UPDATE: Sullivan Arena announced Friday that the Jo Koy performance on Saturday will be postponed. Officials said the performance would rescheduled for a date to be announced soon.
At a time when Asian American entertainers without martial arts prowess were virtually nonexistent, stand-up comedian Jo Koy was an anomaly. After debuting in a Las Vegas coffee house in 1994, Koy built a dedicated following using a routine that is uncompromisingly based on his Filipino upbringing. Named Joseph Glenn Herbert, Koy regularly recounts how his stage name was bestowed to him by his family, all of whom have become a hallmark of his act. Koy often uses his childhood friends, son and, perhaps most famously, his mother as inspiration for his stories.
In the years since his debut, Koy’s fanbase has grown big enough to sell out arenas around the world. If you haven’t been able to secure a ticket to one of his shows, there’s a good chance you’ve seen him on TV, as Koy has maintained steady appearances over his 26-year career, including a regular spot on “Chelsea Lately,” and guest spots on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” “The Late Late Show with James Corden,” and “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” to name a few.”
Koy skyrocketed into household-name territory in 2018 when he was named Stand-Up Comedian of the Year at the prestigious Just For Laughs Festival. In 2019, he reached No. 1 on the Billboard Charts for his first Netflix comedy special, “Live from Seattle,” and released a second, “Comin’ in Hot.” 2020 shows no signs of slowing down for Koy, having recently announced a memoir and a semi-autobiographical feature film produced by Steven Spielberg’s production company, Amblin Partners.
Reached by phone from his home in Los Angeles, ahead of performances in Anchorage and Fairbanks this weekend, Koy goes into more detail about his comedy influences, what it was like building a career before the ubiquity of the internet and all the exciting new projects on the horizon.
ADN: Welcome back to Alaska! Is there anything in particular that keeps bringing you back up here?
Jo Koy: I mean, why not, man? It’s so much fun! You can tell that people really treasure entertainment there. Not just being a comic, but you can see the excitement and energy when I walk onto that stage. You can tell that people really love live entertainment. Who doesn’t want to go back to that? It’s fun to reach out to an audience that truly appreciates it. I love going back to Alaska, I really do. Plus, it’s beautiful.
ADN: Was it surprising to learn there’s such a big Filipino community in Alaska, and did that factor at all into your decision to come up here?
JK: I don’t look into cities for what their demographic holds. The Filipinos are going to be everywhere. But most importantly, funny is just funny. People are coming out just to hear the comedy. I’m blessed to have such a beautiful fan base. My Filipino fans are my favorite for obvious reasons, but the cool thing about what’s happening right now is people are listening to these stories that aren’t Filipino, and that’s very inspirational to me. When you get to play giant venues, you can’t rely on just one ethnicity to fill it, that’s going to be impossible for anybody. It’s cool to walk onstage and see my Filipino people laughing and sharing the culture with white people, black people, Latinos, everybody. Everybody is just laughing at the simple fact that it’s just fun.
ADN: Congratulations on your recently-announced movie deal!
JK: Thanks, man! The movie deal was very special because I’m a Steven Spielberg fanatic, and the fact that Steven himself is the one who called me into that meeting was truly magical. To sit there hearing that he enjoyed my work and he was a fan, words can’t even explain. To me, I won. That moment I’ll always treasure, knowing that Steven Spielberg watched my work and became a fan. I need to mention Dan Lin as well, my producer on that project. That guy is beautiful. He’s instrumental in getting this off the ground. And of course, his body of work is amazing. All the Lego movies, “It” one and two and “Aladdin.” Dan Lin is definitely one of the baddest guys in the
ADN: Do you adjust your comedy for each new platform, like the film and your podcast?
JK: Dude, that’s a great question. One, the podcast is purely improv. We go into it with no topic, and it’s literally just me challenging myself to try and make something topical or evergreen and just riff and run and see what we can up with. That’s just for me to work on my adlibbing skills, and that’s why I love my pod so much. Two, when it comes to film, there’s a lot of writing involved. Writing for the screen and still landing those jokes and still trying to stay true to myself, that’s fun.
ADN: How has your comedy changed through the years, particularly as you became more successful?
JK: I don’t think I’ve ever changed it. I just make sure that I sharpened it. I’ve got better at my approach, my delivery, but it’s always been the same. That’s my style. I love storytelling. I’ve never been the jokey-joke guy. But I do know how to write a joke, and I know how to structure a story and hit all the elements you need for a joke. I pride myself on that I can hit callbacks and I have a throughline and I love the fact that there’s a story. I love the characters that I come up with. I love embellishing on those stories and telling real-life stuff, yet still making it fun. That’s always been my thing. Through the years, it’s always been about just getting better and I enjoy challenging myself.
