Norway has slow television, a genre of calming broadcasts depicting railways, boat rides, knitting, and wood-chopping. The internet has ASMR. The Midwest has Joe Pera Talks With You. The norm-defying Adult Swim series returned from its long hibernation for a third season in November, bringing with it its radically gentle, subversively subtle small-town comedy. Joe Pera’s corner of Marquette, Michigan, has expanded greatly since its namesake creator’s 2016 Christmas special. Entire episodes are spent in the company of Joe’s music-teacher girlfriend, Sarah (Jo Firestone), his volatile neighbor Mike Melsky (Conner O’Malley), and his best friend, Gene (Gene Kelly), and their varied perspectives and comedic styles give the show more depth than before.
Joe Pera has always couched its clear-eyed depiction of tough feelings like anxiety and grief in a cozy outer shell, and that strange combination now feels more effective than ever. In many ways, the rest of the world has caught up to Joe Pera’s universe since season two ended in January 2020: During lockdown, our social lives grew smaller and more intimate, we took up handy homebody hobbies like gardening and crafts, and we learned to appreciate the minutiae of our homes and routines. We spoke with Pera about the new season, bean arches, and how he and his team keep the show feeling homemade.
Thank you so much for talking with us about the new season of the show. I wanted to start off by asking if you’re sitting right now and what sort of chair you’re sitting in right now.
No, I’m walking around. I had the salt and pepper shakers out while cooking dinner last night. I want to return them to the right cabinet.
You were signing your Bathroom Book in Prospect Park recently. How was that?
Really nice. I didn’t know if anyone would come out. It just felt like a shame — we’ve been working on the book for so long and aren’t able to do bookstore events or tours. I just suggested that I set up a table in the park under a tree and sign books for whoever wanted to stop by because I appreciated people getting the book. People came out, the weather was great, and I got to talk to a bunch of people who purchased the book. I signed some other stuff, too, that people brought. It was a nice afternoon.
What sort of stuff did you sign?
Someone brought me seed packets to sign. I thought that was pretty fun. People brought other books too. I said I’d sign anything. After the last period of time, it was nice to do a live thing for the book.
Speaking of time that’s passed, I want to talk to you about the decision to set season three in 2018. What motivated you to make it a period piece?
Season two ended in the fall of 2018, so I just wanted to continue where we left off. I wanted to do a winter season for a long time. So after we did that spring and summer season last year, it just made sense to pick the story up where we left off. I like running the show by the seasons.
The show doesn’t shy away from sadness, but that sadness is usually more melancholy than bleak. Being able to still have a couple years’ grace period before you reach what 2020 will look like in the peninsula helps avoid a lot of the pandemic-related bleakness people have had. But in the “How to Build a Fire” episode, Jo Firestone plays Sarah’s prepper-ism and her anxiety a bit darker than before. This show has a very soothing, meditative, contemplative feeling on the one hand, but Firestone’s character brings that very real anxiety. How do you balance these tones?
It was kind of a tough episode because we don’t want to get ahead of the characters, whether we know something will happen or not. And just kind of treating her anxiety as a real thing, taking it seriously while still keeping in mind that it’s a comedy show. With the grief that I dealt with last season, it felt like we had to walk a line between not making it unbearable or uncomfortable to watch while still handling that type of subject matter in a way that felt true. It’s kind of tricky. In the edit, we have a lot of conversations about it. I didn’t want to make it a horror episode but really wanted people to consider whether something was going to happen or not.
Your character lives in a world you don’t see a lot of in comedy — certainly not on Adult Swim — full of older people like Gene and Lulu and Nana. What do you like about working with older performers? And why are they key to the fabric of the show?
I’ve always done it because when I was making comedy videos early on, I didn’t want to do a bunch of 20-year-olds living in an apartment. So I would cast my real grandmother, who was in the Christmas episode, and my one grandfather, who was a really funny guy. Since I started making videos, I would work with them, and it gave me an appreciation for nonprofessional actors. Why wouldn’t you want to watch somebody who has a full life of experience and character be on camera? I guess it’s what I want to see. Kids and older people are more uninhibited in their personalities. And also that older generation of people weren’t brought up with cameras. When I would work with my real grandmother, whether the camera was on or not, it didn’t matter to her. She didn’t want to do another take. That whole idea of being filmed came so late in her life; they don’t get the same urge to feel like they need to perform. It’s just a different reaction to being on film than people who grew up with video cameras their entire life.
On the flip side, so much of the show is set in middle school. So much middle-school content out right now — like PEN15 and Big Mouth — are about how brutal that environment is. One of the underrated aspects of Joe Pera Talks With You is it’s a gentler depiction of middle school while still feeling real. And you have these great young performers like in the “Second Fridge” episode this season. What motivated you to make Joe and Sarah middle-school teachers?
I guess same as the older people. They’re more likely to say what’s on their mind. I really wish we could have done more scenes. It was difficult this year not being able to do a lot of classroom scenes. But we wanted to do that episode and just kind of go through the feeling of what it’s like to be in trouble and not having a lot of control about your circumstances as a kid or young teenager without getting too heavy. Because it feels like your world is ending, so we kind of had to bring the adult perspective into it.
