“What color are you talking about?”: Why Jo Koy stopped caring about appealing to Middle America

This year marks comedian Jo Koy’s 33rd year as a stand-up. He’s currently on his “Funny is Funny” world tour, but Koy admits that his success has been a long journey from starting out in Las Vegas coffee shops to now selling out arenas. During his set, he talks about his come up story as a Filipino-American comedian and letting Gen Z know that “it’s just not as easy as you think.”

Beyond his four Netflix stand-up specials, Koy starred in the comedy film “Easter Sunday” and was a regular roundtable guest on E!’s “Chelsea Lately.” When I saw him perform in Washington a few weeks ago at Capital One Arena, the crowd was packed with people representing every racial and ethnic group imaginable. (Picture a rally for Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign in 2008.) Reaching a wide audience isn’t easy or even achievable for every comic.

Koy credits his ability to draw in fans from all walks of life to his early days watching Black comics like Eddie Murphy and Bernie Mac. The way they used their talents to tell stories and poke fun was not only hilarious, but related to his own personal Filipino story. Family drama is one of those great unifiers that we all share and Koy has mastered the art of twisting those dynamics into tales that make us feel more connected.

You can watch my “Salon Talks” episode with Jo Koy here or read a Q&A of our conversation below to learn more about his take on Asian representation in comedy, the power that friendship plays in co-parenting after his divorce and how Steven Spielberg changed his life.

The following conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

You’re in Pennsylvania this week, but you’re performing as far as Australia. How does your act change when you go into these different spaces? Do people in Australia laugh at what the people in Pennsylvania laugh at?

“Now you can’t fall on that excuse of ‘Middle America won’t get it.'”

They laugh big, man. It’s so funny, you don’t really have to change anything. I think now, with Netflix getting [my specials] out as far as Australia, all the way to Singapore, and to the Philippines, you get this core audience that falls in love with you. Then when you go, it’s that built-in fan base. They’re already familiar with your work.

The only thing that I always stress the most is seeing the town, and seeing how they live, and pick up on their cultures and their little quirks that they do, and talk about that on stage just to make it feel more personal.

I have this joke I tell at my book readings about Whole Foods cereal and how it gets soggy the second that the milk hits it. It worked really well in Boston and New York. But I tried it in Jonesboro, Ark., and the people in the audience were like, “What the f**k is a Whole Foods?”

I did the same thing with the Safeway one time. People were like, “What’s Safeway?” You got to know your grocery stores when you go to different cities for sure. It’s so funny. It’s like Carl’s Jr. on the West Coast, and it’s Hardee’s in the East.

In your comedy, you talk a lot about Filipino identity and your family. What kind of themes are you going to be talking about on this tour?

This one, it’s more personal. [It’s about] what I’ve gone through so far in this business. This is my 33rd year in stand-up. I started in 1989, so it’s like I want to start talking about that and more personal stuff and what it took to get where I’m at now and let this generation know that it’s just not as easy as you think. The tools that they have now are something that I wish I would’ve had back when I was first starting. But also remind them that we opened the doors for them, and the grind that we had to go through makes it a lot easier for the generation now.

People don’t understand that overnight success stories take 10 years, sometimes 20.

Yeah, sometimes 30.

Sometimes 30. Everybody wants it so fast. Can we get past that?

Man, the one thing I try and let people know is if you’re not passionate about it and if you’re not in love with it, then get out of it. Because if you’re in it for the money and the fame, then it’s never going to be real. You might as well just quit and find something else to do. I love stand-up. I’m good at a coffee house tomorrow night. I’m good. It doesn’t need to be the United Center in April. I can be at the Laugh Factory on Sunset on a Wednesday night with 15 people. I’m extremely happy because this is my passion. This is what I love to do.

Now, you’re filling up arenas, but why don’t you take us back to when you opened up at Def Jam back in ’96.

Oh man, yo, they don’t even know that. That’s the crazy thing. These up and coming comics, they don’t even know the grind. There’s some that don’t even know about Def Jam — and that’s a disgrace. Learn your history. Learn about this movement that took place before you. You know what I mean? Find out what Bernie Mac and Steve Harvey had to do before you guys get to do what you get to do. Learn about the Chitlin’ Circuit. Learn about these theme nights that these comedy clubs would put you on, because you weren’t good enough for the weekend shows. A Fat Tuesdays, or an Asian Invasion Thursdays or a Refried Fridays for the Latinos. And that show starts at midnight when everyone goes home. So, they don’t know about those shows.

