The Roseanne revival was bit of a Trojan horse. It came in acting like its goal was to tell stories about the people Hollywood forgets — those struggling to get by; those outside of New York, Los Angeles, and increasingly Chicago — when in reality, its motivations were political. Roseanne Barr clearly had an agenda, and Whitney Cummings, the revival’s co-showrunner, wrote for Vulture about hers: “Since tweeting wasn’t working, maybe giving my brain to a show that touched the hearts and got the eyeballs of so many working-class people is how I could finally do my part to help us all make sense of the election.” And that’s the frustrating thing with Trojan horses — not only do they, like, murder you (in this case, try to feed you politics that are iffy at best and toxic at worst), but you don’t even get that cool, giant horse (that is, a show that genuinely talks about and depicts class in America).
The worst part, though, is how the incessant conversation around Roseanne overshadowed shows that actually do what it purported to — shows like The Middle, Mom, Superstore, One Day at a Time, Atlanta, and Bob’s Burgers, among others. This is an article about two more: Detroiters and Joe Pera Talks With You. Both depict the economic realities of many people in modern-day Michigan, while featuring the most silliness found anywhere on TV.
Despite being on Adult Swim, a network known for shows where the joke is someone screaming with blood coming out of their eyes, Joe Pera Talks With You is such a funny, gentle little show. Every episode is like a mini Wes Anderson movie, if Anderson were less interested in luxury and the rich and more interested in wholesomeness and the working class. Before I talk about the show’s funniest episode — the instant classic “Joe Pera Reads You the Church Announcements,” a.k.a. the “Baba O’Riley” episode, a.k.a. the funniest 15 minutes of TV this year — I want to go back to a scene from episode two, “Joe Pera Takes You to Breakfast.”
In it, Joe Pera takes you to breakfast. Walking around a local family restaurant in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Joe introduces the audience to all the things you can order for breakfast, his good friend Gene’s breakfast crew (the Over Easies), Gene’s wife’s breakfast crew (the Pink Grapefruits), the items of a spinning cake case, and his student Drew. Then the Melskys, a family who almost bought Joe’s house in the previous episode, wave Joe over. There, the family’s patriarch, Mike Melsky (played by Conner O’Malley), slams the table in frustration because the yolk broke in his attempt to make the “perfect egg bite,” which is “everything on your breakfast plate in one perfect bite.” Joe, a sweet angel, asks Mike to show him how it’s done. Mike does just that, in painstaking detail: (1) rye toast; (2) butter; (3) purple jelly; (4) hash browns; (5) ketchup in the shape of a “w,” for “waaazzzzzup”; (7) over-easy sunny-side-up egg. The goal is to get it all, including the entire yolk, in your mouth at once. Mike, showing the resilience of the American spirit, tries to achieve perfection once again. He fails. Yolk dripping out of his mouth like a modern-day Sisyphus with yolk dripping out of his mouth, he again bangs the table and screams. As Joe gets up, Mike pleads to his kids as they laugh at him: “I needed a win. Things aren’t going well for me.”
The moment plays for a laugh, but it’s also a moment I keep coming back to. Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where the show is set, has a higher unemployment rate than state and national averages and an increasingly declining population because of the lack of opportunity in the area’s two main industries, mining and timber. The first episode of the first season, “Joe Pera Shows You Iron,” explains the area’s intrinsic link between its ecology and its economy. The episode doesn’t get into the decline, but the show’s somber soundtrack and Joe’s deadpan style suggest an undercurrent of something gone wrong. However, for most part, Joe and his friend Gene just talk about rocks they like. That’s because, at its core, Joe Pera Talks With You is about appreciating the things you have with an earnest, bizarre enthusiasm — be it a diner breakfast, a fall drive, or, yes, hearing “Baba O’Riley” for the first time. What makes “Joe Pera Reads You the Church Announcements” such a revelation is that the joke is not in making fun of Joe for never hearing a famous song, but in how it captures and escalates the pure joy he is experiencing. It allows the viewer to hear a song they’ve heard hundreds of times with fresh ears. Though many episodes of Joe Pera Talks With You build to a hilarious, deadpan existentialist act, the best ones have peaks of revelry.
