If you aren’t familiar with the work of Joe Pera, I highly encourage you to take a deep dive. Whether in his peerless stand up comedy or his wonderful Adult Swim show Joe Pera Talks with You, Pera’s style is like no other voice working in comedy today. In an era of comedy creation dominated by high energy, intense filmmaking, and a gurgling dark underbelly (i.e. every other Adult Swim show), Pera cuts through the noise by a lack of noise.
The first thing you’ll notice is his voice — and I mean his literal speaking voice. Quiet, unadorned, welcoming, comfortable — Pera doesn’t sound like any other comedian you’ve ever heard, and you will find yourself drawn into his direct command and subtle confidence as a performer and creator. What does he use his voice to amplify? The sweet, sincere, and wholly wholesome elements of life. There’s no removed cynicism or bitter takedowns in Pera’s work, simply a sense of wonder at what so many of us have long since filed as being ordinary.
I was thrilled to speak with Pera in a phone interview — and beyond thrilled to hear his speaking voice pretty much matches how he sounds when he performs. We talked about Joe Pera Talks with You, his quarantine-produced special, the relevance of “calm comedy” during turbulent times, what he thinks about being compared to Mr. Rogers, guest-starring on Bill Burr‘s F Is for Family, and the importance of balancing his point of view with different voices in the writers’ room. We also talked, a lot, about the Austin Powers film franchise. And for that… I will not apologize. Enjoy.
Collider: Thank you for taking the time to speak with me. I’m such a fan of the show and such a fan of your work. Just wanted to start with kind of a general question for you. How are you coping with what’s going on? All the challenges and struggles going on societally right now?
JOE PERA: I guess as well as anyone. I don’t know. I feel lucky. I’ve been able to work, and we did a special for Adult Swim, the Relaxing Old Footage special, where we kind of repurposed a bunch of B-roll from the show and turned it into something new. That was nice to be able to kind of put all that anxious energy into something. I don’t know. It’s hard to make a statement about what’s going on right now. I just think I’m doing alright, considering.
I’m glad to hear that. And I personally loved the Relaxing Old Footage special, and I really enjoyed that it did seem purposefully speaking to what’s going on, especially the moment when you talk about helping nurses go to sleep after a shift. Have you heard any feedback from folks that it’s positively influenced them?
PERA: Yeah, I get a bunch of messages and emails from healthcare workers saying that they did appreciate it. I don’t know. It’s kind of dumb to think that a comedy show can do much, but I do know that. I heard going into it that a lot of healthcare workers, at the end of a long shift, they’ve got to watch something at the end of the day. So it was nice to hopefully give some option that’s both funny and relaxing, and hopefully help them fall asleep in the evening time at least feeling all right. I know it’s hard not to feel horrible all the time right now, but at least if you can fall asleep feeling all right, that’s something.
Collider: That’s something indeed. In the special, you very expertly analyzed why the first Austin Powers film works so well, especially as it relates to Elizabeth Hurley being the voice of reason. I’m curious, is the first one your favorite in the franchise, or does number two or three take it?
PERA: Yeah, I thought the first one was my favorite. I was watching it with the director of the show, Marty Schousboe. One night, we were working late and had to render something or export something, and we just threw it on. And it was very funny. And it did hold up. So we’ve been talking about that idea for a while. And [Hurley is] such a good foil for [Mike Myers]. [Schousboe] actually tried to get her to do a Zoom call for the special. Hopefully someday, I’ll get to talk with Elizabeth Hurley.
Speaking of your director Marty Schousboe, Joe Pera Talks with You has such a particular visual language. And I’m curious, what was the development process in figuring that out like with him?
PERA: I had been making shorts, comedy shorts, for a long time, and wanted to do something that matched the style that I was writing in. We think it’s really influenced by a lot of stuff. When you go to shoot, I think the overriding rule is just, “How can we do this as straightforward as possible and capture what we need to?” And that’s kind of our throughline. He likes a bunch of sharp action movies, and I like a lot of garbage stuff too, but every time we go into production, we might watch a Roy Andersson film or two. Everything from the writing to the acting is just trying to figure out how much you can do with less. I think that that’s the camera style and the writing style, I guess, just simplicity. Marty is just so good at figuring that out and giving it also a local feel to it that’s specific to the area.
