Thursday, January 20th, 2022
Joe Pera Talks Comedy, Growing Up, and Breakfast
Jan 20, 2022
By Jake Uitti
If you were only to listen to the voice of Joe Pera, you might think he was 77-years-old. He’s patient, measured. He says “I don’t know” a lot. He talks about how eggs should be cooked, his comfortable shoes, the falling snow. He’s not a carnival barker or used car salesman in his orientation to his audience. Rather, he’s like a trusted neighbor.
In a world with new Spider-Man movies seemingly every year that include buildings exploding, magic tricks, portals to new galaxies, and inventions almost impossible to conceptualize, Pera is a breath of fresh air. Rather than lasers and space crafts, his eye tends to investigate a group of elderly men having coffee in a diner. Or what one might want to hear as they fall asleep.
We caught up with the 33-year-old Pera, whose show, Joe Pera Talks With You, is now in its third season on Adult Swim and HBO. We talked with the comedian, who is also the author of this bathroom book, about what it was like growing up in Upstate New York, how he found joke telling, and what he loves most about what he does today.
Jake Uitti (Under the Radar): Hello Joe!
Joe Pera: Hi, how ya doing, Jacob?
I’m well, thank you, sir. How are you?
Good. Thanks for talkin’ to me.
Yeah! It’s certainly a pleasure. I was showing some of your videos to my wife last night and we were enjoying them as we were falling asleep, which is how I think they were meant to be done. So, thank you.
Definitely. Yes, definitely they’re to be shown to your wife right before bed. That’s the dream viewing experience, I feel.
Thank you for your time, thank you for being here, thank you for your work, and we can dive into some questions if that sounds good to you?
I don’t mean to get too personal off the bat. But I wonder what was your childhood like, what was middle school like for you, living in Upstate New York?
Yeah, it was—I don’t know. I think it was—middle school was fine. I think like everybody it was an awkward time. I was very chubby. That’s it. Yeah, I don’t know.
I was also very chubby!
Actually, I oddly picked up that you might have been so from reading your book. And as someone who was chubby growing up, I wonder did it affect your comedy at all, how you look at the world, how you think about empathy or embarrassment? Sometimes when you’re chubby you can be picked on and I wonder if that informed your philosophy at all?
Yeah. Sure, yeah. It wasn’t the most fun. But yeah got teased a bit. But also, I don’t know, kids get teased for lots of stuff at school. I wish I had—yeah, I definitely felt uncomfortable. But again like every kid in middle school I wish I—looking back, I wish I had embraced it. Obviously, you can’t—I don’t know it would be fun to just be a comfortable 12-year-old who was chubby and have fun with that. I don’t know.
People say you have a grandfatherly feeling to your work, which seems accurate at times. So, may I ask, what was your relationship to your grandparents growing up?
I grew up within five minutes of all four of my grandparents and I was lucky enough to have all four of them until I was 21, 22. And then yeah. But it was nice. I got to spend a lot of time with them and it was, I don’t know. Maybe it taught me patience because you had to walk with them every time they came over. At Buffalo United, you had to go out to the car, get them, help them walk across the ice without slipping.
It was funny. I thought of this the other day: that my grandfather used to—I played goalie in middle school soccer and he would occasionally walk right onto the field to take photographs. He loved photography. But yeah I remember he would just walk right behind the net and start taking photographs. So, I was trying to focus and I don’t know. I think I appreciated it back then but it is really funny that he just didn’t worry about that.
I was worried that he might fall while walking on the uneven ground. Because he got a little unsteady on his feet. But it was [laughs] just funny. And you know, it’s not the coolest thing as a middle schooler to have your grandfather walking across the soccer field to take photos. Yeah.
It’s funny how at the time it’s not the coolest but looking back it’s so memorable and really lovely, actually.
Definitely. Yeah, it was nice to have him there. And the fact that he would come for the game and stuff was nice.
When did you tell your first joke, or your first good joke? The one that made you say to yourself, “Oh I like this?”
I started when I was in college. First semester freshman year they had a stand-up club that met in a classroom and then they would put on a show a few times a year. That was my first time in front of a crowd. But then I would do it whenever I went back home to Buffalo during the summertime or on holidays. And that was the real challenge. What held up in front of a bunch of adults versus a bunch of college students. So, that was kind of the real testing ground, like, did stuff hold up there?
Can I ask what inspired you to step on a stage to begin with?
I don’t know. My dad was a funny guy. I think all my grandparents were kind of characters. I don’t know. It was very—my family, we enjoyed teasing each other a lot and I think a lot of the humor was important. And I just—in high school, my buddy Dan Licata and I would go to stand-up shows. We saw Mitch Hedberg with our dads before—he performed in Buffalo probably less than a month before he passed. And Dan and I thought he was the best. But we could tell that he was not in the best shape. But we loved it. I think our dads who were there too kind of recognized the reality of the situation and didn’t find it as amusing. But it was very cool we got to see him.
Did you speak with him at all that day by any chance?
No, no, no. We just watched the show. He was just like, he had to lie down on stage to get through the set. Looking back, it was a bummer. But he was still funny as hell.
It’s funny you mention him, in a way. Because you two aren’t dissimilar. There is a similar observational style you share. I wonder what about these smaller, disarming and simple—which I don’t say pejoratively—things do you appreciate investigating?
