The Refreshingly Genuine Sweetness of Joe Pera Talks With You

Joe Pera and Jo Firestone on Joe Pera Talks With You. Photo: Adult Swim

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Assholes are having a moment right now. Every news story seems to be about a jerk who said some jerky thing, and fuck that guy, amirite? There is a lot of (often justifiable) anger in comedy today, a lot of it incredibly good. But anger is still a limited palate. Enter Joe Pera Talks With You, an Adult Swim show all about sweet little moments. Joe Pera shares these moments with you, the viewer, as well as the residents of his small Upper Peninsula town. Pera is playing a fictional version of himself — a choir teacher who loves fall drives and spending time with his grandmother and has just discovered the Who’s “Baba O’Riley.” Have you heard “Baba O’Riley” by the Who? It’s really great.

A.P. Bio creator Mike O’Brien loves this episode, “Joe Pera Reads You the Church Announcements,” because it’s unbridled in its enthusiasm. Who hasn’t gone completely head over heels for a song? Okay, it’s odd that somehow Pera hadn’t heard “Baba O’Riley” until well into his 30s, but that song slaps. You can’t tell me you wouldn’t flip out the same way if you were encountering it for the first time. O’Brien wrote for Saturday Night Live for years and appeared as a featured player for one season. He became known for his sweet, sometimes melancholy shorts like “Monster Pals” and “Grow-a-Guy.” Returning to NBC for its second season tonight, O’Brien’s show A.P. Bio is, at its heart, about a true asshole learning how to be a nice person. We talked about his workout routine, Joe Pera, and midwestern niceness.

Why did you want to discuss this episode of Joe Pera Talks With You?
I like that it’s kind of one joke. There’s a million things I like about it. Mostly I like the whole show in general. This one may have lingered because it was so simple. It’s a perfect indulging and heightening of one idea. From years of sketch writing, I like to see that done really well like this. What if someone had somehow not heard “Baba O’Riley” by the Who? How would it strike someone, as an adult who’d never experienced that pretty fun song, to hear it now?

Both this show and your show are about small midwestern towns. You grew up in a small town, right?
Yeah, I grew up in a small town of maybe 2,000 people 20 minutes from Toledo across the Michigan border. I think that’s part of what I like about Joe Pera’s show is it’s so Midwest. It just feels very genuinely Midwest, and like people I grew up around.

Has there ever been a song or band that’s gotten you as excited as Joe is in this episode?
Yeah! I mean, maybe that’s why I relate to it. It happens to me about once a week — this exact thing where I drop everything and think, Oh my God, what is this song? And I’ll listen to it like he does. I’ll play a song sometimes ten times in 24 hours. I’ll just keep having to hear it again, playing it in the shower, playing it if I work out. Definitely put in the article that I work out.

I’ve been a Guided by Voices fan for a long time, but somehow one of their most popular albums got past me — Bee Thousand, which is right from their heyday in the ’90s when I liked them a lot. And I discovered it like a year ago, and thought, Oh my God, this is insane. I listened to it nonstop. I put one of the songs into season two of A.P. Bio. I was just wanting to talk to people about it, and they’d say, “Yeah, yeah. It’s a good album, I don’t know. It came out in the ’90s. Why are we talking about this?” So I was basically living this episode.

And for Guided by Voices fans, that album is as omnipresent as “Baba O’Riley” is to the general populace.
Yeah, it was ranked as like the No. 1 alternative album of the ’90s or something. It’s definitely not an under-the-radar thing. I don’t know how it slipped past me.

Social psychologists say your musical tastes actually calcify in college, and you don’t grow as a music listener after that. But it sounds like that’s not been the case for you.
Well, except that example, Guided by Voices is a band that I mostly got into when I was 23. But, yeah, I don’t think that is the case. In fact, I couldn’t listen to a straight-up playlist from my college days. There are only a few bands that survived. I was really into punk, and I like that now, but I can’t listen to a full album of screaming. Just when I’m working on my delts, you know? That would be a good time to hit some of the old hard-core albums.

Was it difficult at first, for someone who really honed their writing in sketch, to go to sitcoms and have to come up with B and C plots? In a sitcom you have to hit multiple jokes.
It was definitely a challenging transition for me. I leaned on the experienced writers in the room. They would say things like, “I just don’t think our Act Two out is impactful enough,” and that would be something that wasn’t on my radar at all. Act Two ended on a fun joke. Whatever, it’s fine. Can we move on to Act Three? And they’d be like, “No, it needs to be more on the A story.” So I picked up on it pretty quickly. The benefit, though, is that I’m still thinking about each scene within that half-hour format as a sketch in a way. So sometimes a scene moves the story forward perfectly, but we cannot sign off on it, because it doesn’t have any tension that heightens. It’s just moving the B story forward a beat, but that’s boring if it doesn’t have what a good sketch would have.

If it doesn’t have the internal momentum of a sketch, then it’s not a complete scene to you?
Yeah, exactly. It needs a game, a playful heightened element.

Is there a favorite moment of heightening for you in this Joe Pera episode?
When he first listens at the sink, it’s a shot kind of over his shoulder. It’s a really, really long single take. Most people would have been tempted to cut it shorter, or show a different angle, or move on to the next moment. In lingering so long, there’s almost a heightening of the bit. We’re going to indulge and really watch this character listen to a song you’ve heard too often.