I’m so glad you brought that up. You are originally from Buffalo, New York. I am originally from Michigan and beyond that–
PERA: Whoa, whoa, where from?
I’m from just outside of Detroit. A city called Ferndale.
PERA: Oh, cool. Yeah. That’s awesome.
Oh, thanks. I appreciate that. So beyond my relating to it, because it’s set with such a loving lens of Michigan, both of my parents worked in the church as musicians and my dad is a band director.
PERA: Oh wow. (laughter)
So there was so much of this that felt so authentic and had that local flavor you were talking about. What prompted the decision to set it and shoot it in Michigan rather than your hometown of Buffalo?
PERA: We started with Adult Swim, we did a special called Joe Pera Talks You to Sleep, which was animated. And then we had been talking about doing other stuff, and at some point someone said, “We’d like you to do a Christmas special.” And they left it. That was it. It just had to be a “holiday special.” And the only thing was that it had to be done by late November. So we looked at places that it was most likely to snow in October, and were also a large Christmas tree-producing state, and that led us to the [Upper Peninsula of Michigan]. So it was kind of that overlap. There’s a lot of similarities to Buffalo. And I think the nature of the U.P. and just Marquette, which sits at the bottom of this giant lake and has a main street that opens up to the giant lake, was kind of the perfect setting for the character in the show. And a lot of the subject material that I wanted to explore like my houses, hockey, stuff like that, stuff I’m interested in, it just kind of all aligned. I’m glad that you think it reads in the picture style, but I just think a lot of the colors are very specific to the region. We try and bring them out. The breakfast spots, the colors that they would have growing up from Buffalo, I think it’s all over the Midwest, but there’s something even more specific about the U.P.
What was it like shooting in a place that doesn’t see so many film productions there? Were the locals helpful, excited, friendly?
PERA: It’s great. We shoot part of the show in Milwaukee and part of the show in the U.P., because there’s not enough crew or people in the cast up there for the size of production we are. But it was great. We went up there to shoot a snowmobile scene in the middle of January, and we were hosted by the snowmobile club, and they took us out on the snowmobile to show us how to use them, and took us out to this big frozen lake. It’s great and it feels nice. I think people like having us there, but a lot of people in the U.P. also go there to avoid attention and stuff like television production. So they’re very calm about it too. In one way, it feels like we’re appreciated, but at the same time [they’re] kind of like, “It’s not a big deal.” There are other things that are important and a lot of people up there kind of realize that.
That speaks to the unaffected directness that is the quality of work you’re trying to do, I think that means you picked a great spot. Has anyone from there spoken to you about how they like the show after they watch it?
PERA: Yeah. I’ve gotten a bunch of nice messages. I went back and I did a standup show after the first season. And I was very worried that people were going to be upset. But it was a great show, it filled up, and then it was really fun. We went and I asked them what they wanted to see in the new season, and they tossed out ideas, and it was really fun to hear what they wanted to see in the show. We tried to incorporate a little bit, but it was a big brainstorming session with 200 people from the town. Me and Marty were laughing. It was very fun. It felt like a really fun way to come up with ideas for the show is just asking them what they wanted to see or what they felt was important.
That’s wonderful. That’s such a big writers’ room to take control of. Speaking of your writers’ room, one of the key creative members, not just in writing but in performing, is a guy named Conner O’Malley. And I’m curious why you wanted him to be a part of this world because his style, to me, feels very angry and aggressive, and kind of performatively… whatever the opposite of gentle is. So what do you think he brings to the table, and why did you want to work with him?
PERA: Well, I mean, that’s exactly why. [Otherwise] the show would just be a guy bumbling around and talking about trees. It’s also fun to have the counterpoint of Conner’s character, just making fun of [Joe] for doing that. Kind of like in real life. Conner is an old friend and we’ve been working together on a variety of stuff. And he’s from Chicago, we both find similar things funny and make each other laugh really hard. So just that contrast. And I think we approach a lot of the same subject matters with our comedy, just in very, very different ways. And I think that it’s fun to have that balance. And he’s written some of the funniest episodes of the show, so it definitely works.
