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A TV show that proves being good doesn’t mean you can’t be funny

Adult Swim’s kind-hearted Joe Pera Talks With You finds humor in life’s little details.

Joe Pera in bed in Joe Pera Talks With You.
Joe Pera “talks you back to sleep” in an episode of Joe Pera Talks With You.
Courtesy of Adult Swim

One Good Thing is Vox’s recommendations feature. In each edition, find one more thing from the world of culture that we highly recommend.

Joe Pera Talks With You is good.

Good as in good quality, yeah. As an episodic, 11-minute comedy series, it is very, very good. But Joe Pera Talks With You is also ambitiously “good” in the sense of being moral, and well-intentioned, and caring, and considerate. When you were a kid and your parents told you to “be good” to people, they meant that you should do as Joe Pera Talks With You does.

It can be difficult to convey how a TV show airing on Cartoon Network’s provocative nighttime programming block Adult Swim can evoke almost nostalgic feelings of kind-heartedness. The premise of Joe Pera Talks With You is so simple as to almost be beside the point: Comedian Joe Pera plays a lightly fictionalized version of himself as a sweet Michigander, a middle-school chorus teacher with small and specific passions. Joe likes breakfast food, obscure trivia, beans, trips to the grocery store, and his grandma. He greets every day with a contented smile, stands beneath a pale blue sky, packs a balanced lunch that contains no surprises. (A turkey sandwich with cheese and a tomato, a banana, some trail mix, and as a treat, some cookies.) Joe, more than anything, is satisfied.

His greatest joy is sharing these small pleasures with you, the viewer who exists on the other side of the fourth wall he has cleanly dismantled, often speaking quietly to the camera like he’s sharing a secret, just between you two. That he’s talking “with” and not “to” you is a crucial distinction in the show’s title: Joe never lectures nor rhapsodizes. Instead, he waxes poetic about what he loves and who he cares for and how he leads his life, telling his stories from a vulnerable position of welcoming you into his daily existence.

There’s a community of folksy characters in Joe’s world who are also jogging through life at a slow and steady clip. (If you prefer your TV to be faster-paced, this might not be the show for you.) We meet them all through Joe’s point of view, and Joe is not the type to dwell on whatever anxieties or relationship problems or bad attitudes for which the rest of the world may ding them. In the background of Joe’s life, his neighbors (one played by Conner O’Malley, Pera’s frequent collaborator and a creator of excellent, idiosyncratic outsider art) are going through serious marital problems. Joe’s best friend, Gene (played by Gene Kelly, whom Pera met in real life during an appearance on Late Night with Seth Meyers; Kelly’s primary gig is as a cameraman), is struggling to connect with his sons. Joe’s girlfriend, Sarah, is another teacher at Joe’s school; she has agoraphobia and a long list of other anxieties, including how to reveal to the rest of the faculty that she and Joe are dating.

Joe’s position in all of these situations is often peripheral. He reflects upon each one from a place of patient empathy. It’s beautiful to watch him in thought, listening intently to the people we see him encounter to make sense of each word that is said and what it tells us about the person who’s saying it.

I think a lot about scenes like the one below, from an episode right after Joe’s grandmother dies in an abrupt and shocking way. Joe and Gene are on a trip to Wisconsin to visit Gene’s fashion designer sons (the kind of ironic detail this show is full of), and in the car, Gene talks of his disdain for the fashion industry. He’s not quite ranting; Gene isn’t disposed to such heightened emotion. But his opinions are strong enough that it feels important to watch an introspective Joe in the passenger seat, absorbing Gene’s slightly absurd speech.

But true to the show’s title, Joe Pera is always talking with you, whether the “you” in question is the one he addresses by looking at the camera, or a “you” as in Gene and the others, who play against Joe’s perfectly buttoned-up straight man with their hilarious mundanities. The result is that the show is both the embodiment of wholesomeness and an exposure to the comedy that can be found in the calmest, simplest lifestyles.

The way I’m describing Joe Pera Talks With You might make it sound like a kids’ cartoon that aims to share generic life lessons with its viewers. And a huge part of the show’s appeal is in Joe asking us to take a minute and learn from the smallest, weirdest details we might otherwise ignore. But while the show once aired an animated holiday special, it’s certainly not for children. Joe Pera, the real-life comedian, comes from an alternative comedy scene whose players indulge in experimental jokes, political and cultural commentary with an absurdist bent, and even anti-humor. Pera is the quietest and homiest of those in his circle, but it isn’t shocking or uncommon to hear Pera say the word “fuck” in a stand-up set.

Joe Pera, the character, would never say “fuck.” There’s no need for that from him, or from anyone else in this easy-going comedy. Joe sees everyone in his life for the good (if neurotic) people they are, even if they can’t see it for themselves. And to be shown that as the viewer — to be told sweetly, almost musically, that there’s some hidden good in everyone — is touching.

Especially when those good people are children with unplaceable accents who grew up in Antarctica and now live in middle-of-nowhere America and explain their life story to everyone they meet. That’s the pitch-perfect mix of purity and comedy that Joe Pera Talks With You does best.

Joe Pera Talks With You is available to stream on Adult Swim.

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