The Weekly interview: Vegas-bred comic Jo Koy

Comedian Jo Koy, who used to perform at the Huntridge Theatre early in his career, comes back to Vegas for a weekend performance at TI.

Jo Koy November 1, 9 p.m., $44. TI, 894-7111.

You seem to do a lot about your family, not so much political. Is that by design? Yeah. I could talk about that stuff, but to me it’s not authentic. What makes me laugh is hearing the stuff about my son, or the stuff about my mom. I was a big fan of Bill Cosby, Eddie Murphy; they talked a lot about their moms and their kids. Those are the things that inspired me to do stand-up. I love hearing the political stuff, like Brian Regan. He’s my favorite [political] comic. But I don’t do that style of humor. I’d rather go right into the storytelling. I love telling a story. It’s fun to me. When I’m on Chelsea Lately, that’s all we can do, the topical stuff, but it’s just not me. Like my son and I went to the Dodger game last week, and he spilled stuff all over his lap. The first thing I thought about was, “I gotta talk about this onstage!” And I love it when people come up to me and relate to it. I love it when parents come up to me and go, “Oh my God, my son does the same thing,” or “My mom does the same thing.”

I enjoyed your bit about holding the car keys so they stick out between your fingers like a weapon. I’ve actually done that. (Laughs) That’s so funny. And my mom told me to do that. That’s the funniest thing.

Who are some of the comedians who inspired you? My top four are Eddie Murphy first and then Bill Cosby, Whoopi Goldberg and Robin Williams. Those are the ones who inspired me throughout the ’80s. They were the big ones during that era. HBO was a big thing for stand-up, and when you’re a broke kid with absolutely nothing to do on the weekend, there was always video recording your HBO specials. I would just rewind those specials and watch them like they were new again. And then Chris Rock and Brian Regan, Dennis Wolfberg; I just love the way they acted onstage.

You briefly enrolled in UNLV in the early ’90s. What were you planning on studying? Nothing! I was just literally trying to make my mom happy. That’s it. I knew I wasn’t supposed to be in school when I was failing regular school. [But] that’s what you do when you get out of high school, [and you’re] like, “What am I gonna be?” Because you’ve already doubted yourself about whatever dream you have. It’s like, “I can’t really be a stand-up comic.” Then finally after two semesters, maybe three, I just told my mom, “Mom, I want to be a comic. There’s no college needed for this. I know what I want to be. Let me do it.” I think my mom knew I wasn’t cut out for college, either.

Where did this desire to be a stand-up comic come from? It was Eddie Murphy. It was definitely Delirious. I was listening to audio before; I kind of knew what stand-up was. I was 10ish around that time, and I knew what a comedian was. I’d heard Richard Pryor tapes and the stuff my dad was into, Jonathan Winters and stuff like that. And then I saw Delirious, and for a kid my age, that was just kind of like, “Whoa! Stand-up is hip and cool!” I latched onto it right away. I would literally watch that right before I went to school. Like I would pop it in, eat cereal before I caught the bus and watch Delirious. That was my thing.

I understand Jo Koy is a nickname. What’s the story? My real name is Joseph Herbert. My dad is white, my mom’s Asian, Filipino. And when I started stand-up 22 years ago, I used to go up as Joseph Herbert, and I would just have to defend my name. Every time I went onstage it was so annoying. People would heckle. Something with “Herbert.” The MC would do five minutes on “Herbert,” and they would never get it right—“A-bear.” So finally I needed to change my name. I dropped Herbert and replaced it with my middle name, which is Glenn. That didn’t work. So Joseph Glenn. I did that for a while, and then I tried Glenn Joseph. That didn’t work.

Jo Koy was my nickname from my aunt. But the way she says it, it’s not Jo Koy, she says it with like a Filipino accent—it’s “Joquoi.” You wouldn’t think of it to be a stage name the way she says it. But me and my cousin, Mona, we were just sitting there trying to figure out some weird name, like some stage name, and we’re just going at it for hours. And all of a sudden her mom’s like, “Hey Joquoi, Mona, let’s eat.” Literally, it was like we looked at each other and were like, “That’s the name—Jo Koy.”

I noticed you used to rent the Huntridge Theatre for shows. Are you supporting the current efforts to revive it? Yeah, I want to donate to it for sure. I got to. That’s my home, man. That’s a historical landmark, right? It’s a part of Las Vegas history. And it gave me a home when I needed it.

It’s a part of a lot of people’s lives. I rented that thing out for so many events. I used to do this break-dancing event where I would get all these dancers from all over the place to come. I wore every hat. I did comedy and then I did a musical night. But mostly comedy. I did three comedy shows there.

How important has Las Vegas been to your comedy career? That’s my home, even though I grew up in Seattle. Las Vegas gave me my career. I come from a single parent—my mom raised me—and we were broke, so my mom worked, and I was by myself a lot. So all I had was comedy.