It’s interesting to hear you refer to the character of Joe Pera in the third person, as “him.” Do you think of the show’s “Joe Pera” as being radically different from you?
PERA: No. It’s just, I didn’t want to make another show about a comedian in New York, which I am. So I decided to think about if… A lot of my friends at school became music teachers, and just if I had followed that path and moved back to Buffalo after school as opposed to New York City to pursue comedy, what would my life be like, and my interests? How would I spend my time? It’s just, I guess, an exercise in living and making two different life choices.
That’s interesting. It’s like a Sliding Doors, almost.
PERA: It’s nice. Because in a way, I then do get to experience that. And then when we’re shooting the show, we get to live in the Midwest for months at a time. So there is kind of a weird opposite existence that happens. Or not opposite, but slightly different existence that occurs. I think it’s some kind of an interesting balance. [The character “Joe” and I] share a lot of thought processes and interests. I guess that’s why, hopefully, a lot of the perspective seems realistic, and the humor.
Yeah, I would agree. It feels like living that kind of life where you’re able to see both paths simultaneously speaks to the show’s well-roundedness. I’m very impressed by how knowledgeable the show’s point of view is and how interested it is in different things. Do you have any advice for folks who are trying to broaden their horizons, just personally?
PERA: (laughter) I don’t know. It comes from just wanting to read books about the stuff that I’m interested in, and that’s my favorite part of the writing process. Just read a couple of books about beans, and then figure out how to possibly fit that into the show. In terms of being well-rounded, I guess if there is something that you want to be interested in, it’s not hard to do the things like I do in the show, like have a garden or go visit a lighthouse or go for breakfast. I don’t know. What he thinks to do, I think that’s probably better than me. I just end up spending a lot of time writing and kind of wish I could do more or be a little bit more well-rounded sometimes.
You were recently a small guest star on the Netflix show F Is for Family. What is it like to be so hands-on involved with your own world, and then get to step aside for a second and play in someone else’s world?
PERA: It is very nice. Bill Burr, he and I hang out a lot, and he stopped by one day and just pitched the idea. And then after hanging out maybe about 10, 12 times, we talked about doing it, and it finally happened, and then it was really fun. And then he called me the night that it came out, and it was awesome.
Are there any dream guest stars that you would love to visit Joe Pera Talks with You?
PERA: Oh, guests. I mean, I thought about for ages, how fun it would be to have Catherine O’Hara involved in some way. If we do another sleep episode, it would be a dream to get musician Bill Callahan, because his voice is so nice for sleeping and relaxing. I mean, Elizabeth Hurley again, to try again to get her to make some episodes. [laughter] I don’t know. That’d be very funny, for her to come on and say that she wasn’t a Fembot. It’d just pick up where she left off in the Austin Powers films as if she wasn’t a Fembot.
I think that if your show can rewrite Austin Powers canon, you’ve really contributed something. I think that’s a wonderful idea.
PERA: (laughter) I think so. I don’t know. I read an article that they’re talking about making a fourth one, but I don’t think it’s happening yet.
Yeah, I think rumors keep floating. Who would you want to play in Austin Powers 4? If Jay Roach approached you and said, “You can have any role you want”?
PERA: I mean, even the small roles were done so well in that movie. There’s so many great comedians. Will Ferrell’s role was so funny, I don’t know. Dr. Evil’s other son, Joe Evil? I don’t know.
I’ve read a lot of folks comparing you or comparing your style of comedy, not just to other comedies or comedians, but a name that keeps coming up is Mr. Rogers. Have you heard people compare you to him? And how does it feel to be compared to him?
PERA: I mean, it makes sense. It’s a show where I talk directly to camera, and I guess it’s a relaxing and gentle-toned show. It makes sense. I mean, we definitely thought about it as we made the show, but I guess as similar as it is, I think it’s also very different. Mr. Rogers seemed to have stuff figured out and was explaining things to people, to children. My character’s still very much learning as he goes. And I think part of the humor comes from his not knowing that many things, or I guess his blind spots. I think the difference is, it’s a comedy show. I have more of a sense of humor and I think it’s a little bit… Maybe not “complex” is the right word, but I think it’s got different layers to it. I mean, Mister Rogers is a good show but it’s a children’s program. I think it’s more related format-wise than it is in anything else.
