The Unassuming Grace of Joe Pera

Before Ted Lasso, there was Joe Pera.

The article is by Peter Severson:

One of television’s best comedies was canceled last month after three seasons. Joe Pera Talks With You aired on Adult Swim from 2018 until last December, but the show’s eponymous creator confirmed in a summer newsletter to fans that the show was not renewed by the network. It’s a shame to see it go, because Joe Pera Talks With You might have been one of the most grace-filled shows on television.

Before his show first arrived on TV four years ago, Joe Pera was known most widely for his stand-up comedy and for his animated Adult Swim special, “Joe Pera Talks You to Sleep.” In both cases, Pera’s delivery makes the difference: he is always unhurried and deliberate, a stylistic choice that, when combined with his tall frame and lumbering gate, has led many reviewers to describe his style as “grandfatherly.” Pera uses this style to great effect in direct-to-camera addresses and asides in Joe Pera Talks With You, giving the whole show a consistently laconic pace. It’s a sharp contrast with the frenzied ever-increasing jokes-per-minute ratio of many comedies of the present era in network and streaming television.

In the show, Pera plays a version of himself as a middle school choir teacher in Marquette, Michigan, the largest town in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. He is an unassuming but somehow essential part of the community landscape, interacting with kids and their parents around town (along with his eventual girlfriend, Sarah, the band teacher). The low-key setting is far from any major centers of popular culture, which allows Pera to affectionately represent the mundane, quotidian rhythms of life in a place where, one quickly senses, most people don’t mind living somewhere “out of the way.” In each episode, Pera chooses almost deliberately inconsequential subjects for his focus: going to the salon, Saturday morning breakfast at the diner, attending church, taking a piano lesson, buying a “retirement chair,” or going to Milwaukee for the weekend.

The show’s supporting characters are not the usual assortment of oddballs-with-calculatedly-zany-traits you’d find in most sitcoms. In fact, many of the show’s adult and child actors are not professionals at all. This gives the show a verisimilitude that’s hard to describe: Joe’s best friend Gene is played by former NBC Late Night cameraman Gene Kelly, who delivers many of his lines like he’s reading them out of a storybook for his grandchildren. It’s an effect that reads as warm and neighborly coming from someone as consistently amiable and charmingly unpolished as Kelly. The show also revels in other vérité moments; whether it’s Joe talking to children in choir auditions about their fears or listening to his grandmother and her friends in the hair salon discuss what they’ve learned in their lives — the effect is startling but remarkable, hearing real people speak in a regular cadence as part of the show.

But just as small absurdities, odd incongruities, and apparent non sequiturs flicker in and out of our daily lives, so too does each episode of the show carry a touch of the absurd: Joe writes a musical for his students about Alberta, Canada’s very real and highly successful seventy-year-long rat control program; Sarah teaches the women at her ladies’ wine night about various defensive knife maneuvers (a demonstration underscored by the earlier reveal that she is a doomsday prepper); Joe and his grandma hand out candy on Halloween dressed as the blond twins from The Matrix Reloaded; Joe reads the church announcements but devolves into leading the congregation in a singalong of “Baba O’Reilly” by The Who.

What is revealed over and over in Joe Pera Talks With You is the beauty and pain of trying to love the people who are closest to you. And I don’t just mean the people who you feel closest to emotionally; I mean the people that are in the closest physical proximity to you every day. Joe’s next-door neighbors, the Melskys, are often agents of chaos in his life: in the show’s very first episode, they are shown walking into Joe’s house, mistakenly believing it to be for sale (they end up buying the one next door). Nonetheless, Joe takes pains to love and care for them, even patriarch Mike, played with unpredictable chaotic energy by Connor O’Malley. The Melskys care for Joe’s dog while he’s away; Joe checks on them during a blackout; Joe is apologetic to the parents when he reluctantly reports their eldest child Nicole to the principal for talking back in class.

The show’s lo-fi setting focuses on the kinds of people whose lives and experiences are not often portrayed in television sitcoms, and unlike many such shows, it never undercuts them with irony or cynicism. Most of Joe’s social circle in the show consists of retirees or older people, which gives him the opportunity to listen and learn from their wisdom, even though they can sometimes be a little gossipy or cliquish. Joe also takes care to listen to and take seriously the concerns of the middle-school-age children to whom he imparts the love of music, even when they fool him by getting him to play an unexpectedly foul-mouthed movie in class.

Joe, too, is shown to be just as imperfect as those around him: his single-minded obsession with giving the audience “context” before his kids perform the rat-control program musical puts him at odds with Sarah, who wishes he would instead focus on “real stuff.” This sends him into a spiral of unanswerably fraught questions. While helping his neighbor Mike look for his glasses at the hockey rink, he idly wonders, “Will America pay for what we’ve done?” When his grandmother says she’ll kill him with pots and pans if he gets married without telling her, he muses to himself, “The violence is ingrained in us,” then gets back to working on his meatball.

Hard and unanswerable questions are unavoidable parts of maturity, and the stirring of God’s grace in our lives doesn’t mean we suddenly receive all the answers. In a way, quite the opposite is true: as God’s image is revealed to us in the imperfect visage of our neighbors, we may find it’s even harder to accept pat answers or make sweeping assumptions about people. In Joe’s case, he finds that it’s often good enough to just offer his presence to others when words fail.

Grace abounds in Joe Pera Talks With You. Every episode offers an example of how Joe grapples with being either an agent or a recipient of grace in the lives of the people around him, people whose weirdness makes them no less deserving of love, nor less capable of giving it. Everyone is revealed to be imperfect in one way or another. No one stands outside the need for grace. And people are forgiven over and over. What more can we hope for?

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3 responses to “The Unassuming Grace of Joe Pera”

  1. Gary says:

    I love this show. There’s much talk about it coming full circle beyond ironic removal, back into something that feels comfortable and wholesome. Sure, but I really do think it points to something we can tend to leave behind the second we’re not forced to, which is close interactions with people who are very different than us. And sometimes we manage to avoid that so long we forget lose our memory of the safe feeling it provides, and how nourishing that can be.

  2. Peter says:

    Thanks for sharing, Gary!

  3. […] show I didn’t realize I needed this year? Joe Perra. You’re welcome in […]

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