Comedian Jo Koy, born Joseph Glenn Herbert in southern Washington State, was not in contention for the “Most Likely To Succeed” honorific in his high school yearbook.
“I was a terrible student,” he told The Cedar Rapids Gazette. “My mother wanted me to go to college and I did — and that was a disaster. She was worried about me.”
At 15, he’d borrowed his mother’s credit card and even imitated her on the phone to buy tickets to Eddie Murphy’s Raw tour.
But when he told his mom he wanted to be a comedian, she didn’t get it. Maybe she was still mad about the credit card thing.
“She wanted me to have security and benefits,” he said. “She would have been happier if I was a bank teller. But I couldn’t work a job like that and be happy.”
These days, Koy is a comedian and seems happy.
He will perform October 24 at the Embassy Theatre.
Not a Promising Start
Koy’s comedic beginnings weren’t promising.
His family moved to Las Vegas in his teen years, and he entered a talent contest there when he was still in high school.
“It went horribly,” he told Variety magazine. “My mouth went chalky. I forgot everything I wanted to say.”
A heckler got more laughs than he did.
“It was bad joke-writing, it was bad timing, bad everything,” Koy told the Florida Times-Union. “I didn’t deliver right. It’s scary up there. Just to talk in front of people is scary. And now you gotta learn how to be funny, and now you gotta learn how to make people laugh at what you think is funny. That’s not easy.”
After the debacle, Koy sat at the bar next to a Lionel Richie impersonator who had gone on before him.
“(He said), ‘You know, you look good up onstage. Just work on your jokes,’” Koy recalled. “If he hadn’t said that, I probably would have quit. He was like an angel, placed there right when I needed him.”
Koy took odd jobs in Vegas, performed at open mics, and gradually got better. His mother provided archetypal motherly encouragement when she said things like, “You’re getting older, Joseph. How long are you going to be a clown? How long?”
Paying His Dues
Eventually Koy moved to Los Angeles and kept paying his comedic dues.
He changed his stage name because Herbert was too tempting a target for hecklers and fellow comedians.
Jo Koy essentially means “Jo, let’s eat” in Filipino.
“My aunt called me Jo Koy.” Koy said. “But the way she says it, it’s like ‘Jo-KOY.’ She’s got the accent. She merges the two words together. It doesn’t sound like Jo Koy. When I was trying to find a name to go up on, I was at my cousin Mona’s house, and of course her mom was cooking for us, and she goes, ‘Jo-KOY, let’s eat.’ And literally a bell went off. I thought, ‘That’s my name: Jo Koy.’ And I looked at Mona, because me and Mona for weeks were trying to figure out a name for me to go onstage with. And then we kind of looked at each other with our mouths open, and were like, ‘Jo Koy! Your name is Jo Koy!’”
He shot two Comedy Central specials and waited for offers to roll in.
They did not.
So he decided to fund and film a comedy special designed to interest Netflix.
“I wasn’t going to get this special, no one’s going to give it to me,” Koy told NBC News. “So I had to go get this money and get it myself.”
Koy said he put everything he had into that special.
“I worked every hat,” he said. “It felt so good and so rewarding to be able to submit that piece of work to Netflix because it was my heart, my soul, my blood.”
Netflix bought the special and asked for two more.
“If I didn’t shoot that special, I’d still be waiting right now for Netflix to greenlight a special for me,” Koy told NJ.com. “I couldn’t do that. If you believe in yourself, you gotta invest. Maybe that’s what people can take away from this. When the big wigs say ‘no,’ you think they should know or you can say, ‘Let me do it myself and show them.’”
Lately, He’s with Chelsea
Koy gained additional exposure as a frequent panelist on Chelsea Handler’s show, Chelsea Lately. The two recently began dating.
“I can’t say enough about Chelsea and what she did for so many comedians,” he said. “I wouldn’t be where I am if it weren’t for Chelsea. Those appearances on her show opened doors for me and for many other comedians. What people may not know is that Chelsea is one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet.”
Koy said Asian American entertainers can’t wait around to be discovered by the powers-that-be. They need to create their own opportunities.
“Let’s make our own movies,” he said. “Let’s show them why they should’ve chosen us. I’m not trying to make it sound like I’m starting a movement. But if on paper it doesn’t look right …. we gotta show them why it is right.”