It’s taken Jo Koy a long time to get to where he is right now.
When we spoke to Koy a few weeks ago on the phone about his new memoir, Mixed Plate, he was in quarantine in a hotel room in Canada. The reason he was in Canada? There’s a new movie being made about his life titled Easter Sunday, that is being executive produced by Steven Spielberg. On top of that, before the pandemic, he had been selling out theaters all throughout the country and beyond, with multiple Netflix specials under his belt. It’s a far cry from a young Koy having to beg his mom to get HBO, so he could stay up late and watch specials that would only further his love of comedy and entertainment.
As he describes in the book’s introduction, Koy is opening up in ways he hasn’t before. For a guy that has dedicated so much stage time telling stories about his mom and his family, there remained a lot of areas that he hadn’t talked about publicly. Some of the more personal stories include having a brother with schizophrenia, his relationship with his father, trying to get his mom to embrace his dreams of being a comedian, and some of the hurdles he faced in his early days starting out as a Filipino trying to break into the business. This time, Koy is laying all his cards out on the table, and providing a deeper insight into who he really is.
We recently spoke with Koy about writing the book, teaming up with Steven Spielberg for a new movie, the work that goes into filming a stand-up special, selling shoes the day after he was on The Tonight Show, witnessing the infamous Jon Lovitz and Andy Dick fight, and the importance of having this book come out at this moment in time.
How are you?
I’m good. I’m in quarantine in Canada, so it’s a little rough. 14 days of lockdown. I can’t leave or anything. Living in the same room this whole time.
I think we all know how that is by this point. Well let’s jump right into it. So in your new book, you discuss how you open up like you never have before. Before you do that, is there any second guessing about what you feel comfortable sharing? Because you’ve always been very open onstage previously.
I found that with the book, I had the opportunity to really get into detail and not have to worry about punchlines. It’s one thing to be open and transparent onstage, telling my truths onstage. But I still had the responsibility of being funny as well. So there’s certain jokes that I do onstage that are very deep and personal, but I still find a way to make it funny.
For the book, I didn’t have to worry about that. I went for it, and I told some stories that have been on my mind for years. And I finally got to do it and put it in this book and get it out there. It was very therapeutic, to be honest, to tell my truth and finally get it out into the world and not have to keep it to myself anymore like some type of secret. Now it’s all out there and I feel really good about it.
And as you were writing it, was there anything that surprised you that you remembered?
Yeah. There was a lot of stuff that I talked about that, as I was going through it, I was like “Holy sh*t. How did I remember that?” To know such detail. It must have been PTSD, you know what I mean? (Laughs). Like “Man, this must have been traumatic in my life. And I had no idea. I’m talking about it in such detail.” There were certain stories where I was like “Wow. I can’t believe that I remember all of this.”
And you talk about not telling anyone in your family you wanted to be a comic until you were in your 20’s. Would you tell friends or anyone else that you had these aspirations as a kid?
I think the reason why I was so scared to tell people is because I was so scared to get up onstage and do it. So I thought maybe the less people that knew – which was basically no one , the better for me. Because I wouldn’t get any outside pressure. It’s not really the career choice you want to choose when your mom’s Filipino. Actually that’s a bad decision. So I didn’t tell anyone in the family. So yeah I just kept that to myself, man. It was hard. It was a hard pill to swallow because I wasn’t getting any encouragement on the outside.
Before you wound up doing your first gig in Vegas, had you seen any comedy live?
Oh yeah. I saw so much comedy. In Vegas, I saw Richard Jeni Live. I saw George Carlin Live. I saw, god, Bobby Slayton, Drew Carey, Chris Rock, Bill Bellamy, DL Hugley. Oh my god. I saw so much comedy in Vegas. In Seattle I saw Eddie Murphy Live.
What was that like?
Oh it was crazy. I was 15. I bought the tickets off ticketmaster. Back in the day when you had to call it in on the phones. No computers. Then you had to go pick your tickets up at some weird spot in the mall. Like they didn’t have their own business back then. So they were leasing out little areas and handing out the tickets. But yeah, that was the original Ticketmaster. And I remember buying those tickets over the phone, with my mom’s credit card and using her voice to get the tickets. That’s a big ticket. It was Eddie Murphy. You’re buying something on the telephone with a credit card, yeah I had to do my mom’s voice. It said Josephine on the credit card. So I had to use my mom’s voice to buy those tickets.
