Joe Pera and the Surprising Pleasures of Gentle Humor

To bore an audience is one of the worst things a performer can do. It’s among the trustiest truisms of show business. But what if our anxious culture has become so crowded with fast-talking agitators, hyperventilators and disrupters that something soothing and subdued becomes refreshing? Is it possible that the most exciting move is to embrace dullness?

The stand-up comic Joe Pera tests this theory. With a rigid back hunching at the neck, he has the appearance of a large turtle, only slower. His fashion is basic suburban dad — Asics, glasses, comfortable khakis — and his dry, gently absurdist material focuses on cold-button subjects like what to have for breakfast. Of the hundreds of performers in the New York Comedy Festival this week, Pera is surely the only one who will say that he doesn’t mind if you fall asleep listening to him.

After a year off because of the pandemic, the festival returns with a talent-rich lineup of seasoned veterans (Bill Maher, Colin Quinn, Brian Regan and Marc Maron); midcareer stars (Vir Das, Ronny Chieng, Michelle Buteau and Michelle Wolf); and rising newcomers (Megan Stalter). Since New York has a festival’s worth of comedy every week, the shows I most look forward to are those by Los Angeles comics we don’t see here as often (Nick Kroll) or stand-ups in their prime taking on a bigger stage (Gary Gulman playing Carnegie Hall). But there is also a wealth of small, quirky evenings like “Dan and Joe DVD Show” at the Bell House on Tuesday, standup from Pera and his more animated partner, Dan Licata.

Over the past decade, Pera, a Buffalo native, carved out a niche in the New York scene by playing at his own pace, interjecting a soft-spoken, flamboyantly clean presence in the middle of shows full of quick wits and profane punch lines. This month, he has a new book out before the holidays, “A Bathroom Book for People Not Pooping or Peeing But Using the Bathroom as an Escape,” and premieres the third season of his television series whose title, “Joe Pera Talks With You,” is factual and straightforward, like his comedy.

Pera plays a choir teacher from small-town Michigan who makes Ted Lasso look like Dexter. The 11 minute-or-so episodes are patiently, gracefully shot without a single swirling camera, goofy font or burst of color. It stands out on the Adult Swim schedule the way a sex tape would on Disney+. There are bits of plot, including a budding romance with a survivalist (played by Jo Firestone, whose consistent likability makes her the Tom Hanks of comedy) or the death of a grandmother, but much of this show hinges on creating a very peculiar tranquil mood.

Pera with Jo Firestone in his Adult Swim show “Joe Pera Talks With You.”Credit…Adult Swim

At various points, Pera recites facts about lighthouses or beans, before sharing maxims like: “Waiting for someone is just a nice thing to do.” The first episode this season lingers on the pleasure of sitting. It finds Joe helping his friend Gene pick out a chair in a furniture store.

Occasionally a political issue will come up, but only briefly, almost as a counterpoint to emphasize that this is not what the show is about. And while the subject of grief became prominent in the second season, the series doesn’t investigate sadness so much as offer tools to ward it off for a few minutes. How about a shot of some amazing fireworks? Or the comforting distraction of a musical put on by kids? Maybe Joe in some funny wigs?

Early on this season, Joe Pera looked directly at the camera and asked viewers if they were sitting right now, before assuring us that he was not about to give bad news. Then he asked, if we were sitting on a chair, what kind was it? Not since Mr. Rogers has someone with as much conviction asked the television camera a question and then paused as if he might hear an answer. It’s not the only time Pera evokes that legend of children’s television.

He displays the earnest manner and sense of wonder that most people lose by their teenage years. It’s tempting to conclude that his persona is a stunt, a piece of performance art in the Andy Kaufman tradition. Some fans probably enjoy his work as a kind of ironic prank on comedy itself. And he surely understands this, which might be why he often doubles down on the incongruous 1950s wholesomeness, singing the praises of a warm apple pie in the fall or apologizing for swearing. But watch him long enough and what becomes clear is that Joe Pera isn’t after glib laughs. Wait for the wink or the twist, and it never comes.

His goal is not to take audiences out of the action by laughing at it, but to envelop them in a muted version of reality, to invite them to surrender to the small pleasures of calm.

For years, I refused. I don’t tend to go to art for that, and when I do, I find it in unlikely places, like slasher films or Stephen A. Smith (yes, he makes N.B.A. punditry into an art). But those are my eccentric tastes. And while his aesthetic seems like ingratiating wholesome Americana, there’s an avant-garde obscureness underneath it. You have to work a bit to get it. Adventurous types should try.

By slowing down and reducing everything to simple comforts, Pera can tap into a child’s view of the world, back when we dealt with boredom most creatively by creating races between rain drops on windshields or finding shapes in clouds.

Many of his shows linger so reverentially on everyday things — the supermarket, a song by the Who — that they seem almost spiritual. Other times he appears to push the concept of banal normal life so far as to find the comic weirdness within. At one point in the first episode, an old stranger drives by him, stops and asks for Pera’s phone. The man takes a photo of himself and hands the phone back to Pera. It’s an odd moment that in a different show could make for cringe comedy, but here, this random gesture comes off as vaguely generous and inexplicable. I chuckled. You might not. But it’s best not to think about it too much.

Early in the pandemic, Pera released a special called “Relaxing Old Footage With Joe Pera,” which featured stock video of waterfalls and coffee pots along with comments like this statement about watching trees: “I can’t be the only one who wants to watch Old Chico, a 9,000-year-old spruce, after reading the news.”

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