2018 Film Essays

The Transcendent Banality of ‘Joe Pera Talks with You’

Joe Pera has become one of the most fascinating oddities of the alt-comedy scene. With his soft-spoken, prematurely aged persona, Pera has perfected a kind of anti-comedy which places an emphasis on cadence and cultural specificity. Pera has made some sterling online comedy with his writing partner and co-star Conner O’Malley; the dynamic between the put-upon Pera and the brash O’Malley is best exemplified in the web series How To Make It In USA (it is also worth seeking out the compilation of O’Malley’s Vines, a medium which he elevated to the status of unsettling performance art).

Now Pera and O’Malley — along with fellow comic and Tonight Show writer Jo Firestone —  have crafted the perfect vehicle for Pera’s hypnotically low-key performance style, in the liminal zone between comedy and fever dream that is Adult Swim. The first two episodes of Joe Pera Talks with You lay out the otherworldly and surprisingly touching terrain Pera occupies. He begins by narrating a presentation on the properties and uses of iron that achieves a surreal pitch by virtue of its utter earnestness. Then Pera introduces himself, dressed like an elderly angler, as a “soft-handed choir teacher.”

The tone is immediately set, and what follows is something akin to a Mike Leigh film put through a Lynchian filter — its gentleness and sincerity takes on an almost dreamlike aspect, in which logic is subordinated to the pursuit of unusual preoccupations. Small linguistic choices, quirks of body language and character detail combine to betray a world of strangeness beneath. But that is not to say that Joe Pera Talks with You has an ounce of nastiness to it; what is so remarkable about it is its niceness. It is reminiscent of Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson (2016) in the sense that its creators clearly have a deep affection for these characters.

Joe Pera Talks with You is certainly a subtle proposition, full of gnomic pronouncements and futile quests; such as “the unbroken egg bite” pursued by O’Malley’s character, Mike Melsky, which appears to have become his white whale. It may sound slight, but in the context of the world Pera and O’Malley have created, it assumes existential import and deep pathos. Pera is a hunched font of skewed truisms and oddball statistics — he declares Eggs Benedict “too opulent for any day but Easter,” avers that “this year is the year of the zucchini for me” and relays facts like “spinning cake cases sell up to forty percent more dessert.”

In its absence of cynicism and surface mundanity, Joe Pera Talks with You presents a conceit that feels genuinely daring in the context of a comic universe which prides itself on provocative fare from the likes of Tim and Eric, Dave Willis and Eric Andre. It commits to the bit with such dedication that viewers are never sure if it’s a bit at all. With this “single man in a place where it’s cold most of the year with plenty of thinking time,” Joe Pera has hit upon a comic creation which succeeds equally in deconstructing and celebrating the everyday.

D.M. Palmer (@MrDMPalmer) is a writer based in Sheffield, UK. He has contributed to sites like HeyUGuys, The Shiznit, Sabotage Times, Roobla, Column F, The State of the Arts and Film Inquiry. He has a propensity to wax lyrical about Film Noir on the slightest provocation, which makes him a hit at parties. The detritus of his creative outpourings can be found at waxbarricades.wordpress.com.

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