'Joe Pera Shows You How To Do Good Fashion' Actually Shows You How To Do Good Fashion

Finding real meaning in the gentle comedian's TV show.

by Noor Qasim
Feb 23 2020, 10:30am

Joe Pera’s powers as a comedian lie in his ability to speak and make audiences listen, transforming all things mundane into objects of tender fascination. He can, and does, make something as simple as breakfast sound extraordinary. When I first encountered, Joe Pera Talks With You, his series on Adult Swim, which debuted in 2018, I was delighted yet confused, unsure whether to laugh or nod encouragingly at his pronouncements. Pera is known for his earnest, “Mr. Roger’s-like” manner, a comparison which translates perfectly to the sartorial choices of his fictional self. Joe has a uniform—short-sleeved, collared shirts, rectangular glasses, and pleated khakis. When in a recent episode, Pera turns his powers to the world of fashion, he provides a stirring tribute to personal style and clothing’s ability to help us articulate our innermost desires.

A recent episode from its second season titled “Joe Pera Shows You How to Do Good Fashion,” opens on what appears to be an ad for a fictional MilwaukeeMensFashionBlog.com. A man in a bright, peach button-down describes his style as “corporate rebel.” An eerily-pale teen in a bolo tie says his look is “a little bit different than everyone else.” Like much of Pera’s work, these declarations are initially somewhat off-putting, but then, become delightful. At the heart of these statements are desires, desires we often prefer to keep hidden. It’s rare to hear people declare their sartorial aspirations. Blogs are, mostly, a thing of the past. Instagram, where captions are kept to a minimum, keeps our hopes under wraps, even as likes and follower counts keep score. We broadcast personal style through grid composition, ratios of face pics to miscellanea crafting a casual harmony. This approach to self-presentation seems to stem from a fear that what we say about ourselves cannot be trusted. Selfhood is something we must project, rather than claim.

Who better to confront this fear than humble Joe? A character wholly uninterested in irony or projection, and one typically skilled at softly speaking his truth. Yet when it comes to fashion, even Joe struggles to find his voice. When his friend Gene asks him to describe his style on a road trip to Milwaukee for his sons’ fashion show, Joe does not know how to respond. Instead, he turns inward, gazing out the window, thinking: “Everyday I try to look neat. Zip up my fly. Wear collared shirts to make up for the fact that I have a skinny neck and a small head.” Joe’s choices, like that of many, are dictated by insecurities. His desire, by self-conscious default, is to go unnoticed.

At a gas station, Joe gets a taste of something sweeter than inoffensive anonymity. Convenience-store sunglasses and a fedora transform Gene into “Fashion Guy” and Joe follows suit, claiming that they look like “guy[s] from L.A.” They mock this character for his narcissism and love of matcha. But their ribbing is kind-hearted. Joe and Gene wear their shades and hats into the next scene, as if hoping to absorb the guy from L.A.’s glamorous swagger and self-absorption. Their clothing is performative in the positive sense; it transforms them into bolder, more confident versions of themselves. They become people who want, at some level, to be seen.

This desire rises to the surface the morning of the fashion show. Joe lies in bed pondering how a “new style of clothing” might grant him a new life. Fueled by this excitement, and sporting his uniform, Joe attends the show and is approached by the proprietor of MilwaukeeMensFashionBlog.com. He asks Joe to describe his style, and this time, Joe has an answer: “Priest who snuck out of the seminary on a Saturday night trying to blend in at the local bar and grill.” Signature piece? “Wearing socks to bed.” Joe defines his style, and by extension, himself in a rush of frank humor, self-aware yet ready to share that self with the wider world. While he has long dressed and spoken with a shrug, as if expecting to be ignored or dismissed, Joe can now consider these choices as choices, can now speak of himself as a self.

Joe’s evolution culminates in the episode’s final scene. He gazes at the lights of the Mitchell Park Domes, dressed in a piece from the show—a navy trench, paired with a silver vest and a substantial collar. It’s unnerving to see Joe stray from his standard look, but it’s precisely this foray into fashion that makes possible another layer of introspection. In the wake of his grandmother’s passing, and at the end of a weekend in a strange new city, Joe feels unmoored. But he does know, and he can finally share, that he has a simple yet profound desire. He would like his girlfriend to see him in his new jacket: “I look good.” Like the boy in the bolo tie, Joe has finally admitted he “like[s] to be noticed.” It is difficult to share our style and ourselves with others. Perhaps if we were not so defensive, so afraid of what we need, and could speak our desires aloud, we might find another to meet our gaze. Someone might finally see us as we would like to be seen.

joe pera