Jo Koy played his first stand-up sets at talent shows his mother would put together in the halls of Knights of Columbus, to create a sense of community among Filipino Americans in his hometown of Tacoma, Wash. “My mother went to churches and looked for brown people who looked like her,” he recalled.
One of Koy’s first big breakthroughs came when he was asked to open during a Def Comedy Jam tour stop in 1996. He could do five minutes of material, one of the show’s creators told him, but he had to do it before the curtains opened. opened and the lights dimmed – essentially, before the show started. “They said, ‘Don’t say ‘Welcome to Def Jam’, don’t say ‘Enjoy Def Jam’,” he recalls. “Basically, if I was bad, they didn’t want me involved in Def Jam.”
Over the years, the comic has gone from appearing in “Star Search” knock-offs in Las Vegas (“It was called “Starmania,” he said, “and I bombed so bad”) to headlined some of the the country’s most legendary locations and sports arenas. “I’m finally playing Madison Square Garden,” he said. “During the NBA playoffs, I did two Chase Centers. The Golden State Warriors would play one night, me the other.”
This month, Koy stars in “Easter Sunday” as Joe Valencia, a Filipino-American comedian who’s on the cusp of getting his own sitcom — as long as he goes along with the director’s demands to do a “half-Filipino accent,” you know, because it would be funnier that way. (“You’re half Filipino, aren’t you?” she says.)
One recent afternoon, over lunch at London’s West Hollywood hotel, Koy, 51, talked about funny growing up (“When you look at my yearbooks, it’s always class clown, class clown, class clown”), his comedic inspirations and his recent split. from Chelsea Handler (“We’ll always be friends”). These are edited excerpts from our conversation.
Why did you want to become a cartoonist?
I fell in love with standup so young. Eddie Murphy, Richard Pryor, Whoopi Goldberg, Robin Williams. I knew I wanted to be a stand-up comic when I was 10. When? [Murphy’s] “Delirious” came out on HBO, my sister’s boyfriend took it for me and taped me because we didn’t have HBO. I’ve watched that thing a million times.
What was your life like growing up?
I’m half white, half Filipino, so I was already dealing with racism in my own family. There were relatives on my father’s side who looked at us funny and made us small. And then see my mom deal with the racism she had to go through, see a little kid on the escalator turn his eyes back on my mom, and my mom just has to be thick-skinned and deal with it. And I witness that, just go, what the [expletive]? I was about 11.
You mentioned Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy. What did you like about their work?
I like storytellers. I immediately fell in love with the art of storytelling. And I embraced black comedy. Oh, you’re poor? Goods arm! I get it. Oh, is your mother like that? Mine so is mom! She disciplines me the same way. I don’t know what a timeout is. My mom would yell at me out loud in public!
When I started doing standup, I was open to black comics. I became part of something called the Black College Comedy Tour. So it was legitimately called: Black College Comedy Tour. I opened for Cedric the Entertainer, Mike Epps. I also did BET’s “ComicView,” Def Jam, “Showtime at the Apollo.” l won”Showtime at the Apollo.”
I always laugh when I see a video of someone walking down the street and falling into a hole. What do you always find funny?
I watch all those things too, man. I don’t like people getting hurt physically…
I hear a “but” coming.
There is a “but”. When you’re that stupid and you know you’re going to get hurt, I have to laugh. They’re doing this tortilla challenge now. When I see these people being hit so hard with the tortilla, I can’t stop laughing.
You joke that all Filipinos are nurses.
Yo, we’re not all nurses. But we’re all nurses, you know what I mean? I can’t even go to a hospital anymore. As soon as I go, I’ll take a million pictures. But when will you ever see a Filipino nurse on the big screen? My son was born in Cedars-Sinai. Every executive in Hollywood goes to Cedars-Sinai. But still you make a TV show or a movie, you don’t put one Filipino nurse in it?
You recently broke up with Chelsea Handler. Are you still friends?
We will always remain friends. We are better friends than we are as a couple. But her future is bright. What she’s going to do is amazing.
Is there a secret to amicable divorces?
Oh yeah. My ex-wife is my best friend. I just bought a house and she lives next door to me. She’s got all the keys to my cars, she’s got the keys to my house. I don’t understand at all: “We are divorced, I will hate this person for the rest of my life.” If you keep hating the other person, the only one who suffers is the child. And that’s the [expletive] I went on growing up.
How did “Easter Sunday” come about?
When I saw ‘Friday’ I couldn’t get enough. It touched me because I felt that was my family too. I understood the humor, I saw the references. It looked like my house, you know what I mean? I saw the struggle they have with my mother and my family.
So when I thought about a movie, I thought, how can I do the same, where I can talk about my culture, shed light on my ethnicity, but still tell a family story and show all the crazy characters that every family has? And I was like Easter Sunday. That’s the day when every person in my family comes and gathers, a fight breaks out, there’s crying. I wanted to be able to tell that story in one day, and that’s the one day that stands out in my family.
In the movie, your character is pressured to do a “half-Filipino” accent, whatever that is. Accents have been a part of your act for a while, especially your mom’s. How do you react when non-Filipinos send Filipino accents back to you?
I love it. I love it when I hear “Josep” [the way his mother pronounces his name] being yelled at at a baseball game. Because I’m doing exactly what they said wouldn’t work. They said it was too specific, the public wouldn’t understand. But my mother is just like your mother. She has an accent, but she’s still a mom. So every time I see someone who is not Filipino yelling ‘Josep’ from across the terminal or from a car, I love it. Keep doing it.
There are many shout-outs to the Filipino culture in your movie. Manny Pacquiao. hello hello. Were there any other things you had to have in the movie?
Yes, the balikbayan box. It was so important to me. As broke as my mother was, twice a year she filled a balikbayan box and sent it to her family at home. And she would fill that box with things I wish I could have had! I remember my mom putting a pack of 12 Nestle Crunch bars in the box and I would cry, seriously? We don’t even have Nestle Crunch! And she said, yes, but you live here. They have nothing. And you cry over chocolate? Do you want the chocolate? Take the chocolate. Take this!
I’m guessing you didn’t take it.
[Laughing] No, I wouldn’t! I would leave it in the box.