The way I got Def Jam is I was friends with a comic named Honest John, who was on BET’s “ComicView.” I did BET’s “ComicView” when Gary Owen was the host. I met Honest John, and he took me on the road. He was like, “Man, you got to do Def Jam, man. I can do Def Jam gigs. And man, you would kill it.” And he goes, “Next time in Las Vegas on Def Jam, I’m going to bring you on.”

So, Def Jam came, and he’s a man of his word. Honest John took me backstage, and he introduced me to Bob Sumner, who is the creator and owner of Def Comedy Jam. It’s not Russell Simmons. Russell had the brand, but Bob Sumner created the show. I remember standing backstage, and Honest John brought Bob Sumner up to me. And Bob Sumner, I think he was eating like a doughnut or something. I forgot what he was eating. He was just talking to me and eating at the same time. He was like, “So, Honest John says you’re funny, huh?” I’m like, “Yeah.”

He goes, “All right, well I’m going to put you up, but we’re going to do it with the lights on. And when you walk out, we’re not going to open the curtain. You’re going to crawl through the curtain. And don’t say, ‘Welcome to Def Jam,’ and when you say goodnight, just say, ‘Goodnight. I’m Jo Koy.’ Don’t say, ‘Enjoy the show.’ Don’t even be affiliated with Def Jam. Just crawl right back underneath the curtain.” My sister was there, and her fiancé was there. I just remember looking at him like, “This guy just wants me to fail.” This is all failure right here. There’s no way I’m going to be able to crush tonight.

When he left, the stage manager walked up to me, and he was like, “Look man, the house is at like 80%. We’re going to turn the house lights down for you, but that’s all I could do.” He goes, “I can’t open up the curtains or nothing.” And I go, “That’s all I need, man.” And they literally opened up the curtain. I had to crawl through. You remember the Carol Burnett show when they opened it up a little, and she crawled underneath? That was me. I crawled underneath. There were 2,000 people. I couldn’t say, “Welcome to Def Jam.” I just had to go, “Hi, I’m Jo Koy.” And then, I had to do my act, and I got a standing ovation that night.

“I just remember looking at him like, ‘This guy just wants me to fail.'”

I said goodnight. I crawled back through the curtain, and Bob Sumner was standing there with Rudy Rush. Rudy Rush used to host a show called “Showtime at the Apollo,” and he was hosting Def Jam that night. He looked at Bob and goes, “Who the f**k is this guy?” And Bob Sumner goes, “Oh, that’s Honest John’s friend, Jo Koy.” He was like, “Well, why the f**k you put him up first?” He goes, “Shoot, put him in the middle of the show, man. Now I got to follow that sh*t.” Bob goes, “I didn’t know he was going to be funny.”

Then Rudy Rush goes, “I’m going to put you on the Apollo.” He goes, “You ever watched the Apollo?” I go, “Man, I love the Apollo.” And he put me on the Apollo. Two weeks later, I was on the Apollo. I win the Apollo, and not only that. Bob Sumner puts me on Def Comedy Jam, and I start doing spot dates on Def Comedy Jam. So, that’s how I got that. It was just walking on cold.

Was that the first time you felt like you kind of made it, that you knew you were going to be doing this for the rest of your life? 

“I would gravitate towards Black comedy because I always felt like when they talked about their families, it was closer to my family.”

There was another show called BET’s “ComicView,” and I got that. The way I got that was crazy, too, because they were on the road, and I was working as a tour guide at the dolphin habitat. My friend was like, “Yo, ‘ComicView’ is here.” I literally had to beg my manager to let me off. I’m a tour guide in Vegas, so I’m all sweaty. I drive home, grab my suit and a fake resume. I go all the way to this venue. It was called the Country Star. It was a nightclub, but “ComicView” was there.

I went all the way to the front of the line. I went up to the security guard, and I was like, “Hey man, I’m a local comic. A lot of people know who I am. Is there any way I could talk to the promoter? I’d like to see if I can do five minutes.” And the security guard goes and gets the promoter. I’ve never ever had a security guard do anything for me since.

Security guards are normally terrible people.

