Find comfort in relaxing Adult Swim comedy Joe Pera Talks with You

A sweet, gentle character brings a dose of comfort (and a little melancholy) to us in a unique, superb, and relaxing show that radiates empathy. Tony Stamp explores the world of Joe Pera Talks with You, streaming now on TVNZ On Demand.

It seems appropriate, when the world is so consistently nerve-jangling, that Joe Pera Talks with You has arrived on TVNZ On Demand (along with a wealth of other Adult Swim shows). Following a sweet, gentle man with the face of a child and the attitude of a pensioner as he navigates through life in small town Michigan, it’s about as relaxing as TV gets.

In fact Pera’s first appearance in this iteration of the character was called Joe Pera Talks You To Sleep. It ran as an infomercial on Adult Swim, featuring an animated version of Pera in front of a snowy backdrop intoning “In my opinion falling asleep is the best feeling there is”.

He’s slightly mush-mouthed, almost as if he’s wearing dentures, and pushes out words with the barest minimum of effort. In appearances on talk shows he fidgets a lot, but stays barely audible. It’s actually interesting to see him in this environment because as quiet as he is, he still cracks people up. You can feel the audience leaning in to hear the punchlines.

Pera has worked as a standup comedian for many years, and it’s here that we need to unpack Joe Pera vs ‘Joe Pera’. The character stoops like an old man. The real person is somewhere around 32. The character dresses like a pensioner, but some of the clothes are the real person’s (handed down from his grandfather), and some were bought by Adult Swim for the show—he took those home and started wearing them in real life, further blurring the lines between fact and fiction. The character speaks very softly, the real person slightly less so. When he performs stand up, the real person will swear occasionally. The character definitely wouldn’t.

He’s friends with boisterous comedian Bill Burr, which seems downright shocking considering how thoroughly wholesome Pera’s show is. It’s surprising too that the show is co-written and co-produced by Conner O’Malley (who also co-stars). O’Malley’s online persona is extremely manic, prone to swearing, and offensive in the extreme. The first time I encountered him was on the surrealist sketch show I Think You Should Leave, where he played someone who couldn’t stop aggressively masturbating in public.

Contrast that to Talks with You, which is happy to devote a ten minute episode to ordering the perfect breakfast, or growing a garden arch of beans. You might assume a scathing satire of small town life, but it operates on a far subtler level. The characters surrounding Joe are heightened, but the show never laughs at them. It’s more about their acceptance of Joe and his eccentricities. He’s a bit odd, but so are they. The one exception is O’Malley, who seems to be the only person baffled by Pera acting like he’s pushing eighty.

The episode ‘Joe Pera Reads You the Church Announcements’ sees Joe distracted by his recent discovery of the song ‘Baba O’Reilly’ by The Who. He finds himself thinking about it constantly, ringing up radio stations to request it (one DJ starts to ask why he doesn’t just look it up online but Joe has already started to hang up, which is about as barbed a joke as you’ll find on this show). He pauses the announcements to ask the church crowd if they know it. It’s such a bang-on portrayal of someone fervently enthused by something (and a perfect choice of song, if I heard it for the first time in 2021 I would flip out too). The episode ends with Joe managing to get the crowd to sing a few lines with him. It’s heartwarming.

There’s some common ground with other shows about softly spoken white men—Nathan Fielder from Nathan For You and John Wilson from How To With John Wilson get similar comic mileage from the blurring between their real selves and their screen persona. Talks with You also operates as a pseudo-documentary that Joe is narrating for the viewer, but this gets extremely fuzzy (where are the cameras? Are his neighbours just seeing him talk to the pot plant?). And all three shows include non-professional actors in the cast (Pera often gets bystanders near filming to contribute a line or two).

The laughs are never at their expense though (in contrast to Nathan and John). The main tension of the show comes from fear of the real world crashing in on Joe. When he attends a bachelor party in the woods (it’s actually just four guys drinking beers) one dude gets rowdy and you worry that Joe will be bullied, but by the end everything is amiable and cheerful.

Nicecore’ is a term that’s recently been applied to Schitt’s Creek and Ted Lasso recently, and googling it just now returned Pera in the top results. Surreal moments occasionally interrupt the placid vibe, usually courtesy of Joe’s dreams, but that’s as unsettling as things get. There are elements of anti-humour as well, but the show is very much its own unique concoction.

Various plot strands come to the fore over the course of the series, particularly Joe’s romance with a doomsday prepper who has a fully stocked bunker (this is presented as sweetly as possible). The more you watch, the less you feel like the show might be sniggering at its characters. Instead it radiates empathy, hitting on a rich vein of melancholy in presenting Joe as someone who’s mostly been alone his whole life (his best friend is his nana, but his parents are never mentioned).

Crucially, the show’s title highlights that Joe is speaking with you. He would never speak at you. That’s the communal level I think it’s operating on. The peaceful vibe extends to the excellent musical score and production design (the latter often presented in Wes Anderson-esque tableaus), and it all adds up to something thoroughly comforting. And relaxing. In fact if Joe Pera puts you to sleep, I’m sure Joe would approve.