Y’all, I’ve been having a very hard time getting to sleep.
Sleeping has never been a problem for me before. If left unbothered, I’ll clock at least ten hours a night, easy. Needless to say, the times have me bothered.
And I’ve tried so many things. Melatonin: nope. High intensity interval training to tire myself out: nada. Uh, other non-judicious things: no can do. Then came Joe Pera. Or rather, I finally got around to Joe Pera.
Joe Pera Talks With You, set in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, is a show about things. Each 11-minute episode focuses on some central object or activity. Joe Pera plays a fictionalized version of himself (a regular-ol’-Joe in khakis and a sweater), acting as a self-described “soft-handed choir teacher.” He talks to us, with you (in a type of ASMR-monotone full of sustained pauses) about a variety of mundane things: Sunday breakfast, how to dance, iron, fall drives. It seems too simple to work, but the wholesome quality of each exploration is intoxicating.
His love interest—Sarah, a soft-spoken doomsday prepper—is, naturally, the school’s band director. We watch their love blossom slowly and subtly over the course of the seasons (both ecological and episodic). In many ways, this show is a romantic comedy. Their personalities don’t quite mesh at first, but we see something patiently growing.
I wasn’t sure at first whether this show was secretly mean, because it is uncomfortably funny. I mean, I’m laughing at all these simple characters with their simple lives and their simple conversations about simple everyday happenings. My watch history would tell me that of all the things I’ve ever laughed at, probably 80% has been mean or irreverent content. But after deeper reflection and a pancake breakfast, I decided that its humor only seems underhanded because of its tone; my mind has been so poisoned by internet irony that sincerity, when presented deadpan on a screen, seems highly suspect.
That this show is nestled in the neon void that is Adult Swim doesn’t help in that regard. But when Joe and Sarah quietly celebrate a small garden miracle, after Joe experiences a personal tragedy, I knew this show was the real deal. I don’t want to give away the surprise, but one of the most joyful episodes of television I’ve ever seen is “Joe Pera Reads the Church Announcements.” I may have cried. The show is profoundly, powerfully sweet—not saccharine sweet, but gentle. It’s artful, but soft. It’s subversive, bizarre even, because it isn’t ironic.
Joe Pera is a performer who doesn’t push any kind of comical agenda nor does he demand our acceptance of any curated persona. He’s not waiting for his perfect delivery. He is simply inviting us into the banal world of the central subject—into the world of the grocery store, or fashionable clothing for men, or beans. There is no punching down. There is no sharpness or viciousness—only mild-mannered curiosity about the small world of which Joe is perfectly content to amble the perimeters. Even moments of self-deprecation hit differently, a reminder that the self deserves the same careful hand given to others.
It should be said that Joe’s Americana appeal is not representative of any feeble attempt to idealize his small community; it’s much more hopeful than that, and certainly more abstract. In the moments between Joe’s overall unpacking of the episode’s central subject, we see so much humanity. We see neighbors caring for one another. We see that Joe’s students are thoughtful, mature people. Elders are treated with respect and honor. Everyone is involved with each other: they have real-life conversations, they spend time together, and they respect each other’s boundaries. So subversive! (Now that I think about it, I don’t recall seeing many cell phones, though that could just be my idealization.) Watching this show has felt like it’s been good for me, as though I’ve been tricked, but in a good way—a pill stuffed inside a bite of cheese like you’d give to your stubborn, grouchy, Twitter-sick dog with validation issues. Ahem.
I watch the show right before bed some nights, especially when my gears are turning after a day of doom-scrolling. I’ve been saving his special “Joe Pera Talks You to Sleep” for a night I know I’m gonna need the extra strength stuff.
Come! Speak to me, innocuous Joe. Come, come sweet monotone drone of the glorious, unremarkable, remarkable life. Sing me to sleep, Warm Apple Night.
Warm apple night. It’s a warm apple night. Warm apple night.
And just like that – I can feel my soul grow back.
And just like that, I’m out like a light.
You can watch the show here, on Adult Swim.