A middle-school band teacher, Joe Gardner’s life hasn’t quite gone the way he’s expected. While teaching is a noble profession, his true passion is playing jazz, and he’s good. Joe believes he was born to play professionally, and though he’s 46 years old, he feels his opportunity to land a high-profile gig could come any day. Joe has an encyclopedic knowledge of jazz history, and even if his passion for music may have hampered his social life over the years, it hasn’t hampered his confidence. He lives alone, immersing himself in what he loves best: music. That is, until a single unexpected step sends him to the cosmic realms where he finds the “You Seminar” and is forced to think again about what his life is all about.
Joe Gardner is a middle school band teacher who has long dreamed of performing jazz music onstage, and finally gets a chance after impressing two other jazz musicians during an opening act at the Half Note Club. As he was celebrating his new gig, he accidentally fell down a manhole. This put him in a coma, a state where he is neither alive nor dead, thus sending his soul to The Land of the Dead, and later escaping to the The Great Before (both being places between the Land of the Living and the Land of the Dead). There, he meets a soul with a dim view of life named 22, who he finds himself mentoring. Now with 22's help, he must find his way back to his body and thus wake up from the coma, before time runs out and he fully dies.
Earlier versions of the film depicted Joe as being much more cynical to his students and openly voicing his opinion of how they view themselves. When going through rewrites, the team realized that it made Joe unlikable. Kemp Powers and John Baptiste gave input on how Joe should act around his students and what he should say with much of his dialogue taken almost verbatim from Baptiste. Joe was originally depicted as an actor who gets his big break on Broadway, but the filmmakers switched him to being a jazz musician due to it having more pathos.
As a human, he is African-American with a black mustache and has black thick-rimmed glasses on to see better. He wears a grey fedora, a black sweater, brown pants, and red shoes.
As a soul, his nose is not featured, but his glasses and fedora are now part of him.
When Joe was a young boy, his father took him to a jazz club where he found his passion for music. Since then, he has aspired to be a successful jazz musician but wasn't unable to get his big break. He became a teacher for the middle school band, and he was first shown encouraging Connie, who was playing the trombone after the class laughed at her. When he finally got his big break he fell down a manhole and got into a coma.
Not wanting his life to be over when his big break is about to come, he refuses to go to the Great Beyond and volunteers to be a mentor to 22. When he fails to be a good mentor he is about to be sent to the Great Beyond. However, 22 grudgingly helps him “get back”, telling Joe that he “talks too much” when he questions her about why she was helping him.
Joe and 22 end up returning to Earth, however 22 ends up in Joe's body, while Joe ends up in his therapy cat's body. At one point, while 22 is eating pizza, they meet Dorothea Williams and Joe forces 22 into a taxi. When they went back to Joe's house, Curley calls them, hoping that Joe was alright. Joe instructs 22 to put on a suit, and right in the middle of that, Joe's student, Connie, rings the doorbell. She said that she wanted to quit, but she still wanted to play another song. Connie impolitely asks if 22 can listen to the song and tell her to quit after. 22 reluctantly agrees. As Connie starts her song, 22 looks bored, but as she gets into the song, 22 realizes that Connie hates everything, but playing the trombone must be her spark. After Connie left, Joe made 22 shave, though it went wrong. Then, they go to Dez, a local barber and Joe's friend, in hopes that he could fix it. 22 gets a lollipop (which were originally for the kids) and starts to talk to Dez about both Dez's and Joe's lives. During their stay, 22 discovers the joy of life on Earth. However, Terry, wanting to set the count right, catches them and brings them back to the Great Before. They have a brief argument, 22 arguing that she was about to find her purpose and Joe talking over her, saying that his gig was all ruined because of 22.
Terry stops the argument and says quietly that Joe cheated by going back to Earth when he was meant to die. She brings them over to the Jerries, where they realize that 22 has earned her Earth Pass and is now able to go to Earth to live as a human. However, Joe tells her that his experiences and tastes earned the badge. They head over to the portal, where, after a brief moment of angry statements passed in between the two, 22 decides to give Joe the pass and disappears into the Zone. She tells herself over and over again that she has no purpose and never got her spark, thus transforming into a lost soul. Back in the Great Before, Joe learns from a Jerry that instead of a life's purpose, a spark simply means that a soul is ready to live. He heads back to Earth and has a successful first performance with the Dorothea Quartet, but does not feel right about what happened.
After the performance, he explains to Dorothea Williams that he thought it would be different than what happened, to which Dorothea responds with a story that there was 2 fishes, and the younger fish said that it was in water and it wanted to be in the ocean, to which the older fish responds that it is already in the ocean. Joe seemed a little hurt by what she said, but Dorothea dismisses him and climbs into a taxi. Joe heads back home wearily.
At home, Joe remembers the things 22 had done and spreads out the items on his piano. A brief scene follows with many of Joe's memories and some of 22's memories while she was in his body. He plays the piano and enters the zone, where he encounters Moonwind again and tells him that he needs to find 22 to apologize, only to discover that she has become a lost soul. Since 22 was in Joe's body on Earth for a short time, she has become one after she became obsessed with her own self-loathing. Joe tries to intervene by trying to give her Earth Pass back, but this only makes her obsession even worse.
Joe was eaten by 22's lost soul form, and finds himself inside trying to reach out to her, only to be stopped by recreations of her former mentors, including himself. Joe eventually finds a helicopter seed 22 was amazed by when she was in his body, and puts it into her open hand, finally making her happy and breaking free from her obsession. When 22 jumps into the Earth portal, Joe holds her hand when falling to Earth for as long as he can, knowing that he will be taken back to the Great Beyond.
At the end, when Joe is finally about to enter the Great Beyond, the first Jerry he encounters tells him to stop in order to have a moment with him. Jerry tells him that since he inspired all the Jerries in the You Seminar, they are rewarding him with another chance on Earth. Joe enters the portal, knowing that he is going to live every minute of his life to the fullest.
- Joe is the first African-American protagonist in a Pixar feature film.
- Joe apparently had some sort of relationship with a woman named Lisa. Who she is and when the relationship was had is still unknown.
- Joe was part of a hip hop group in his youth, a fact he is embarrassed about.
- When Joe is playing the piano, his movements and habits are copied verbatim from musician Jon Baptiste, right down to certain finger gestures and ticks that help with the performance.