Comedian Jo Koy may be the nicest person CULTURE has ever met. The veteran comic greets everyone with an enormous hug, a smile and infectious positivity. Koy attributes a lot of his humor, hustle and success to his mother, who showed him by example that it is possible to go from struggling to make ends meet, to headlining comedy clubs around the world. After spending even a brief amount of time with him you also learn that his other two loves are his son and stand-up. And if you’ve seen his recent Netflix special, Jo Koy: Live from Seattle, you’ll be regaled with countless funny anecdotes about his son and his quest to conquer puberty.
Koy was raised in the Seattle, Washington area, and from the moment he saw Eddie Murphy’s Raw in person, he knew what he was going to do with the rest of his life. Sure, there were lean years; he sold shoes at Nordstrom Rack the day after he appeared on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. This was 15 years into his journey in stand-up. His story is a tale of perseverance and a testament to what you can accomplish if you dedicate yourself to something and give it 110 percent all the time.
Now, Koy only continues to reach new audiences and make lifelong fans, selling record breaking shows across the world and recently receiving the “Stand-Up Comedian of the Year” award at Montreal, Canada’s Just For Laughs Comedy Festival. Koy chatted with CULTURE about being a comedian, the new Netflix special he has in the works, as well as his relationship with cannabis.
When did you know that comedy was what you were going to do in life?
I knew comedy was what I wanted to do when I heard Eddie Murphy do Delirious, so 1981-1982. When it came out I was in the sixth grade, that’s when I said I wanted to be a stand-up comedian for the rest of my life.
In sixth grade, at 11 or 12 years old, you’re watching Delirious?
I recorded it on a VHS tape. I recorded Delirious on there with Whoopi Goldberg’s Direct from Broadway, Robin Williams’ Live from the Met and Bill Cosby’s Himself. I had everything on that tape, and all I did was watch stand-up. I was in love with Eddie Murphy though, so when he went on tour with Raw, he came to Seattle, and I bought tickets for me and my friend William. My mom drove me to downtown Seattle, two 15-year-old kids, she was saying, “Why are you going to see a movie in Seattle, why didn’t you get tickets to see Eddie Murphy in Tacoma?” She had no idea there was a [live show], but she dropped us off at the Coliseum; that was the best day of my life.
Which do you like more, Raw or Delirious?
Well of course my heart is going to be with Raw, because I got to see it before anyone else did. This was back when kids didn’t really watch stand-up. It was like an adult thing to do. It was a special moment for me, and that comedy routine will always be in my body for the rest of my being. I remember that whole moment. I remember walking into the Coliseum, I remember buying a sweatshirt, I still remember the name of the production company. I remember that I was so mad that I didn’t buy the T-shirt, and I bought the sweatshirt. The sweatshirt said “Panda Panda,” which was the promotion company that brought the tour there. And then it said Eddie Murphy, it didn’t say Raw and had some Argyle on it. It had nothing to do with the tour. Then they had t-shirts, that I didn’t buy, and it was just a red t-shirt with a silhouette of Eddie that said Raw. Should have bought that, I think about that every fucking day man.
How did your family react when you decided to pursue stand-up? Were they supportive?
Well my mom, no of course. She’s an immigrant mom from the Philippines, and now her kid wants to be a stand-up comedian. For her generation it’s all about having kids, sending them to college, she retires, and the kids take over. I get it when you come from a country where everyone is suffering from poverty, and you arrive in the land of opportunity, the last thing you want is for your kids to struggle. She didn’t think it was really going to happen, and she was right for about 15 years. From 1989 until 2004/2005, so you’re talking about 15 to 16 years of my mom being right. Reminding me every holiday, “Thirty-two and you work at a fucking shoe store, trying to be a comedian. You’re not a kid anymore.” Then it starts to wear on you, like, “Fuck, maybe my mom is right, maybe I should quit, maybe I should get a full-time job being a mailman.”
You’ve been doing stand-up for over 20 years. How long were you in the game before you felt like you “made it”?
I did the Apollo in 1998 or 1999, and I felt like I made it. I was nine years in, and I’m on national television. I’m on a show that I’ve dreamed of being on ever since I watched it when I was a kid. I remember standing in the shower and pretending I was doing stand-up on the Apollo, and it came to life. So, to me I made it. Financially I’m not making it, I’m broke. For my mom, it was when I did The Tonight Show [with Jay Leno]. She was able to see something on NBC, and this is Jay Leno, the world knows Jay Leno, and here he is introducing her son. So, to me that’s when I made it, 15 years in, and literally that was when I was able to quit all my jobs because I was still working part-time jobs when I did The Tonight Show.
You use your family experiences for comedy gold. Has there been any pushback?
