THE COMEDIAN BRINGS THREE DECADES OF “FINDING THE FUNNY” TO THE GLOBAL STAGE
Navy and black tuxedo blazer, $200, by Helena Anthony; black-and-white plaid button-down, $225, by Theory; watch by Rolex, Koy’s own
Jo Koy has a lot going on.
There’s the string of sold-out shows for his Just Kidding World Tour. His Comin’ In Hot special on Netflix continues to stream worldwide. He ended 2019 at No. 1 on the Billboard Charts for his stand-up comedy album, Live From Seattle. And this month, he’ll be in San Francisco. It’s a city he loves—and the feeling is mutual.
He remains the only comedian to sell out six shows at The Warfield. Local fans have filled seats at both the Punch Line San Francisco and Cobb’s Comedy Club each time his name was on the marquee. But this time it’s different. This time he’s coming to perform to an audience of more than 12,000 people—twice.
“We knew we would have a great response to hosting Jo Koy given the immense popularity he has generated for himself performing in San Francisco previously,” says Chase Center General Manager Kim Stone. “Right after we went on sale for his first show, it became apparent that demand was extremely high, so we wanted to add a second show to ensure anyone who wanted to see him got the chance. Thankfully his schedule allowed for this and he was up for it. Jo Koy continues our streak of sold-out comedy shows at Chase Center.”
Yes, there’s all of that—but today he has a lot going on at his own home. Construction workers are busy building a guesthouse on his property in Los Angeles, a place he’s rarely seen since his wildly popular tour kicked off in June last year and was expanded to 28 additional cities.
Koy, whose real name is Joseph Glenn Herbert, is still in his room, leaving extra time for me to scan his home for any hints of the guy behind the comedy. A large, framed portrait of his son, whom he refers to as “Little Jo,” takes up the majority of a wall. A poster from one of his shows. A keyboard. A large sectional couch—the kind you want to sink into and spend the whole day on. And a view overlooking what could be all of Los Angeles.
Literally and figuratively, Jo Koy appears to be on top. It just took 30 years to get here.
“Did she leave?” he yells out. “Is she gone?” “She” is me, and his sister looks at me before I respond: “No, do you want me to be gone?” He laughs as he enters the kitchen dressed in comfortable sweats. After introductions, he motions toward the couch where the interview begins.
Sure, there are prepared questions—he even answers some of them. But much like his shows, it’s clear this would be about improv. About riffing. About going off script and taking the dialogue wherever it would go. “How often do you do this in your shows?” I ask. “All the time,” he responds without hesitating. “It’s just something that happens. I love to improvise; that’s how I write.”
It’s a winning quality for stand-up comedians— the ability to connect with someone in the audience, ask them questions about their life and find the punchline in it. This is an uncanny skill that Koy has honed since he was old enough to tell jokes. “I knew I was funny at 10 years old,” he says.
Koy, who was born at a U.S. military base in Japan in 1971, is the only biological child of American-born Jack Herbert and Philippine- born Josie Harrison. Jack met and married Harrison while he was in the Air Force and eventually adopted Koy’s two sisters, Rowena and Gemma (who is now Koy’s tour manager), and his brother, Robert.
Like all military families, theirs moved often. But unlike most children, Koy didn’t dread having to leave and make new friends. He looked forward to what he saw as new audiences. “I would wait,” he says. “I wasn’t like, ‘Look at me, I’m funny!’ I would wait and show them over time. I was never afraid of going to new schools because I knew I was funny and I could make them laugh.”
He went to high school in Tacoma, Wash., and gave college the old college try when his family moved to Las Vegas. But he knew he belonged onstage, and for that, he would have to move to L.A. He became a regular at Hollywood’s Laugh Factory by night, and a struggling shoe salesman at Nordstrom Rack by day. This would later become fodder for his jokes.
His signature family-focused comedy makes him universally relatable, a description that makes him uncomfortable. “I don’t like saying that,” he says. He doesn’t have to; his shows do it for him.
Parents identify with the adventures and awkwardness of raising a child going through puberty when he jokes about his son. Fans think of their own family drama when he acts out arguments between his mom and sisters. They see their own mothers’ eccentricities in his jokes about his mom— from rubbing Vicks VapoRub on his eyes to insisting he become a mailman rather than a comedian.
