If there’s anyone I would trust to show me the best places to hide, it’s Joe Pera. The comedian’s made a career out of talking to viewers of his Adult Swim show, Joe Pera Talks With You, about myriad things on his mind, from the mundane—hair salons, the song “Baba O’Riley”—to the existential, like grief and a good night’s sleep. His gentle tone and almost Jack Handey-esque musings have earned the Buffalo native a place as one of comedy’s most earnest, thoughtful, hilarious figures.
Which is why I’m grateful for, and not surprised by, Pera’s first book, A Bathroom Book for People Not Pooping or Peeing but Using the Bathroom as an Escape. It is exactly what its title suggests: a short read to occupy yourself with when you’re overwhelmed by everything on the other side of that bathroom door. To the person that title immediately resonates with, A Bathroom Book may feel long-overdue, especially after nearly two years of stressful times indoors. But Pera and Joe Bennett, who illustrated the portable-sized tome, have made this coping mechanism worth the wait, an essential guide to hold onto for years of hiding-in-the-bathroom-because-of-anxiety to come.
When I got the chance to catch up with Pera ahead of both the book’s and Talks With You Season 3’s release (November 16 and November 7, respectively), I thought: Where better to chat openly and honestly than in the bathroom? Pera’s publicist was down for it, which is why when he and I both showed up on Zoom, I was sitting on my toilet lid … while he was at a desk. Until he noticed where I was and remembered the assignment.
Our discussion about why he finds solace in a comfy bathroom, why sitting down is so funny, and the very un-Joe Pera-like video game he fell in love with during lockdown follows.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Allegra Frank: I don’t know if we told you, but I am in my bathroom, where I am chilling.
Joe Pera: Oh, shoot, we got to do this in the bathroom. Let me go to the bathroom real quick.
It’s okay. I was like, “Will he commit with me?” … Oh, look at this bathroom.
It’s at our office. It’s not my personal bathroom.
Oh, okay. But it’s nice.
Yeah, it is nice. As opposed to working at a post-production facility [to finish work on Joe Pera Talks With You Season 3], we just got an apartment, which were more available because of the pandemic. It was the best place I’ve ever edited. The two editors each had a bedroom that they were working in, and I’d go between the two. And then the assistant editors work downstairs, and the post supervisor would bake cookies in the oven on Fridays. It’s not going to get any better than that.
That sounds amazing, especially the cookies. But also, I often judge a place by its bathroom, so I feel very comfortable right now with you.
Our old office, we had to share a bathroom, so this time, there’s a couple bathrooms in the place. We’re the only ones using them. It was incredible. It was so nice to have our own bathroom as opposed to sharing, because you know whose dirt is whose. It’s just pleasant to know that you can step into your own bathroom and relax for a minute and then not think about work.
Which is essentially the premise of your book. What inspired you to create A Bathroom Book? What specifically is it about the bathroom as a setting for you that is so comforting as “an escape,” as you call it?
It really came about—I think it’s in the book itself—[when] I hid out at my cousin’s wedding one time when I was 10 or 11, and realized that you can just do that. It’s always been a nice place to get a moment or as much time as you can muster. Sometimes it’s just nice to collect yourself, and just shut yourself in a little quiet chamber until you’re ready to deal with things again for any number of circumstances. The book started as a stand-up bit where I tested a lot of it out, and it really seemed like a lot of people [hid in the bathroom too], and I think it’s pretty universal to go into a bathroom and hide away for a while.
What was the process of actually creating this book? Did you mostly write it in a bathroom or was it just inspired by your experiences of escaping there?
Joe Bennett, the illustrator, wanted to do a project that we both had time for that we could work on together from a distance. He thought to do a bathroom book, because it was a simple thing that he could illustrate, and then we could pass back and forth between us, because he lives in California.
We tinkered on a bunch of ideas. And then I thought of, what if you could actually have an object in the bathroom that’s truly functional, and you can read in 10, 15 minutes, that’ll actually help you calm down and just have a couple laughs? You’ll be going to the bathroom, you see it, you’ll have a laugh, open it up, and find that it actually works by the time you’re done with it. That’s how it came about. We passed it back and forth, a bunch of drafts, and I was reading it out loud at my stand-up show to sharpen the jokes. And then Joe [Bennett] came up with these very brilliant illustrations, and that’s it.
A lot of what you’re saying about the intention of the book reminds me a lot of the show, which is similarly 11-to-15 minute episodes that start out hyper-focused on a topic, and then it provides a lot of comfort. I was watching the trailer for Season 3, which was very funny and meta. I liked how there are people at the bar who say to you, “You have a show? What’s it about?” The first thing you mention to them is, “Well, this season is about sitting.” What is it about sitting down that is humorous, or comforting, or fits the aesthetic of your comedy?
I think [the idea of an episode about sitting] came about early in the writers’ room, just as, ”Whoa, that’s a funny, specific, but extremely universal thing, like, why is the act of sitting down so funny? What is this?” and then just musing on it in every direction we can, both funny and serious, and trying to tie them together. Can we build a season that pertains specifically to sitting down? What is that? How does that tie in, and how can we build the character stories around those or make them connect enough?
I think it’s the same with the bathroom book. The title is funny, but then you explore it ,and hopefully you find some meaning or bigger thing in it and not let the audience down … I think by the end of the book, you’ll find that it’s more than a title. It’s novel, but it’s also not. We follow through on the premise in a way that’s just taking a little thing and blowing it up as big as we can.