They’re horrible people. They ain’t leaving that stool in front of the door. This guy left. The gods were in my favor that day. He was like, “I’ll be right back,” and he went and got her. He brought her back. To this day, she’s still my friend — 30 years later. Her name’s Yvette Anderson. She walked up, and I handed over my fake resume. I was just like, “Hey, I’m a local comic. I’d love to just warm up the crowd. Can I go up first, please? Just let me warm them up.” She’s like, “Oh, the show already started. But you know what? Next time we come back to Vegas, I’ll keep this resume, and I’ll keep you in mind. But do you want to watch the show?” And I go, “Oh, my God, I’d love to.” And she let me into the show.

She sat me right next to the stage, and there was this big giant camera. This was before I knew what production was, so when I saw that big camera, I was like, “Oh, they’re shooting this for TV.” So, I’m just sitting by this camera. I kept looking at the camera, and then everyone was late on the show. Every single comic was late. So, now the crowd’s going crazy. They’re booing and like, “Start the show.” She walks up to me, and she’s like, “You want to go up?” I was like, “Can you record it with that camera?” She goes, “I’ll give you five minutes.” She set up the camera. She brought me up on stage. Once again, no one introduced me. I just walked on stage, did like five, 10 minutes, said goodnight, standing ovation. I know it sounds like I’m making it up, but I got it on video by the way. I got a standing O.

This is a real news site, so we’ll verify everything. We’re going to do a deep dive.

Oh, dig deep, dig deep. I’ll get you the footage. I walk off stage, and there was a comic named Bo P. He was a huge comic back in the day on “ComicView.” He looked at me, and he was like, “Yo, you haven’t been on ‘ComicView’?” I go, “No.” And he goes, “We putting you on ‘ComicView.'” And literally two weeks later, I was on “ComicView” with Gary Owen. That’s how me and Gary Owen became friends. But literally I was working at a dolphin habitat just two weeks before that.

That was the beginning. Now, you’re right there with your idols — Whoopi Goldberg, Chris Rock, Eddie Murphy — selling out theaters. 

Arenas, baby.

Arenas. What does success mean to you at this point? 

“I just want to be able to open the door more.”

Success, to me, is living my dream. My boy, Chase, a fellow comic of mine, always said, “Everything else is a bonus. Comedy is the DVD, and everything else is the bonus features.” That’s literally all this is — everything else that’s happening right now is just bonus features. It’s like the extras that I had no idea that came with the DVD. Right now, I’m living my DVD. I just wanted to be a stand-up comic since the day I saw “Delirious,” and now I’m living it.

Those on-stage outfits came a long way since “Delirious.”

Yeah, man, a long way. Thank God I’m not wearing three shades of red.

Yeah. They would be like, “This guy’s a high-ranking Blood.”

When I saw an interview with Eddie Murphy, and he said that he had three different shades of red, I never even noticed. Then when I watched the interview, I was like, “Oh my God, that is three shades of red.” ‘Cause he bought all three of them mismatched. It was so funny.

I loved your film “Easter Sunday.” It’s about a dysfunctional Filipino family. You play Jo, a struggling actor. Can you take us to the story behind that role?

This is a cool story, too. We literally get a call from Amblin, which is Steven Spielberg‘s company, and they call us in for a general meeting. You go in, you tell them about you and they tell us about them. And then you shake hands and laugh, and then you leave and then nothing happens. That’s what goes on in Hollywood.

That’s how we’re mentally prepared for this meeting. We walk in, and the minute we walk in, the front desk lady is like, “Oh, Steven can’t stop talking about you. Steven loves you.” And I’m like, “Oh, OK. Tell Steven I said hi.” Then the next person comes and gets us and is like, “Yo, Steven loves you.” And I’m like OK. Now me and my manager are looking at each other like “what?”

Then we go to the meeting, and immediately, the execs are like, “Steven can’t stop talking about you.” And I’m like, “Yo, are we talking about the same Steven? Is this Steven from accounting? There’s no way in hell it’s Steven Spielberg.” And they’re like, “No, it’s Steven Spielberg, and he loves your work. And he loves your stories, and he wants to know if you have an idea of a movie.” I pitched that movie “Easter Sunday” because it was something I’ve always thought about. I pitched that movie in the room, and they bought it right there in the room. Literally, it’s like a fairytale story. It went from him watching my Netflix special, making a phone call, meeting. Next thing you know, about six months or eight months later, we’re in Vancouver shooting a movie.

