Joe Pera is not a man in a hurry. Seeing the New York-based standup take the stage is often an exercise in patience. As he begins delivering jokes in his distinctive baritone, questions may bubble up in the audience member’s mind: Is he really going to talk this slowly the whole time? He can’t keep this humble rust belt shtick up for more than a few minutes, right? Also, hey, what kind of comedy show is this? Gradually, though, the room settles, the crowd tunes in, and it becomes clear that this is something different. He’s not competing for your eyeballs; he’s daring you to pay attention.
By the time the series Joe Pera Talks with You finished its third season on Adult Swim in late 2021, it had offered a welcome reprieve from another brutal phase of the pandemic. The premise is simple. Every ten-minute episode features a singular focus, spelled out in its title: “Joe Pera Builds a Chair with You,” “Joe Pera Takes You to Breakfast,” “Joe Pera Talks to You About the Rat Wars of Alberta, Canada (1950–Present Day).”
There seems to be something almost intentionally childish about these titles and the wholesome simplicity of the program’s episodes, set in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. We can imagine Fred Rogers warmly smiling and delivering essentially the same beats: Here is how to order a nice breakfast. Here, children, is how to build a chair. But why should deep attention be the sole province of children’s shows?
When we ask it that way, doesn’t this conception of adult-oriented entertainment seem strange?
A typical sitcom episode, for example, doesn’t focus on anything nearly as closely as Joe Pera does. Typically, there’s an A plot, in which the characters encounter a problem, like, say, an annoying neighbor. Our heroes try to resolve the problem. They fail. They try again. They succeed. A B plot is layered over this, much smaller and less relevant. Maybe a roommate picks up a hobby. How do these two storylines intersect? They don’t, really. They’re part of the artifice of television, a template that allows a bundle of jokes to be woven into a script with some loose thematic ties. So why should this structure be the most ubiquitous form of scripted storytelling on television?
Maybe the idea is that adult life is complicated in a similar way to a sitcom structure. In the hustle and bustle of office life, commuting, or raising a family, most of us don’t meet individual moments with a steadfast focus. We just muddle through as best we can. Only a child could plant a rickety chair in the snow outside a cabin and spend minute after minute simply focused on Michigan’s wintry splendor, as Joe Pera does in the third season’s finale, or devote an entire episode to fondly describing the growth of a backyard bean plant.
In Joe Pera’s world those two things—attention and kindness—are so intertwined as to be virtually indistinguishable.
Some might argue that there’s a naïveté to the Joe Pera persona, one that’s ill equipped to deal with tragedy and disappointment. And when a family member’s passing lurches into the show’s second season, it comes as exactly the sort of shock that might disrupt the gentle model world Joe Pera has so carefully constructed. But then we see the moments in the aftermath of the relative’s death: Pera shows us how to write an obituary, then how to cater a meal for a wake. Pera and his significant other, Sarah Conner (played by costar Jo Firestone), don’t look down on these small tasks. They carry them out carefully and lovingly, as if they’re the stuff of life—because they are.
The thing with Joe Pera is, he’s very kind, and not just to the characters around him. He’s very kind to the chair he builds, for example. He’s kind to the process of boiling pierogies at just the right temperature. He’s kind to ordering the perfect breakfast at his local diner. In one episode, he’s even kind to The Who’s “Baba O’Riley” when he hears it for the first time, becomes dumbstruck by the song’s sheer awesomeness, and then proceeds to listen to it on repeat for twenty-four hours straight. Another way to put this is that he’s attentive; but in Joe Pera’s world those two things—attention and kindness—are so intertwined as to be virtually indistinguishable.
Those familiar with Eihei Dogen’s many writings on temple etiquette might recognize similar themes. Originally delivered as sermons to monks at Eihei-ji, they often seem like the setup for a joke, each one upping the stakes on exactly how mundane Dogen’s focus can be: A description of how to select rice for your morning gruel isn’t bland enough for you? How about the etiquette for using the toilet in a temple setting? Are you still listening? Yet within this seeming oddness lies a truth about our capacity to transform everyday life through attention. The universe doesn’t need to feel like a cold place, indifferent to our presence. As Dogen puts it in the Shobogenzo, “mountains belong to the people who love them.”
Of course, the point is to disregard the division between the mundane and the sacred, and instead find the art of living inside the simplicity of a meal, a bath, a hand gesture, the boiling of pierogies, the building of a chair. This is what Joe Pera Talks with You has managed to do over its three seasons. In fact, with its reliance on casting local actors from around Marquette and cinematography shedding light on the Upper Peninsula’s oft-overlooked beauty, the production itself seems to do exactly what the show’s narrative does: It suggests that everything can be worthy of our attention—even a small city, mostly forgotten after its World War Two boom times. It says that your attention can open the most humble facets of life to reveal an unknown sweetness and tenderness.
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