I get nervous sometimes. On my last special, Jo Koy: Live from Seattle, I talked about my sister getting kicked out at 17. In the special I say she was kicked out of 18, when in reality she was kicked out at 16, but I didn’t want to say that. I remember practicing that joke at Treasure Island before I taped the special, and my mom, who finally made up with my sister a couple years before, and my sister are in the crowd. I remember doing that joke in front of them and being so fucking nervous. I remember getting offstage and my mom hugged me, and my sister hugged me. My sister said, “It really didn’t happen that way.” But I don’t want to say all the shit that happened, but let the audience know that this is generally what happened. I don’t want to make it too serious, so I got their approval, but I was really nervous.
What does your mom think of your impression of her?
Of course, her natural instinct is to say, “I don’t really say that,” or “I don’t sound like that,” and then I’m like, “You sound like it right fucking now.” She’s where I got my comedy from, that’s where the natural ability comes from. She used humor when she came to this country to make friends and that’s pretty fucking awesome. Imagine coming here when the country was pretty much white and black. In 1968, immigrant with a military husband and a kid that nobody’s ever seen before. They’ve never seen a mixed kid. What the fuck is that? He’s got Asian eyes, but they’re hazel. What the fuck! My mom had to figure it out, there was no Facebook, she had to meet people on her own and figure out the language. I got my hustle from my mom. My mom used to put together these events with other Filipinos. They would rent out the Knights of Columbus Hall for $200 and invite all these people she met at the mall. There would be a long table of food, and the kids would perform. I saw my mom’s hustle, and I think that indirectly that motivated me, because I saw her do it.
Has your teenage son, or one of his friends, seen your act?
All of his friends have seen it. It’s what they do when they go out on the weekends. If they meet up at a friend’s house, my son will come over, and he’ll tell me how Aiden put on my special and they all watched it.
“For me, not at all. Creatively I don’t need [cannabis]. I do it purely for entertainment value. It’s fun to do it and laugh. I don’t use it for creative reasons, more just recreation. To relax and have a good time.”
Do you consume cannabis?
Who doesn’t! We’ve been kind of blessed with these pens right now, so I don’t have to worry about rolling joints anymore or getting rid of seeds. The pens are right there, and they’re all over the place, so I’ve been blessed to go to certain places where you can pick up some cool pens.
How do you think cannabis affects the creative process?
For me, not at all. Creatively I don’t need that. I do it purely for entertainment value. It’s fun to do it and laugh. I don’t use it for creative reasons, more just recreation. To relax and have a good time.
“We’ve been kind of blessed with these pens right now, so I don’t have to worry about rolling joints anymore or getting rid of seeds.”
You released your last special Jo Koy: Live from Seattle on Netflix; what makes the streaming service such a great fit for stand-up?
That’s the blueprint right there. I don’t understand why networks haven’t copied this blueprint. Netflix changed my life, changed my career. I knew that I needed to get on Netflix, and they said “no” to me so many times. So I just invested all my money, and financially paid for my special. I knew that if we didn’t sell this I’d be broke, so thank God I had a good manager and agent that believed in the project and were willing to invest as well. I had enough confidence to think that I was going to be able to sell it, even though Netflix said they didn’t need it. So, I shot that shit myself, with no potential buyer. Just praying that someone would buy it. We shopped that thing around for a few months, and we finally put it on Netflix’s table, and they bought it. Changed my life.
Aside from touring, you also host a weekly podcast called “The Koy Pond.” Do you find this to be an extension of your comedy, or a way to do something new?
I love “The Koy Pond,” because I get to show off my ad lib skills, my improv. I do it onstage, but I love to do it in conversation. So that’s what that is all about, I go in there unscripted without a topic, without anything. I literally walk on and let it roll, and wherever that conversation takes us, that’s what we’re posting that night.
So what’s next?
I’m shooting my new Netflix special. This time Netflix is behind it, so I don’t have to worry about the budget, buying stage covers, set design and directors. I don’t have to wear any of those hats. I get to walk out onstage and just be funny. I don’t have to worry about getting offstage and having to eat a butter sandwich because I’m broke.
“I’m shooting my new Netflix special. This time Netflix is behind it, so I don’t have to worry about the budget, buying stage covers, set design and directors. I don’t have to wear any of those hats. I get to walk out onstage and just be funny.”
Richard Pryor or George Carlin?
Carlin, only because I got to see him live when I was 15 at Bally’s.
Soccer or football?
Pineapple on Pizza; gross or yum?
Disgusting. It’s cold, why is it on there?
Name a movie that makes you cry.
My Life with Michael Keaton.
Die Hard; Christmas movie or straight action movie?
It is the greatest Christmas action movie ever.
Batman or Superman?
Cats or dogs?
Dogs. Are you kidding me? Cats suck.
Billy Madison or Happy Gilmore?
Happy Gilmore all day.
People who back into parking spaces—monsters or geniuses?
Favorite cannabis strain or product?
Chocolate chip cookie edible.