ADN: Do you have a specific writing process?
JK: No, I just know that once my hour drops, I got about a month to write a new hour. And when that hour drops, I try to knock out another hour to prepare for when I shoot that. So, I always try to stay ahead, so I’m constantly writing.
ADN: What is your favorite joke you ever told?
JK: Dammit, there’s so many, man! “Ting-Ting,” when I did my son talking about his ting-ting. I thought “Game Over” was really funny when my mom was playing the Wii. I love “Tupperware.” I love “Rice Cooker.” Oh! “Sleep Apnea,” where my mom recorded me with my sleep apnea machine. The reason why I love those so much is because they were just real things that I turned into jokes.
ADN: Do you have any jokes you wish you could make work, but couldn’t?
JK: You know, I do. It’s so funny because I forget them so fast. I literally give a joke two, at the most, maybe three times, and if it’s not rolling off my tongue correctly, it’s gone. I literally just stop doing it and I move forward. It sucks because there’s some jokes where I’m like, “God, I love this premise, I feel this is right.” But I just can’t get it. I can’t find the beats. I can’t find the close... [I love applause breaks. I don’t like finishing with just laughter. It’s got to have an applause break or it’s not worthy. I just don’t want to put that in my act.] I don’t want filler jokes. I don’t want something to fill time. The joke has to land on a hard punch and it’s got to be clappy and laughy, or else I don’t want it.
ADN: Can you talk about the first time you killed onstage?
JK: The most important one for me is when I got on this show called BET’s “ComicView,” and I literally wasn’t booked for that show. I walked up to the front door and handed a resume to the security guard. They said the show was booked, and a couple comics ended up being late and they threw me onstage last second and I nailed it. And I nailed it so hard they promised me a spot on TV and the next week I flew up to tape BET’s “ComicView” and that’s how I got it.
ADN: Can you talk about the worst time you bombed onstage?
JK: I had this guy come to see me to write about up-and-coming Asian American entertainers for Yolk magazine. He brought his editor and his writer, and they went to see me at Fat Tuesday at the Comedy Store. Gary Owen was the host and they threw up at the last second George Wilburn right before me and he crushed so hard and I had to follow him and I bombed. I bombed the whole set and I walked off stage and those three people were standing there, and they were like, “You know what, we’ll come back again to watch you.” And they never wrote about me.
ADN: You came up in a time when there really weren’t other Asian artists in the mainstream media. How has it felt to see Asian representation blow up in the years since you debuted?
JK: I love it. It’s crazy, because when I did it, it was during a time when there was no internet. I was handing out postcards at malls and booking theaters on my own. So, to finally see a bunch of comics coming up in the game now, I’m so proud to finally see there’s other ethnicities that are giving their people a voice and sharing their culture and hearing their accents. I love that. It’s cool to see everyone have representation now onstage. I enjoy seeing someone like Ronny Chieng and Jimmy O. Yang and all these cats going up and doing stand-up now. It’s a beautiful thing, man.
ADN: Do you think comedians starting today have it easier or harder?
JK: It’s easier because they have the tools now. You can make a flier on your phone and share it with a million people. It only costs $100 to send that flier out to a million people. Whereas when I was a kid, I had to make a million fliers and hand them out to a million people personally. That’s the hard aspect. So, it is easier because they do have the tools, but the thing is now that everything is so accessible, I find people aren’t using those tools. They’re making it hard on themselves for some reason. But you still got to have that drive. No matter how many tools you got, you still got to have that drive. How bad do you want it? And that’s the only way we’re going to see your work, is if we see that hustle in you.
ADN: What are your comedy influences?
JK: I loved watching Eddie Murphy. That was my favorite coming up. And the new guys that are coming up now, they’re a lot of fun to watch, seeing the young cats work. I still get off on going to open mics and finding the local talent. Every now and then, I’ll surprise an open mic and get them to come onstage with me at one of my shows. So, I’ve done that a couple times. That’s fun.
ADN: You tackle Asian stereotypes in your act so seamlessly. Is addressing those stereotypes particularly intentional or important to you?
