Times are tough, but we can be comforted by the fact that the third season of Joe Pera Talks To You is coming out on Adult Swim Sunday. That such an unusual and delicate thing survived and even flourished in the seething sea of television is a seemingly small but important favor. In short, this show is about a quiet, round-shouldered high school choir teacher in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan who offers “presentation” videos – they have titles like Joe Pera invites you to breakfast, Joe Pera answers your questions. Cold Weather Sports ”and“ Joe Pera Gives You Piano Lessons ”with camera talk. But it all comes down to something completely different and often quite profound. With a genuine interest in common human rituals and natural wonders – the show encourages a sense of appreciation – it’s a comedy that I tend to watch with tears streaming down my face as I am laughing. Most of the episodes are cartoon-like in length and are filled with events in one way or another, while never being interrupted even at a trot.
Pera, 33, has been coming your way for a while, leaving footprints on the web since college, appearing on late-night talk shows. He’s obviously not quite the person he plays on television – he calls him a “character” – but there is definitely a lot of Pera in him; it is not so much a mask as a window.
“We just take a quick look at the world in 11 minutes and then record other stories that happen and make the world feel full and real,” Pera said recently by phone from New York.
Pera insists that the show is a collaboration and after we talked, he sent an email: “I just wanted to send in the names of these people who made the show especially possible from the first season and gave it so much creatively.” In the spirit of Joe Per, here are the ones not mentioned in the following interview: writers Katie Dolan and Nathan Min; editor Whit Conway; composer Ryan Dunn, whose importance cannot be overstated; assistant director Laura Klein; and production designer Katie Birmingham, whose favorite film, Pera told me, is True Stories. (See below.)
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You grew up in Buffalo, New York. How does this relate to Marquette, where everything is filmed and taken place?
People love drinking beer and are big hockey fans. Long winters. There is a lot of snow in Buffalo, and it gets much colder in Marquette – these are negative numbers and a completely different level. “We get up early to start the car, warm it up and shovel the driveway.” What made my childhood especially interesting with the show was that I had two groups of grandparents within five minutes, so I saw them quite often. I think they had a big influence on my style of comedy and went very deeply into the show.
One group of grandparents were the keepers of antiques. The character and I in real life are as interested in things as my grandfather; we dropped him off at the bookstore and picked him up, and he had two shopping bags full of books that he never read, but just said, “Oh, I’m fascinated by this,” and had big intentions to learn about it. He always fiddled around in his backyard, letting me build a fire there when I wanted to – you know, let the child be a child. Curiosity, slowness and distraction from the desire to dive into the subject directly from them.
In the new season, you are selling your grandmother’s house. Are these difficult moments for you?
It wasn’t nearly as bad as dealing with her death the previous season; it was difficult to write, perform and edit, while maintaining the proper weight and balancing it with comedy. But Conner O’Malley [who writes for the show and plays Joe’s high-strung neighbor] was like, “You should continue to be realistic about this, with all these consequences of death that you don’t want to deal with.” Also, the character was raised by his grandparents, and he has to sort of rebuild his life without them. So the sale of the house moves away from the ties with the past and finds out who he is in a different way.
How did you become interested in comedy?
My grandparents were funny and my dad is also a pretty funny guy; my mom is funny in her own way, but my dad loves to joke very much. So I always wanted to try and joke with him. I was never a cool clown or anyone else, but I kept thinking about what would be the funniest thing that could happen at that moment. And when I was in high school, Dan Licata, who is now writing for the show, we just started writing jokes and recording CDs for each other with our favorite inserts. We both graduated from college together, where we performed in stand-up, and then we went back to Buffalo and constantly filmed videos. And when we moved to New York together, we would sit down and say, “Let’s spend 20 minutes writing and reading what we have for each other,” and the goal was to make the other laugh. It was something to test on stage.
As a teenager, you took a course with the writer of Saturday Night Live, Alan Zweibel.
Dan and I signed up to take part in it together. At the time, Dan really liked The Freaks, and he jumped off the roof of the church with a large patio umbrella, thinking he was going to fall like Mary Poppins. But he broke both legs.
Sorry to laugh.
Ha! It’s okay, he deserves to be laughed at, but he has a great story, I hope he develops someday. I think Alan appreciated that I structured a few real jokes at the beginning of the tutorial – they weren’t very good. He was the first person I met who really made a career in comedy, and the fact that he was kind to me and occasionally chuckled I think was important.
