Q&A: Jo Koy
Joy Koy cut his comic teeth in Las Vegas, shaping his act in coffeehouses before graduating to clubs and becoming one of today’s most in-demand comedians. Although he added epicurean entrepreneur to his skill set once he invested in a Yojié Japanese Fondue Restaurant, he frequently flies from his LA base to bring tales of Filipino-American family life to stand-up stages across the country. He spoke to Las Vegas Magazine’s Matt Kelemen by phone while stopping to fill up on caffeine in his adopted hometown.
What kind of coffee did you get?
I always get the same thing. I got a vanilla iced Americano … something with a lot of caffeine. I’m addicted to caffeine.
From where? Where are you calling from?
I always go to Coffee Bean (& Tea Leaf). Have you ever been to Coffee Bean? They’ve got those in Vegas.
Yeah, they make iced coffee with crushed ice.
That’s my favorite.
I want to come back to coffeehouses, but you opened a Japanese Fondue on West Sahara in Vegas?
Yeah, man. Two years ago. Can you believe that? I can’t believe it’s doing as well as it did. A lot of people always, when they hear you’re trying to get into the restaurant business they’re like, “Alright, prepare to fail.” There’s never like words of encouragement, especially from my side of the family. They’re like, “Why are you doing that? It’s such a bad idea,” but I was just like, “One, it’s always been something I wanted to do, open my own restaurant. Two, life is about risks, man!” It’s not going to happen unless you put it all on the table, no pun intended. I want to try my hand at the restaurant game and see what I can do with it.” And it actually panned out. It’s actually doing very well.
I saw a recent photo of Bruno Mars visiting. Have you had any other …
Twice! He came twice! He also did a private party for his whole band. They all came and had a good time. Bought out the whole restaurant.
Are you friends with him? How did he hear about it?
I’m friends through a friend by the name of (Senior Vice President of Communications at Treasure Island) Michelle Knoll, who brought him to the restaurant. He became a fan and came back again. I thought that was really cool. He’s just a really cool dude, man. He’s positive and high energy. It was just really cool to have his presence at the restaurant. We shut the place down for him.
I can see you guys getting along. You have a similar temperament, and approach to life I imagine.
Yeah, he’s just really cool. You know he’s got the Filipino vibe in him too, you know? I think he’s half Filipino, so that was kind of cool.
I figure people have asked you why you opened a Japanese fondue restaurant instead of a Filipino one.
I was more interested in what my son loves to eat. One of his favorite things to eat is shabu shabu. Not only that, the opportunity presented itself to me, so I was kind of fortunate to not have to go looking for a type of cuisine that I’m wanting to invest in. This came to me with that opportunity. I was already a fan of that food, so I said, “Makes sense. Let’s do it.”
Who else has visited?
Michael Yo has stopped in. Adam Carolla has come in a couple of times. It’s been really cool how supportive everyone has been.
Have you done your Koy Pond podcast from there yet, or have you thought about doing that?
No, I should though. I should do that in March when I’m there to do my show. I think I’ll do that. I think I’ll do a live pod there, shut it down.
You have a track record of doing a lot of on-location social media. I’m surprised you haven’t done it yet.
I know. I want to do it right about that time. I don’t want to commit to it but closer to the date, that’s when I’ll make my mind up.
Your schedule is insane. I imagine that’s why you haven’t been able to proceed with that. Aside from playing multiple dates in cities you’re playing multiple shows on some of those nights.
Yeah, it’s non-stop, man. There’s that time in your life when you’re trying to chase a dream and you’re like, “God, I wish I could be doing stand-up.” And then when you get the opportunity to do stand up, you seize that opportunity. “I want to work as much as I can because I don’t want to wind up stacking shoes at Nordstrom Rack,” you know what I mean? I take every show, I take pride in every show and I try to do as much work as I can on the road because I’ve waited for this a long, long time.
You have a spontaneous approach to live stand-up. How do you create new material?
It’s so crazy, but I really don’t know how I do it. I honestly don’t. I know that I have the talent. I guess I’ve been blessed with the gift of ad-lib, and I really use it to my full advantage. I just go up there and wing it. It’s a 50/50 shot, and normally I win. For the most part I win, but I will tell you this: When I open up and start talking to the audience, it’s like (these thoughts are) hitting my head: “Alright man, here we go. Better pull it out because if it’s not funny it could be bad.” I really don’t know how I do it. It just comes to me. The minute I ask that question I get that answer from the audience, for some reason I already know what to say right away. It’s the craziest thing. Sometimes I get offstage and I go, “I can’t believe I said that.” Or I’ll write it down and go, “Holy shit, that was funny.” It’s fun for me too, man. I enjoy it because I’m not doing the same routine all the time. I gotta mix it up, too, for myself. Imagine just doing the same joke a thousand times. It gets to the point where you become a robot. You’re just talking. It’s not fun anymore. You’re not enjoying it, but when you can make it to where it’s an audience experience, where only that audience can share that moment, and when they leave they’re going to be like, “Hey, he’s not going to be able to say that anywhere else.” That’s what I like. I love that.
I can see you driving down a freeway with all of these comedy exits, and once you take an exit and you’ve driven in that direction it becomes easier.
Does that make sense?