That is definitely how the show works too. Every episode is fairly self-contained, there’s always an overarching throughline that creates a sense of linearity and leads us to a conclusion by the season finale. In Season 2, it was about your character Joe’s relationship to his grandmother and her death by the end of the season. I wonder if there’s a similarly heavier through-line that goes through this season, or did you want to step back at all to make it just a little more easygoing?
No. We knew we wanted to deal with [Joe’s grandmother], because my grandmother had passed while making Season 1 and a bunch of other writers’ loved ones had, so we were like, “We want to deal with this.” But also it would be insane if my grandmother died, and then the next episode was just back to talking about, I don’t know, soap or something. So it was like, how does the character continue the show while this is going on in the background?
[This season,] the grief still hasn’t lifted. The character just thinks about sitting in chairs as a way to funnel that energy. But also a lot of other characters have ongoing narratives, both big and small. I think that definitely makes it more complicated to write with 11-minute episodes, but I think it’s more fulfilling when you see these things advancing a tiny bit each episode, and it hopefully wraps up effectively at the end of the season. So it feels like there’s a full, bigger story and then the little stories in-between that explore the smaller stuff. I think this season, we start on more subjects and get veered in toward narrative like in every season so far. It was fun to write it, for sure.
You produced this season during the pandemic. How did that affect writing or production? And does it appear within the show?
Everything was harder. Because a lot of the stuff I test in stand-up or is inspired by my stand-up, not having an audience the entire process was pretty brutal and made writing very difficult. Also, we didn’t even know if or when we were going to shoot, so we were writing all these scripts, not knowing what it was going to look like, or if we’d even be able to do it for a long period of time. That was bad. Production was tough. … Doing all the writers’ room via Zoom was not as fun as being in the same room as everybody. We did everything on Zoom up until the shoot pretty much, and that was one of the tough parts that I didn’t even realize.
I don’t want to make a case that drinking is a good way to get things done, but I didn’t realize how important it was to get together for a beer on a Friday night with everybody at the end of a shoot week—just getting together outside of the shoot and decompressing. One, for just everybody to do an activity together that’s not work, and also, that’s when a lot of departments are talking to one another and the producers, and everybody’s venting what’s going right, what’s going wrong. I think there’s just a lot of problems that could have been solved just if departments were able to talk while having a beer on a Friday night. So that was kind of an unexpected thing.
Overall, I felt very grateful that we were able to do it at all and that to come out of the pandemic—it’s not over—but to just have something to show for the past year and a half, even if it took a lot of extra work.
You did have another thing to show for it: the “Relaxing Old Footage” special, which you put online. It was obviously very different from the show. How did that come together?
That came about because we always joke, if we’re on set and there’s a tree I like or something like that, we’ll roll on it. There’s a shot of in the kitchen at night and the coffee maker in night lighting, like you’d go down at 1:00 AM and see it sitting on the counter. Stuff like that that, if we have time, I’ll just ask the [director of photography] to please record. We have all this B-roll that can never find its way into an 11-minute show so we always joke we’re going to do a three-hour documentary with all the extra tree footage we have. When there was that moment early on that I felt like, I don’t know if we were ever going to be able to make a television production again, the special was a way to keep working and finally follow through on that idea, and also give something to help out the audience in the meanwhile, because it was going to be a while until we had another show. … But I also found that it relaxed me to work on it at that time and just be busy with something.
I was going to ask how you managed to keep yourself busy. You were working on this book and then you eventually worked on the show, but you mentioned you couldn’t do your regular stand-up gigs, for example. How else were you filling your time during that period?
Oh, tell me more. That’s my thing, Joe.
I hadn’t played since college. When I went to college, I said, “I can’t play anymore,” because I get sucked in and will play for hours and hours. I kind of did that. I played some relaxing game like that petal game where you’re a flower petal.
Yeah, that one is good. And then I got sucked into Red Dead [Redemption II] real hard. I was just in awe of what video games have become. I couldn’t understand how somebody could be so bad at playing, but that’s how I felt coming back. Things have sped up. But from a creative perspective, I was just blown away and I had a great time. It was very sad that I would find myself at 2 a.m. in the morning, just riding the horse around.
“Riding a horse around at two in the morning alone” sounds like the Joe Pera that is in my mind, but not anything else about Red Dead Redemption, so I do love that that’s is a thing that you got into, because it’s like the anti-Talks With You.
I know. It was a way to keep my fingers and mind occupied. Getting into video games was not great, but I was working during the day hard writing and stuff, and it was just the way to get out of it.
I have one last question that is related back to the bathroom, because we are here in the bathroom separately, but together. On the record, very separately in the bathroom.
Many of us have our own bathrooms. But then oftentimes you have to share a bathroom, or you need to use a public bathroom, or maybe you live in a dorm and there’s a large shared bathroom. How do you recommend people who only have those shared options to find a sense of escape? Can you still read A Bathroom Book in one of those bathrooms?
We’ve made sure that the size of it is both portable and something that you could take with you. And also, I did an audiobook with Ryan Dann, who does the score to my show. That’s one way. Also, it’s nice that it’s [only] 15 minutes, so nobody’s going to get angry if you’re in a shared bathroom and you read through the book.