JK: Those are all personal stories. My Vietnamese accent came from my next-door neighbor. His name was Luke, and he was so good at basketball. He would talk s*** all the time. People used to love it in high school when I talked about Luke. The Korean accent was my best friend William. His dad was hard core Korean, so I would impersonate him. That’s where I got those impersonations. But when I did them, I didn’t want to do them as if I’m offending you or making fun of you. I still want to give you a cool voice and still make you cool, you know what I mean? One thing I always wanted to do is not offend them, but make them feel proud. I’m not making fun of you, I’m appreciating you. When I’m doing my Filipino accent, I’m not making fun of Filipinos, I’m doing it to tell my mom’s story in my mom’s character. If you really want to know what my mom sounds like, this is what that sounds like and what that experience is.
ADN: What is the best advice you ever received?
JK: The best advice I ever received was don’t be scared of silence. Joe Torry told me that. Joe Torry took over for Martin Lawrence on “Def Comedy Jam,” and I did a show with him at the Comedy Store and I was so used to kill, kill, kill, kill, kill. And he goes, “Hey man, don’t be scared of silence. Because when you got silence, that means they’re listening to you. Sometimes silence is better than applause.” I didn’t really understand what that meant until later on in life. I’m like, “Oh, I get it now.” When you’re telling that story, you want them in that bus with you and you’re taking them to school. So, don’t be afraid of silence. They need to hear you. Silence means they’re listening, and that’s a good thing. There’s a difference between silence because you’re not funny and silence because they’re interested.
ADN: When did you first feel successful?
JK: It was the Tampa Improv in Florida, and I just felt something. I remember telling the manager there to not do two-for-ones or anything like that for my shows. Because the Improv was doing two-for-ones, giving free tickets out. I was like, “I’d appreciate it if you don’t do that with me.” I’d rather play to 40 people that paid than 350 people doing two-for-ones, you know what I mean? Because those aren’t real fans. I’d rather have 40 people that paid that want to see me, and when I come back next year, they’ll come back with friends and we’ll double that. We’ll just keep doubling every year. So, Tampa was the day I said that to this manager, and I went and did radio and he goes, “Are you sure you want to do this?” And I’m like, “Yeah man, full price.” And I went and did radio and that weekend was sold out. And I just looked at him and was like, “It’s on, bro.” Believe in yourself and invest in yourself.
ADN: If you could time travel to visit your past self or future self, which would you choose?
JK: Past self. The young me was so hungry. The young me knew at an early age what my future self was going to be. I just knew what was going to happen, man, I knew from the beginning. The day that I saw “Eddie Murphy Delirious,” I knew that’s my life. I just fell in love with stand-up comedy so hard, I can’t even explain to you how hard I fell into comedy. But it was literally my life, man. And it started at 11 years old and it’s never stopped. So, I’d go back to remember what that was like and just enjoy it. The moment I saw “Delirious” and just how I literally would sit with my legs crossed in front of the TV in awe.
ADN: What’s the interview question you’re most tired of being asked?
JK: I don’t like radio personalities that go, “Hey, can you do that one joke?” No, man, that’s the f***ing worst question you could ask a stand-up comic, to do a joke that needs an audience live on the radio. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t get mad on the radio. I just know that person is not good at what they do, so I’ll just take over the radio station for them and move forward. When you say, “Hey, can you do a joke?” That’s basically going, “Hey, I don’t know how to pull funny out of the air, so let me rely on you to tell a joke.”
ADN: Has your Filipino family finally warmed up to your career as a comedian?
JK: Yes, for sure. Look what’s happing. I get to take care of the family and it’s fun to be able to share this. God’s blessed me and one thing I’m not going to do is take this to heaven with me. So, I’m going to share this with the beautiful family that I have. I win, we all win.
ADN: What’s one topic you wish you the opportunity to talk about more?
JK: I have a really beautiful stepdad and I wrote a beautiful joke for him, but I got to figure out a way to do it to where I don’t have to be in a specific area to talk about it. I find myself only being able to do that joke in Los Angeles for some reason. I’ll figure it out. It’s a beautiful story. He’s a beautiful man. I love the guy so much. He’s the reason I do the joke, “Rice is Rice.” That’s his line, he gave me that.
ADN: What makes you laugh?
JK: Comedy. I love stand-up, and it’s got to be funny stand-up. I love watching stand-up comedy. It’s always been my passion, and that’s about it. I love to be in comedy clubs. I love to do all that s***. If I find out there’s an empty bar somewhere in the state, I will be up in that bar doing jokes.
8 p.m. Saturday, March 14, at the Sullivan Arena in Anchorage
7:30 p.m. Sunday, March 15, at the Carlson Center in Fairbanks
Purchase tickets on ticketmaster.com