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An Exception to the Millennial Humor Rule
Joe Pera proves that thirty-somethings can draw big laughs from Gen-Xers.
I’ve written a bit in this newsletter about the type of comedy I’m into these days, including my late adoption of stand-up (thanks to comics like Sebastian Maniscalco and Nate Bargatze), and early-2000s television shows like Arrested Development and The Office.
I just wrote about The Office last month, and its surprising appeal to younger viewers (Millennials and Gen-Zers) who weren’t around, or were just kids, during its original run.
Likewise, I enjoy a good amount of comedy from the generations that preceded mine. But the sentiment hasn’t really flowed in the other direction. I’m part of Generation-X, and when it comes to popular comedic culture, I have much more trouble enjoying and identifying with younger humor and humorists.
My teenage kids occasionally show me jokes, sketches, and stunts performed by Millennials on YouTube, that they (my kids) think are uproariously funny. While I appreciate my son and daughter wanting to share with me the stuff that cracks them up (for which I try to be a good sport), such humor almost always falls short with me.
Yes, I’m old. I understand that. But it’s not that I don’t “get it” (the humor’s not all that complex). It’s that I can’t “get into it.”
From my perspective, by and large:
But like many things in life, there are exceptions to the rule. And I’m happy to report that I’ve discovered a Millennial comic who I think is an absolute riot, both intellectually and in his presentation. In fact, I’ve become such a big fan that I have tickets to catch his stand-up tour later this week. I’m going with my son, who also thinks he’s funny.
His name is Joe Pera, and if you’re younger than me, there’s a decent chance you may have heard of him. I only know about the 33 year-old comic thanks to a younger colleague of my wife recommending his comedy television series, Joe Pera Talks with You. It used to air on Adult Swim prior to its cancellation last year, after three seasons. The reruns can be found on HBO.
The show, created and co-written by Pera, is unique in many ways. Each episode is only about 11 minutes long, and they’re filmed as anecdotal, informational, and very cordial conversations between Pera (who plays a fictional version of himself) and the viewer.
The series shines is its writing and portrayal of Pera as a soft-spoken, passive, good-natured (but socially-awkward) middle-school choir teacher living in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. He maintains a simple, structured life, with most of his social-connections being elderly neighbors, local-business acquaintances, and a grandmother he adores (along with her circle of friends).
Perhaps in part because of the wide age gap between Pera’s character and most of those close to him, his personal traits and lifestyle mirror someone much older than himself. Though he’s a young man, he dresses and carries himself like a senior, wearing thick glasses, combed-over hair, and khakis and tennis shoes (with either a sweater or button-up shirt). He even walks slowly (with a stoop), and his interests include trivial history, societal statistics, geology, gardening, and classic inventions.
But again, because the character (which Pera created long before the television series for his stand-up routine) isn’t that old, he lacks the wisdom and life experiences of an older individual. This often leaves him unsure of himself (even in the simplest of situations) and naive to how much of the world works. At times, these shortcomings make him feel like an outsider in his own life.
I know this will sound like a contradiction, but the character is complex in his simplicity. He’s also quite relatable, uncannily so in the way he genuinely reminds me of someone I know.
Parts of my description of Pera’s persona (which the comic doesn’t break from for public appearances) may sound a bit depressing. After all, he’s an intentionally sympathetic character. But that’s part of its artfulness that sets the audience up for big laughs. Pera’s creation almost always sticks the comedic landing.
Here’s an example from an early episode of the show, where Pera fawns over the schematics of a senior breakfast group that he assuredly wishes he were part of:
“Your face tells me you’re 10, but your bald spot tells me you’re 63. So what is it?” I love that line, along with Pera’s subdued reaction to the roast, before segueing over to a statistic.
The premise of a character somehow emotionally and behaviorally bypassing significant parts of his childhood and teen years also sets up some fun scenarios for when the primal urge of adolescence unexpectedly rears its head.
Here’s a scene where Pera first discovers and passionately falls for an energetic song he’s convinced (because of its unfamiliarity to him) is brand new. In reality, it’s a classic tune that’s received regular rotation for half a century:
I’ve seen the show (and Pera’s broader act) described as “wholesome.” I suppose it is in the traditional sense; there’s a sweetness to it, and you hardly ever hear any swearing (when it does happen, Pera apologizes for it). But I wouldn’t describe it as a family offering. It’s built on subtle adult narratives like loneliness, legacy, commitment, and gratitude.
Pera’s shtick assuredly isn’t for everyone. It’s awkward and uncomfortable (by design), but it’s also wise beyond its years… and I suppose that’s ultimately why I like it.
If you’ve never checked out the show, I highly recommend you do. Start from the beginning. The good news is that if you aren’t able to get into it, the short episodes will assure that you wouldn’t have wasted much of your time. Hopefully, you’ll enjoy it.
I’m very much looking forward to Pera’s live performance later this week. I’ll probably include a short review of it at the bottom of next week’s newsletter.
Are there Millennial comedians who you think are funny? Let me know in an email or in the comment section below.
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Am I a Randy Newman fan? No, not really. In fact I’ve been known to make fun of his music over the years.
That said, I’ve always been sort of amused and intrigued by his song, “Short People.” It’s a satirical take on prejudice, using some fairly appalling lyrics, that I still can’t believe became a mainstream hit.
I mean, how did lines like “Short people got no reason to live” ingratiate themselves to enough people for the song to make it to number two on the Billboard Hot 100 for three weeks? I get that it was the 70s (the tune’s album, “Little Criminals,” released in 1977), and maybe that explains more of it than I think.
But again, I guess the song has connected with me on some level too, otherwise I wouldn’t have bought the album a few weeks ago when I came across it in a Miami record store.
That’s all for now. Thanks for reading today’s Daly Grind.
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