2. Television for insomnia
April 5th, 2020

Joe Pera Talks With You, S1E5: Joe Pera Talks You Back to Sleep
(File under: tv, insomnia, rain)

Watch: youtu.be/DSUilYKcRMA

It’s a statistical certainty that by the time you have finished reading this sentence, at least six people will have berated you for not watching their new favourite TV show—probably something elaborate, expensive, and so of-the-moment it feels like it was made seconds before you watched it. It’s exhausting in its own small way, this death by a thousand recommendations (he said, in a newsletter that literally recommends something every week). But the name of this newsletter is not Dept. of Exhaustion, so how do I tell you about a show that I love without adding to your media consumption guilt?

The answer is that I’m going to tell you about a show that seems to repel anything even resembling the zeitgeist with the strength of a rare-earth magnet. A gentle and unhurried show, with the average decibel level of a library reading room on a Tuesday afternoon. A show where a man shows you his sheet music collection. Also, I’m only going to recommend a single 12-minute episode that you can watch for free right this second—although maybe you should save it until just before bed.

Joe shows you his sheet music

‘Joe Pera Talks You Back to Sleep’ is an episode of Joe Pera Talks With You, a show in which a soft-handed Michigan choir teacher in his mid-30s (with the movements and mannerisms of an 80-year-old) talks to you about a variety of subjects including breakfast, dancing, and regional minerals. This particular episode finds Joe in bed at 2am talking you through your insomnia, and contains all of the show’s signature ingredients: a beautiful score, an audaciously mundane visual style, and jokes that feel like watching sleight-of-hand magic, interspersed with disarmingly poignant asides. After dismissively narrating a short clip of a character knocking down dominoes, Joe says: “Sorry to get down on dominoes, but it’s one of my core beliefs that you shouldn’t waste kinetic energy.” Later on, as he walks through a school hall echoing with the sound of French horns: “One of the nicest parts about teaching music is that you can literally hear the students learning.”

Joe getting his portrait taken

What makes all of this so surprising is that the show is produced by Adult Swim, a network that has always seemed to specialise in shows that feel like they’re secretly making fun of you for watching them. But Joe Pera Talks With You respects both you and its characters—it doesn’t punch up or down, it simply chooses not to punch at all. It might sound twee or toothless, but I think it’s genuinely subversive in its own way. Like Fred Rogers speaking before the US Senate or any song by Stars of the Lid (but especially this one), it has a glacial pace that demands you slow down to meet it, and when all of its parts are in concert, it feels not only like an effective sleep aid, but a pressure release valve, and a legitimate comfort.

Joe in bed

And when was the last time you felt comforted by a TV show?

Dept. of Enthusiasm is a charmingly sporadic email from me, Jez Burrows. You can read some past issues, or sign up below.