Yeah. That makes a lot of sense to me. It kind of feels like Mr. Rogers is coming from a place of pure education, whereas we get to watch Joe Pera on this show figure it out as he goes along.
PERA: Right. Yeah, I guess. I mean, it’s not a bad thing when they say that. I think it simplifies things a little bit too far when people say that. I don’t know.
It’s been interesting to see comedians and comedy figures like, let’s say, Jordan Peele move into creating things that are not in the comedy space, like Jordan Peele making horror movies. Have you ever thought about a different genre you would like to approach? What would a Joe Pera action movie look like?
PERA: (laughter) That would be good. Probably more science fiction than comedy. Honestly, I never want to leave comedy completely. I don’t know, to make something that doesn’t have a sense of humor would feel a little bit… I guess Jordan Peele’s stuff is also funny even though it’s horror. Sci-fi would be funny, but also I kind of feel like there’s so much to explore in comedy, and I feel that a lot of people, stand up comedians included, leave the comedy world in pursuit something of serious. Doing comedy feels really dumb at the moment in history. I don’t know. I think there’s just so many more complex things to do with comedy and places to take it, and there’s so many things I want to try. I think I would like to continue down the comedy road and see if I keep on mining this thing, this comedy I’m doing, where it goes. I don’t know.
That sounds really inspiring and interesting to me. And I just wanted to say that, from my perspective, I don’t know if you think about this at all, history is just kind of made up of small moments in the present tense. And if you can make something that, as you’ve said, gives people a sense of peace or calm or helps them go to sleep after a tough day in history, I think that does kind of make it important. Not to get too pretentious or anything.
PERA: Right, right. No, no, I agree. I guess one thing that feels weird about doing calm comedy right now is that it doesn’t feel like an appropriate moment to tell people to be calm. I guess maybe to get some perspective would be a good and funny thing to do, but doing a completely calm show… I don’t know. That Relaxing Old Footage [special] came out early in the quarantine, and things have changed so much. I go back and forth whether it’s alright. It seems like a time to be upset, but at the same time, you can’t be upset every single minute of every single day. I don’t know where that leaves me, comedy-wise. I’m still thinking about it and trying to figure out what to do next.
Are there any ideas bubbling around that you’re excited about, or a less calm version of what you’ve been doing?
PERA: (laughter) Just get on stage and yell? Maybe, but I don’t know. Again, like we were talking about, is there types of comedy or things that I haven’t thought about that are particularly funny ways to address what’s going on? I think a lot of comedy comes from what you think is funny, and that’s what’s kind of guided me so far. And it feels like recently, so much has changed and shifted, that a lot of the movies or shows that were interesting and funny even six months ago are no longer watchable at this moment. I don’t know. I go back and forth. Is it funny to turn on Austin Powers right now, and how crazy and indifferent, or how silly it is for the moment? Maybe. That period of the late ’90s was so funny how… The perspective was very different. To put something on completely indifferent like an Austin Powers right now would be kind of funny. I guess Austin Powers had that moment too, where he kind of woke up to the world. Remember that? (laughter)
Yeah. That was kind of the sneakily progressive premise of the first one, right? He had to wake up and jump into being ‘woke,’ so to speak.
PERA: (laughter) Yeah, by the end of the movie, “woke.” I don’t know. It feels like right now we’re all Austin Powers being woken up by Vanessa, watching footage of the Berlin Wall being torn down on television, and catching up to modern times. So it’s that feeling. Maybe Austin Powers did capture it.
(laughter) I think “We’re all Austin Powers” is kind of the final word on this moment.
PERA: No. Please, no, don’t. (laughter) You cannot publish right now that I said, “We’re all Austin Powers.” (laughter) Yeah, that would be bad if you wrote, “How are you feeling right now in this current situation?” And Joe Pera responded, “Groovy, baby.” [laughter]
Joe Pera Talks with You airs on Adult Swim, and is available to stream on the Adult Swim website.