It’s just curiosity in the things that are immediately around you. I don’t know. I focus on—I guess I like writing about things that bring me happiness, that I find interesting. Finding patterns and ideas in stuff like, I don’t know—I’m trying to think. It’s just an easy way to get in. Yeah. My way get of getting at the bigger stuff is by looking at the smaller stuff. That’s not unique but I feel like I just think about stuff that I’d want to watch a show about. That a lot of other television shows may not want to focus on. Like the breakfast episode. What do I want to see on television? What do I want to see explored? What do I think is funny? Yeah. Stuff that I guess would be overlooked on other stuff. Yeah. I don’t know. I was watching a reality program the other day and I’m not going to say which one but there was an incident where the toilet flooded and the toilet broke and flooded and there was a scene where the mom and the kid were dealing with the toilet flooding. And I thought that was very funny but also something you wouldn’t see a three-four minute scene on a narrative show about the toilet flooding, I don’t think. Or I haven’t seen. Because that was very fun thing to see captured. Because that is the type of stuff we have to deal with. This idea of pitching or building a scene around a toilet flooding for a long period of time was just—yeah, it’s worth watching I think. But it’s hard to carve out space for that on other shows.
Yeah, there are these things where it’s assumed we just know what to do. Like fixing a clogged toilet or doing a budget. But we aren’t taught them. So, it’s fun to see them pop up in your show.
Yeah, I mean, just looking at what people are interested in on YouTube. It’s like, yeah, you want to learn how to do stuff and fix things. And that small stuff does do well on YouTube. And it’s interesting to—yeah, people are fascinated with those details. A lot of shows don’t find space for it, and I try and do that.
How much do you think about language with the show, with precision and parsing of ideas down to very granular, specific wording?
Of course, it’s an 11-minute show and we’ve got to try and pack as much in there as possible. Oftentimes, I’m bummed out how much we have to trim. But I think it’s good for the show but every time we’re at the end I sometimes have to comb through the video and go every other word think of rephrasing just to save 4-5 seconds to get the episode down to time. So, that kind of parsing and re-editing the language is from the very beginning for the writing to the very end. And it’s painful because I spend a lot of time getting the wording just right in the scripts. So, do the other writers. But then when it comes to edit and you’ve to lose another 30 seconds to get the episode below 11 minutes, you got to re-approach it and it’s a challenge sometimes. It’s unfortunate to know how much you worked on the language to get it right and then you realize you’ve got to trim again. But I think it’s good for the show. I think the 11-minute runtime is a nice thing because we do have to edit and always think about what’s necessary. What’s helping us build the story or convey this information. And I think it benefits us. While I would love extra runtime sometimes. At least for now it’s been nice as we learn how to make a show to be forced to make those decisions and try and make things as dense as possible.
How have you enjoyed being in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan? The show takes place there and it’s a region of the country I’ve actually spent a lot of time in. My father is from there. And it’s a very particular place. So, what have you enjoyed about being up there?
I mean, I love visiting. My thoughts are, a lot of them are in the show. It’s very—it’s got a fascinating history and a fascinating current situation. I don’t know. I feel lucky that every time we shoot the show we get to go back there. It feels like there’s always more stuff to learn and more stories to tell. It’s like one guy’s story in the Upper Peninsula and we’re trying to add characters that are living their own lives each season. We try and add on. But I went up—we premiered this season at, it’s called Fresh Coast Film Festival. They had us. But it’s a lot of environmental films and they have local films. But there was one that I saw that was totally delighted by. It was called the Iron Family and it was the story of a woman who puts on a play every year for her community. It’s kind of like serialized and she plays a seamstress to celebrities. I think in this season she was—I’m going to get it wrong—but I think the year that they filmed it—it’s a documentary—she was having a relationship with Bradley Cooper. And I think she cheated on him in the play. And her brother comes up from South Carolina and her brother helps her put on these plays every summer. It was a great story about their family and the area and made a really great documentary. It just opened my eyes to how many more stories there are to tell and interesting things to talk about. I think they just got it to Slam Dance. I highly recommend checking out the Iron Family if you’re interested in that and the U.P.
Final question for you, Joe. What do you love most about what you do?
There’s lots of aspects. Working with my friends on something that we care about. Getting paid to do it. But yeah. I don’t know. The challenge of the writing itself and trying to create something that people want to watch. That’s an enjoyable aspect. But lately, you know, since shows have come back in New York, I’ve had a new appreciation for live performance and how special that is. I think that we try and create some sense of those feelings with the show and how I talk directly to the audience in it. But I don’t know. There’s still nothing better than performing live comedy and getting that reaction and just being able to take the live show or a set in a direction that you didn’t expect, and the audience didn’t expect. But taking them along for that and kind of finding it together is a really special thing. Yeah, I think the live performing is probably [the best]. At least at the moment. But all those other things, too. Getting to make a show with a bunch of friends and people who care about the project in the same way that I do is very fortunate, unique thing.
Like getting the audience to guess the height of your fictional son who is also a good basketball player!
Yeah! Because you don’t know how that one’s going to go. I don’t know how that’s going to go! Yeah, I was very nervous at points in that set that I did on Conan O’Brien show because I did not know how it was going to end and yeah. But that’s part of the fun of it. So, yeah. I miss that a lot. People are cancelling shows again this week. And rightfully so. But I hope that doesn’t last too long.