Jo Koy, headlining comedian performing at the Addison Improv this weekend, has managed to capture lighting in a bottle. A guy named Tom Werner, co-creator of the Cosby Show, thinks so, too. Now, Jo Koy, comedian is now developing a half hour sit-com for Warner Brothers Studios.
Koy’s high energy, engaging persona on and off stage has managed to capture audiences, producers and other comedians in its frenetic swirl to the top. That pathway has not exactly been linear, but in 18 years of working as a comedian you get the impression Jo knows how lucky he is.
After growing up in Washington State, the bi-racial son of a first generation Pilipino mother and American born father had moved to Las Vegas to attend UNLV but decided early that school was not for him. The lure of the microphone pulled him to open mike nights at coffee shops and local clubs. “My mother literally cried when I told her I was dropping out of school to become a comedian, she was heartbroken, a university education for their kids is one of the most important goals a immigrant parent,” says Jo, “I used to do a bit about it in my act.”
Jo’s personal life has always been a big part of his act, as a storyteller rather than a one liner comedian, Koy’s electrified personality, animated actions and emotive face brings you into his highly relatable world and masterfully twists you into fits of laughter.
Most comedians make their mark in LA or New York, but Koy’s path of starting in Las Vegas had some advantages. As he honed his craft working he got noticed by the booker for one of the casinos Jo explains, “A girl I knew was dating this guy who was booking acts for ‘Catch A Rising Star’ at the MGM Grand, she brought him to see me and I got booked the next day.”
Performing, refining and performing is the key to success for a comedian and as Koy began to garner a reputation around comedy circuits, other comedians looking for an opener would show up and offer to take him on the road,“I was always getting let go after one or two shows. It was hard but they would say things like ‘you need to be a headliner, go to LA and become a headliner’. At the time I would end up making as little as $40 a week after I paid for gas and food. It was awful but I learned a lot.”
Hard work and luck again paid off as Koy was offered a chance to do Comic View on BET. Serendipitously as we were discussing this, Dallas comedian Rudy Rush walked into the Green Room at the Improv to say hello. Pointing at Rush, Koy’s says, “This is a guy who gave me a big shot, I was doing a show for Bob Sumner doing Def Jam on the Road, Ricky Harris was hosting and Rudy was a feature. They wouldn’t even let me open the show I had to stand in front of the curtain before it went up and crawl through it after my set. Rudy looked at Bob and said, ‘Who the fuck is this guy’ Bob was like, ‘I don’t know I just met him today.
Rudy then asks if I wanted to do the Apollo? I was like Hell ya! Rudy says he is going to have his manager call the next week and he was true to his word it was like two weeks later and I was onstage at the Apollo. Rudy was the host.”
For a non-African American comedian to do Showtime at the Apollo is rare, the legendary theater is in the heart of Harlem in New York and for a comedian, it is a very tough room.
That exposure lead to a spot at the Montreal Comedy Festival six years ago, where talent scouts for ‘The Tonight Show with Jay Leno’ approached him as he left the stage. “Congratulations you have just got the Tonight Show,” Koy smiles, “I called my Dad and told him and I think I called everyone else I know to tell them I was going to be on the Tonight Show.”
The path to what is still the biggest stage for a young comic is not exactly linear, Koy explains, “Before they let you on the show they want to make sure your act is tight. You only have 5 minutes and they want to make sure you are not a risk to swear and that you have a chance to do it right.” After telling everyone he was going to be on the show it took months for it to happen. “They would come to see my “Tonight” set over and over and for a comedian doing a 5 minute set is hard, usually we want or need at least 20 to get in and rolling right.”
The work was worthwhile as Koy registered one of the few Standing Ovations in tonight show history.
While coming up Koy would work three jobs at Nordstrom Rack, Borders Books and on Saturdays and Sundays doing catering on a yacht and still hit the Laugh Factory for a set at least 4 or 5 times a week.
“Being on the Tonight Show changed my life completely,” Koy says, “When I booked it people told me it was “Good Tape” because I could use it to send around to clubs to the managers so I could get booked. I mean people would downplay it like it wasn’t as big a deal as it was. Within two weeks I was doing a national ad campaign for a cell phone company and was booked on a national tour and all of a sudden I was making great money for the first time.”
From there Koy’s path started to rise dramatically getting his own Comedy Central special, ‘Jo Koy – Don’t Make Him Angry,’ he appeared on Jimmy Kimmel and was featured on Jamie Fox’s Laughapalooza tour. From this, his routines have hit “the Foxhole comedy station on Satellite Radio.
“I really like the way things have come together, it is kind of like the old way of doing things where I was out there making it happen one night at a time,” Koy admits that there are now times he has to almost pinch himself to know this success is real, “When Tom (Werner) approached me about the sit com I had to sit back and go WOW! I mean this is the guy who created the ‘Cosby Show’, how cool is that? I couldn’t believe he was having dinner with me let alone developing a television show for me.”
Werner also owns the Boston Red Sox and Koy had the experience of sitting in the Owners Box with his father watching the Sox play at Fenway,“I couldn’t believe we were sitting there. Tom actually comes to my shows and watches. It is just crazy he knows my bits and talks to me about things that can be the basis of an episode.”
Koy is also working on a book, is a regular every week on ‘Chelsea Lately’ and is touring extensively and is performing this weekend at the Addison Improv.
During the Thursday night set at the Addison Improv, a woman sitting down in front – who may have gone from “Dos Equis” to “Bente Equis” – started calling out a request for “Orange Chicken,” a signature bit from early in Jo’s career, “I hate that, I really do have an idea of where I am going with what I do. I don’t do that one in my act any more, I don’t just want to sit up there and do a “Set”. That would be boring for me and for my audience. I have people come back to see me and they make comments that it is different every time. To me that is a great complement.”
His set now is reflective of where he is in life, still dealing with his mother, and now primarily with his son, who is even featured on some of Koy’s merchandise, “I grew up with next to nothing and now I am in a position so my son can have everything, but I am on the road so much it is hard.” Koy makes sure when he is back in LA his spends as much time as he can with the little guy, explaining, “His mother and I are not together anymore, but I make sure she is ok and really, now, we are the best of friends.”
As Koy’s career takes off into the stratosphere, he remains rooted in remembering how hard it was to get started, “The guys who I bring with me as openers, Adam Hammer and Ty Rivera, I really want them to have a chance to enjoy the road. I mean, when I was out there starting it was horrible and some weeks I lost money. I decided very early I wasn’t going to make my openers lives miserable. I am going to help them because I didn’t have that, after all Adam , my opener here, has to get the crowd going and you can do that better when you are into the act.”
Judging from the nearly sold out crowd at the Improv for a Thursday show, getting tickets to Koy’s sets this weekend might be difficult. It is an act you may not be able to see again at such an intimate venue as the next time you see Jo Koy will most likely as the star of his own show on NBC or CBS.
Improv Comedy Club
4980 Belt Line Road
Dallas, TX 75254-7037