Everything worked out for Jo in the movie, as well. 

“It doesn’t need to be the United Center. I can be at the Laugh Factory on Sunset on a Wednesday night with 15 people. I’m extremely happy because this is my passion.”

I love that movie, man. I love it. It’s a passion project. It was a love letter to my family and my mom. You’re talking about immigrants that moved to this country years ago, and they worked their asses off and they’re nurses. They worked in these hospitals for the past 50 years here in America. They work 14-hour shifts, and they go home, turn on the TV and watch a TV show about a hospital. And not one Filipino nurse is represented. That’s how they’ve lived their life here in America for the past 50 years. To them, how do they feel? They feel invisible. They feel like they’re just visitors, and that’s what that movie’s all about. It’s for them to feel like, “Yeah, we’re here, and you see us. And this is ours.”

There’s not much Filipino representation in Hollywood — and definitely not in comedy. You’re the guy. Do you ever feel pressure that you have to represent your whole community?

I want to tell my story personally, so if I’m talking about Filipinos, it’s about my mom. I’m in love with the storytellers. That’s why I loved Eddie Murphy so much. That’s why I related to Eddie so much when he talked about Aunt Bunny and Uncle Gus. I’m thinking about my Uncle Ray and my Auntie Lynn. I was identifying with them. Though I didn’t have any inspiration on TV for me to look up to, I would gravitate toward Black comedy. Because I always felt like when they talked about their families, it was closer to my family and that’s why I gravitated to it so much. That’s why I love storytellers so much, and that’s why I tell my story. It’s like, as long as I can tell my story about my culture and my family to let people know about my culture, then that makes me feel good. Because then I see other Filipinos gravitating toward it, and go, “Yeah, my mom’s just like your mom.” But what I love the most is getting white people, and Black people, and Latinos, and other Asians that go, “My mom does the same s**t.” And then, that makes me even happier.

I just want to be able to open the door more. After I got my first special, I wanted to go to the Philippines so bad, and shoot my third special there, which was called “In His Elements.” I just wanted to showcase nothing but Filipinos, and have a cameraman that was Filipino, and just the audience is full of Filipinos, and show the world that, “Hey, you come to the Philippines, they speak English, and they understand this type of humor, and they understand this type of entertainment. It’s not so foreign.” It was kind of my way of giving back to the Filipino community. And that’s all that was. I just want to continue that without shoving it down your throat.

I don’t know if you ever make it to Baltimore, but it’s a big Filipino community here. All of our teachers — when I was just a kid coming up — all of the math teachers were from the Philippines.

Oh, that’s so dope. What I love the most though is I’m doing arenas now and it’s insane. During the playoffs in San Francisco, the Golden State Warriors are playing on Thursday. I’m playing on Friday. They’re playing on Saturday. I’m playing on Sunday, and it’s all sold out. And it’s not all Filipinos there. It’s every color. I’ll be in DC this Friday or this Saturday. And it’s 12,000 people. And that’s not 12,000 Filipinos. At the most, we’re going to get about 2,000 Filipinos in there. It’s 10,000 other people in there. Every demo is in there, and that’s the beauty of what’s happening right now. Funny is funny. It doesn’t matter what ethnicity you are. It doesn’t matter what you are. As long as you’re funny and it’s relatable, it’s blind. It doesn’t matter.

I feel like comedy used to be segregated like church. But now — and you’re right — it’s starting to mix. Do you think it’s the specials? Do you think it’s social media?

I think that’s exactly what it is. I’m glad that these platforms like Netflix have shown us that we can’t fall on that old excuse anymore. Back in the day when you used to live in Hollywood, they used to fall on this excuse all the time. “I don’t think Middle America will get it.” Well who the f**k lives in Middle America? What color are you talking about? Without telling us, what are you telling us? “They’re not going to get it in Middle America, and those are the ones that watch this a lot.” It was just some racist s**t.

With the platforms like Netflix and Amazon that go across the world, now you can’t fall on that excuse of, “Middle America won’t get it.” Because now, they’re showing you that the world gets it. I’m sold out in Sydney, Australia. There’s a reason why I’m sold out at Madison Square Garden. There’s a reason why I sold out Manila, and I’m sold out in Singapore, ’cause they f**king get it.

We just named your next special. It’s “F**k Middle America.”

