Heads up: This story contains spoilers about past seasons of Joe Pera Talks With You.
The average American adult spends about 6½ hours each day sitting down.
“And that doesn’t even include laying down,” says Joe Pera.
He’ll tell you all about sitting in the first episode of the third season of his Adult Swim series Joe Pera Talks With You. It’s an episode all about chairs, which may sound a little dry, but that’s okay in Pera’s book. He says he wanted to make a show that’s gentler than others.
“You know how most shows on television feel like they were made by an energy drink? Well, this show feels like it’s made by apple cider.”
On a channel known for raunchy and subversive comedy, Pera subverts even that with something far more daring — a show that is simple and wholesome, and entirely hilarious. Something about Pera’s awkward, mumbly persona strikes the perfect chord between Grampa Simpson and Fred Rogers — lovable and ridiculous, with a tendency to ramble but in no uncertain terms a good person.
“In real life, when I get excited, I’ll talk about specific stuff, and sometimes too much,” says Pera. “I love doing research for the show and reading books on the subject matter and thinking about it.”
Pera plays a mild-mannered choir teacher in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, with an understated delivery that is both delightful and calming.
“A lot of the people I went to school with went on to become choir teachers, and that was a potential career path for me,” he says. “And I just kind of imagined what would have happened if I did take that career path.”
In the show, he speaks directly to the audience, delivering mini-lessons on everything from beans to writing an obituary to the rat wars of Alberta (that’s a real thing, by the way).
“He’s a researcher!” says Jo Firestone, who writes for the show and plays Sarah Conner, a fellow teacher and Pera’s romantic partner. “You know, he’s very deeply interested in the things we talk about on the show, and we get the fun job of trying to find stories around these strong, heartfelt interests.”
Between these lessons, though, we get a glimpse into Pera’s quiet life. The show moves slowly and episodes are short — so viewers likely won’t find much plot within each one. Instead, each season builds an emotional arc as it goes on.
In the first season, for example, Joe meets Sarah, a survivalist who has a fortified basement underneath her home. “She is very cautious of anything bad happening,” says Firestone, “and is very prepared for the apocalypse.” Pera confronts the idea that the world can be a scary and brutal place at times, an idea which is at odds with his often narrow and optimistic worldview.
In the second season, Joe’s grandmother passes away, just as Pera’s grandmother did in real life. Much of the season centers around his grief. That idea is something that will carry over into the third season, Pera says.
“It doesn’t sound super funny out loud, but Joe is still dealing with the grief of last season, and we wanted to make sure, you know, it just didn’t dissipate, because that wouldn’t be realistic.”
In the third season premiere, Joe is helping his friend Gene find a chair for his retirement — his “final chair,” says Pera, that “he can sit on and reflect on the last 68 years while watching daytime TV.” Joe realizes in that episode that most of his own chairs are hand-me-downs, and he never chose the seats where he spends a good deal of his life.
“It felt grounded enough, but also funny enough to think about them picking out [Gene’s] final chair in this large furniture store,” he said. “Who doesn’t like to go in the furniture store and try out a bunch of different chairs?”
Gene is played by Gene Kelly (not that one), who, in reality, recently retired from his day job as a camera operator at NBC. The two met through Connor O’Malley, a writer on the show, and Pera asked him to play his best friend in his series.
“And it’s just kind of funny how this worked out. He said he never imagined himself being in front of the camera, now he’s doing the show.”
The show grew pretty organically out of Pera’s stand-up routine. His friends would tell him that he should make cassette tapes to put people to sleep, since his comedy was so subdued. So when Adult Swim approached Pera to make a short special, he put together an 11-minute animated video called “Joe Pera Talks You To Sleep.” In it, a cartoon Pera sits next to a fire and calmly talks to the audience about subjects like the barns of the Pennsylvania Dutch and Stephen Hawking’s affair.
Pera’s always said that the idea behind “Joe Pera Talks With You” is to give audiences something they can enjoy if they stay awake — or something to fall asleep to. When Pera was a kid, his dad would sometimes fall asleep during his recitals. His orchestra teacher told him that wasn’t a bad thing: “Sleep is a reaction too,” his teacher said.
“It’s like, kind of a compliment that somebody feels relaxed enough to what you’re doing that they can fall asleep during it. I hope everybody doesn’t fall asleep during my show, but if they do I don’t mind at all.”