How did you come to understand your comic voice?
I’m not particularly smart, so I knew I had to write really good jokes. Over time, I found out that I wanted to perform at my own pace – I think maybe it was kind of a reaction to a lot of pretty loud and fast comedies at the time, right in the face. I really like the silence, so I just took my time, which required attention to make sure the jokes were really good.
You are clearly not the person we see on the screen – you moved to New York and were subjected to the brutality of the comedy scene. What are the boundaries between you and the character?
The main thing is a career change. I didn’t want to do another comedian show. Many of my high school friends became music teachers, and now I can spend three to four months each season filming the Midwest and pretend I have an alternative life where I was not a comedian but a choir teacher. Many of my talks talked about a little bit of blame for leaving my family in Buffalo to be in New York. [City]… Like the breakfast club episode in season 1. I was at home, my dad was talking about his friends who regularly go to the bagel store for breakfast, and he cooked [my brother and I] I wish we were with them. So I joked onstage, “What’s the best breakfast club? This happens to your grown sons. It’s as if because of the guilt that I’m not around.
The sight is very beautiful visually. It’s as if Terrence Malick directed True Stories. How important was this to you?
Extremely important. All the videos I’ve shot before, I’ve tried to match my comedy tone, pace and kind of unnaturalness, but also I wouldn’t call it minimalism, but just “let’s see what we can do with one shot.” Marty Shawsbo, director of the show. really helped develop this style further down the line. Shooting in the woods isn’t always fun, and getting things like this outdoors, I know why most shows don’t do it, but that’s what I want to see on TV. to see nature when I watch TV – maybe I will go not where my nature is. But the Upper Peninsula is so beautiful and, like there, the huge Lake Superior, it would be stupid if we did not shoot this. I think this it’s very interesting that the city is at the foot of this huge lake. I think it contains a fifth of the world’s fresh water and it looks very intense. It would be wild if it didn’t affect the character.
Are you casting locally? Some of your performers seem unprofessional.
We immediately recruited a lot of our friends from the comedy scenes. Gene [Kelly, who plays Joe’s best friend] was a cinematographer at Seth Meyers, for whom Conner began writing snippets while working there. During our exploration, we find a lot of people. Last season, we needed to find the right beauty salon, and the owner Yvonne was such a wonderful person that we thought, “Please give this a try.” And she was excellent; her entire career she has combed her hair, talked to people and made them feel good, why not read wonderfully on camera? I shot YouTube videos with my grandparents for many years, but then grandma was in the Christmas special we were doing. You just don’t know what’s going to happen, what’s scary about the TV schedule, but it’s worth it. You always get that moment, or expression, or delivery of a phrase that you could never have planned.
Emotionally investing in a show is easy. I’m so glad that you and Sarah are still together this season.
Yes, it would be a shame to cut Joe Firestone [who plays Sarah and is also one of the writers] outside of the show, she’s so funny. Before that, we have never done a show, only videos, and we are all kind of learning. I want it to look like a community-generated show and have the quality that someone just picked up a camera and started filming around town and doing their best. We make mistakes, but we don’t mind fixing them because we think it’s funny.
Your special “Quarantine” movie, Relaxing Old Shots of Joe Pera, depicting nature (and downtown Milwaukee) is full of Joe-style jokes and observations, but it’s really relaxing.
I think we probably did it out of a desire to relax, but we also try to deliver on the promises that are the names of the show. As with Joe Pera Tells You to Sleep, I’m glad when someone says it really works. I want people to really feel relaxed, and I think people really wanted it at that moment. [With “Relaxing Old Footage”]We’ve had so many videos from both from previous seasons, we always joked about making a 3 hour documentary about a tree, and finally we glued it together in some coherent fashion. This made me feel better, and I am glad if someone else felt better.
Given Joe’s odd personality, it’s tempting at first to think of the show as ironic, but it seems completely sincere to me.
Anyway, the joke is how straightforward we are about things. I like directness. I always use this example in the writers’ room. Dan wrote a joke that reveals a lot of humor: “Do you know what I like best about barbecue? Smoky aroma. ” [Laughs.] This is literally true. [Keeps laughing.] There is something so funny – it’s just a statement of fact. [Still laughing.]
‘Joe Pera talks to you’
Where: Cartoon Network
When: 12:30 and 12:45 on Sunday
Rating: TV-14 (may not be suitable for children under 14)