Joe Pera Attempts to Help Me Get a Christmas Tree

Joe Pera in Joe Pera Talks With You. Photo: Adult Swim

There is a moment in Joe Pera’s 2016 special, Joe Pera Helps You Find the Perfect Christmas Tree, when the character Joe Pera finds himself confronted with a harsh reality. “It’s December 9 and I still don’t have a tree,” he says. “My life is falling apart.” I found myself in a similar situation this December 9, and on December 10, Joe Pera and I attempted to remedy it at an outdoor Christmas tree market in Manhattan.

Just few days prior, Joe Pera Talks With You returned to Adult Swim for its second season. The show, a successor to his Christmas tree special and the 2018 follow-up, Joe Pera Talks You to Sleep, follows Pera as a soft-spoken choir teacher in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, a fictionalized version of himself. Each episode is a quiet rumination on the beautiful mundanities of everyday life: breakfast, fall drives, grocery shopping. Pera talks to the audience, slowly and soothingly, about the particulars of these things while enjoying his relationships with the people who make up his life: his friend Gene, his co-worker Sarah (played by series writer and producer Jo Firestone), his Nana. It is brilliant and touching and truly, actually funny, and I am desperate for you to experience it yourself; please do so immediately, if you haven’t already.

The man Joe Pera was not remarkably dissimilar to the character Joe Pera in that he was similarly soft-spoken and kind, and in that he similarly knew about trees. He thought I should get a balsam fir, and asked what sort of tree I normally get. I embarrassingly did not have much of an answer for him. I usually just try to get one around my height. “So you can put ornaments on it,” he said. Yes, exactly.

As we walked around, one of the employees came over to help us. In any other moment I think both Pera and I would have delighted in talking to him at length about pretty much anything, which is what it seemed like he wanted to do.

“I was just in Park Slope at an ice cream shop,” he said — the tree man, not Joe Pera — after I attempted to explain my apartment’s location by saying it was sort of near Park Slope. “Apple something?” What happened at the ice-cream shop was he wanted a normal ice-cream flavor (coffee) but they only had abnormal flavors, and on top of that it was expensive. (“I’m not buying a whole cow!”) “Yeah … yeah. I’m sorry,” Pera said, sounding truly sorry. “This guy’s so nice!” said the tree man. “He’s like, I’m sorry, like I had a loss in the family. It’s just some money!”

Yes, he’s so nice, in fact — and I personally am so socially uncomfortable in general — that we could not find a polite way to tell the man that we sort of just would like to be left alone to talk to each other about the trees. Rather than be rude we, in a moment of panic, decided to abandon the Christmas tree idea altogether, exit the situation as fast as we could, and go to a coffee shop.

Later, Pera wondered if it would have been better to explain the situation in a straightforward way: That he was a comedian, and I was there to interview him, and while we genuinely did appreciate his help as well as his company, we sort of needed some space to talk. I’m not sure. It’s possible we should have tried it, and I do at least think it’s what the character Joe Pera would have done.

The first episode of Joe Pera Talks With You’s second season, which aired last week, focuses on beans. Pera wants to grow a bean arch in his garden, so he can walk underneath, reach up, and pick a bean. “Imagine that,” he says to the audience. “Not having to bend over to pick a bean.”

It’s a small-sounding beginning to a show that has noticeably expanded since its first season. The expansion comes in part from the fact that there are 13 episodes rather than nine, and more room to stretch out, but Joe and Sarah’s romantic relationship helps open up the world, too. “The story is bigger, we meet more characters, and we get to spend more time with everybody,” Pera said. “I know the second-to-last episode is ‘How to Pack a Lunch,’ so maybe it doesn’t seem like it’s bigger, but it is.” One of his favorite examples of a larger story this season comes when he and Gene take a road trip to Milwaukee. “I think that’s the most fun. It goes all over the place. And we were really able to show off Milwaukee for Milwaukee.”

But even though the world of Joe Pera Talks With You has expanded, the show and, accordingly, the process of filming it, is still focused on celebrating and finding joy in everyday things. “I’m really grateful for all we have, but we’re still not a, well …” Pera said. “Like, we couldn’t pay to shut down the supermarket for that episode.” (The episode about grocery shopping.) “So a lot of the people in the background were just shopping for their groceries. There’s a woman who walks behind me, stares at the camera, tries to figure out what’s going on, and then walks away. I like that a lot.” We agreed that made it more special.

“There’s a part where I pick up bananas … every time I’d select the nicest pair of bananas, and then sometimes they would go missing, and I thought the props people were taking them. But then it turned out the shoppers were just buying the bananas.” He noted being able to location scout for the store was a treat, too, because they got to go wherever they wanted in the store. “And that’s kind of like a dream. To go wherever you want in a supermarket?”

Part of the reason the show is so effective is that it tempers its kindness with brutal honesty. “It is said that if you put time and effort into you garden, you will be rewarded,” Pera says in the bean episode, for example. “But this is hardly true, and I have been devastated in the past.”

Another reason, Pera offers, is that the show isn’t only made up of his voice. “It’s unfair that I have my name on it, because it’s so much Marty Schousboe, the director, and all of the writers, and the design team. I think you can see every writer’s different style, and the kind of jokes they like to tell, in the script if you look for them.” He cites Jo Firestone as bringing a lot of humanity to the scripts, and Dan Licata and Conner O’Malley for bringing a distinctly non–Joe Pera style of humor. He said Licata pitched a joke when they began writing the show, involving a goose, which I won’t spoil. “And I can’t tell that joke, but I’m glad that he thought of it, because we figured out a way to get it in the show. And I think that makes the show better.”

And, he wanted to mention, Katie Dolan wrote an episode he’s particularly excited about, focused on going to the beauty parlor. “She was close with her grandmother in the same way that I was close with mine, and what she brought to that episode was only something that she could have. She was there when we shot it, and the way she made all of the older women who acted in it very comfortable … It never could have happened without her.”

We’d promised the tree man we’d come back, which ended up being a lie. “Are you gonna get in trouble if you don’t get a tree?” Pera asked. I said no, it would be okay. “We could go back and get one, if you want.” Truthfully I’d already taken my allotment of time with him, and it was cold and raining outside; I did not feel like I then, also, had to make him watch me buy a Christmas tree. “Really, we can go back.” No, no, it’s okay. “Really!”

Joe Pera Attempts to Help Me Get a Christmas Tree