Editor’s Note: A version of this story first appeared in The Good, the Bad, and the Elegy, a newsletter from the Daily Yonder focused on the best, and worst, in rural media, entertainment, and culture. Every other Thursday, it features reviews, retrospectives, recommendations, and more. You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article to receive future editions in your inbox.
“Give it a few episodes.” “It gets better after season two.”
These are common refrains for the streaming era, as our entertainment options abound and algorithmic feeds constantly threaten to overwhelm us. If you’re like me, you’ve perhaps experienced moments when finding something new to watch can feel laborious. And keeping up with the zeitgeist or the cultural conversation can make the whole exercise feel like homework, which undermines the base concept that this is supposed to be leisure, entertainment.
Depending on your persuasion, you could extend this logic to any medium — movies, books, podcasts, etc. We’re a long way from the days of four broadcast networks, terrestrial radio stations bound by geography, and programming schedules set-in-stone (or print TV Guides, at the least). That’s why, in our on-demand, click-of-a-button lives, it’s so refreshing when you find something that connects immediately and leaves no doubt about what you’ll be enjoying for the foreseeable future.
The show “Joe Pera Talks With You,” which airs on Adult Swim and streams on HBO Max, had me at “hello.” From the first minute of its first episode, I knew I was in for something special.
It certainly helps that in this first minute, Joe Pera introduces himself as a “soft-handed choir teacher” in awe of the Midwest iron mining town he descends from. I am, likewise, a soft-handed nonprofit professional descended from a proud iron mining town in the Upper Midwest.
However, to say its appeal can be chalked up simply to this similarity would be selling the show terribly short. “Joe Pera Talks With You,” which now boasts three seasons and multiple one-off specials, does a great job showcasing its various charms and virtues from the very first episode.
It immediately comes across as something quite different from most of today’s TV offerings, a bit odd and anachronistic in its approach. Because of this I knew it wouldn’t be for everyone (I eagerly shared it with everyone I could, regardless). But I also knew I wasn’t alone. I knew there would be a community of dedicated fans watching “Joe Pera Talks With You.”
How’s that? Because I knew the community of dedicated fans reading the Daily Yonder.
The Daily Yonder Tells You About Joe Pera
You see, there is a rural philosophy and small-town sentiment at the heart of “Joe Pera Talks With You.” The same spirit you’ll find in this show can be seen in many of the stories we’ve been telling here at the Yonder. If you watch the trailer for the show’s first season, you won’t have to look hard to see clues to that effect.
The other thing you’ll quickly notice is Joe Pera’s delivery and general manner as the show’s leading man. He speaks softly and slowly, and his physical movements mirror this pattern of speech. That sets the tone for the whole affair, lending the show a gentleness and contemplativeness that act as a balm during these high-stress times. Even if the substance of the program resonates less with you than it did with me, you may find it welcome relief for frayed nerves or an addled mind. Joe’s monologues, paired with a dreamy musical score composed by the delightfully named Holland Patent Public Library, are made for this moment in the same way that YouTube’s thriving “lofi hip hop beats” and chillhop scenes are.
The soft-speaking, gentle-moving Joe Pera persona has also begged questions of the Andy Kaufman sort. The show is demonstrably a scripted drama (one with an undercurrent of verisimilitude, mind you), but is its version of Joe Pera entirely an act, or an accurate reflection of the real man of the same name? You can look back at stand-up comedy clips that predate “Joe Pera Talks With You” by many years, and see that the show descends quite linearly from this material. So too in interviews with late night hosts and others, you’ll see a consistent presence.
In my view, the outcome of this line of questioning is largely beside the point. Sure, the real-life Joe Pera hails from Buffalo, New York and sharpened his trade in the stand-up scene of New York City, but he ultimately elected to set his show in Marquette, Michigan, the largest outpost of the state’s very rural Upper Peninsula.
Given my aforementioned points of similarity with the character presented in the show, I feel confident saying that whatever the origins and intent of these decisions, “Joe Pera Talks With You” bears an impressive authenticity and specificity.
The way it presents the smaller details of small-town life in Marquette feels like it comes from a place of honesty — one that could only be achieved through experience or, at the very least, thorough research.
