‘So beautiful it almost brought me to tears’: the comedy and wonder of Joe Pera

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Since his first special in 2016, the comedian’s uniquely touching brand of gentle humour has won millions of fans. But how different is the real-life Pera to his onscreen persona?

Joe Pera is strolling through New York, patiently enduring the sort of technical calamities that cause interviewers to wake up in a cold sweat. I apologise and apologise again, but he is unfazed. “It’s OK,” he reassures me in his familiar soft, halting voice. “I’m looking at a beautiful sunset.”

It’s a perfect response. Since his first Adult Swim special Joe Pera Talks You to Sleep in 2016, Pera has been carefully crafting a comedy unlike anything else. His series Joe Pera Talks With You – which is just about to return for a third season on All 4 – is a thing of hushed, burnished wonder. Pera, playing a fictionalised version of himself, leads the viewer through some of his favourite subjects; they’re mundane on the surface, but presented with an air of awestruck quiet. There is an episode called Joe Pera Takes You on a Fall Drive, and another called Joe Pera Watches Internet Videos With You. The second season, which broadcast just before the pandemic struck, contained an extended arc about growing and maintaining a bean arch.

A show like this, where a New York comedian indulges in smalltown life, always has the potential for the comic to engage in snobbery. But what’s incredible about Joe Pera Talks to You is that it never loses sight of the dignity of its subjects, and this is down to Pera himself. His commitment to the character is total, to the extent that when you Google him, one of the first questions you’ll find is “What is Joe Pera like in real life?”.

It’s a hard one to answer. Pera is protective of his persona, not revealing his age (although Wikipedia puts him at 33) or much about his personal life. Speaking to him, you sense that the television version of Joe Pera is merely an extension, rather than a total invention, of the real Joe Pera. His careful and polite cadences are exactly the same and, in a recent podcast interview, the writer Jo Firestone – who plays Pera’s doomsday prepper love interest – suggested that episodes are often borne from Pera’s real-life obsessions. So where’s the line between character and performer?

“I didn’t want to make a show about another comedian doing standup in New York,” he explains. “There’s already Seinfeld and a million other shows for that. I thought about the guys I went to school with, who went on to become music teachers, and thought I could have become that as well. So I followed that line of, ‘What if I had done that instead?’. I don’t know, I think there ought to be more shows about middle-school choir teachers.”

But what if you did make a series about you as a New York comedian, I ask. Would the character on that show be wildly different to the one we watch now? Pera laughs – a chuckle, then three seconds of silence, then another chuckle, then another three seconds of silence, then another chuckle – before slowly wrapping himself in knots.

“I don’t know,” he shrugs. “I think I’ve met some wonderful people doing comedy, and I also think there are a lot of people at open mics who are real characters that deserve a show of their own. I don’t think it’s been fully treated properly.” He then goes on a long, careful tangent about a documentary he once watched. Eventually, crisis averted, the question is so far in the distance that we can proceed down a new avenue.

I was sent three episodes of the new season to watch and, with the exception of Joe Pera Sits With You – an episode about buying a chair so beautiful it almost brought me to tears – Pera himself is a peripheral figure. One episode centres on Mike Melsky, a troubled character played by I Think You Should Leave’s Connor O’Malley; the other involves Pera listening to his girlfriend tell a drunk story. Is he deliberately sidelining himself?

“Yeah,” replies Pera. “Maybe it’s me getting bored with myself, but also I think even in the small town where it’s set, there are so many other people to explore. I’m fascinated with other types of humour, and different characters, and different viewpoints, and wanting to grow the show in that way.”

The new series is very slightly darker than before, too. At one point, a character is very careful to announce that it is still 2018 and everything is great, and later Firestone’s character begins to mutter darkly about unseen terrors looming on the horizon. Joe Pera Talks With You is such a sweet show, and you end up feeling protective of the characters, to the point that the thought of anything bad happening to them is too much to bear. I ask Pera, more out of concern than curiosity, whether the season will end in disaster. “I don’t know,” he demurs. “I don’t want to spoil anything.”

The newfound world-building also hints at a slight change in Pera’s sensibility. “I don’t know about you, but in the past year, I’ve been wanting to watch TV and movies that are a little bit less dry,” he says of his burgeoning love of broader comedy. “Found a lot of pleasure in Dumb and Dumber.”

Here I have to disagree, because Joe Pera Talks With You was the perfect lockdown show. It’s so small and shy and full of decency that it’s incredibly easy to wrap yourself up in it. When things are bad, it acts as a forcefield against the real world. This is, in part, down to Ryan Dann’s soundtrack. “It’s the soul of the show,” says Pera. “Ryan inspires me to write better stuff to match his music” – but it’s equally due to the soothing presence of Pera himself. I quote another review to him, describing the show as “comedy ASMR”.

“I appreciate that,” Pera says, sounding as close to frustrated as he will get, which is still barely frustrated at all, “but ASMR is about something else. I feel it’s about relaxation and being cozy. I don’t ever want to forget, as a standup comedian who has to keep a live audience in mind, I never want the jokes to be anything less than sharp. It’s easy to do comfortable nowadays. Just play some good music and show some nice images. But it’s also a comedy show, and I take that very seriously.”

He also seems to take crafts very seriously. The comedian recently made a video with Townsends, an 18th-century revival YouTube channel where you can learn how to dye fabric according to old American techniques or make an inkwell with clay. Like Joe Pera, the channel is slow and tactile and earnest. Pera’s video, in which he creates a three-legged stool using old iron instruments, is essentially a bonus episode of Joe Pera Talks With You. I’m impressed with how adept he is at woodwork, so I ask if he had any prior furniture-making experience, but for some reason this causes him to clam up. “I don’t want to spoil the end of the season,”, he stammers. “But yeah, I know how to make a chair.”

Perhaps Pera is right to be so protective of himself. Part of the reason why people feel so attached to him and his work is that his fanbase largely grows through word of mouth. People tend to discover him because a likeminded friend has recommended him, and they in turn pass his work on to their friends. As a result, he still feels like a discovery. When people fall for Pera, they fall hard.

“People watched the last season of my show and they started sending me photographs of bean arches that they built,” he reveals, sounding genuinely amazed. “That was the best thing that could have happened. And the best real world response to any kind of art is to have people build bean arches and get the experience of how fun that is. And it’s growing your own beans. If you do that, you do anything.”

As the conversation wraps up, long after our agreed cutoff point, I apologise again and wish Pera a good evening. “You too,” he says, “Although it’s getting late where you are, probably.” It’s 10pm, I tell him. As soon as this call is over, I’m going to bed. “Perfect,” he replies with a warm, familiar chuckle. “I think my main audience is people who go to bed at 10pm.”

• Joe Pera Talks With You returns to All 4 on 28 January.

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