I moved here in 1989 … and when I came to Vegas, it was like a whole new me. It was like, “Yeah, you can go out and do whatever you want. You can go out and play at 10 at night. ... Vegas brought me out of my shell, and I was able to socialize with people and do what I wanted to do.

What were some of the clubs you played back then? There were none! I remember they had a comedy club at Bally’s and one at the Riviera, the Comedy Club. They had Catch a Rising Star at MGM, and to get into those, you had to be a full-time headliner. They didn’t hire anybody from Vegas, open–mic’ers, that was taboo. I remember I would call, “Yeah, I’m a comic, I haven’t done stand-up yet, is there any way I can come in and audition?” I remember calling the guy at the Comedy Club at the Riviera—his name was Steve Schirripa, and I called him every five months, trying to do a different voice or whatever (laughs). I could tell he was onto me. And like the fifth time I called, he goes, “Look, man, just go to LA, and work on your stand-up, and then you can come back here and work.” Fast-forward 22 years: My manager says, “Hey, do you know Steve Schirripa? Good friend of mine. Had nothing but good things to say about you.” I’m like, “That’s crazy! This is the same guy who told me to move out of Vegas and go to LA.”

So where did you get your start here? A hairdresser was dyeing my hair blond, because I was going bald. And he’s the one who said, “You’re really funny.” He was the first one I told, outside of my family, that I wanted to be a comic. He goes, “Man, my friend owns a coffee shop and has an open mic every Wednesday.” And that’s how I got into stand-up. It was called Buzzy’s Cafe, and it was by the Rebel bookstore on Maryland Parkway. I remember I was so scared. For that whole week, I didn’t know what I was going to say. I was so nervous.

It was the worst! There was a speaker and a microphone, no stage, and the owner had a cardboard cutout he made himself that said “Buzzy’s Comedy” in orange letters. I have it on video. It was so funny, trying to tell jokes while they’re making espressos. But that was my home—every Wednesday all my friends were coming to watch me. That was for about six months, and then people started coming up to me and approaching me.

I met a girl at Buzzy’s who said, “I’ve got a room at a nightclub.” It was called Beaches Nightclub ... and they would do stand-up before they would open the dancefloor up to the nightclub. And a Catch a Rising Star booker came and saw me there and when I got offstage, he said, “You just got yourself a week at the MGM.” That was the greatest day of my life. I’ve still got the Xerox copy of that check—$1,000 for seven days and 11 shows. Ninety bucks a show!

And Catch a Rising Star was your launching pad? I thought that was going to be my break! I remember calling my dad in Phoenix, and said, “I’m in Catch a Rising Star!” And … nothing happened.

It wasn’t until I got BET’s Comic View that I started making big money. And the way I got that was funny, too. I was working at the Mirage, at the Tiger Habitat, and my co-worker came up to me and said, “You know, BET Comic View is here. They’re doing a show at a place called the Country Star.” I grabbed the Catch a Rising Star folder with my videotape, rushed home, took a shower, put on a suit and raced back.

There was a line to get in, and I ran to the front with this videotape. A security guard was there, and I was like, “Hey, I’m a local comic. Can I just talk to the promoter?” And he says, “I’ll be right back.” I thought for sure I was going to have to buy a ticket to get in. And then he goes and gets the promoter, and she goes, “We’re already booked, but I’m going to hold onto this, because we’re coming back in six months with another show. In the meantime, want to see the show?”

And all the comics are late—all of them—and the crowd is getting pissed. They’re yelling, getting rowdy and she comes up to me and goes, “Hey, do you want to do, like, five minutes real quick?” I was like, “Heck yeah!” It took me maybe seven minutes, and I had them, man. I’ve got it all on videotape. ... I walk off the stage and they go, “Have you ever been on Comic View?” I’m like, “No, never.” And they’re like, “Well, you’re on it this month. We’re going to put you on.”

It was a dream come true, man. They taped 27 comics that day, and I was No. 27. That was the best day of my life, when I got Comic View. From that, I became the “black comic.” I was on every black comedy show you could think of. I was on the BET Comic View, I was on the Black College Comedy Tour, I was on the Def Jam Comedy Tour, I was opening for famous black comics. BET put me on the map.

Is any of your family still in Vegas? The whole family is here. Every single one of them. My mom, my aunt—the one who calls me “Joquoi”—my sister, my cousin, all my nephews. I no longer live here, but I’m planning on it. I just bought my place in LA, but I’m looking to get another place and I’m thinking about Vegas. I want to come back. You kidding me? It’s the best.

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Ken Miller is Las Vegas Magazine's managing editor, having previously served as associate editor at Las Vegas Weekly, assistant features ...

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