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Hard work and DIY attitude helped stand-up comedian Jo Koy turn rejection into success

Jo Koy
Jo Koy
(Mandee Johnson Photography)

Popular comic is soon headed to the San Diego Civic Theatre with his Just Kidding World Tour, the intense demand for which has resulted in an extended five-night run

The first time stand-up comedian Jo Koy went to Netflix to propose a special of his own, the streaming giant shut him down. So, he produced it himself.

“I’m glad they said no,” says Koy, looking back at 2017’s “Live from Seattle,” for which he did everything from book the theater to hire a camera crew. “I think maybe I wouldn’t have performed as hard as I did that night. It was the biggest responsibility I ever took on, and it paid off. If you believe in your project and believe in your passion, it will pay you back.”

For the record:
11:57 AM, Aug. 26, 2019 An earlier version of this story mentioned that Jo Koy’s “Live from Seattle” special came out in 2015. It came out in 2017, and the story has been fixed to reflect that.

Koy is a poster child for passion paying off, from his lean years as a touring stand-up in a rough and tumble industry to his current perch as a formidable star of the craft. Not only did Netflix later purchase Koy’s aforementioned self-produced special, they signed the star up for another, the recently released “Comin’ in Hot.”

Now, no doubt stemming in part from his viral success, Koy is selling out theaters nationwide, was named 2018’s Stand-Up Comedian of the Year at Montreal’s prestigious Just for Laughs comedy festival and recently sold an animated pilot to TruTV.

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”When Netflix said no, I could have sat and cried and yelled, but then I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you,” Koy explains of his philosophy of turning lemons into lemonade. “Sometimes you have to take a negative and make it a positive. I had an option because I could have (gone) the other route and became a Netflix-hater. But that would have been stupid.”

With an aversion to stupidity in mind, Koy is soon headed to the San Diego Civic Theatre with his Just Kidding World Tour, the intense demand for which has resulted in an extended five-night run.

“Man, I’m pinching myself every day,” he says of the impressive schedule of dates, which kicks off Sept. 26. “When you do the numbers, it’s 15,000 people. I’m like, ‘Is this a dream?’”

Audiences are flocking to Koy’s shows in droves, attracted perhaps by his unique take on both fresh and tired subject matters, with his Filipino heritage and race in general a frequent theme. In “Comin’ In Hot,” Koy goes on extended riffs focused on touchy topics, including Filipino stereotypes.

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“Rice was breakfast, rice was lunch, rice for dinner,” Koy says in the special. “And I know there’s a lot of people going, ‘Oh, Filipinos eat breakfast?’ Yes, we do. It’s … it’s just last night’s dinner with an egg.”

Koy’s family is also a major focus, with his teenage son, and mellienals in general, prime targets.

“(Millennials) will go, ‘Oh my God, my… My mom yelled at me, and I’m so scared to go to the house,’ Are you kidding me? You’re scared to go home ’cause your mom yelled at you? All my mom did was yell at me. The only language my mom spoke was yell.”

It wasn’t until Koy watched the routine he nurtured for years on Netflix did he realize it was time to launch a new act, throwing out all of the jokes he previously road-tested.

“There were a couple lines in there that were my go-to bangers — the ones I knew I had the crowd with,” he says, remembering the moment his creative process began anew. Now, the process of writing an entirely different routine has begun with audiences in San Diego being treated to a completely fresh set.

While starting over on a different routine is a feeling Koy says is akin to empty nest syndrome, this summer has mainly been focused on figuring out his new routine. That would be a daunting prospect for some, but Koy is quick to note that he feels quite the opposite.

“I’ve been going up at a lot of the small rooms around Los Angeles and working out new stuff,” he says. “I’m loving the routine I’m developing and where I’m at with it. When the tour hits, get ready.”

In addition, this summer he’s also been hard at work on his animated pilot — “The Functional Family,” a semi-autobiographical look at Koy’s home life (including his mother, who’s also a frequent subject of his act). It is set to premiere in 2020. And as if his days weren’t jammed enough, Koy also is the host of a podcast, aptly titled “The Koy Pond,” which showcases chats between the comedian and his friends and is close to notching its 200th episode.

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‘Happiest times in my life’

While Koy is currently enjoying buzzed-about career, he relishes how it all began. He spent his youth hopping from one military base to another. He was born in 1971 — birth name: Joseph Glenn Herbert — to an American father who was in the Air Force and his Philippine-born mother, who was a banker.

“Whenever someone says they’re in the military, I fall in love,” Koy says fondly. “I remember everything about them, from the PX to how cool it was to leave and then go back through the gates and it looked like a fortress. Those were the happiest times in my life. When I turned 18, I had to turn in my ID card and they cut it up. I was like, ‘Did you just cut a part of my life up? ”

By 1994, Koy embarked on a stand-up career in Las Vegas. While he’d hone his craft at night, by day he was a dolphin tour guide at the city’s Mirage Hotel. The fact he didn’t know anything about the aquatic mammals not only didn’t stop him, but proved to be a creative opportunity.

“I was giving out fake tours, making up names and the tourists would believe me,” laughs Koy, looking back on what turned out to be the perfect training ground for a budding comedian. “It kept my chops sharp because it was just me talking on a microphone to a bunch of strangers. I needed that, because I’d always do adlibs or something a little off to catch people off-guard and it’s how I worked my improv skills. ”

Foreshadowing his Netflix days, Koy would also independently produce stand-up shows in Vegas.

At the time, “there weren’t many opportunities for up-and-coming comics,” says Koy. “You had to make your own theater, so I rented an old movie theater. When I told people where it was, they asked if I hired police because the neighborhood it was in was so bad.”

In order to recoup his costs (and hire security to watch patron’s cars), Koy remembers scrambling to sell at least 100 tickets.

“My core audience was the staff at the Mirage, but I’d have to beg people to come to shows and try to fill seats.”

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Now, it’s the fans who are begging Koy for tickets.

“Those days are what makes me appreciate what’s happening now,” he says. “I know what $15 meant to me and how important it was. I don’t ever want to be in that situation again, so I’ll always work hard to avoid it.”

Jo Koy: Just Kidding World Tour

When: 7:30 p.m. Sept. 25-29

Where: San Diego Civic Theatre, 1100 Third Ave., downtown San Diego

Tickets: $45-$55 (limited availability)

Online: ticketmaster.com

LeDonne is a freelance writer.


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