I found myself actually tear up when the congregation sings the song, and I’m not sure why. I guess my question is: Do you know why I cried watching an Adult Swim show?
I feel some of the same thing. There’s something so nice to see, once in a while, [about] a community that likes the main character. No one’s mad at him or calling him an idiot or a dork or anything. It goes against one of the rules of TV writing: You have to find your conflict. But it is really cathartic and can be emotional to watch.

Would you say there’s even a conflict in this episode?
I don’t think there is one. Part of what helps is that the episodes are 11 minutes long, so we might not get the same sort of alarm bells: Why am I not seeing a person having to fight against something? I wonder what the writers would say to that question. Is it Joe versus himself? But I don’t know what he’d even be working through. Acclimating to being more like the rest of us, him catching up to a song that we all know?

This isn’t a conflict, but the one moment Joe sort of pushes back is at the end when he criticizes the violin solo. 
That’s my favorite thing. In a full homage to the song, which I’m sure they paid an arm and a leg to get, they still take a little jab at it. It’s really funny.

Joe Pera Talks With You is very sweet, and a lot of your SNL shorts had a sweetness to them, too. A.P. Bio is not sweet — there are sweet moments, but you have a very acid character at its center.
Yeah, I meant to make it sweet, actually. I just messed up. I’ve adjusted the dial in season two a smidge. The premise is intensely sweet: A guy who’s angry at the world and himself for a high-status failure at Harvard slowly warms to a beautiful Midwest town and its people through their kindness. But I don’t know whether that comes out. Everyone always says, “I like that show about the asshole.” But hopefully we get ten seasons, and everyone will see that this is a Scrooge story.

Joe Pera felt to me like an adult Pee-wee’s Playhouse, where it took me an episode or two to realize that no one is ever going to be mean to anybody. I think we watch so many shows where they are [mean]. And, yes, A.P. Bio does have that for sure. But you brace yourself, especially with a quirky lead. He walks into a diner, and you’re ready for someone to go, “Dude, you’re weird.” And after no one does, over and over and over again, watching for that goes away and you relax into this cozy world that is really fun to watch. But yeah, I think I work out anger issues in comedy, so I think I like a little bit of both.

The world-building of Pera’s show is remarkable. Do you have a favorite side character?
Jo Firestone as the love interest was done so sweetly. She did such a great job of always seeming like she’s onboard for Joe’s weirdness. She’s quirky herself but also is so realistic. I believed it that they would like each other and end up together, which is hard to do in a TV show. Since I knew we would have some light romantic story lines in season two [of A.P. Bio], I’ve been watching everything with an eye toward how shows do that. I went back and watched some of the classics, Sam and Diane and the like.

Joe and Jo have such a un-Sam-and-Diane relationship. It’s more Diane and Frasier, if anything. Two peas in a pod.
They did the classic Diane and Frasier route. In Joe Pera, they might have slight disagreements, but it’s not a relationship built around conflict.

Like how in this episode, to show her enthusiasm, Jo starts playing the timpani along to “Baba O’Riley.”
She’s so sweet about not saying, “What’s wrong with you? You’ve never heard that song?” She just agrees that it’s a good song.

There’s that stereotype that people in the Midwest are “midwestern nice,” but are actually masking a lot of anger and resentment. Do you find that’s the case?
I’ve never heard that, by the way. But yeah, that’s probably true of all nice people. Because southern hospitality is a thing.

You’re right. It’s a stereotype that gets attributed to a region, but it’s probably a function of the human condition.
That we all intend to be really nice and sweet. As long as nothing ever changes, and nothing’s ever scary, then I’m the nicest person on earth. But then things change, and get scary, and everyone suddenly pulls out a KKK hood.

I don’t know if it’s naïve to say, but I think there’s also a good amount of genuine sweetness in the Midwest. I think that’s me at 42, wanting it to be the case. I wrote a lot of short stories in college saying, “Sure, there was a white picket fence on the street I grew up on, but not everything was so peachy!”

How are you planning on adding sweetness to A.P. Bio this season? “Adjusting the dial,” as you put it?
I always had in my mind that the character of Jack likes these kids, the A.P. Bio students. Because they’re smart; they’re like him. He was like that when he was in high school. He has a tone with them where he speaks to them like an adult. He’s casual with them like you’d be talking to a friend. There’s some moment in every episode of season one where he warms up a little bit for a quick shot, and I think maybe that shot was a little too quick. We communicate it a little better this season, and actually explain that he was a dork like them in high school. With the kids, there’s going to be more moments of him saying, “We’re buddies,” and hugging them. But I think in trying to make sure we’re never corny, comedians will err on the side of being less warm. And now we’ve turned the dial so there’s the warm look, but he also says, “Hey, good job.”

What’s the danger in being corny?
It’s … huh. It’s a great question. I think, for one thing, that we value other comedians’ opinions more than the general public. I’m not sure, but I bet with a lot of comedians, if you said, “Would you rather be the coolest comedian among comedians or the general public?” they’d pick comedians — depending on how many bills they have to pay and stuff. And our perception from a few mean comments here and there are that you’re gonna get ripped on for any sort of sappiness, when here we are praising Joe Pera’s show.

I’d never call what he did “sappy” anyway. It’s sweet and real and funny. So I think it’s a misconception, but it’s hard. It takes a little practice to be in a writers room, where we’re all sharp and funny and ripping on everything in the world all the time, to be able to say, “I think in this scene, maybe they just hold hands and we hold on that for a while, and that’s the end of the scene.” It’s a little tough. No one will say that sounds stupid or sappy, but it’s a little vulnerable to pitch.

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The Refreshing, Genuine Sweetness of Joe Pera Talks With You