Detroiters — a show about two best friends who make those local ads you see online that make you think “Who made this?” — on the other hand, is resolved to always having the silliest, best time it can. That said, it never forgets where it comes from. It’s right there in the theme song: “Next time, when they ask you where you from, you gonna say Detroit city, where we’re getting back on our feet.” That is essentially what happens every episode. During the last season of Nathan for You, Daniel D’Addario wrote for Time about how the show darkly captured the economic desperation of our times. Detroiters achieves something similar, while being tonally completely opposite. The show’s co-stars and co-creators, Sam Richardson and Tim Robinson, are from Detroit, as is the entire main cast, as well as many of its guest stars (like Tim Meadows and Kevin Nash), so they are all acutely aware of their home’s economic reality. (Even though Detroit’s unemployment keeps dropping from an incredible peak of 28 percent in 2009, it still is significantly higher than the state and national average.) Like Nathan for You, every episode is about a small business owner so desperate for help that they ask two big doofuses to make them ads. The difference is that on Detroiters, the ads often work and every person has such a great time working on them.
On Thursday night’s episode, guest star Connor O’Malley (yes, more Connor O’Malley, which definitely makes sense) plays Tim’s brother Trevor, the embodiment of a generation of young people who find meaning in video games when there is no place for them in the workforce. Asked by their mother (Nora Dunn), Tim agrees to allow Trevor to live with him and Sam and also work with them at Cramblin Duvet Advertising. After Trevor successfully pitches an ad idea to a local jewelry store owner, Tim lies in bed telling his wife Chrissy how proud he is. Or at least he thinks it is Chrissy — it is really Trevor in a Slipknot mask! As the brothers shout dumb stuff at each other, the real Chrissy (Shawntay Dalon) gets annoyed and goes next door to Sam’s place. Chrissy and Sam bicker like siblings as well, but slightly better adjusted ones, and watch their favorite show together: The New Dance Show. (Like most absurd Detroit specifics on Detroiters, The New Dance Show was a legendary local dance show that aired from 1988 to 1995, and that Detroiters imagines never stopped.) As they watch the dance line, Sam asks Chrissy, “Who’s your favorite dancer?” Chrissy: “General Get Down. He’s a general. He’s the best.” Sam: “Yeah, General Get Down’s great. Did you know he’s a bagger at Farmer Zachs? And Millionaire Greg is dad’s mailman.”
People’s lives might not be perfect, but they will not be denied their time in the sun. In the case of last week’s family reunion episode of Detroiters, I mean this literally. The best episode of the season so far and a sort of sequel to the best episode of last season, which was set at Sam’s dad’s birthday party, “Duvet Family Reunion” is a revelation of 30 minutes of television. Save Tim, it features an entirely black cast (most episodes of Detroiters are mostly black, which makes sense considering 80 percent of the city’s population is) having the time of their lives. There’s singing and BBQ-ing and gossiping and bad basketball playing, but the sweet is not without awareness of the bitter, as they allude to unemployment, alcoholism, and crack addiction. (Similarly, Detroiters doesn’t act like they live in some racial utopia. Racism does exist in the show, but it isn’t treated as a viable point of view, as shown with last night’s introduction of Tim’s stepdad. Let’s just say he makes a Tim Allen joke and it goes downhill from there.) Detroiters is a show not about denying your problems, but defying them.
What both Joe Pera Talks With You and Detroiters do is not without precedent. A lot of early filmed comedy paired goofy physical comedy with scenes about the plight of the working class, be it working at a factory or moving a piano. However, as filming technology became more sophisticated, everyone became more urbane, and next thing you knew, comedy became an architect and a journalist falling for each other while talking about books, or a group of friends that can afford so much cappuccino they drink them out of soup bowls with handles. There is literally a (very good) episode of Seinfeld where Elaine writes a New Yorker cartoon. Escapism is cool, but it’s inherently unsurprising. Of course, rich and successful (and almost always white) people with tons of free time have fun. What Detroiters and Joe Pera Talks With You capture is just more interesting.
The result is that both shows achieve something rare: They are utterly, unapologetically silly. Of course, there are plenty of silly scenes and jokes in TV shows, but it’s a hard tone to build a show around. It tends to lack a certain urgency that demands you to keep on coming back. (Even sillier shows I loved, like Comedy Bang! Bang!, struggled to feel necessary enough to tune in every week.) It’s especially difficult now, as I’ve heard many comedians say privately that in today’s climate, there just isn’t room for silliness. Who has time for childlike innocence when all the things that are happening are happening? But Detroiters and Joe Pera Talks With You are shows about finding little moments of joy, while themselves being little moments of joy. Look, I don’t know your life, but I think you’ll have a nice time watching them.