(Laughs). I love that. I remember the old TicketMaster location days as well. One thing that struck me as interesting in the book is when you’re talking about how you had to beg your mom to get HBO so you could watch all the stand-up specials and all the hot movies at the time. So I can only imagine how surreal it must be to go from not even having HBO at a certain point in your life where you can watch this stuff to now you’re making a movie with Steven Spielberg producing, Easter Sunday, that is about your childhood.
I love it, man. It’s so cool, man. It’s so surreal. One, he’s my favorite director, and I’m not saying that because he gave me this deal. I think he’s everyone’s favorite director, to be honest. And then two, it’s a perfect example of saying funny is funny. I’ve been saying it my whole career. It doesn’t matter what ethnicity you are. As long as it’s funny, it’s funny. And it’s relatable. My mom does the same sh*t that your mom does. Mine just so happens to be Filipino.
And I never understood that. I never understood why we had to be like “Oh, I don’t get it because my mom’s not a Filipino.” Yeah, you do. Moms are moms. And this is a perfect example of that. Steven is like 100 percent on board. He gets it. My mom is probably just like his mom, and that’s probably why he got it. And now look. Here we are. We’re about to make a movie about it. And I can’t wait. This cast is huge. I’m pretty sure this is the first movie Steven’s ever done where the majority of the cast is Filipino. I’m gonna have to say about 75 percent of the cast is Filipino. That’s amazing. So here we go! Let’s open these doors and create opportunities.
Absolutely! And where’s it at? Is it still in pre-production?
No, no. We’re shooting, man. We’re in Vancouver right now. We start shooting May 3rd. I can’t wait for the world to see it. It’s just going to be a funny movie. 100 percent. It’s just going to be funny.
That’s exciting. I can’t wait to see it. And let’s jump around a bit now. You talk about how you wound up finding an all new audience once you got on Netflix. And I love how you break down just how much time and money goes into filming your special before Netflix picked it up and after they originally passed on it. And I think that’s something that the average person wouldn’t think about. It kind of gives a glimpse behind the curtain.
Thank you, man. Yeah. It’s a lot of hard work. And not only that, it was a year and a half in the making. It was a big part of my life and it was a huge investment with no payoff. It was up in the air, because Netflix said “No”. So just imagine that pressure. Putting all of your money on the line, investing a year of your life, and not knowing whether or not they’re gonna buy it or not. It really sucked. So when that deal finally came through, it was very emotional. It was like “It’s here. It finally happened.”
And I’m sure that may make it a little sweeter, when you look back on it and know what you put into it. As opposed to if they gave you the money to make it up front.
Yes. Exactly. And it’s so funny. I’m glad they said no. I always talk about how I can’t believe they said no, but I’m kind of glad they did because it made me work harder. It made me appreciate it. It made me wear all the hats and figure it out. It also is a learning experience. Don’t take no for an answer. Just because they said no doesn’t mean you can’t convince them to say yes. You’ve just gotta take extra steps.
Let’s go way back for this one. I’ve got to ask you about killing on The Tonight Show for the first time, and then the very next day, going back to sell shoes.
(Laughs). Yes I was. What a grim reality that was. I didn’t know how famous that show was until the day after.
Were people coming up to you at work?
Yeah, nonstop. People were coming up to me and complimenting me and then asking me for a size 8. It was huge. It was humiliating and humbling at the same time.
I can only imagine! And another thing that stopped me in the tracks is that you were there for the Jon Lovitz and Andy Dick fight that was highly publicized at the time once things got physical. I actually remember as a teenager reading about it at the time it happened.
Yeah. There were two fights between them, and I only talked about the one, I think. But yeah, I was there.
What’s going on in your mind as you see that happening? Because I imagine that must be pretty surreal to witness.
Yeah, it was. It was so weird that I was seeing this unfold in front of my eyes like that. For one, I loved Andy Dick, and I didn’t know this side of him existed. So that was one thing. I don’t want to see that. I don’t want to see him in that situation. And then here I am with one of my idols. And he’s fighting. And you don’t want to see that, either. It was a double edged sword. It sucked.
