Jo Koy is nothing short of a comedy superstar. From his start in Vegas, to hitting the grind in Los Angeles, to touring as an international headliner, he’s pretty much done it all. His impressions are legendary, but he’s most often recognized as a panelist on the still cult favorite Chelsea Lately. We had the opportunity to sit down with Jo in Montreal during the Just For Laughs festival to talk about his career. You can catch Jo Koy live at his upcoming dates at the Chicago Improv and the Improv in Brea, CA (just outside LA) or you can get a dose of Jo anywhere from his podcast The Koy Pond
The Interrobang: You’ve had a long career and seen so many things change. Let’s start with technology and how has that changed things for you?
Jo Koy: This is what I love about technology, it’s a catch-22. I come from the old school. I started in ‘89 so I literally had to go to Kinko’s and then cut the flyers myself with that… whatever that straight razor thing is, paper cutter? I don’t even think anyone knows what I’m talking about right now. “You mean Photoshop? What are you talking about, bro?” I knew it was more expensive to buy colored ink, so all my flyers were colored paper with black ink because it was cheaper. I printed my own tickets, I walked outside and sold tickets, I went out in person to rent venues and I built a fanbase that way. I guess that’s grassroots? And now, with social media and even when MySpace came out… MySpace was the first electronic flyer to me. That’s all I used it for. “You mean to say, I can tell all these people to meet me online and I can give them information about where I’m going to perform? I don’t have to go to Kinko’s anymore??? Are you kidding me?” I couldn’t believe it. That was life changing for me.
But the thing I don’t like is stuff can get out there. There’s a lohhhht of people that are online. Now there’s a million outlets and I find that to be a love-hate relationship. With stand-up especially, that’s our livelihood and that’s all I got. So, the minute you take that joke and put it out there, yes, it’s promoting me, but also you’re not helping me feed my kid. And people don’t see that, they think they’re doing me a favor. But it’s to the point where this year I shot my own special. My team helped me put it together and I’m not relying on a network to do it. And that’s the cool thing about where we’re at right now.
The Interrobang: By the same token, how we consume entertainment as audiences has changed. How has that changed your experience as the performer?
Jo Koy: One thing I love about stand-up is the model is made and there’s no changing it, especially in the comedy club. There’s all kinds of entertainment out there, but for some reason watching stand-up in a comedy club and seeing that rawness, you can’t match that. When people go to a club and get that experience… you can’t feel that any other way, you just have to go. When you go to a club, you feel like, “I’m seeing this guy do something right now, he’s in his element. That stuff I’ve seen on YouTube, he’s not doing that right now.” and that’s kinda cool.
The Interrobang: So, I heard you started off in black rooms mostly?
Jo Koy: Oh god, my first eight years! I was on the black college tours and I was the “other” ethnicity. So, you go to these colleges and they have the black sorority or fraternity and they’d hire a headlining black comedian to come, but the school would want diversity, so they’d want whoever was opening to be a different race. I was the “Other Race.” “Do you have a white comic?” “Oh yeah, Jo Koy.” “Do you have an Asian comic?” “Oh yeah, Jo Koy.” “You have a Mexican?” “Oh man, yeah, Jo Koy is one of our best Latino comics!” And then that just spawned all these relationships I had with headliners like Katt [Williams], Cedric [The Entertainer], [Dave] Chappelle, it was crazy. Back in the day, like 1998, I won Showtime at The Apollo.
But it was my decision because I knew I had a route to go. I knew I already had the Asian demo and I didn’t wanna rest on that. I wanted to show everybody I was funny. So I did the Latino circuit, I did the Black circuit, whatever show I could get on, I got on. I remember I did a show on a Latino network called Que Locos Live, which was all Latino comics… and of course, we got Jo Koy! He’s half white, half-Asian, but sure, he’s Hispanic, fuck it.
The Interrobang: So, of course, you were on Chelsea Lately quite a bit…
Jo Koy: I actually got Chelsea through Jon Lovitz. I was at The Laugh Factory one night and Jon Lovitz started coming to the club a lot. And I was there like seven nights a week – big shout out to Jamie Masada – and as a kid I used to impersonate Jon Lovitz at school and now I’m seeing him on stage. It was like, “Is this really happening?” and I’d never talk to him, I’d just perform and he’d perform and I’d just kind of look at him out of the corner of my eye. Then all of a sudden I get a phone call and it’s like, [Jo busts out a dead-on Lovitz impression] “Hey, this is Jon Lovitz, I think you’re really funny and I’m about to go on tour and I want you to open for me.” I’m like, “Are you kidding me?” Next thing you know, I’m on the road with him, We’re in Hawaii, we’re in Atlantic City, we’re in Reno, all these crazy places opening for Jon. And we’re friends, like he’s just joking around with me! Finally one day I just told him, “You know I used to impersonate you.” And it got to the point that when fans would walk up to him, he’d go, “Have you met Jo Koy, he does a great impersonation of me! Take it away Jo.”
You know KC from KC and the Sunshine Band? Weird question, I know. But we were in Hawaii, just eating one night, and KC’s manager walks up to us and goes, “Hey, I just wanted you to know that KC from KC and The Sunshine Band is a big fan of yours and wanted to know if he could meet you?” and Jon goes, “Of COURSE he can!” And here comes KC and he’s so nice and just like “I didn’t want to bother you, I see you’re eating” and whatever and Jon just goes, “KC, this is Jo Koy, he does a great impersonation of me. Jo, do your impersonation of me for KC!” And just the look on KC’s face of “What the heck is going on?” He doesn’t know who I am and here I am on a beach impersonating Jon Lovitz for him. That’s the shit Jon always did.
I wish I had it on tape, she just cursed me out and called me an idiot, and my agents idiots, just telling me it was the worst decision I ever made.
It was so fun for those first few years, it was a pretty tight group. She had these amazing writers Heather McDonald, Sarah [Colonna], Jen [Kirkman], Josh [Wolf] Jiffy [Jeff Wild] and then you had all these regular panelists like Ben Gleib, Loni Love, Ross Mathews. I just got a chill saying it because I got to be a part of history! I was sad that it ended. It didn’t have to end. It was one of those shows that could have lived a long, long time on TV.
The Interrobang: This might be the weirdest, dumbest question anyone has ever asked you, but you are part of my favorite game to play at The Hollywood Improv. It’s called “Who the fuck is that supposed to be?” You play it by pointing at the mural outside and asking “Who the fuck is that supposed to be?”
Jo Koy: You know that’s Wyland, right? He does those beautiful pictures of dolphins and whales flying out of the water.
The Interrobang: Well, and by the way, we all figured which one was you, but we call it “Jailhouse Jo Koy” because you look like you just broke out of prison and are about to murder somebody.
Jo Koy: Okay, so the Improv has a bunch of comics painted on the wall and I’m on the wall and I think it looks like me. But you can also definitely recognize a shark on the wall… and Peanut… and Steve Martin. You brought it up, I don’t want to be mean!
The Interrobang: The crazy part is I saw the smaller version he did that then needed to be scaled up and the small version is perfection. I mean, it’s like a photograph.
Jo Koy: Wow, really? Wow. But really, I mean, I’m just honored that I’m up on that wall.