Koy’s comedy bigger than his ethnicity
BY JOHN BERGER / email@example.com
Comedian Jo Koy can’t believe his good fortune.
“I’ve been blessed,” Koy said Jan. 27, calling from Southern California. “My work is bringing me to Hawaii. How cool is that? To go where people want to vacation, and I get to call it work. And I get paid! It’s crazy.”
Koy is in Honolulu for three shows this weekend at The Republik — two back-to-back shows Saturday night and a third on Sunday. He’s been a regular visitor to Hawaii for almost a decade, playing sold-out shows at the Wave Waikiki, Pipeline Cafe and, last year, at The Republik.
Successful comedians talk about things they know and things that interest them. For Koy, that includes his Filipina-American mother and his experiences as a part-time single father, but he can also entertain audiences with his insights on dating, relationships, sex and other aspects of American life that transcend ethnicity.
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“I like to make it relatable, whatever the topic may be,” Koy said. “I always want to be able to say it in a way that at the end of the show, people come up to me and say, ‘Yeah, I’ve been there. I know what you’re talking about.’ Those are the jokes that I like.”
FROM the time he started doing stand-up comedy 22 years ago, Koy has worked hard, he said, to be known “as a comedian and not as an ‘Asian comic.’”
Born Joseph Glenn Herbert — his father is Caucasian-American, and Jo Koy is a childhood nickname — Koy embraces both sides of his ancestry while adding that he can “pretty much morph into any ethnicity that you need.”
“My name is as white as it gets: Herbert. It’s even pronounced that way,” he said. “I love it when people see my name and try to French it up — ‘Erbay.’ No, this is Herbert, but for my whole life — especially when I had hair — people really didn’t know what the heck I was. No matter where I went, whatever job I went into: ‘What are you?’ ‘What color are you?’”
It would have been easy to build an entire act around his mother and being half Filipino, but Koy decided to start off mainstream and work for as broad a range of people as possible.
“I knew I was funny,” he said. “I knew I could make anybody laugh, (and) I really worked my butt off to really just be accepted as a comic. I can’t even tell you how many ‘Asian shows’ or ‘ethnic shows’ or ‘Filipino showcases’ I turned down for the fact that I just didn’t want to be labeled.
“I would take a gig for less money or no money just so I could talk to an audience that wasn’t Asian. This was like 10 years ago, 12 years ago. I would take an opening gig for a Latino act or a black comedian over me headlining as an Asian act. I knew if I went the Asian (comic) route, I would be singled out as just a Filipino act or an Asian act.”
Koy wanted to do it all. And he did.
“There was two years I was on the ‘Black Comedy Tour,’” he said. “I opened for Mike Epps maybe 10 times — and for Snoop Dogg. I did that because I knew I had to hit (all) those audiences. I had to make black people laugh, I had to make white people laugh, I had to make Latinos laugh, and the only way to do that is to write the jokes in a way that they can get it.”
Take all those jokes about his mother:
“You’re gonna know she’s Filipina because of her accent, but she’s still a mom. That was always my goal.”
HAWAII first saw Koy in 2001, when he opened for a now-infamous concert with Snoop Dogg and Ludacris at Blaisdell Arena.
After entertaining the crowd with his prepared show, Koy ended up having to return again and again — and again — to tell the increasingly restive crowd that the headliners had not arrived yet. He won them over with improvised material each time.
Ludacris eventually went on, three hours after the show had been scheduled to start. There was another hour or so of dead air after Ludacris’ show before Snoop Dogg deigned to perform.
Koy made a great impression, but the evening was a comic’s worst nightmare. He doesn’t believe in keeping an audience waiting. Period!
“Your job (as an entertainer) is to be on time,” Koy said. “There’s people who have jobs that require so much more than that, and all you have to do is show up on time! If you can’t do that, there’s something wrong with you.”
ASKED about the recent brouhaha at “Saturday Night Live” — advocacy groups complained that there were no black women in the cast, and consequently, a highly public search resulted in a black woman being hired — Koy said he sees the issue from several perspectives.
“It doesn’t even matter what color you are, there’s so many funny women out there, (so) we should see more women,” he said. “There were probably a lot of black female comedians wondering, ‘Why aren’t we on this show?’ and there’s nothing wrong with that.
“I can count on one hand how many black women have been on that show, but now that you brought it up, how many funny Asian women have been on that show? Zero. So we can look at it that way, too.”
“I wish there was more diversity on TV,” he said. “I’m only half Asian, but I always celebrate when I see a fellow Asian on TV.
“Still, what it all boils down to is make sure you’re funny. I don’t want them to just put somebody on there for their race; I want them to be on there because they’re extremely funny.”
IT’S NO joke, Koy adds, that his experiences growing up — his parents’ marriage ended when he was 9, his father moved away — shaped his show and also influenced his relationship with his son.
“I want to talk about my dad (in the show), but he wasn’t there,” Koy said. “I have no experiences. I don’t want to say it like I hate my dad — my dad and I are really good friends, and I love him and he’s the best grandfather in the world — but I don’t have those stories. I don’t have any childhood stories — my dad was gone.”
When Koy’s marriage ended in divorce, he made a commitment to stay on good terms with his ex and to remain a reliable presence in his son’s life.
“If I can just get that word out there: Make it work, you guys,” Koy said.
“My son is already 10, and I would hate myself if I’d missed years one through 10.
“There’s not enough money in the world that I could make to miss those 10 years. You never get ‘em back. I will do whatever it takes to be a part of my son’s life, and I love it.”