Joe Pera on eating a burger and fries, going to movies ahead of live show at The Uptown

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Courtesy photo

Considering the mostly-universal subject matter of Joe Pera’s comedy, it might sound weird to call the comedian an acquired taste. However, fans of Pera and his three-season cult-hit Adult Swim show Joe Pera Talks with You probably already know what we’re talking about. 

If you’re familiar with Pera, you may think of his work as a warm blanket. If you’re coming to him for the first time, his awkward presence and slow, conversational delivery are hard to know what to do with. Who tells jokes about bad sports teams uniting communities and expects a laugh anywhere other than the office or church? Who can give an earnest monologue about the joy of going to the grocery store without seeming like a possible serial killer with someone chained up in the basement? Joe Pera, that’s who.

Somehow (and thank goodness), Pera’s ultra-normcore personality—coupled with a sincere appreciation for the smaller things in life—has found an enthusiastic audience, as exemplified by his current standup tour, which started last spring and has continued more or less steadily since.

On Feb. 3, that tour brings Pera and his friend/brother in comedy Dan Licata to the Uptown theater. We spoke with Pera about his expectations for his first time in Kansas City and what he’s learned from nearly a year’s worth of touring. 

The Pitch: You’re a big beer fan. We’ve got a lot of great local breweries around here. Will you get to try any of them during your tour stop?

The hard part about a tour is trying to keep the amount of beer I drink in check, but I like to try new ones. In my rider, I ask for six local beers, and then I see what turns up in the green room and taste them. 

Any standouts so far?

One brewery in Milwaukee made a beer for the show with apples and cinnamon, which was really good. 

You’ve been on tour for several months, testing out material for a special. What have you learned?

We had to keep changing the name. For a while, it was “Spring in the Midwest and Rust Belt,” then it kept growing, so we created a part two and then a part three, and then it got too confusing, so we changed the name for this last bit [Note: the tour’s current name is Joe Pera: Comedy in Ice]. It’s all part of the same run. It was supposed to be two or three weeks, but then we realized how interested people were in seeing the show. I’ve never been to so many places before, so it’s fun to get a chance to travel.

People found [Joe Pera Talks with You] during the pandemic when it went on HBO Max. I think people wanted something calm to watch and a little slower-paced, and they found my show in a way it hadn’t been found before. It grew an audience beyond what I expected, so it was neat, and it’s neat to hear people say it helped them relax before bed when they were stressed out and needed something to watch after a shift at work.

Is there a difference between how you deliver jokes in your stand-up versus on Joe Pera Talks with You? Your demeanor on the show is a calming presence, but it’s understandable how you might need a different energy to keep an audience’s attention in a live setting.

After five years of making a show with more patient timing, and the pandemic definitely affected it, I like making bigger jokes with harder punchlines, and I incorporate that with live audiences, so it feels different than watching TV or just running through a set. I try to take advantage of what wasn’t possible the past couple of years. I started out doing stand-up, and that interactivity of a live show hasn’t been possible, so it’s fun to get the audience involved and bounce off them in a way I haven’t been able to in a large tour before. 

What have the interactions been like? Any notable ones?

We did a show in Vail, and I guess the alcohol goes a lot further there at the higher altitude. It was some guy’s birthday; his friends said he was drunk, but he was asleep in the first row. We were able to make jokes about him the entire show, and it was really fun that it felt like a thing that both the audience and I were involved in, and nobody knew when he was gonna wake up. When he finally did at the end, we sang happy birthday to him. Being able to change the show to whatever is interesting in the room—that’s fun for me too.

You’re someone who’s very straightforward and consistent in bringing their personality to their comedy, but your personality is one we don’t often see onstage. When you were getting started, did you ever feel pressure to be someone you weren’t or fear you wouldn’t find an audience being yourself?

I don’t know if I ever felt too much pressure to do it any other way. I performed at various venues and for different audiences, which would help me kind of shape the kinds of things I wanted to do for different audiences and tighten it up and refine it over time. I don’t think I was ever forced to change too much. 

When I was getting started, I did stand up on a subway platform a few times for money. When you only have eight minutes to get people’s attention, you need to make sure your jokes are pretty tight. When you’re standing in front of people trying to keep their attention, you learn which parts aren’t efficient enough. 

It seems like New York audiences are especially tough. Given your performing style, was it hard to get them on board with you initially?

Tough audiences in New York helped me boil it into something more refined. A lot of the times I was maybe, at open mics or shows at a club, people paid attention or at least needed a chance at the beginning because it was such a change of pace from who’s gone before or after me, and the subject matter they were talking about. 

I think by being a bit more patient, it got more attention, and then it was kind of on me whether the jokes were good or not to keep that attention. Those jokes have to be pretty precise and funny for it to be a successful set. 

What does your perfect day look like?

I wake up, get a coffee, go for a two-hour walk, have a hamburger and fries for lunch, go to a movie in the afternoon where nobody is, and then [laughs] I do a show in Kansas City, Missouri.

Why is an empty movie theater part of your perfect day?

Lonely theaters are nice. When I first stopped working a day job because comedy allowed me to do that for periods of time, going to the movies in the afternoon on a weekday felt like I was playing hooky from school even though I’m an adult. It feels special, and the fact that you get out and you still have time left later. It’s a good feeling. You can even see another movie afterward.

Why do you think it’s valuable or essential to pay attention to small details? Many comedians will look at those things judgmentally or sarcastically, but you’re earnest in your approach.

There are a lot of reasons. I don’t know. Details are funny, and you get a lot of the big stuff through the small stuff. It’s about slowing down, and I think that’s important. There’s something about having good specifics in a joke that makes it good. 

Categories: Culture