The first time Jo Koy ever performed stand-up comedy, he bombed. He had wanted to be a comedian since age 11, having listened religiously to Richard Pryor and watched Eddie Murphy’s “Delirious” special on repeat. When he was 15, he even bought tickets to see Murphy’s “Raw” tour; to use him mom’s credit card over the phone, he put on a Filipino accent and pretended to be her. But living in Las Vegas in the 1980s, before the comedy boon, he wasn’t sure what the path was to becoming a comedian.
Growing up Joseph Glenn Herbert,the son of an American father and a Filipina mother, Koy says it was his mother who first introduced him to getting on stage by encouraging him to perform at large Filipino gatherings. “I would dance like Michael Jackson and my sister would sing,” Koy says. “It made me fall in love with the stage and getting in front of people.”
He was still around 17 or 18 when he signed up for a show called “Starmania,” a local version of “Star Search” in which people would perform at local bars in Vegas. To look older, he penciled in a moustache over his baby hair with his mom’s mascara, and dressed how he thought an adult would: herring-bone pants, patent leather shoes and a mustard and purple tie.
It went horribly. He had to follow a Lionel Richie impersonator, who absolutely killed. Koy panicked. “My mouth went chalky. I forgot everything I wanted to say,” Koy recalls. When he did manage to get some jokes out they were awkward and immature — “I made a dumb joke about condoms being too small.” At one point, Koy, recalls, he appealed to the audience. “I said, ‘You ever have that problem where your tongue sticks to the roof of your mouth and you can’t talk anymore?’ And a drunk woman yelled out, ‘Put a condom on it!’ Everyone started clapping for her. She killed by calling back my joke that failed. It was the worst.”
Defeated, he was seated at the bar when the Lionel Richie impersonator said to him, “You know, you look good up onstage. Just work on your jokes.” To this day, Koy wishes he had gotten the man’s name. “If he hadn’t said that, I probably would have quit,” Koy says. “He was like an angel, placed there right when I needed him.”
The irony, of course, is that Koy would go on to become one of the biggest stand-up comedians in the world, selling out stadiums and breaking records with his personable, storytelling style. And through it all, there would be a consistency in quality that most comics would envy.
As Tiffany Haddish, who has known Koy since they were both starting out, says: “I have never seen him bomb, and I don’t know if I can say that for any other comic. He is always funny, whether it was a sold-out room or just five people in the audience. From day one, I thought he was a superstar. I was like, ‘This guy’s going to be the most famous dude in the world.’”
Along the way, there would be many other angels, people who seemed to be placed in Koy’s path at the exact right moment — his story is a perfect example of how one job would lead to another. Koy would also prove to be a self-starter, making his own opportunities, from producing his own comedy shows to filming his special when Netflix wouldn’t commit. And somehow, in a world considered ruthlessly cutthroat, he’s also managed to maintain a reputation as one of the nicest guys in the business. Rob Schneider, who was one of the first big comics he turned to for guidance says, “Jo is a warm hug and a sweet smile and a huge laugh and that’s the secret to his success. It’s no coincidence if you take a ‘K’ out of his name, it spells ‘Joy.’”
A Humble Setup
After his disastrous debut, Koy didn’t immediately get better at stand-up, he just got better at accepting failure. “I saw an Eddie Murphy interview where he said he bombed eight times before he got his first laugh,” Koy recalls. “So I was like, ‘OK, I’ll just bomb then.’ And every time I bombed, I got more confident. It wasn’t hurting as much.”
Still living in Vegas, where he was working a variety of what he calls “disposable jobs” after dropping out of college, opportunities to perform were few and far between. His mother, who had instilled his love of performing in him, was concerned. “She would say, ‘You’re getting older Joseph, how long are you going to be a clown? How long?’”
He would call the comedy booker at the Riviera and pretend to be a local comedian, offering to open for the headliner. The booker was none other than future “The Sopranos” star Steve Schirripa, who helped put him on the right path. Even though he used a new name every week, Schirripa recognized his voice and gave him some advice.
“He said, ‘You need to move to L.A., work on your craft, get some TV credits, send that to me, and I’ll look at it,’” says Koy. “It was actually so sweet of him, I really took it to heart.” That’s when Koy began to drive the five hours to Los Angeles for the Laugh Factory’s Potluck Nights, watching other comedians and working up the nerve to sign up.
Koy continued to improve and jumped at every opportunity that presented itself. He performed every Saturday at an open mic at the Beach Nightclub and one night the emcee’s boyfriend attended. He happened to be the booker for Catch a Rising Star at the MGM Grand. He offered Koy a week opening for the headliner, and gave him two-for-one coupons to invite others.
“I gave them to everyone I knew and I noticed the crowds were all my people,” Koy says. That led him to rent out the Huntridge Theater, a historic but at the time run-down venue, that fit 600 chairs. “I had a spotlight and would plug in a mic and suddenly I had a comedy show.” By 1999, shortly after its launch, Jo Koy’s Comedy Jam was selling out houses.
