Pittsburgh City Paper called up comedian, writer, and actor Joe Pera, whose Spring in the Midwest and Rust Belt tour stops in Pittsburgh on Tue., May 10 at the Carnegie Library of Homestead, to discuss playing this region, doing your research, and what’s so funny about bodybuilders.
Although Pera has been doing stand-up since college, at the moment he’s perhaps best known for his TV show, Joe Pera Talks With You. Season 3 recently aired on Adult Swim and is available through various subscription streaming services. In the show, Pera plays a fictionalized version of himself, as a “soft-handed choir teacher who is just in awe of Michigan’s geological splendor” in Marquette, a university town in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. His character is referred to in the newest season as “a person of integrity who likes to describe things,” which aptly gets at the show’s presentational tone.
Pera’s humor and the humor of the show, which he has repeatedly referred to as being “community-made,” is quite unlike anything else on stage or screen right now.
“I like the directness of it,” Pera tells the Los Angeles Times. “There’s a joke Dan [Licata] wrote that unlocks a lot of the humor: ‘You know what I like most about barbecue? The smoky flavor.’ [Laughs.] It’s just literally that. [Keeps laughing.] There’s something so funny — it’s just stating a fact. [Still laughing.]”
Each 11-minute episode, with titles like “Joe Pera Talks You Back to Sleep,” “Joe Pera Waits With You,” and “Joe Pera Reads You the Church Announcements” (which is an absolutely precious piece about him hearing “Baba O’Riley” by The Who for the first time), begins with a direct address from Pera’s ponderous, sweet, and reverent small-town music teacher and often involves some aspect of the character’s deep knowledge of his hometown and nature. Pera’s research interests are central to the show, offering information on all manner of things, from Canadian rat control to beans and, more recently, chairs.
In the series’ premiere, Joe Pera is in his living room in the middle of giving us a presentation on the regional significance of iron when a family of five arrives to tour his home, which mistakenly has a “For Sale” sign on the lawn. He decides the right thing to do is to honor the sign. Still holding his chunk of iron, he shows them the house without telling them he hasn’t put it up for sale.
Something about his earnest, unassuming presence, mild people-pleasing tendencies, and attention to the mundane details of the material world give him what I see as a distinctly Midwest/Rust Belt-inflected masculinity, although Pera was hesitant to locate himself within my regional generalizations.
Although Pera has been touring with Carmen Christopher, Christopher recently left the tour to pursue an exciting opportunity. Instead, Casey James Solango will appear with Pera in Pittsburgh.
This interview has been edited and condensed for space and clarity.
Presumably, you could tour anywhere in the United States. Why the Rust Belt and Midwest?
It just kind of worked out. I love performing in Chicago and Milwaukee because we shoot the show there and got a bunch of friends and it just kind of, I don’t know, it’s a nice place to be in the springtime.
I’ve never been to Pittsburgh, honest, but my friends Ed and Nick are there and I’ve been trying to make this show work for a while. I was super excited that it’s finally happening, so I can see Nick and Ed. Pittsburgh’s a little out of the way from New York.
Do you think you have a particular resonance in the Rust Belt and Midwest that you might not have in other parts of the country?
I hope the humor translates, but I don’t know. I always prefer to use local details. The more specific the better, I think, with comedy and writing. I grew up in Buffalo, so I feel like those are the details I know best, from my own experience. But I think anyone can relate to a lot of the stuff, like the breakfast episode. There’s different feels to where you go to breakfast in different places, but that Saturday morning ritual, routine, I think, is pretty general. The fact that I try to use local details makes it feel real for everybody and not just people where the show is set.
[The Midwest has] some overlapping historical and cultural stuff with Buffalo. So, it translated, but it allowed me to get excited about researching a new place. There was also a desire to set the show somewhere very cold and [Marquette’s] main street kind of opens up right onto the base of Lake Superior, and it’s so vast and just the town sits against such an intense but also serene backdrop that it felt kind of thematically correct for the character and the show.
I was actually in Marquette the first time I saw Joe Pera Talks With You. It’s gorgeous up there.
And why not set the show somewhere where you can shoot some beautiful outdoor shots? It’s just surrounded by gorgeous nature. I’ve learned that it’s hard to shoot [in nature]. And that’s why people don’t, but that’s what I wanted to see on TV. You know, when I sit down to watch something, I enjoy looking at the scenery as much as the show. I find that satisfying.
I really love and appreciate how much research is clearly incorporated into your work on the show. I’m wondering if and how you use research in your stand-up.
I try to make sure to be knowledgeable about whatever I’m talking about. With the TV show, writers will kind of stop me and say, “That’s way too many details to be compelling TV.” And when I’m writing new jokes, I’ll find out that, you know, there’s distances that the audience won’t — they don’t want to listen to only facts on stage, so I gotta trim a lot of the jokes to make them only the necessary information. When you write or read a piece of journalism, it’s like you can feel when somebody’s done the research and knows what they’re talking about. So even though a lot of stuff gets cut, I want that feeling to remain that, you know, I trust that this guy knows more than he has the time to present.
What are some of the facts or topics that come up in your stand-up these days?
I’m trying to think of an example that’s both funny and interesting. I’ve been doing research on hermits, but have not quite figured out a way to boil it into a bit yet. I’ve been kind of like free writing and developing. There’s lots of interesting hermit research. I was reading this book, I can’t remember the name, it’s about the hermit who lived in Maine for 27 or 30 years on his own without a campfire because he didn’t want to alert anybody he was living there. I started there and have kind of just been reading about hermits all over the world and I’ve been trying to figure out what to do with it, but it hasn’t presented itself as a concise bit for the stage yet.
How do you go about finding the joke within all the information you’ve gathered?
I think, as a stand-up, I’ve developed a sense of knowing when audiences are starting to tune out. I’m on tour right now with Carmen Christopher, who is a really funny guy. And just in conversation, when we’re talking, you can tell what’s keeping your friends excited and interested.
We were getting excited about talking about what a shame it is that bodybuilders have to tan and do all that skin damage to themselves. Just kind of talking back and forth like, “I support bodybuilding, fully. Any damage done by the steroids can fade over time, but the skin damage is irreversible.” So we were having a laugh over that. That’s kind of a nice way stuff forms on the road, talking to whoever, especially when you have a comedian friend, talking with them and making each other laugh is the way that the best stuff is made.
Joe Pera, Spring in the Midwest and Rust Belt Tour. 8 p.m. Tue., May 10. Carnegie of Homestead Music Hall, 510 E. 10th Avenue, Munhall.