It wouldn’t work otherwise, given its focus on those small details.
The other fundamental trait of the Joe Pera persona anchoring this show is his appreciation, fascination even, with all the aspects of life, however mundane they may seem on the surface. Entire episodes are dedicated to things like, the various species of evergreen trees, the church announcements, the obituaries page in the community newspaper, what to order for breakfast at the local diner, and the Midwest tradition of the second fridge. Season long arcs are likewise dedicated to things like growing a bean arch for the first time or choosing a new chair to optimize your sitting time. It all feels deliberate and handcrafted, something akin to a series of small dioramas. And again, it seems made for this moment, in the same way that Cottagecore has been.
The Next Cool Place?
Fortunately, the power of “Joe Pera Talks With You” goes far beyond its rustic charms and humble aesthetics that seem more at home on public access than a premium cable network. The show has elicited lots of reflection in me and left me pondering life in the way of its protagonist.
Our publisher, Dee Davis, has often asked, “What if rural was the next cool place?” “Joe Pera Talks With You” seems to be offering an early answer to that inquiry, one of the most satisfactory I’ve yet seen.
When I was growing up in my own Marquette, a small iron mining town in northern Minnesota, I was living under a bevy of assumptions. The path before me felt intrinsic, unquestionable. I would journey to the big city, I would get the big, splashy office jobs, and I wouldn’t much consider returning home for the long-term. These assumptions are certainly familiar to many smart, striving kids with small-town roots, across generations.
We cannot deny that TV and pop culture have some role to play in the formation of these cultural assumptions. When I think about the TV landscape, I can count on both hands (and beyond) the number of popular shows about 20-somethings living in the big city (New York City, more often than not). They continue onward still.
For a young person steeped in media, like I was, it was natural to see this lifestyle as being synonymous with success, as well as legitimacy and dynamism, among other things. Forget the world outside your window. Homeownership, marriage, and kids, they could wait. Membership in a church or faith community, not necessary. Staying in one job or one place too long, passé.
We had it all figured out. This was how to be happy. This was cool. The alternative was stasis and definitively not cool.
Small-town life has its own place in the TV pantheon, but, as we’ve talked about, much of it has been occupied by the nuclear families of earlier generations, with protagonists “over the hill” and much further along in life’s journey.
Between these two poles, youthful wandering and the settling down of middle-age, there is a meaningful, under-appreciated chapter in the middle that “Joe Pera Talks With You” is uniquely exploring.
On a basic level, here is a show that is culturally conservative in its approach, folksy and old-fashioned to a strong degree; the Joe Pera of “Joe Pera Talks With You” has also been compared to something resembling a modern day Mr. Rogers, for a more adult set of viewers. Yet, given its platform and its intended audience, you could look closely and also call this show positively subversive and radical, as paradoxical as that might seem. It offers a distinct counterpoint to the dominant cultural norms and assumptions of our age.
I am just one month older than Joe Pera, each of us racing inexorably into our mid-thirties. “Joe Pera Talks With You” seems to be saying to a cohort of millennials and Gen Zers, in a way nothing else is, “This is what coming-of-age looks like.”
What if we didn’t have it all figured out? What if it was OK to move a little slower and talk a little softer? What if those little things our families and communities gave us when we were young really were worth celebrating and holding onto? What if they were as interesting, and cool, as it gets. What if they were enough?
These are deep questions, matters of introspection rife with with tensions. Whatever our individual answers end up being, if there were more shows on TV like “Joe Pera Talks With You,” I bet we might see some different assumptions take hold in the future. For the moment, the ponderings of Joe Pera are worth every minute, every episode, and a special spot in your watchlist.
“Joe Pera Talks With You” airs on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim programming block and all three seasons are now streaming on HBO Max. Episodes can also be purchased from digital storefronts.
This article first appeared in The Good, the Bad, and the Elegy, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder focused on the best, and worst, in rural media, entertainment, and culture. Every other Thursday, it features reviews, recommendations, retrospectives, and more. Join the mailing list today to have future editions delivered straight to your inbox.