Even at his day jobs, Koy was hustling. While checking in a guest at the Alexis Hotel, Koy complimented his Dada Supreme hat, as he had long admired the brand. It turned out he was speaking to Dwayne Lewis, the founder/owner of Dada Clothing, who loaded Koy up with swag. Later, he would gain access to the Magic Convention, a famed fashion trade show, by sneaking in with a friend’s pass. He hung around the Dada booth until he saw the owner, and pitched the idea of them sponsoring a comedy show. It got him a meeting in L.A. Lantz Simpson, owner of Dada Footwear, and Koy worked hard on a presentation and budget to persuade the mogul. He was afraid to ask for $5,000 so he got the price down to $4,500. “We sat down and I handed him this binder. He flips it a couple times and says, ‘All right man, let’s make it.’”
He also joined the ranks of the Black College Comedy Tour, where he found his ethnicity could come in handy. “For diversity, you always have to have another ethnicity aside from Black on the roster,” he says. “And I was always the ‘other’ because I could be white or Asian.” Through that tour he met Honest John, a comic who urged him to try out for Def Comedy Jam.
One day in 2001, when he as giving tours at a dolphin habitat, Koy learned they were in town. “I begged my manager to let me off early, went home and put a suit on and grabbed my fake resume with all these made-up performance dates all over the country,” he recalls.
When he got to the venue, he bypassed the enormous line and asked the security guard if he could talk to the promoter. To his amazement, the promoter, Yvette Anderson, came out and invited him in to watch the show. It turned out the performing comics were late and with the audience getting rowdy, Bob Sumner, the owner of Def Comedy Jam, asked if he wanted to go up for a few minutes. Just one catch — the lights would stay on, the curtain closed and he couldn’t say he was formally associated with Def Comedy Jam. “I thought, ‘This is going to suck,’” Koy admits. “That’s every element that leads to bombing.”
But he swallowed his pride and went up and a kind stage manager at least dimmed the lights. “I’ve got five minutes and I smash. People went crazy.” As he slipped off the stage, comic Rudy Rush was waiting to go on. “He asked Bob, ‘Who the fuck is this guy? Why did you put him up first? I gotta follow that?’” Rush then asked if Koy had ever heard of “Showtime at the Apollo,” which Rush was hosting. With that one performance, Koy landed both Def Comedy Jam and an episode of “Showtime at the Apollo,” which he won. Other highlights followed, including a 2005 appearance on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno,” where he garnered a standing ovation from the audience —a rarity for the show.
Nailing the Joke
Koy had finally moved to Los Angeles where he still kept side jobs such as working at a bank and a bookstore, but he also was married with a young child. He was a regular at comedy clubs, particularly the Laugh Factory, where he met Haddish. Sometimes, Koy would bring his son, Joe, to the club and Haddish would babysit while he did his set. Haddish adds that Koy’s level head often kept her out of trouble. “I got in a fight one night with a comic and he held me back,” Haddish says. “He’s like, ‘It’s not worth it, you’ll get banned from the club. Just get successful, that’s winning the fight. That’s the black eye on their face.’”
But Koy says he hasn’t always made savvy choices. Jon Lovitz introduced him to an up-and-coming comic named Chelsea Handler, with whom Koy immediately connected. Eventually, Handler threw out the idea of him being a sort of sidekick on a talk show she was pitching. Koy, who calls Handler “one of the funniest people I’ve ever met,” ultimately decided to pursue his own path. In 2007, “Chelsea Lately” premiered and one day, Koy’s ex-wife was picking him up from a job at Nordstrom Rack. “She says, ‘Have you heard of Chelsea Handler? Her show is so funny!’” Koy recalls. “I was like: I just made the worst decision of my life.”
Fortunately, Handler didn’t hold a grudge, and started putting Koy on the show. “We had a rotation of about 40 comics … and about five that we used every week,” Handler says. “Jo was at the top of that list because he delivered with every appearance. He hustled harder than most from the very beginning and hasn’t stopped, and on top of it all — he’s an excellent person and a great father.
“The only issue I ever had with Jo were his teeth, which hopefully he’s gotten fixed.”
Says Koy: “My life changed because of Chelsea. She was like a modern-day Johnny Carson; if you did well on her show, you were going to do well on the road.”
For the first time ever, Koy quit his survival jobs.
Winning Them Over
Koy considers himself a storyteller, first and foremost. Like the tales Murphy would tell of his relatives in “Delirious,” Koy loves to call on his heritage and his family in a way that is relatable to everyone.
“Comedy is like music, there’s different genres,” Koy notes. “In music you have country, jazz, R&B and in comedy there’s impersonators, political commentators, puppet guys … all sorts of different styles. I’m never going to juggle or talk about politics; I’m a storyteller.”
“Part of Jo’s success is taking and explaining the not so unique art of Asian culture and it’s all relatable,” Schneider says. “Everybody has that grandmother and that aunt.”
