Why Comedy Needs Joe Pera

Standup comedy's awkward grandpa deserves more appreciation than Adult Swim is willing to give.
Why Comedy Needs Joe Pera

Last month, the movers and shakers at Adult Swim elected not to renew Joe Pera Talks With You for a fourth season. Joe wrote a lengthy post on his personal website describing his feelings regarding the decision with simplicity and sincerity, which is exactly the way we’d expect the bespectacled Buffalo comedian to handle such unfortunate news.

While we’re sad to say goodbye to Joe Pera Talks With You, we hope and believe that this is just a stepping stone on the path towards bigger projects in the career of a character comedian whose quiet, quaint-core style is part of a important pocket of so-called “wholesome” humor within the greater comedy zeitgeist. Joe Pera is proof that small, simple, and contemplative comedy can succeed in an entertainment landscape that is typically dominated by the loudest voices in the room. 

Joe Pera started performing standup comedy as an undergraduate student at Ithaca College, just a few hours' drive from his hometown of Buffalo, New York. Joe won his college’s annual standup competition three times, and after graduating in 2010, Joe moved to Brooklyn, New York in order to pursue comedy professionally.

It was in that competitive New York comedy scene where Joe honed and perfected his signature “grandfatherly” standup persona. Joe takes the stage wearing a sweater and glasses with a haircut you can set your watch to. He speaks softly, slowly, and deliberately, mumbling about breakfast foods and the oftentimes sorry state of the Buffalo Bills. His Instagram is themed around tomatoes. Like, exclusively tomatoes. As in 99% of all posts on his Instagram are just pictures of tomatoes.

While Joe was building his career in Brooklyn, he met Chicago-born comedian Conner O’Malley. The two comics have essentially opposite styles, as Joe’s onstage persona is quiet and ruminative and Conner’s characters tend to be caustic, chaotic, and vulgar. This contrast made them perfect partners for some of the best low-budget comedy on the internet.

Joe and Conner created a mini web series in 2015 called “How To Make It in USA”. The show garnered just a few thousand views at the time, but it eventually grew a cult following as both comedians’ stars rose in later years. In the series, Joe plays his onstage character, a soft-spoken, mild-mannered comedian, while Conner plays Joe’s crass, churlish, and oftentimes abusive boar of a manager. The juxtaposition between Joe’s clean-cut, calming presence and Conner’s borderline psychopathic ferocity made the nine-episode series awkward, electric, and furiously funny.

Joe Pera’s first Adult Swim project was a twelve-minute “Infomercials” video which was aptly titled “Joe Pera Talks You to Sleep." In the proto-ASMR short film, Joe spoke meanderingly about everything from Stephen Hawking cheating on his wife to the serenity of batting cages while the soothing backdrop of melancholy music lulled the audience into slumber. The success of “Joe Pera Talks You to Sleep” led to Adult Swim giving Joe a slightly longer special, “Joe Pera Helps You Find the Perfect Christmas Tree”, which, much like its predecessor, could not be more accurately titled.

Joe’s quiet comedy attracted fans who were worn out by an increasingly cacophonous world. The internet era of humor is dominated by sarcasm, self-deprecation, and a despondent nihilism that makes so much of what people laugh at nowadays feel bitter and borderline mean-spirited. The comments on the YouTube posts from “Joe Pera Talks You to Sleep” and his 2020 masterpiece “Relaxing Old Footage with Joe Pera” illustrate this point – one user wrote about the latter, “This is what happens when an entire generation’s sense of humor relies on irony and cynicism - we begin to crave sincerity and wholesomeness”. 

Adult Swim recognized the value of that sincerity, and they gave Joe his own TV show, Joe Pera Talks with You in 2018. The series featured 11-minute episodes that followed Joe Pera as – well – Joe Pera, a self-proclaimed “soft-spoken choir teacher” who lives in Marquette, Michigan, a small city in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Joe works at the local middle school, he eats pancakes, he collects rocks, and he has quaint and occasionally strange conversations with his quaint and occasionally strange neighbors. Joe narrates his life to the audience throughout each episode in semi-documentary style.

The show treats topics that some consider mundane with an honest curiosity. For instance, the entire first episode is loosely centered around Joe’s hobby of rock collecting. While Joe faces the occasional insult from his neighbor Mike – naturally played by Conner O’Malley – almost none of the humor in the series comes at anyone’s expense. When Joe Pera Talks with You makes you laugh, it’s almost in spite of yourself, as if our cynical assumptions about the inner lives of these small-town neighbors are constantly being subverted by their earnestness. Though the series can be awkward, ironic, and surreal at times, it doesn’t feel the need to make anyone the butt of the joke.

But Joe Pera Talks with You is rarely sentimental, and the show doesn’t fall into the traps that plague other “wholesome” comedies. As opposed to a series like Ted Lasso, Joe Pera Talks with You thankfully avoids some of the eye-rolling “everybody loves everyone” moments that lead to The Onion headlines like “Critically Acclaimed ‘Ted Lasso’ Episode Just Stock Photos Of People Hugging Each Other." Ted Lasso is a fantastic show, but its signature sappy tone is the result of a dedicated effort on the part of the writing team to make something uplifting, which runs the risk of being schmaltzy from time to time. Joe Pera doesn’t perform wholesomeness. The descriptor fits because he embraces a style of comedy that is honest, thoughtful, awkward without being cringey, uncomplicated, and unashamed.

Looking at the greater comedy landscape, the high-quality comedy shows that dominate our collective brainspace are often loud, outlandish, and grand in scope:  I Think You Should Leave – also featuring Conner O’Malley –  is one of the greatest surrealist sketch shows of all time, and it’s made with a reckless, almost violent fervor that feels like an assault on its viewers at times. Nathan Fielder’s The Rehearsal is a beautiful, bizarre, manipulative social experiment that is essentially an attack on the truth in its entire concept. 

But there must always be space in comedy for the other end of the spectrum – for shows to bring an awkward, quiet honesty that makes us laugh from that vulnerable part of ourselves which we sometimes forget is there. PEN15 and How To with John Wilson stand out as two of the better examples, as both shows have an astonishing sincerity in very different ways.

We’re sorry to see Joe Pera Talks with You go, but we’re grateful that Adult Swim was ever willing to make this kind of small comedy that doesn’t brashly demand your attention with loud noises or snarky quips. Joe Pera’s contemplative comedy is a fantastic contrast to his more ostentatious contemporaries, and watching programs like Joe Pera Talks with You gives us a greater appreciation for just how wide a range of humor is available to us. 

As for the future of Joe’s career, don’t worry about him. We heard he’s going to be the next James Bond.

Top Image: Chestnut Walnut Unlimited

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