A New Yorker his early ’30s, Joe Pera has risen to critical acclaim over the last number of years, on the strength of a comedic voice that is all his own.
A viral sensation known for his slow-moving, subdued delivery and his accompanying series of sweaters, Pera has been building out a niche comedic world for years, presenting the most fully realized version of it yet with the Adult Swim short-form series Joe Pera Talks with You.
Featuring turns from a number of Pera’s longtime creative partners, including Connor O’Malley, the series centers on a fictionalized version of the comedian, who is teaching choir at a middle school in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Over the course of each episode, Pera speaks directly to the audience about such topics as beans, grocery stores and internet videos, somehow rendering mundane, everyday things life-affirming, while allowing viewers to see them with fresh eyes.
Bearing a wholesome quality akin to Fred Rogers, Pera more recently released a special in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, titled Relaxing Old Footage with Joe Pera, which pairs soothing b-roll clips with Pera’s signature narration. Like Joe Pera Talks with You, the special has been submitted for Emmys consideration—acting as a much-needed balm for incredibly turbulent times, both in America and around the world.
“I hope it’s not fluff, or just saying that everything’s going to be all right,” Pera says of these projects. “[I’m] just trying to make a show that makes you feel just all right enough to calm down, and not fall asleep in a panic, and have a couple laughs that feel sincere, and not just pandering.”
DEADLINE: Tell us about your journey with Adult Swim. How did your short-form series come about?
JOE PERA: It’s kind of been a live development process with them. The first thing I did with them was an animated short called Joe Pera Talks You to Sleep. It was just based on some stand-up I had been doing, because I realized that my stand-up is low-key, and I wondered how far I could push it. I thought to pitch them the idea when I got the opportunity, and I thought the pitch went all right, but then I went home, and I don’t know if I’d communicated the idea that perfectly. So, I went home and repurposed this animation I had already made over the weekend, and sent them a three-minute version of it, and then they green-lit it to be made for their 4:00 AM slot.
Then, I did a couple pitches in between, and eventually I got a call, asking if I would do a Christmas special for them. They gave no constraints at all, other than it had to be finished on time for the holidays, so that’s what made the show about picking out a Christmas tree.
Then, after that, I came up with the pitch for the series, and how to expand that world further, and that’s how the show came about. We added characters, and built to the world, and established things across the first couple projects that I made for them. So, we were able to grow the show, while working and testing things out.
DEADLINE: Can you elaborate on the inspiration behind Joe Pera Talks with You, and the comedic world you’ve created with all of your work?
PERA: My friend was joking with me that sometimes, my comedy is so subdued that [I] should do it as a cassette tape, so I started seeing if I could do it on stage and actually put the audience to sleep. So, I had been working on the idea for a while, but it seems like TV is an even better medium for that, because people fall asleep to TV all the time. Falling asleep is almost like a high-pressure situation at a stand-up show, because everybody wants to laugh, and nobody wants to be the only person falling asleep. But with television, it’s like you can create an actual experience with relaxing images and music, and then also hopefully be funny.
So, that was the goal. Because so many people fall asleep with the TV on, you might as well try and do something for it that was also good television, [where] if you stay awake and watch the whole episode, and it didn’t put you to sleep, you wouldn’t be upset, at the same time.
So, in each season, we’ve done episodes that come back to that. In Season 1, we did an episode called “Joe Pera Talks You Back to Sleep,” and it was like a live version of the animation, but it took place on a rainy night, and we used a lot of water imagery. The whole premise is, you just kind of create the feeling of being in bed on a rainy night, and [you’re] in the same place as the viewer. The feeling of each episode is hopefully specific, and it’s about the feeling and tone of each episode’s comedy, and creating that tone with the music that’s as important as the jokes and the content themselves.
DEADLINE: Watching Joe Pera Talks with You—and everything you’ve done—it’s difficult to know how much of your comedy is you, personally, versus a comedic persona. What would you say about that?
PERA: I guess we’d have to hang out for you to know for sure, but I don’t know. I’m a comedian in New York, and I didn’t want to do a show about a comedian in New York. A lot of friends became music teachers, so I just chose that profession and ran with it, based on conversations I’ve had with them.
DEADLINE: Are there particular artists who have inspired you, comedically?
PERA: Christopher Guest definitely was a huge one. I remember his stuff was huge, watching it, just the subtleties of it, and then I just started re-watching [it]. I really like the director Roy Andersson a lot; I always watch his films while I’m writing. I know it’s not nearly as good as him, but it’s a lot of discipline with the camera, and trying to keep things as simple as possible. Or at least the impression is simplicity. But just [with] as little flash as possible, how can we tell the story and jokes in the most straightforward way?
DEADLINE: What has been the process in coming up with episode ideas for your short-form series?
PERA: It kind of changes. Some of the episodes come fully formed. Some are like the episode where I hear [The Who’s] “Baba O’Riley” for the first time. That was just the simple premise: What if somebody heard this song for the first time in their late 20s, early 30s? And the whole episode is just the execution of that joke, and elevation of it. So, that was an easy episode.
