The divine softness of ‘Relaxing Old Footage With Joe Pera’

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Adult Swim has long celebrated chaos. From “Robot Chicken” to “Rick and Morty,” to anything starring Eric Andre or Tim Heidecker, the network revels in absurdity and could be the poster child for a condescending, “You just don’t get it.”

Joe Pera’s work on the network is something different. His show, “Joe Pera Talks With You,” largely centers itself around mundanity rather than spectacle. It is about anything from breakfast foods to minerals to rat control in Alberta. Oftentimes, Pera’s focus shifts from the supposed topic of the episode to something else entirely as the plot develops.

On May 20, Adult Swim put a new pseudo-documentary video, “Relaxing Old Footage With Joe Pera,” on its YouTube channel. Unlike “Joe Pera Talks With You,” however, this new installment is largely plotless, a series of seemingly random footage tied together by Pera’s light and comedic narration. It is also, in a word, magical.

Unlike regular episodes of Pera’s series, the eponymous host is barely in the video, visually. More often, he is heard: After gentle bubbling water and music begin to play, a small cardinalfish turns to the camera as Pera greets the viewers, preparing them for the calming journey to come. His vocal presence is never overwhelming. He takes ample time between sentences and has an uncanny ability to know when to speak and when to let a shot speak for itself.

These shots dance from subject to subject in an instant, but the transitions are rarely jarring. Their assembly seems to create a new genre. It is a nature documentary, with a seemingly omniscient narrator, but there is no pretense to it and practically no attempt at a cohesive story or narrative. The footage might as well be stock footage for all the action it has to offer. At the video’s onset, it asks little of its audience, except only to watch and wait and listen. Pera knows this and calls the video “a little more casual than usual” between shots of a giraffe, street, pottery wheel and coffee pot.

“Relaxing Old Footage” doesn’t just present quirky moments and small jokes. Pera dips in and out of wisdom like a sage, and the conflict between boredom and chaos is one he reflects on carefully. Madame de Staël said, in life, one must choose between boredom and suffering, implicitly preferring the presence of feeling to nothing at all. What Pera understands is the beautiful softness that can be found in the mundane and the boring. 

While waxing poetic about Austin Powers, Pera describes a town with only green stoplights — “fun to imagine, but in real life, fatal.” His dryness of delivery is another distinction between this and other narrated films of a similar nature. His voice is not as commanding as Morgan Freeman’s, nor as descriptive as David Attenborough’s. But Joe Pera’s strength is finding delight in the smallest pleasures of life, as he speaks as though he weren’t asked to.

Throughout “Relaxing Old Footage,” viewers may ask themselves what, exactly, they are watching. Pera knows this. Halfway through the video, he says, “I wish we could all see the world through the eyes of a poet,” as the camera brings itself back to that initial cardinalfish. And then, suddenly, we see that this image is from the point of view of a true poet, as the camera cuts to a shot of Pera fascinatedly watching an aquarium. Silence reigns as viewers watch this hunched, unassuming man delightedly study the tropical fish swimming before him. 

This is the point at which “Relaxing Old Footage” goes from an endearing pleasantry to a moving art piece. Pera picks his tone back up, but the relationship between him and the viewer is deepened by this new understanding. Over shots from the interior of an airplane, Pera asks the viewer, “At this moment, if you could be anywhere in the world, where would you be?” The pause in his speech allows for reflection, and a realization that, until the video ends, there’s nowhere else one could possibly need to be, before Pera makes a light, but sincere joke about taking a boat ride through Milwaukee before playing footage of just that.

The final moments of the video, the Milwaukee scenes, are some of the most comforting and touching pieces of footage there are. They are of nothing — imposing city skylines and unmoving bird statues. The music that plays is quiet and restrained, a song Pera says is “by my friend Owen,” bringing familiarity and peace to a journey that couldn’t possibly have been as short as it was.

“Relaxing Old Footage” is Pera’s world. It is chock-full of humanity, patience, modesty, beauty and love. For 22 gorgeous minutes, preferably those waning hours of the evening, anyone can live in it.

“Relaxing Old Footage With Joe Pera” is available on YouTube.

“Streaming Diaries” articles are recommendations from Daily Cal staff members on underrated content available on streaming platforms.

Contact Crew Bittner at [email protected]. Tweet him at @weakandrewwk.