Discussing "Slow and Steady" with Joe Pera

"No one except God watches standup comedy from directly overhead."

Discussing "Slow and Steady" with Joe Pera
Image via Joe Pera/YouTube.

I loved the beginning and middle of Joe Pera’s new standup special, Slow and Steady, but I especially loved the end, a quasi-guided meditation of the sort he’s recently perfected in his podcast, Drifting Off, though I suppose you could use the term to describe most of his oeuvre. There’s music and ambience from composer Ryan Dann, jokes, crowd work, a simple narrative premise that balloons into a meandering journey across history and the globe, and of course Pera’s voice guiding us through it all, soft and slow. At the end of the sequence, the story’s protagonist (an unspecified second-person “you” that stands in for Pera himself) complains to his partner that he’s too hot to sleep, and they bring him an ice cube. The bit echoes an earlier joke, in which a younger Pera prepares a tray of ice for his roommates; now, though, the ice whisks him and us off to dreamland: 

"Here," Yoobi says, and puts it in your hand. "Hold it. Can you feel the coldness in your hand? Going up your arm?”
And you can't help but laugh, because you remember that Yoobi learned English by watching Do the Right Thing.
"Move it to your other hand," Yoobi says. "Can you feel the chill go up the left side of your body as well? Now put it on your forehead.”
You do, and the cold radiates through your head and then the rest of your body as well. As it melts, your worry does too. 
"It's magic," you say. 
"No," says Yoobi, "It's ice.”
“Thanks, Yoobi. I'm glad to be in a relationship with you.”
You hold sweaty hands and fall asleep like you are dead. The hum of your air conditioner blends with all the air conditioners on your block, and those join with the hum of the air conditioners in your neighborhood, which join the chorus of all the air conditioners in New York City. And if you didn't fall asleep in the crowd, I wish you goodnight.

I love the move from the intimate to the grand here, the scope expanding from the lone couple to the entire sleeping city, like Gabriel gazing out his window at the end of Joyce’s The Dead. If you’ve watched the hour, though, you know that’s not quite even the end of the bit. As the credits roll, we see Pera’s audience filter out into the lobby, where a giant ice cube awaits them: the imagined made real. It’s a clear delight for the people encountering it (except one who’s too buried in his phone to notice), but the size and surprise of the thing also makes it a pleasure to watch onscreen. This, to me, is the perfect example of what's so special about Pera's work, the way he and his collaborators approach comedy as more than a matter of writing and saying funny things. They treat it as a search for beauty and truth, which they look for—and consistently find—in strange and unexpected places, which often turn out to be mundane and familiar ones too. As far as I’m concerned, that’s the good stuff.

Okay, enough preamble. I interviewed Pera over email about Slow and Steady and his work generally, and that interview is below, lightly edited for clarity. Please enjoy.

It’s my newsletter and I can open with flattery if I want to: Joe Pera Talks With You was one of a handful of shows that sustained me during that first year of the pandemic. (The others were, like, dark prestige dramas and American Dad.) What were you watching that year? 

The What's Cookin' Youtube series. This was what I had the best time watching during the pandemic, following families in small towns cooking regional foods. There's some background about their work and family routines that tie it together.

The special wraps up with a long meditative segment that ends in a sort of narrative zoom-out effect. In a Q&A after the premiere screening, you said you wanted the ending to get at something bigger, which I took to mean a sense of something transcendent. This isn’t a move I often see in standup, where the rule seems to be that you have to go out on a big laugh, but I think you’ve been playing with that tension for a while—the way silliness or irreverence can bring us face-to-face with the ineffable beauties and mysteries and terrors of the universe. (I’m thinking of your Relaxing Old Footage special, but also various parts of the Adult Swim show, namely the episode with Sarah’s apocalypse bunker.) I’m curious: what is that bigger thing, to you, and what draws you to it?

My opening joke about making (ice) cubes for your boys, I feel fortunate to have stumbled upon it. There's not a perfect logic to it, but instead something kinda magical to the phrase that gets the laugh. I never get tired of telling it for that reason.

It’s always a fun thing for me to take a small-seeming idea and figure out how big it can grow and connect it to other things. Ryan and I had been doing the sleep bit about air conditioning for a while, but it took a long time to figure out an ending. Nothing felt quite right until we were tinkering around and I went back to ice cubes and then everything kinda clicked. In both places the ice was a shared experience—first between me and my roommates, then my romantic partner—and was a way to address the change in life stages. It momentarily helped quell the anxieties about the change and that felt like a good place to wrap up the show, finding some peace.

Then Marty and I were talking with production designer Caity Birmingham about what to put on the stage for the special and the idea for a block of ice came up. It would have been melting the whole show, so the idea was altered to have it in the theater lobby instead.

I think seeing people walk out and touch the block of ice, both solid and ethereal, common and strange, in a procession is so beautiful and so funny at the same time. It taps into the same hard-to-describe humor as the original cubes joke, except in a physical way.

The special is directed by Marty Schousboe, who also directed Joe Pera Talks With You. In the Q+A you mentioned wanting to cut a moment from the credits sequence when a guy walks past the ice cube without looking at it, but Marty said you should keep it, because it was a real person acting naturally. Which is such a great, quintessentially directorly thing to say, and an ethos that I imagine was very important to the Adult Swim show. Can you talk about what you’ve learned working with Marty, and maybe what each of you wanted the special to be, artistically? (Were those overhead shots his idea? I loved that little touch, never seen it before in a standup special.) 