It totally makes sense. That’s exactly how I feel. I don’t know how to explain it, but it’s something I know I have in my bag of tricks. You know what I mean? I know I have it and I like to use it. It just makes it that much more fun for me to tell the regular jokes, you know what I’m saying? Like you said, when I’m staying on a freeway but every now and then I can exit real quick. Go to McDonald’s real quick and get back on the freeway (laughs). Totally, man. That totally makes sense. That was the best way to describe it. It’s like, “I could stay on the freeway, but man, I see a Starbuck’s right there. Let me do this real quick.” That’s kind of how it is with stand-up. I’ll see an opportunity, ok I’m going to go for it real quick, and if it doesn’t happen just jump right back in. And that’s the cool thing about doing it for so long: I know how to weave in and out.
I think you’ve said before that as young as 10 years old you decided not to write down your jokes, that you were going to have a daredevil approach to comedy.
I think when I was 10 I just knew how to be funny. I always knew that I was the funny person in the room. I don’t care if you were an adult or how old you were, or what color you were, or whatever. I knew I was going to be the funniest guy in the room at the age of 10. Honestly. I always knew I was going to make people laugh, and when I started getting into standup I just realized I had that gift to just gab and make things spontaneously funny, so I’ve always known that’s the best way to write for me. Just to get up onstage and go for it.
You’ve also said you thought you’d have still became a comic if your parents hadn’t split up, but do you think you’re career would have taken the same trajectory? Did you take it upon yourself to keep your mom entertained, for example?
I think so. Not just my mom, but I had to make myself laugh. That was a depressing time in my life, because I was around 11 or 12 years old, right around that time … 13, 14, 15. Those are the times when you kind of wanted a full household. Unfortunately it was a single mom and a missing dad, pretty much an empty house. I had to find humor with what we had and it was to make myself laugh as well, or get other people to laugh. Kept my sanity, bro, definitely. Damn, you’re really good at this! You’re kind of like therapy for me right now.
I’m not trying to psychoanalyze you, but getting into your story … that stage is a decisive time in life. Where you’re going to head depends on where you’re at between 10 and 12 in a lot of cases, especially when you’re a young Eddie Murphy fan. I can see you performing for your family like the scene in Raw when he’s a little kid doing the monkey joke.
That’s totally me. If it wasn’t one thing life telling jokes it was to dance or to do anything for some kind of entertainment. Poor people, when you don’t have money you kind of do a lot of soul searching and find the entertainment in yourself, you know? And my mom would find that in her children. Yeah, that was me. Christmas parties, I was the one entertainment all the time whether they asked me to do it or I just went out and did it.
You didn’t have a larger social circle of Filipino family until you moved to Vegas, right?
I’ve had Filipino friends and neighbors that threw big parties, and they were all about food. It must have been interesting having an audience to work things out in front of all of a sudden when you were 18.
Yeah, that’s so true. That’s one thing we’re not stingy about is food. Plus our style of food is always cooked in bulk. It’s like, massive trays. It’s enough to feed an entire city block, for God’s sake. There’s always enough food for everyone to take home at the end of the party. That’s our way of having fun without spending that much money, is having these big parties with a lot of food that’s not expensive to make but enough to feed everybody.
And you all have four or five nicknames.
(Laughs) exactly. Everyone has a nickname. My nickname is Jo Koy. That’s not even my real name.
Did moving to Vegas and being in a new atmosphere give you the confidence to try comedy?
Yeah, for sure.
I can see being self-conscious trying your act in the place you grew up in (Tacoma). You move to Vegas and you have nothing to lose.
Yeah, for sure, but when we moved to Vegas there was money in the family. Everyone had good jobs. That was a good time to live in Vegas, 1989-’91. Steve Wynn came with all that money, brought new jobs to everybody and everyone was happy. It kind of made it easier for me to go up onstage and chase that dream, because I could support it.
Was your first gig was at a coffeehouse across from UNLV, or was that one of the first?
One of the first. My first one was on Jones Boulevard. I don’t know what it was called when it first opened, but it was off of Jones and Tropicana. It was a bar, and they did an open-mic night. That was in 1990. I wasn’t even 21 yet, and I grew out my baby moustache, colored it in and I went onstage and bombed. Worst day ever.
Why did you bomb?
Oh, just not funny. I didn’t know how to get onstage. I didn’t know how to deliver. I didn’t know how to do any of that stuff.
What do you remember about performing at the Huntridge Theater? That’s kind of a legend in various accounts of your bio.
That was my absolute favorite thing in the world to do. That’s when I put it all together. I wore every single hat. I got to be the producer, the promoter, the ticket ripper, the booker, and I even closed the show. That was fun. That was a lot of fun. I love the Huntridge.
Your newest comedy special is a do-it-yourselfer too. (Koy filmed his April 30 performance at The Moore in Seattle.)
Isn’t that crazy that I’m doing that? I actually wore a big-time producer’s hat for a TV special. I did it along with my manager and shopped it myself, and we sold it. I’ll make the announcement (for when and where it will be broadcast) sooner to the date, but we already sold it. I’m really excited because it was a huge risk, one of the biggest risks I’ve ever taken.
So after Vegas you got booked at MGM’s Catch a Rising Star comedy club, then you did “Pot Luck” at LA’s Comedy Store.
Yeah, and that was short lived too. It was mostly the Laugh Factory for me. Now I just do the Improvs. When I’m on the road I always do the Improvs.
It almost seems like you’re bubbling beneath the surface and people don’t know how extensively you’re selling out clubs.
I’ve got a fan base now. They’re coming out to see me and I’m prepared, so I just have to come with the new stuff and give them a great show.
Treasure Island, 9 p.m. March 3, starting at $49.95 plus tax and fee. 702.894.7722