Jo Koy on Comedy They Told Him Wouldn’t Work

Jo Koy performed his first standup sets at talent shows his mother would put together at Knights of Columbus halls, seeking to create a sense of community among Filipino Americans in his hometown Tacoma, Wash. “My mom was going to churches and looking for brown people that looked like her,” he remembered.

One of Koy’s first big breaks came when he was asked to open on a Def Comedy Jam tour stop in 1996. He could do five minutes of material, one of the show’s creators told him, but he had to do it before the curtains opened and the lights were dimmed — essentially, before the show started. “They said, ‘Don’t say ‘Welcome to Def Jam,’ don’t say ‘Enjoy Def Jam,’” he recalled. “Basically, if I sucked, they didn’t want me involved with Def Jam.”

Over the years, the comic has gone from appearing in “Star Search” knockoffs in Las Vegas (“It was called ‘Starmania,’” he said, “and I bombed so bad”) to headlining some of the country’s most storied venues and sports arenas. “I’m finally playing Madison Square Garden,” he said. “During the N.B.A. playoffs, I did two Chase Centers. The Golden State Warriors would play one night, I would play another.”

This month, Koy stars in “Easter Sunday” as Joe Valencia, a Filipino American comedian on the verge of getting his own sitcom — as long as he goes along with the director’s demands to do a “half Filipino accent,” you know, because it would be funnier that way. (“You’re half Filipino, right?” she says.)

On a recent afternoon, over lunch at the London West Hollywood hotel, Koy, 51, talked about growing up funny (“If you look at my yearbooks, it’s always class clown, class clown, class clown”), his comedy inspirations and his recent split from Chelsea Handler (“We’re always going to be friends”). These are edited excerpts from our conversation.

From left, Eugene Cordero, Koy and Lou Diamond Phillips in “Easter Sunday,” which Koy said was inspired by “Friday.”Credit…Ed Araquel/Universal Pictures

Why did you want to become a comic?

I fell in love with standup so young. Eddie Murphy, Richard Pryor, Whoopi Goldberg, Robin Williams. I already knew I wanted to be a standup comic when I was 10. When [Murphy’s] “Delirious” came out on HBO, my sister’s friend recorded it for me and gave me a tape because we didn’t have HBO. I watched that thing a million times.

What was your life like growing up?

I’m half white, half Filipino, so I was already dealing with racism in my own family. There were family members on my dad’s side that were looking at us funny and making us feel small. And then seeing my mom deal with the racism that she had to go through, seeing a little kid on the escalator pull his eyes back on my mom, and my mom just having to have thick skin and deal with that. And me witnessing that, just going, what the [expletive]? I was, like, 11.

You mentioned Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy. What did you like about their work?

I love storytellers. I fell in love with the art of storytelling right away. And I embraced Black comedy. Oh, you’re poor? We’re poor! I get it. Oh, your mom is like that? My mom’s like that! She disciplines me in the same way. I don’t know what a time out is. My mom would scream at me at the top of her lungs in public!

When I started doing standup, I was opening for Black comics. I became part of this thing called the Black College Comedy Tour. That’s legit what it was called: Black College Comedy Tour. I was opening for Cedric the Entertainer, Mike Epps. I was also doing BET’s “ComicView,” Def Jam, “Showtime at the Apollo.” I won “Showtime at the Apollo.”

I’ll always laugh when I see a video of someone walking down the street and falling down a hole. What’s always funny to you?

I watch all that stuff too, man. I don’t like people getting physically hurt …

I hear a “but” coming.

There is a “but.” When you’re so stupid and you know you’re going to get hurt, then I have to laugh. They’re doing this tortilla challenge right now. Seeing these people get smacked so hard with the tortilla, I can’t stop laughing.

Koy said he remained friends with Chelsea Handler and his ex-wife. “If you’re going to continue to hate the other person, the only one who suffers is the kid,” which is what “I went through growing up,” he said.Credit…Michael Tyrone Delaney for The New York Times

You tell a joke about all Filipinos being nurses.

Yo, not all of us are nurses. But all of us are nurses, you know what I mean? I can’t even go to a hospital anymore. The minute I go, I’m taking a million pictures. But when do you ever see one Filipino nurse on the big screen? My son was born in Cedars-Sinai. Every executive in Hollywood goes to Cedars-Sinai. But yet you make a TV show or a movie, you don’t put in one Filipino nurse?

You recently broke up with Chelsea Handler. Are you two still friends?

We’re always going to be friends. We’re better friends than we are as a couple. But her future is beautiful. What she’s getting ready to do is amazing.

Is there a secret to amicable breakups?

Oh yeah. My ex-wife is my best friend. I just bought a house, and she lives right next to me. She has all the keys to my cars, she has the keys to my house. I don’t understand the whole, “We’re divorced, I hate this person for the rest of my life.” If you’re going to continue to hate the other person, the only one who suffers is the kid. And that’s the [expletive] I went through growing up.

How did “Easter Sunday” come about?

When I watched “Friday,” I couldn’t get enough of it. It touched me because I felt like that was my family, too. I got the humor, I saw the references. It looked like my house, you know what I mean? The struggle they have, I saw with my mom and my family.

So when I was thinking of a movie, I was like, How can I do the same thing, where I can talk about my culture, shine light on my ethnicity, but still tell a family story and show all the crazy characters that every family has? And I was like, Easter Sunday. That’s the day every single person in my family comes and gathers, a fight breaks out, crying happens. I wanted to be able to tell that story in one day, and that’s the one day that stands out big in my family.

In the film, your character is pressured to do a “half-Filipino” accent, whatever that is. Accents have been a part of your act for a while, particularly your mom’s. How do you react when non-Filipinos do Filipino accents back at you?

I love it. I love it when I hear “Josep” [the way his mother pronounces his name] being yelled at a baseball game. Because I’m doing exactly what they said wouldn’t work. They said it was too specific, audiences wouldn’t get it. But my mom is just like your mom. She has an accent, but she’s still a mom. So every time I see somebody who’s not Filipino yelling “Josep” from across the terminal or out of a car, I love it. Keep doing it.

There are a lot of shout-outs to Filipino culture in your movie. Manny Pacquiao. Halo halo. Were there other things you felt you had to have in the film?

Yeah, the balikbayan box. It was so important to me. As broke as my mom was, twice a year, she would fill up a balikbayan box and send it to her family back home. And she would fill that box up with stuff that I wish I could have had! I remember my mom put a pack of 12 Nestle Crunch bars in the box and I would cry, like, seriously? We don’t even have Nestle Crunch! And she said, yeah, but you live here. They don’t have anything. And you’re crying about chocolate? You want the chocolate? Take the chocolate. Take it!

I’m guessing you didn’t take it.

[Laughing] No, I wouldn’t! I’d leave it in the box.

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