The first episode of Joe Pera Talks With You, the latest addition to Adult Swim’s late-night comedy lineup, is about ... rocks.
To be specific, it’s about minerals — and in this case, iron. In the opening scene, mild-mannered host Joe (the character, played by Pera the actor) sits facing the viewer. He’s sweater-clad, fair-haired like a scabby-kneed boy, and says that he wants to teach viewers about the history of iron in Michigan’s upper peninsula, where he’s lived his whole life.
But what follows in the next 11 minutes — and the season’s remaining eight episodes — is much more than a dry celebration of Michigan’s geological makeup. Instead, we get drawling, sincere narration from inside Joe’s head. We meet a set of characters who have come to accept his peaceable demeanor. And an actual story is born from the ostensible documentary about iron; we pivot toward Joe’s pleas for a young family not to buy his longtime home. The whole thing is artful, even heartfelt. And, despite what Joe’s sloping gait, slow, toneless voice and childlike sincerity may suggest, Adult Swim’s funniest show in ages.
For the cult following Joe Pera has accrued over the years, as he’s performed on shows like Conan, The Chris Gethard Show and Late Night with Seth Meyers, this is obvious. As he’s worked the standup circuit, he’s forged a very particular, almost absurdist act: He observes the idiosyncrasies of small-town life, reflecting on them, quietly commentating on them. He mumbles, by his own admission; his work is sometimes like a monologue with himself and the specific, faraway spot on the wall he stares at.
Pera’s shtick feels, at times, like performance art ... and yet: When talking to Pera, it’s clear that he is just inherently uncomfortable, inherently hilarious.
“[The] private conversation-type thing is me thinking of my standup: just walking around, mumbling to yourself.” Pera told Polygon ahead of Talks With You’s premiere. (The show airs Sundays at midnight.)
Over the phone, Pera’s just as soft-spoken as he is in his work, and seems just as likely to drop an “aw, shucks” whenever. A Buffalo, New York native, Pera’s got a shy vibe, like he’s averting your eyes out of some self-consciousness. He’s humble but rarely self-deprecating; he sacrifices ego in favor of praising his comedy partners and friends. It’s slightly difficult prying out specific answers from him. But we talked about pancakes for a long, long time. He’s very serious about breakfast.
“I think there are so many things associated with them that makes them funny. Just thinking about eating them now sounds good.”
This all plays into what’s so endearing about Joe Pera Talks With You, with each episode focusing both on a quaint subject dear to Joe’s heart and his life as an awkward, single, middle school choir teacher. Joe’s sweet and instantly likable; each episode is shot beautifully; raw jokes are rare, humor instead relying on a mix of sight gags and some absurd, smart writing.
I keep thinking about an image at the end of the “Iron” episode, where Joe just holds his palms out as if they’re weighed down by invisible rocks. Kills me every time: It’s a small detail that perhaps would be easily missed in one of Adult Swim’s louder shows. And in “Joe Pera Takes You to Breakfast,” a small moment where a family that Joe says hi to waves him away, like the kindest rejection ever, is one of those quiet jokes that is side-splittingly good for reasons almost indefinable.
That’s what makes Talks With You so incongruent with the rest of the Adult Swim lineup: Its humor is so laid-back. Beyond Rick and Morty, the nighttime block may be best known for the surreal Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job or adventure cartoon The Venture Bros. Even considering the historical diversity of Adult Swim’s programming, there’s little there that has the calming pace of Joe Pera’s show.
“I think that it’s harder and harder to do just straight comedy now, which is all I want to do,” says Connor O’Malley, who co-stars in Talks With You and is verbose in conversation, relative to Pera’s staccato responses. (We talked to him shortly after the premiere, when he sounded like he’d been on a press junket for longer than he was comfortable with.)
This is not to suggest that what Joe Pera Talks With You is a departure from “straight comedy,” but it deviates from what defines the Adult Swim formula as of 2018: absurd, but in a way that appeals to a college frat bro; insightful, but only rarely, and only by surprise.
O’Malley most notably plays more “aggressive and caustic” characters than Pera, as he calls them; they seem more like your typical Adult Swim favorites. But the pair are longtime collaborators. They’re co-founders of their own production company, Chestnut Walnut Unlimited, and Pera helped write and direct O’Malley’s Funny or Die pilot, TruthHunters.com. (The network passed. Fortunately, the pilot can be found online; it’s excellent, even if its conservative satire is a painful reminder of the 2016 election.)
O’Malley’s also a big Adult Swim fan, but he agrees that his latest project with Pera may be more thoughtful and earnest than the channel’s average comedy. If that’s not by design, it’s at least recognized by Pera and his creative team.
“The show, its intention is just to kind of this funny, unique, different, low-key, differently paced show. But we also wanna talk about different themes, and it can’t just be all slipping on banana peels and falling down,” O’Malley said.
I can’t say I’ve seen anyone slip on banana peels on any show in a while. But I also have almost rarely seen shows whose episodes center on breakfast, the focus of the second episode of the two-part premiere; dancing; going on a fall drive; and reading church announcements. Again: not the typical Adult Swim thing. To O’Malley’s point, though, that’s what makes the show as special as it is odd: It’s a subversive addition to a lineup that may be unfairly typified by the success of Rick and Morty. (Although even that show has a lot heart underneath the bizarro aliens, gross-out humor and horny teen antics.)
Besides, “It’s just an honor to have a television show anymore,” said Pera.
“We thought of pitching it to PBS as a joke. Senior citizens could like it — I think anybody can like it. I hope they do.”
Yet Joe Pera Talks With You may seem out of place in the Adult Swim family, especially to a newcomer. But maybe it doesn’t matter that Adult Swim is the home for it; at least Joe Pera Talks With You has one.
Update: The entire first season is now streaming for free on the Adult Swim website. We kindly ask that you check it out.