Growing up, Koy didn’t have many comedians he could look to for Asian representation — he remembers seeing Schneider in “Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo” and being excited when the Filipino dessert bibingka is referenced. He learned the “SNL” star was half-Filipino, and they quickly bonded, with Koy often asking for guidance.
But it’s Koy who inspired Schneider when it came time to record his own recent Netflix special, “Asian Momma, Mexican Kids,” which was recently the No. 1 special in the world. “After seeing what Jo does, I took any divisiveness out of my standup act and just did the jokes, and there’s no coincidence it’s the number one special in the world,” Schneider says. “That’s thanks to his influence on me. Jo has raised the bar.”
Koy has also never lost his entrepreneurial spirit. Joe Meloche, the president of Arsonhouse Entertainment, has been his manager since 2015 and says Koy has always been forward-thinking. “He’s willing to step out of his comfort zone and try something new,” Meloche says. “I believe most comics have entrepreneurial characteristics because they are also the underdog trying to fight for a piece of the pie. When you work at this for a minimum of 10-20 years on the road, week after week, away from your family, to build your brand, it becomes instinctual.”
This came in handy in few years ago, when Koy desperately wanted to do a special for Netflix, as he watched so many others, including comics who had opened for him, getting their own. But he couldn’t seem to generate interest or get anyone to his shows. It was Meloche who eventually suggested he just shoot it himself.
“Thank God for Joe saying, ‘Bet on yourself,’” Koy says. “I could have been bitter. I could have gone on Twitter and bashed them. Instead, I took the high road and said, ‘I just need to prove to them, I need to show them why they had to have my special on their platform.”
Koy shot “Jo Koy: Live From Seattle” in 2016 and the day before Thanksgiving he learned Netflix was picking it up. It aired in March 2017 and was an immediate hit, not just for the service but also for Koy. “That was the day my life changed,” Koy says. Not long after, he remembers logging on to watch ticket sales for a show in Hawaii. “I would refresh the screen and the seat map would turn red from tickets that were sold. Every time I hit refresh, it was like a virus taking over the country — it would turn red and red and red and then sell out. We had to keep adding shows.”
Koy estimates he ended up doing13 shows and sold 21,000 tickets. “I beat Mariah Carey for the most tickets ever sold by a solo performer.” He was so fond of Hawaii, he opted to shoot his next Netflix special, “Comin’ in Hot,” there. That special, which he did not need to persuade Netflix to back, debuted in June 2019.
His second special appears to have been viewed by everyone — including a filmmaker named Steven Spielberg who watched it and sent a company-wide email to his employees at Amblin Entertainment urging them to watch. “People kept telling me, ‘Steve loves you, he keeps talking about your special,’” Koy recalls with a laugh. “I was like, which Steve are you talking about? Is that a guy in accounting?”
Koy landed a movie deal with Amblin, and the first fruit of that deal is “Easter Sunday,” based on his own experiences with the holiday. Koy says he’s excited to bring the story to the big screen and adds the cast is going to be remarkably diverse. “It’s going to be filled with Latinos, white people, Black people, Filipinos. It’s going to look like my family.”
Family is important to Koy, and not just because they’re great fodder for the act; in “Comin’ in Hot” he talks about his son’s struggles with puberty but says there’s no hard feelings; his son Joseph is now 17 and interested in pursuing stand-up himself. “I’d love to open for him one day,” Koy says. And he’s close with his siblings; his sister Gemma was there for his first “Tonight Show” appearance when she helped him sew a Filipino flag onto his jacket. And because his sister Rowena suffers from lupus, Koy has become involved with raising money for the Lupus Foundation of America.
“It’s kind of cool when you can get in a position where you can give back in a way that’s a little more personal,” he notes. “If I can help by being there and raising money and getting awareness out, it’s wonderful.” Another way of giving back: in June he premiered “Jo Koy: In His Elements,” in which he traveled to the Philippines and showcased other performers.
Up next, Koy is working on an autobiography called “Mixed Plate: Chronicles of an All-American Combo,” due in February, that will also contain Filipino recipes. He’s already working on material for a third Netflix special. Meloche definitely sees a future in acting. “Features is an area I feel will be next for him,” he says. “His physical comedic ability is definitely something I look forward to seeing on the TV or big screen.”
To that end, Schneider says he’s working on a film project for them to do together, while Haddish says she also wants to collaborate with him on some movies.
And of course, he’d love to get back on the road. “I love the comedy clubs, they invested in me,” he notes. “And there are so many around the country that are hurting right now. I want to go and perform and donate the gate back to the clubs as a way of helping them back on their feet. And to say thank you for giving me a chance.”
Jo Koy will participate in a live conversation “Jo Koy: Legend and Groundbreaker” at the Just for Laughs virtual festival 4 p.m. Oct. 9 PDT. Free to the public, it can be viewed at haha.com.