Jo Koy is far from the norm when it comes to the comedy world.
Born Joseph Glenn Herbert, Koy has always had comedy in his blood. But he’s had a long climb to the top, since starting out in the entertainment industry at just 14. Now 47 years old, with a smash hit Netflix special to his name, he has sold out shows all over the world. So no one will blame him if he looks back and laughs.
Talking with Revue early one morning, Koy remembered the years he spent slinging shoes at Nordstrom Rack during his younger days as a fresh-faced comic.
“I remember when I did The Tonight Show (in 2005) and I didn’t know how broad its reach was,” he said. “This is back with Jay Leno, and I remember going to work (at Nordstrom Rack) the next day, and I swear to God, every other person saw me on The Tonight Show. And it was the same thing that they would say to me, they would be like, ‘Oh my god, you were so funny on The Tonight Show!’ And I’d be like, ‘Thank you so much!’ And then they’d be like, ‘Can I get this in a size 8?’ It was so crushing, man! Reality would just jump in so fast.”
Not letting the retail rat race slow him down, Koy did what any motivated comedian did in the pre-social media age. He went to Kinko’s.
“I started in ’89, and in order to get the word out, you had to go to Kinko’s and make flyers,” he said. “You had to make real, physical flyers and hand them out and put them on cars. So I have that in me. When I came up in Vegas, I always knew I had to do it myself.”
Sometimes even selling tickets door-to-door for shows he often produced himself, Koy steadily built a word of mouth following in his hometown of Las Vegas. From open mics and casino gigs, he moved on to touring the country, frequently getting booked as the “other” ethnicity at various colleges’ multicultural comedy shows.
Half-white and half-Filipino, Koy frequently jokes about the many stereotypes surrounding his ethnicity. His comedy blends carefully barbed observations with candid, scathing storytelling stemming from his childhood growing up with his Filipino mother, as well as his experiences now as a dad.
Despite razzing his mother’s parenting style onstage now, Koy still credits her with getting him to where he is today, and delights in how much she loves sharing in his spotlight.
“I always say, (my mom) indirectly made me famous, because she was always going to these Filipino community events,” Koy said. “Back then, you had to physically walk outside and find other Filipinos. We’d get together at the Knights of Columbus Hall and everyone would bring some sort of Filipino food and the kids would go up there and entertain everyone.
“So that’s when I got bit. That’s how I got the bug, man.”
With years of sold-out comedy clubs and steadily increasing numbers of TV appearances, including more than 100 appearances on the E! hit Chelsea Lately and two Comedy Central specials, Koy embraced the rising social media wave with his hit podcast The Koy Pond.
But it wasn’t enough for Koy, and when Netflix announced its massive comedy slate for 2017, he found his name absent from the list and decided to do something about it. Producing his third comedy special himself, he won over the streaming juggernaut with how funny it was.
“When we shot that, Netflix wasn’t even interested,” he said. “They weren’t like, ‘Go shoot it and cut it up and we’ll give it a look.’ All of these platforms were already saying no to me, so it was a full-on 100 percent risk. But that’s what you’ve got to do, man. You’ve got to take that risk. You’ve got to show people who you are and stand up for yourself.”
The risk paid off big time. Jo Koy: Live In Seattle premiered on Netflix in March 2017 and became his biggest hit to date. He’s sold out countless shows since, and even had a day named after him in Hawaii last year: Jo Koy Day, on Nov. 24.
This year, he’s returning to the island state where he’s overwhelmingly popular to film his next Netflix special on Jo Koy Day.
“It’s so surreal. I’ve always heard of people getting the key to the city and that was my day; that was my moment,” Koy said. “That taping for that special is not until November and (it) sold out in just a couple days. And not just that show, we added three more. So four arenas shows in November, with something like 26,000 tickets sold.”
Before breaking sales records in Hawaii, Koy’s Break The Mold tour will stop here in West Michigan at the Kalamazoo State Theatre, where he said fans can expect a preview of the new material that will make up his next Netflix performance.
Still hustling, Koy is also currently working on a long-awaited animated series for TruTV titled The Functional Family, which is based on his family life.
But it’s his shoes that keep him moving. Pun intended.
“Every time I go shoe shopping, it’s like I remember those days, and I just use that as motivation,” Koy said, remembering his time at Nordstrom Rack. “I’ve got to bust my ass or I could go back to selling shoes again.”
Break The Mold Tour
Kalamazoo State Theatre
404 S. Burdick St., Kalamazoo
Sept. 23, 5 p.m., $38-48, $113 VIP
kazoostate.com, (269) 345-6500