We’re in a time of social and political unrest. Taking the term “unrest” literally, have you had trouble sleeping? Perhaps the 24-hour news cycle has something to do with it. Or maybe all of that bickering on Twitter has gotten the best of you — after all, negative thoughts are scientifically proven to be a threat to falling asleep.
But regardless of the cause and whether this divided time in our country has made a dent into our beauty rest, there has to be an answer. Fortunately, Joe Pera has come to our rescue.
If you don’t know who this man is, imagine a combination of the soft-spokenness of Bob Ross, the gentle inquisitiveness of Mr. Rogers, and the charming clumsiness of Steve Brule. He’s a comedian with a very dry and often subtle sense of humor, whose approach to entertainment is more about modesty and relatability than digging for a punchline. Plus, his show, Joe Pera Talks with You, is on Adult Swim, so some of that surrealist humor and cringe comedy is part of his shtick. (In one episode, he randomly brings up his New Year’s resolution to obtain a commercial meat slicer.)
His grandfatherly voice is as soothing to listen to as Bob Ross’, and he can practically lullaby you to sleep. In fact, back in 2016, the year Donald Trump was elected president, he made a video to do exactly that. The 11-minute “Joe Pera Talks You to Sleep” is the special that put Pera on the map.
The animated short is practically a meditation session. That’s because it’s focused on getting your mind off of whatever is troubling you (like the political quagmire we currently find ourselves in), even if that means diving into very nuanced topics. In the short, you’ll notice a lot of things that have become a part of Pera’s show, from his obscure knowledge of extinct animals to his G-rated cerebral wisecracks (“I was just kidding, these aren’t barns from central Pennsylvania, they’re barns from central New York”).
Four years later, and Pera is two seasons into Joe Pera Talks with You. I only discovered it a few weeks ago, when the Democratic primaries still featured a slew of candidates fighting between two heated factions. Things have calmed down since then as the field has narrowed to two players, but Pera gave me a sense of reprieve and retreat that I needed amid the chaos.
The central figure of our show is a fictional version of the real Joe, who works as a middle school choir teacher in Marquette, Michigan. Besides making me acquainted with the Upper Peninsula city (before the show, I couldn’t name one city along the U.P.), Pera also explores a range of educational themes. In season two, episodes focus on things as mild and wholesome as growing a bean arch, packing a lunch, and even watching his favorite internet videos (which are also mild and wholesome).
Joe Pera Talks with You is about as opposite a show as The Eric Andre Show, even if they’re on the same channel and share some of the same anti-humor effect. Quite simply, it’s minimalism versus maximalism. While Pera and his friends stick to their laidback lives in Michigan, Eric Andre went to extreme lengths to confront it during the 2016 race for president.
In two different shorts, Andre attended the Republican National Convention, then attempted to attend the Democratic National Convention. Anyone remember the “let me in” meme? Yeah, the DNC wasn’t taking any chances. The comedian’s whole point was to make attendees and officials uncomfortable by getting in their faces and asking awkward, off-the-wall questions (“I’m looking for the transgender bathtubs…do you have any ideas where those are at?”).
Sure, it’s easy to look at the toxic us-versus-them politics of the time and think this is Andre’s way of giving them a taste of their own medicine — these folks do spew plenty of vitriol online and at rallies. But most would say that it had nothing to do with their politics. Andre is simply saying, once and for all, let the world burn. It’s satisfying to folks who are fed up with the system, even if it comes across as fuel for a troll-filled environment that’s made politics even uglier.
Still, he pales in comparison to the diesel engine of Alex Jones (and yes, Andre encountered him during his trip as well).
The thing about Joe Pera is that, even without tackling politics, he doesn’t shy away from tough or uncomfortable topics either. He explores death in the new season, a darker and sadder turn in comparison to season one, which climaxed with our main character feuding with his drama teacher (and love interest) as they struggle to overcome differences in a school musical. The loss of his beloved grandmother interrupts Pera’s otherwise routine life with periods of quiet and sadness.
With minor characters like his neighbor Mike Melsky (Connor O’Malley), there’s also a more serious plot trajectory: Mike gets kicked out of his house by his wife Sue halfway through the season. Joe Pera Talks with You is always grounded in reality, and in reality, awful things happen to everyone — even the best people.
This confrontational tone reminds of the way Mr. Rogers provided commentary on current events. Remember when Fred waded in a pool with Officer Clemmons, a black man, as a protest against segregation of pools? He did so ever so gently, reminding that the mere act of compassion can fight a status quo built on the opposite.
Pera isn’t as socially conscious, though he went there briefly in season one, practically derailing an episode originally intended to explore winter sports (“With 65 million refugees, it seems kind of silly to talk about luge”).
Carrying the weight on our shoulders is clearly too much at times. It’s almost as if the bushy trees surrounding Marquette shelters viewers in from the problems of the country at large — something that obviously we need to confront, but can take a break from for at least a little while as we tune in to Joe Pera Talks with You. (Plus, the episodes don’t typically last longer than 11 minutes.)
“Joe Pera Takes You to the Grocery Store” is still the gem from season two, and that’s because — without diving too deep into the rugged topics and overarching storyline of the show — it’s easy to identify with. I mean, who doesn’t go to the grocery store? Even Stephen Colbert brought up this fact when he recently invited Pera to be on The Late Show. It’s reminiscent of the scholastic specials we watched as little kids about food and healthy eating, but instead, it has us relating with a grown-up about the grown-up responsibility of grocery shopping. Think Adult Swim’s version of an adult coloring book: The episode takes you back to an easier time, and it’s oddly therapeutic.
What’s made Joe Pera so refreshing to me is that he’s practically a rebel to contemporary culture — one overwhelmed by profanity and pessimism. Like the rumors of Bob Ross and Mr. Rogers having hidden “dark” sides, it’s almost as if we find humor in their pure identities because of how rare they seem. They can’t actually be this way, can they? Joe slips a “goddamn” at one point in the season, then apologizes for it, and it makes you sense that this man is different from the rest of us.
But that’s the thing: We all were that person at one point, until work and money and politics began chipping away at that sense of purity. As the election season continues to heat up, maybe we could learn a thing or two from Joe Pera Talks with You.
Our trigger-happy mentality may keep pressing us toward the fringes, but Joe Pera maintains his emphasis on good morals, good friends, and good breakfasts — and right now, that’s exactly what we need more of.
Featured Image: John Nowak