One of my favorite things we’ve done for the show was at the end of season one. We had those kids come in, and I asked some real questions, and we rolled on however they responded to my questions, which were kind of intentionally a little bit heavy for kids. But the way that they answered so sincerely and intelligently was a really wonderful thing. Maybe we’ll do it again some time. Being caught off guard sometimes by how aware and intelligent they are when you give them a chance to express themselves, it’s kind of neat.
That came out around the same time as a similar segment in John Mulaney & the Sack Lunch Bunch. I can’t remember if yours came first.
I think ours was a bit before. We were working on season two when that came out. We had a beautiful edit of a 45-minute version of that scene. We had to get it down to four minutes, but I love letting them talk. It was a memorable afternoon.
I want to ask about your creative relationship with Dan Licata and Conner O’Malley. The show couldn’t be more tonally different from O’Malley’s video work, which is jarring and frenetic. Dan Licata’s stand-up, too, is often about this type of Joker-pilled, very online guy. What makes you all work so well together?
I think we like working together because we just make each other laugh so hard. I immediately respected Conner from his work. People ask us how we met, and this is a true story: We met at a show, and we decided to go for coffee and write. And he showed up to the coffee shop and brought his own in a thermos. And I was like [deadpan], “I really admire that.”
I think we’re all drawing from people in our life that make us laugh. Conner’s family is actually in the show. His brothers play his own brothers. I think it’s just them being themselves and making the jokes they find funny and then figuring out a way to weave that into the show. A lot of the time, they’ll propose ideas that are kind of on the border of too far for the show, but it’s always the ones that we do incorporate that are the best because they walk the line and balance out the more subtle and quiet humor. It’s a very nice thing to be able to work with them.
I didn’t realize those were his real brothers.
We couldn’t find anybody better, and he’s got the chemistry with them, so it was very nice. And that’s their dad too. You can’t find better actors than that. No offense to actors, but O’Malley’s brother is an elevator mechanic, and they’ve got real stories and experience, and it would be very hard to build that with people you don’t know. And Dan and Conner are very intelligent and care a lot about the people around them, so I think we all get along for that. Maybe they’ll get upset if I say this, but they’re both very nice and caring guys.
Casting people’s real family members is really of a piece with the production design and the music and everything that succeeds at making the show feel lived in. It makes sense that’s a real family in the Melsky house.
That was a dream. We had shot there before, but we went back to scout, and they had a folded-up treadmill right next to the television and a Crock-Pot on one of the bookshelves. We were like, “We can’t possibly come up with better set design.” We try to maintain a homemade feel — same as when I was just making the videos with my grandparents and sometimes Dan would be the cameraman. Like a community-made show — because it kind of is, in terms of close friends with a lot of people that we work with and a lot of the actors are family members or friends or just genuinely interesting people we meet while scouting locations. I don’t think it would feel quite the same if we didn’t shoot it in the Midwest and at restaurants we like to go to in real life and homes that feel familiar to where we grew up.
Canada comes up a bunch on the show. Tell me about your fascination with Canada.
I’m from Buffalo, so we’re 30 minutes from the border. I had never gone to New York until I was 21 years old, but we had gone to Canada all the time. I’d been to Toronto every couple of years. That was the big city. I didn’t realize that the rest of the country didn’t get CBC. So we were watching stuff like The Red Green Show and Hockey Night in Canada because it oftentimes would carry the games American TV wouldn’t carry. And I grew up by Lake Erie, so I shared a lake with them too.
Do you have a favorite joke from this season?
There’s a lot of different stuff I find funny — the wine night episode, the way Annie and Devin acted the whole time. I really loved Mr. O’Malley saying that line about Justin Trudeau. He just exclaims, “I’m sick of Just-crap Trash-deau. He’s all talk and no action.” He gave every possible variation of “Justin Trash-Crap Trudeau.” “Justin Just Trash Trudeau.” A thousand different weird deliveries that made me laugh. And I don’t know if it was an improv, but Conner says something like “No more Odd Future on Spotify” to his daughter — like when she misbehaves in class; that was the source of it. Also when Principal Newman says, “Just a sec, I was ordering some ink,” that always makes me laugh.
Was that an improv?
No, no, Dan wrote that. It’s on that border of the most realistic line but also something that’s really funny when you hear it.
Do you see Joe Pera the character having his own Rick Steves moment in a future season?
We have talked about some ideas, but I like keeping it simple. If we can pull it off in a way that has integrity and makes sense story-wise, I would love for Adult Swim to pay me to go to, I don’t know, Alberta or something like that.
Weirdest fan art you’ve ever seen?
One thing that bothers is me is some dumb company made some T-shirts like, “What Would Joe Pera Do?” you know, abbreviated. That bothers me because I don’t want to be responsible for anybody’s actions. It weirds me out. I don’t think they’re appealing enough for anybody to purchase.
How about people planting bean arches? Those are kind of fan art.
That’s the best. It really meant a lot that people decided to give a bean arch a go and hopefully saw how fun it was to do. I made a video last year — it was one of the more depressing stretches of the lockdown, and people were saying that summer they’d grown a bean arch and were sending photos. So I made a montage of them on YouTube, and it really cheered me up. People shouldn’t look to TV for how to live, but the fact that they could take that away from the show and enjoy the many pleasures of a bean arch was really nice. And knowing that people were eating beans because of the show was really fun to think about.