Yeah, my first impulse was to smooth it over so that it'd flow better after the final transition, but Marty suggested we keep it and it was the correct choice. The guy wasn't even out of the theater before he pulled out his cell phone. Very modern, relatable, and in doing that, he completely missed the special thing right in front of him. Maybe he had an emergency, but it's very funny to us. It's like the show in that it is a natural human moment that you hope to capture. An unguarded impulse and expression of character.

I've learned so much working with Marty, but the special was a new challenge. We agreed that the goal was to honestly capture the live show I had been touring, while also making it as funny as possible for people who would watch it on TV. Those things rub against each other, though, since standup is funniest live and audiences act differently when they're being recorded.

The best example of how these decisions played out were with the crowd work section in the Squirrel-Pita Chip bit. In the first show, the answers were kooky and I had to react accordingly. It played out much differently than any of the shows I did on tour. The second show felt more natural and fluid, unique to that show, but the interplay felt more like what happened on the road.

However, when we got to the edit, we realized that the first show, despite being a weird product of a show being filmed, was much funnier, so we mostly used the crowd work section from that one. We did however use a single angle for as much of my interaction with the crowd in those moments, to assure viewers that it was all candid. You can clearly tell I wasn't sure how things would play out and was adjusting, and as a result it actually captured some of the tension of watching the show live.

Joe Pera/YouTube.

The overhead camera was the idea of the DP, Jason Vandermer. It's a strange angle, not in line with our usual practicality. No one except God watches standup comedy from directly overhead. But we had other angles, so we figured why not try it out and if we don't like it, we just won't use it. It was a great suggestion by Jason, though, and gave us some of my favorite shots, including the opening.

I get the impression from your work that you read widely and that the tidbits of knowledge (historical, scientific, literary) sprinkled throughout your oeuvre are maybe only a fraction of what you consume. Could you tell me about what’s on your bookshelf? I don’t want to ask what your favorite books are, exactly, but what have you read that’s most important to you? Maybe I should include documentaries too. 

I appreciate that but can't claim to be well read. I follow my interests and read and research enough to make it work, especially while writing. Local newspapers and autobiographies by non-professional writers are good inspiration.

In terms of comedy, reading Winesberg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson felt important going into Season One of JPTWY. The Huey Williams Story by Andy Kaufman was meaningful. For documentary, American Movie is always number one. While editing the special, it occurred to me that the ice idea could have been planted in my mind from reading One Hundred Years of Solitude—they pay to see the block of ice.

One interesting feature of your comedy is how it celebrates a vision of Americana that I imagine would be very easy for the lazy observer to peg as conservative—a harkening for simpler times, small-town life, diners and fish fries—but of course anyone who pays attention for a bit will hear all these lacerating anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist critiques. How has your political consciousness developed over the years?

I think a lot of my worldview was shaped by my grandfathers, both who grew up during the Depression. One was the son of Italian immigrants who became a Buffalo city fireman and did concrete work on his off-days, continuing to pour driveways into his 70s. The other grew up in rural New York and after the war got an education with the G.I. Bill and became a professor of social work. Towards the end, I've heard he would sometimes doze off during his own lectures.

There’s a very funny line in the special where you describe yourself as an alternative comedian at the end of the second comedy boom. It got me thinking about how we really are at the end of it: barely a decade ago there was an annual industry award recognizing alternative comedians, Comedy Central was tossing out digital series to web sketch groups, Netflix was opening the floodgates for standups and briefly sketch comics, and there was constantly some new web platform where quote-unquote alt comedians could get a paycheck (usually small). Now everyone’s self-financing YouTube specials. You’ve navigated the ebb and flow as deftly as anyone, but do you have any sort of guiding vision for your career? If you get a blank check, what are you making? 

There was a second part to the line I cut ‘cause it was too inside-baseball and ruined the flow, but felt more accurate: "...at the end of the second comedy boom… and the beginning of whatever this crowd-work-clip-slash-touring-podcaster thing is."

I'm making fun a bit, but it is exciting that there seems to be more opportunities for comedians to make their own path. More types of comedy, too. That said, I'm glad I'm not starting comedy now.

I've got a feature in mind, but I also feel like I was able to make the show I was meant to make. If I had a blank check, I'd make it real big and then divvy it up amongst friends like Jo Firestone, Dan Licata, Conner O'Malley, Carmen Christopher, to name just a few, because I want to watch the series that they would make.

I’m asking the following because I know you’re from Buffalo, and my dad’s from outside Buffalo, and every time I go back to western New York I think to myself: oh shit, I think I actually like it out here, what if I just packed up and…. And then I come back to the city and I think: oh shit, right, it’s pretty sick here too. Your work is so grounded in that small-town, country sensibility that I have to wonder: what’s your relationship with New York City? If not for the whole comedy industry thing, do you think you’d still live here? And how do you stay grounded in that world beyond NYC? 

Same as for most people: it can be great, but at the same time, a lot. I am good at puttering around and I think the speed and agitations of the city keep me moving along. Most importantly though, performing alongside New York comedians pushes you to get better.

When I was doing the TV show, it was perfect cause I got to spend 3-4 months a year in Milwaukee/Marquette and that was a wonderful balance. Touring kinda offers that too, but I miss doing spots around the city.

Okay, enough softballs: let’s close out with a tough one. What is it about the tomato

I can’t say.