And speaking of Lovitz, I actually saw him probably about 10 years ago. And I recall him doing a bit about you onstage. And this was before you broke out with the Netflix special.
(Laughs). I know. Isn’t that crazy? He would tell everybody that he was friends with me. And people in the audience were like “Who is he talking about?” It didn’t matter. He kept doing it. I love that guy, man. I was [working] at Nordstrom Rack when I met him, too. And he took me on the road. I opened for him for about a year and a half. And that’s how I met Chelsea Handler, through Jon Lovitz.
So it all comes full circle. And by the way, I definitely knew who you were by then, as I remembered seeing your first Comedy Central special, which I had no idea they only ran once.
Yeah, that made me sad that they only played it once. Then I tried putting it on YouTube, and they kept flagging it and taking it down. And I was just like “Wait a minute. I’m just trying to get people to see it.” I didn’t understand their process or business model. It’s like “What are you guys doing?” It didn’t make any sense. It did not make sense. And it hurt my career at the beginning.
And they don’t even do specials much, now. Although I will say both your Comedy Central specials are on Paramount+ now.
That’s awesome! That’s so cool.
Now last time we talked, you were promoting your Philippines special. And that was a pretty nice tribute to your culture, and it was sort of like a variety special. Would you be looking to do something like that again for the next special? Or was that a “one and done” kind of thing?
No. That was a passion project. It was just something that, when I was a kid, I struggled with my identity and not being able to have any representation on TV or anywhere. And I had the opportunity to provide that opportunity for every Filipino that was trying to make it in stand-up. So I gave them that platform. And then I went to the Philippines and I showcased talent that lives in the Philippines. It was just an opportunity to show the world a piece of my culture. And give my people something to be proud of on the world’s stage. If someone is at work wondering what a Filipino is, you could always say “Hey, go to Netflix. There’s this special that talks about it.”
And that’s what I wanted. Just that one moment of opportunity that I wanted to share with my Filipino people. And that’s what that special was all about.
I love that. And the last thing I want to bring up is the timing of the book coming out. Since your book – which really illustrates what it was like to grow up as a Filipino and having to constantly explain what a Filipino is – came out, we unfortunately have seen a well-publicized rise of hate crimes and tragedies in the Asian community. And so to have a book coming out now that pays tribute to your culture and what it means to be Filipino, maybe now is when people need to hear that story more than ever before.
It’s weird because we didn’t time it that way. It just happened to fall that way. It’s so weird that it landed during this time, but I’m glad it did. It’s good to hear some of these struggles and to understand the systemic racism that I was going through that I didn’t even know I was going through until all this stuff started happening publicly. And then reflecting back on my stories, I was like “Holy sh*t. I was apart of that.” I was apart of that type of racism, and I didn’t even know it. It was part of the norm.
And that’s how society looked at it. That it was okay to lump us into a group and to make it harder just because you’re speaking a different language or you’re talking about something that the majority doesn’t talk about. So yeah. I’m glad it’s out there and people are aware of it. And now we need to move forward from that. And it’s not fair. Unfortunately a lot of the cats like myself and others who were there at the beginning had to go through it. But now we get to move forward. And I hope these kids who are coming up now realize the kind of struggles that we had to go through in the beginning. And realize that it was a lot harder and we had to face a lot of obstacles and these opportunities were a lot harder for me. So I hope that’s appreciated.
How fast things change. Because I’m sure you notice a difference from the time you wrote the book a year ago to the sort of awareness there is now.
It’s way different. I can’t wait to see a difference 5 years from now. I’m already starting to see a difference. And I love it. It’s cool to understand that change is good. And I don’t know why it was the way it was for so long, but now we’re starting to realize that the people you walk around with and talk with and hang out with, they’re the same as you. Just because they’re Asian, it doesn’t mean that they’re different. So why, all of a sudden, when it comes to like auditioning for a role, all of a sudden it has to be a different kind of Asian. I don’t get that. I’ve never understood that. So now we’re at a time where that’s no longer a thing, I hope. And we’re moving forward from that type of mentality. And I never understood that.
Jo Koy: Mixed Plate is available in stores and wherever you get your books now.