In Conversation: Joe Pera Just Wants to Watch the Trains Go By

Set and filmed in the cozy Midwest, Joe Pera Talks with You isn’t your typical Adult Swim fare—though it is still on really late (and Joe will understand if you tape it for later). 

With due acknowledgment to The Americans’ use of both Dire Straits and U2 in its gripping series finale, I’m already set to call the best use of pop music in a TV show this year in favor of Adult Swim’s new program Joe Pera Talks with You.

I’m talking specifically about episode six, “Joe Pera Reads You the Church Announcements,” in which the show’s lead, middle school choir teacher Joe Pera (played by the real-life comedian of the same name), breaks from reading from the church program at St. Benedict’s Parish to discuss, at extreme length, his new favorite song, “Baba O’Riley” by The Who.

What follows is a series of vignettes documenting Pera’s experiences with the 1971 classic rock staple. Like the preceding episodes of the show, which each find the slow-talking, age-indeterminate Pera exploring topics like breakfast, dancing, and the proper etiquette for disposing of jack-o’-lanterns, it’s hilarious but also wonderfully sweet. It takes just eleven minutes for Pera to tenderly showcase what it feels like to love something and want to share it.

I’ve been similarly evangelical about Joe Pera Talks with You, telling everyone I know they ought to watch it. It’s difficult to explain exactly how and why the show works like it does, but I’ve developed a bit of an elevator pitch: Think John Lurie’s 1991 cult series Fishing With John meets Norwegian long-form programming Slow TV, which features endless hours of people knitting or riding trains. There’s some Andy Kaufman in there, too, and I suppose it can feel a little like an ASMR video as well—or like the best droning public access programming you’ve ever stumbled upon late at night.

Like Pera’s previous specials for the network, Joe Pera Talks You To Sleep and Joe Pera Helps You Find the Perfect Christmas Tree, it’s undeniably weird, but less manic in its absurdity than most Adult Swim fare. Thoroughly Midwestern and sleepy, it’s not surprising to see something so baffling on TV, but it is disarming to see something so kind. Along with writer/actors Connor O’Malley, Dan Licata, and Jo Firestone, composer Ryan Dann, director Marty Schousboe, whose sweeping shots of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and Wisconsin imbue the show with nature-doc grandeur, and artist Mary Houlihan, to pick a few, Pera has crafted a late night refuge from the terrifically noisy world of 2018. And no, the former MTV Pancake Breakfast Critic doesn’t mind if you fall asleep watching it. In fact, that sounds pretty nice to him.

What’s your go-to Saturday morning breakfast?

Ah, depends what kind of day I’m having. I like to change it up. It depends on what I feel like or how hungry I am. I like cheddar and tomato omelettes a lot, in addition to pancakes. I usually do eggs on a Saturday, maybe pancakes on a Sunday.

Do you get a lot of questions about breakfast? A lot of your work has been very breakfast-forward.

“I usually do eggs on a Saturday, maybe pancakes on a Sunday.”

Yeah. I don’t know how it happened. I really like going out for breakfast. I think that goes back to growing up. My dad was very big on breakfast. My mom, too, but my dad especially. We’d go out for breakfast every Sunday at the same place after church. On Saturdays, we’d usually end up going out for breakfast, too, on the way to the hardware store or something. I think it’s one of my favorite things to do, go to breakfast.

You grew up in Buffalo?

Mmm-hmm. In a suburb called Amherst.

And you shot the show in Michigan and Wisconsin, right?

It was shot between Milwaukee and the UP—Marquette, specifically.

Pretty much everyone who works on the show has a Midwestern background. How does that inform the way it works?

It just kind of happens that our sense of humor clicks. It’s what we find funny from our common background. It’s where we come from and we can’t help but want to talk about it.

Did you have specific reference points in mind for the tone of the show?

I like watching people who just film Amtrak trains going by. There’s people who film the freighters up in Marquette, them loading and unloading. There’s lots of footage. I guess the goal of the show is to give it that feel while still being a watchable comedy.

It’s a very calm and gentle show, but there are moments that break from that placidity, like when O’Malley’s character freaks out about his breakfast, or when you make a quick note about racial bias in the legal system. Is it a balancing act to match that weirdness with the prevailing tone?

We’re very particular with where we try to do stuff like that. There are things we had to pull back on. Connor and Dan are extremely funny, but…they do wild card stuff. I was able to talk about facts and stuff, and they were able to bring big laughs. They’d give a sharp joke to the show when it really needs it.

You’ve apologized in a number of interviews for the show being on so late.

[Laughs] I should stop apologizing that it’s on late. That’s like the best time slot they have. I guess it’s just too late for my parents to stay up and watch and I feel bad about that.

You made a special for the specific purpose of it, but does the fact people might fall asleep to the show bother or frustrate you at all?

“I guess it’s just too late for my parents to stay up and watch and I feel bad about that.”

No, not at all. I think everything we put in the show is what we would want to see on television ourselves. One of my high school teachers—my orchestra teacher—when parents would fall asleep in the audience, he’d say, “Don’t worry about it, that’s a good thing.” Falling asleep is a reaction, too, and it’s kind of a pleasant one. If that’s people’s reaction to the show, it’s not bad. It’s a good thing, actually. If people want to use it for dozing off, that’s great.

You utilized a fair number of non-actors in the show, specifically in Milwaukee. How did that work?

I think it was the first Friday we were there, we went to a fish fry. Afterward, there was a DJ doing a karaoke night. We were tired and ready to leave, but he called us back in as we were at the door and got us to do karaoke. He was such a good performer and fun personality that we asked him to play the wedding DJ on the show.

My parents are in there, too. I’ve always liked working with people who actually do what they do on the show. In the Christmas special, we got the Christmas tree farmer, Merle Anderson, who actually owns the Christmas tree farm we shot at. In a lot of my early comedy videos, my favorite acting partner was my grandfather. We’d come up with a simple premise and go back and forth. And my other grandmother, Josephine, I worked with her, too. It was fun to act with them. They are some of the funniest people I know. Doing videos with them, that’s how it developed.

What kind of reaction would they have when they saw finished work?

[Laughs] My grandfather Jerry, he loved performing. My grandmother, she’d never been on YouTube. I guess she didn’t realize she was on TV for the Christmas special. I like working with people from that generation because they grew up even before camcorders and the Internet. They don’t put up a guard when they’re on camera. For them, it was just being a good sport and spending some time with their grandson. They were just themselves, and that was one of the better comedy things I’ve done, being able to do that with them.

Do you feel like their sensibility got into this character? He’s a good sport, almost to a fault—like when he’s ready to sell his house because some people he just met want it.

I think a lot of my comedy decisions are definitely influenced by my grandfather, Jerry. He was interested in just about everything, to the point that it was ridiculous. He had thousands of hours of VHS tapes he recorded off TV. Like, every single Charlie Rose interview. Every time there was a play on PBS. He recorded the Olympics top to bottom every year, and just stored them in his basement. He was an interesting person and he was interested. And really easy-going. I think a lot of my comedy comes from him. FL

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