But I’ll shoot it in Ohio.

How does your mom feel about playing such a big role in your comedy?

The attention is beautiful. She’s huge. People love her, and rightfully so. So, I’m glad. And f**k, man, it’s just a beautiful thing to be recognized. I can only sympathize for all those immigrants that come here. And I’m not just talking about Filipinos. I’m talking about every immigrant from Latinos, to Asians, to Africans. When they turn on the TV, they’re like, “Well, where am I? Because I live here. I work at the post office, but when I see a TV show about a post office, they ain’t got a guy from Africa.” 

“It was kind of my way of giving back to the Filipino community. I want to continue that without shoving it down your throat.”

It’s always the same cosmetic makeup on all these shows. I don’t get it. We’re starting to get more shows that have more colors on the palette. But when I was growing up, it was like The Cosby’s or “Growing Pains.” And it was just like, okay, well is it the white family tonight or the black family tonight? 

And we could be real, and we should be looking for that to be real. Because, in all fairness, I’m waiting for some shoes right now. A Nigerian FedEx guy fucked my package up.

There we go.

That’s some comedy.

Get his a*s on the show and let’s destroy his a*s on a sitcom.

You mentioned your son. I have a three-year-old daughter. I’m trying to raise her with some of the influences of my upbringing, but not all of them. Do you go through that, those identity questions, when you’re trying to make sure you’re pointing your son in the right direction?

Yeah, but it’s hard. I never thought I was going to fall in the old dad section. And damn it, I fell in the old dad section. It’s hard. ‘Cause now, unfortunately, the technology’s moving so fast, and [my son] grew up with it. So, he speaks that language. I don’t speak it. Still, I have to go to my son to help me download apps. It’s kind of like when my dad was like, “I ain’t buying bottled water.” That’s a real thing. I remember my dad saying, “I will never buy bottled water.” It’s like we all have to adjust with the times and that’s how it is.

One of the things I respect about you a lot is your ability to forgive. You’ve been vocal about being friends with ex-lovers and not having toxic relationships. 

Yeah, don’t get me wrong here though. I’m not friends with my exes. But when I break up with them, it’s just a cool breakup. I ain’t mad at you. Let’s move on. I’m going to definitely move on. I’m good. So, it’s easy for me to break up. It’s just like, “Okay, we can’t be a couple. That’s fine.” I don’t need to sit here, and be like, “I hate you so much.” That’s wasted energy. 

Now my son’s mommy. I love my son’s mommy. She gave me my son. Literally, I bought her a house right here. She lives right here next to this house that’s being built. So, there’s a house in front of that, and that’s where my son’s mommy liv

“The baby’s mama, that one you talk to for the rest of your life.”

es, and I love it. I f****n’ love it. And if you get a divorce or whatever it is, maintain that beautiful relationship with the baby’s mama. You’re going to be together for the rest of your lives. You’re connected through a child, man. And what good is it when you guys fight all the time? That’s dumb. The only person that suffers is the kid. 

I’m speaking on behalf of my mom and dad going through a divorce, and not talking for years. It affected my relationship with my father, and I don’t want that to ever happen with my son. So, I always remember how I felt when my dad wasn’t present. So, it takes a lot of work, but s**t man, that’s my best friend. She’s right there.

So, don’t tell my wife that Jo Koy told me to go reach out to my last six exes?

No, no, don’t do that. Just the baby’s mama. The baby’s mama, that one you talk to for the rest of your life.

Are you filming another special while you on the road right now?

This power that I got right now, oof, oof, it’s good. This one feels really good. No, it doesn’t feel really good, it’s good. I love what I’m saying. I love the message that I’m saying, and it’s me in a comfortable place now. 

I have a beautiful relationship with Netflix. I love everyone over there, but it was work. It was a lot of work. But the first special, “Live From Seattle,” they said no to it. I literally had to go, and shoot it myself, and pay it with my money, and edit it myself, and then hand it to them after they already said no to me. Not only was it like that, but I put the cameras in the theater to shoot it. Two days before we shot it, Netflix calls my manager, and goes, “Hey, we found out Jo’s shooting that special. We really want you to know we don’t want it.” It was that kind of pressure. It was that kind of pressure. All my money in, all of it. And the only place I want to sell it is to Netflix, and they reconfirmed, “We don’t want it.” And so, we still shot it, and they ended up buying it.

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