My recent conversation with Joe Pera, the soft-spoken visionary behind Joe Pera Talks With You, and perhaps the most idiosyncratic comedy mind of the moment, was almost undone by the vagaries of the cell phone. My reception was inexplicably terrible, and there was obviously some kind of delay that had us talking over each other too often, and the end result is a poor quality recording of a chat that’s a little too stilted on my end. It’s no fault of Joe—he’s a consummate professional and a charming conversationalist—and entirely the fault of technology. I hate tech, and I edit a tech section.
Joe Pera doesn’t hate technology—he’s incapable of hate—but his warm, old-fashioned approach to life does seem to run at odds somewhat with tech’s ceaseless march forward. The soft-spoken comedian returns to Adult Swim tonight with the second season of his beautiful sitcom Joe Pera Talks with You, picking up right where last year ended, with Joe, a middle school choir teacher in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, in a sweet relationship with Jo Firestone’s Sarah Conner, the school’s music teacher and a committed doomsday prepper. If Pera’s personality didn’t make me think he was wary of technology, naming his love interest after the robot-asskicking hero of the Terminator films would’ve done the job.
“I mean, where would we be without technology?” Pera posits, when I vent about it during our call. “There’s some stuff I’m excited about. I know that it’d be very difficult to make a television show without the stuff that we have and how we’re able to edit on computers and everything.”
And of course, like many contemporary comedians, Pera owes some of his success to technology. He first made his name with a variety of YouTube videos and web-series, which paved the way for stand-up appearances on late night shows and his on-going relationship with Adult Swim. Pera appeared as a fully-realized comic persona, a polite, mild-mannered man with modest dreams and ambitions and a deep love for nature, his grandmother, and small-town life. From the start he looked and acted like an old man trapped in a young man’s body, but with a sweetness and sincerity that never felt like he was making fun of the world he lived in or people he shared it with.
That style reached its greatest expression in the first season of Joe Pera Talks with You. At times it feels like a live action Peanuts show, only with adults and with an occasional flash of alt-comedy absurdity that reminds you this is still very much a show on Adult Swim in the 21st century. Season two continues that tone, showing us what Pera’s life is like during the spring and summer (he’s very in tune with the seasons). It also lets him expand on this little world he’s created.
“I think the range of stuff and the range of materials is bigger and nice,” he says. “I like in the midseason that we kind of get to dive into more characters in a bigger way that we didn’t have time to last season with the 11 minute episodes. It’s hard to do everything and go everywhere and flush out everything. You know you have to build the story in the subject matter bit by bit and with the 14 new episodes, it allowed us to spend time with more characters like Lulu, who’s Gene’s [Joe’s middle-aged best friend] wife. You got to do an episode where it’s just about me playing a song on the piano for her and Gene’s wedding anniversary.”
If you’ve seen the first season, you know that Lulu is perhaps the only character who doesn’t respond well to Joe’s well-meaning politeness. After watching the first few episodes of season two, one of the questions I wanted to ask Pera during our interview was why Lulu dislikes his character so much. When he brought her up unprompted, I had to follow up on the nature of that relationship.
“I take her husband down to my level or we get into something that we would…,” Pera starts, before drifting off. “I don’t know if I wanna give away what they go on but like, it’s suggested that me and Gene put a bullet in the microwave and we’re just up to like, science experiments and stuff that she thinks affects her house. It bothers her. I think that she sees the worst parts of Gene or the parts that annoy her about her husband, but in full force in my character.”
As important as any of the specific characters or relationships is the show’s tone. It has a lyrical quality that perfectly translates Pera’s deliberate performance style to a narrative format, with contemplative piano music in every episode, long shots and scenes, and a stately editing style that eschews the rapid pace of most modern TV shows. The show is shot in Marquette, Mich., and uses lots of local actors and extras, who add an extra layer of realism that further separates the show from Hollywood insincerity. It doesn’t feel like you’re watching actors playing characters, but instead are getting a peek into the daily lives of real people in a real small town.
To capture that aesthetic, Pera, the show’s director Marty Schousboe, and editor Whit Conway spend months in the editing bay. “I think the editing is extremely important to creating the tone and just making sure that all the pieces work,” Pera points out. It takes a tremendous amount of work and planning to create a show that seems to so effortlessly depict normal life. “It’s important that Marty and I are involved with setting the tone for every single thing, and then we work very closely with the composer Ryan Dann,” whose meditative score serves as a perfect complement to Schousboe’s languorous shots.
All that time and effort results in a one of a kind show that feels out of sync with today but thoroughly in step with its own unique vision. Like Pera himself, Joe Pera Talks with You is an absolute original, and one of the best shows on TV today.
Joe Pera Talks with You’s second season premieres on Adult Swim tonight at midnight.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.