I’ve written a lot about the sweetheart Adult Swim show, Joe Pera Talks With You. It’s a kindhearted and weird show about Joe, a choir teacher in Marquette, Michigan, who would just like to tell you about the things that are important to him in a gentle way. Over two seasons his world has fleshed out and Joe has grown as a character, but it’s still the same basic premise. The title is literally the thing that happens every week. And as an awkward Michigan man myself, I occasionally overidentify with this show. It’s beautiful and funny and I can’t recommend it highly enough.
And sometimes this show hits hard. I can’t watch the Christmas special that was a precursor to the regular series without just openly weeping. I wrote about it this Christmas, but the way it so perfectly nails how it feels to be alone on Christmas and put so much weight on a ritual just so you don’t have to think about it is something that is close to my heart. And the bit where he fantasizes about having a regular life with a happy family and it feels so out of reach…. Look, we’re not here to talk about that. We’re here to talk about the most recent episode.
Adult Swim airs two episodes on Friday night, and the second was billed in the listings as “Joe Pera Helps You Write”. But in the night’s first episode, Joe’s beloved Nana (a semi-regular character) passed away suddenly while Joe was organizing a real life tribute to Rat Race. That’s when we found out the actual title was “Joe Pera Helps You Write an Obituary”, a bit of subterfuge I really appreciated.
What followed was a brilliant episode that in eleven minutes perfectly nailed this very specifically Midwestern approach to grief, and it’s really been sitting with me since I watched it. And so, like Joe himself, I just want to tell you about why this was so good.
First, I have to talk about Joe’s performance. The extent to which Pera is doing a character is a hot topic for discussion in my circle of friends, but his acting here is tremendous. As all episodes do, it opens with him addressing the camera but here he’s sitting at a table trying to write Nana’s obituary and he has this absolutely shattered look even as he tries to welcome you into his life once again. You don’t see a single tear in this episode, but you can see Joe fighting them back in every shot. There’s a bit where he’s driving to the wake and Joe the narrator is catching us up while Joe the character is just trying to hold it together. Usually, onscreen Joe addresses us directly and the fact that he can’t even talk and has to rely on voiceover works so perfectly on this show. The openhearted Joe needs a few minutes to himself. And I know that look on his face so well.
Just a bit here to help explain why this hit me so hard. I lost my grandfather a couple of years ago. He was like a father to me and I loved him very much. And despite my family being full of ministers, I was the one asked to deliver a eulogy. Joe sitting down to write and not knowing how to sum up a life is something I know. When I spoke in front of the church, I couldn’t figure out how to stop talking and when I hit the end, I just kept talking about Grandpa Kok. Not even full stories – just these little things I remembered and that it was suddenly desperately important that all those people also knew about Grandpa’s leg peas or how funny he thought it was when football players had long hair that extended past their helmets. And I couldn’t stop talking and I couldn’t figure out how to leave the podium. So when Joe wrote an obituary that was so long that the newspaper couldn’t run it in full, man, I’ve been there.
What struck me as so true to life was the emphasis on the nuts and bolts of getting things done. Joe had to write an obituary and bring food to the wake. Joe’s girlfriend Sarah (the wonderful Jo Firestone, who wrote the episode) worries about cleaning out the refrigerator before the food spoils and even takes the reins of the episode to tell us about which plants are edible and give Joe a few minutes to himself. The sheer oddness of somebody other than Pera addressing the audience makes it clear that he’s struggling, and Sarah’s uncomfortable performance to the camera is heartbreaking. She so clearly doesn’t want to be doing it but she’s helping in the way that she thinks is going to be the most useful. We also learn, through the obituary, that Joe has lost at least one parent (he’s listed as Nana’s only survivor), which has never been addressed on the show but makes it hit that much harder. There’s every possibility that she was literally his only relative.
There are some beautifully-realized moments along the way. The way people are supportive but not overly emotional, yeah, that’s the Midwest. We care about you but we don’t want to get all showy about it. Joe’s spiraling neighbor Mike showing up to offer vague support is the perfect avatar of that well-meaning acquaintance who doesn’t quite know how to avoid the landmines. Nana’s friend telling Joe about the late night doughnut runs… well, that’s me telling a host of well-wishers about how Grandpa would always knock a few strokes off Grandma’s score when we’d go mini golfing. It’s nice to have these memories that are special to you but sometimes you need other people to know and maybe they can tell you things they know and together you can reconstruct this life.
It ends with Joe finishing off some of Nana’s meatballs and the shot makes it impossible to tell if he’s smiling or if he’s crying and if you’ve ever lost a loved one and if you’re not good at expressing your emotions, you know exactly how that feels.
“Joe Pera Helps You Write an Obituary” was a brilliant and touching look at how we deal with death, especially when we’re not comfortable letting even the small feelings out. It feels very Michigan but it also just feels human. It’s a perfect eleven minutes of television and it touched me more than anything else has in a long time.