Other stuff is what I’m interested in. Like, we did a lighthouse episode, and then beans. I love the research aspect, so I wanted to read about beans and lighthouses, and also, we were making the show in winter, so it’s a lot of just what I want to spend time with. If I want to think about beans for a few months, or almost the entire year that we take to make the show, it’s like I could think about beans for a year, and find interesting things, and just be relaxed, same as the sleep episode.
It’s just like, what would I want to see come on TV late at night? And [what’s] a TV show I’d want to watch, that I really don’t think quite existed?
DEADLINE: Are episodes written in a traditional writers’ room?
PERA: Yeah, and it’s a tight-knit group of us. We’re all friends, or longtime comedy partners. It’s pretty small, and we sit and talk ideas. Everybody writes a script. So, the way we write them is pretty conventional. I would say the thing that makes it a little different is, if bits and jokes from the show didn’t come from my stand-up already, during the writing process, I would take stuff from the writers’ room and do it on stage as stand-up, and test jokes out bit by bit, or even sometimes a full episode. Because they’re kind of monologue-based, I could test an entire episode out pretty much on stage before we shot it, and that was very cool. I think it helped tighten the jokes and ideas. I could figure out what was boring the audience, and hopefully cut that out.
I had a conversation with somebody who wrote for the show Daniel Tiger the other day, and she was saying that they read all their scripts in storybook form to preschool kids, to test out when they tune in or tune out, and that was just me doing the same exact thing.
DEADLINE: Can you explain your approach to casting the show?
PERA: It’s a lot of the people I’ve worked with for a long time in comedy, like Connor, Jo Firestone. They’re just people I always thought made me laugh the most. Jo Scott, who plays Connor’s wife on the show, is a long-time improviser that I knew. But we shoot the large bulk of the show in Milwaukee, and I love casting locally, because it’s people that you don’t see on TV all the time. Like last season, we had a woman who owned a beauty parlor that we scouted, and she was just so fun to talk to that we asked her to play a role on the show. It feels like we pick up actors as we go and scout, and actually make the show, and just meet people. And then people that are working someplace already, it’s fun to ask them if they’d just play a small role or deliver a line. It feels, I think, better than trying to cast very experienced actors for every single role.
DEADLINE: What are the biggest challenges in making Joe Pera Talks with You?
PERA: Writing, I think. I think that we put a lot of pressure on ourselves in the writing process to make sure everything is super sharp. We’ve got 11 minutes, and we try and pack a lot of story in. We try and tell a story every episode, have season-long stories, and then I want to make sure that people walk away with at least a few facts about beans, or lighthouses, at the end of every episode. So, it’s a lot to pack into 11 minutes, and also be funny. We’re trying to do a bunch of stuff, and it makes for dense scripts that need to be reworked a bunch of times and thought over. And I know it doesn’t seem like a complicated show, but maybe I’m just not that smart, and it takes a lot of mental energy for me to get the scripts right. But, I try.
DEADLINE: This year, you also released your Relaxing Old Footage special. What inspired that? And what value or meaning do you find in your brand of subdued comedy, given the difficult times we’re currently living through?
PERA: Well, the special was kind of just a bridge we had left over of [footage of] trees and stuff. We always joked about making a three-hour documentary with voiceover, and we started on it kind of at the start of the virus, when we realized no production would happen for a while.
I don’t think a TV show can do much of anything, and as a comedian, I can’t do much. But somebody told me that they work with some nurses and doctors, and they would go home at the end of the day, and put on the news, and it would make them feel worse. They were saying that the doctors and nurses should actually watch a comedy show at night, and find a reprieve in that. I know it’s not much, but it felt like, I guess people are going to watch something on TV at night. It might as well be something that makes them feel better.
DEADLINE: What has it meant to you, to have a platform on Adult Swim over the last few years?
PERA: I mean, it’s incredible. They really are supportive in letting us follow what we think is interesting. They’ll give us really good notes, but only when they feel strongly about them. Most of the time, it’s letting us run with ideas that we have, and it seems like people appreciate them.
In terms of the platform, I guess it’s nice that people are interested in the type of comedy that we want to make. And like I said, I work with a lot of friends, and I think that that makes our show good, because everybody cares a lot about it. But when we were able to make the Relaxing Old Footage special, those friends could keep on getting supported. It’s nice when your friends that you find funny can stay working, and I’m pretty grateful for that.
DEADLINE: What do you hope to do next?
PERA: I don’t know. It’d be nice to keep making the show when we can start shooting again, and in the meanwhile, it was nice to be able to make the Relaxing Old Footage special. The thing that keeps me calm and steady is being able to keep working on projects and thinking about it, and having that Relaxing Footage one that didn’t require any shooting was a nice thing to be able to do, and just kind of focus energy on making something good for an audience that they’ll hopefully laugh at. I think for all comedians, they just want an audience, and to be able to make work. So, as long as I can work on something, I’ll be happy.
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