Black nylon suit by Prada, Koy’s own; crane-printed button-down shirt, $145, by AllSaints.
It doesn’t matter that his mom is Filipino or that he’s in full character when he’s telling the joke. At that moment, his mom is everyone’s mom. This is something that he’s very adamant about:
He doesn’t want to be funny to a demographic; he wants to be funny to everyone.
“If you go to the beginning of my career,” he says, “I started out doing the black college comedy tours. Then I did BET, Showtime, Def Comedy Jam. That’s how I got to know Katt Williams, Cedric [the Entertainer], [Dave] Chappelle, all those cats.” Koy also won over the famously tough crowd at the Showtime at the Apollo in 1998, when he went home the show’s winner.
“Then I started doing a lot in the Latino circuit,” he says. “The only reason I wasn’t talking about being Filipino is because I knew that was already going to be me,” he explains. “I knew that was mine, and that I could do that whenever I wanted. I started with other audiences because I wanted them to see I was funny. I didn’t want to talk about my mom because I didn’t want to do comparisons to other races. I remember sitting at Nordstrom Rack selling shoes and just thinking, ‘How do I make a black person laugh about Mom?’”
The answer came organically—or as he describes it, “accidentally.” After giving his son a Wii for Christmas in 2008, he observed his mom taking over the game’s remote and challenging her grandson to virtual bowling. He tested the joke out at the Laugh Factory, after which the club owner and his manager at the time, Jamie Masada, knew he had struck comedic gold.
“People just started laughing.” Koy recalls. “After that, Jamie said, ‘Only talk about your mother!’ There were some shows that were really big shows, me and Harland Williams, Bob Saget, Jon Lovitz, and I’d be the emcee. They all got to do what they wanted and Jamie said, ‘Only talk about your mother.’ My whole thing was I’m not going to do a comparison, so I had to really dig. And that’s what the difference is. I’m telling you a story about my mother—and she just happens to be Filipino. That’s why people relate. That’s why people come up to me with Wii controllers asking me to sign them. That’s why Latinos come up to me and tell me their moms put Vicks in their eyes.”
That wasn’t the first time the Laugh Factory impacted the course of Koy’s career. It was here that he shared the stage and a moment with Robin Williams that still leaves him in disbelief. “There’s famous, and there’s famous,” says Koy. “When he showed up onstage that night, the crowd just went crazy. I was the emcee that night and I wanted to bring Robin onstage, but Bob [Saget] wanted to do it. After Robin performed, everyone was clapping and yelling and all I said to him was, ‘I wanted to bring you up.’” To his surprise, Williams offered to return to the stage with Koy where they ended up performing together. “It was amazing,” he says.
The Laugh Factory is also where Koy was discovered by Lovitz, who was so impressed by his act that he asked him to join his tour as his opening act in 2000. From there, Lovitz introduced him to Chelsea Handler, which led to Koy appearing in 140 episodes of Chelsea Lately.
And then there was Netflix.
After numerous rejections, Koy put all the money he had into shooting and producing Live From Seattle. With a gambler’s all-or-nothing sense of desperation, he risked everything with the hope that he could show Netflix a winning hand.
“That changed my life,” he says. The night of the show, Koy had pneumonia and was on medication and steroids, but he knew he had to deliver. “I had my life in that show; I was broke at that point because I put every penny into filming that special. Netflix already said no. Even if it was a hit and was good, they didn’t have to take it. So that was the pressure that night.”
The gamble paid off. Netflix picked up the special in 2017. In 2019, Comin’ In Hot was released worldwide. This time there was no convincing to do, no putting up money. Netflix was all in.
“That completely changed everything,” he says. “Netflix didn’t give me the first special, but I’m glad they didn’t. I’m glad they made me invest in myself because it took me to another level, made me dig even deeper into myself. Now I feel there’s nothing I can’t do. They opened the world for me. We went from Iowa to Dubai with this.”
But he admits there’s still the challenge of weaving certain aspects of his life into his act. There’s the years of estrangement from his father after his parents divorced when he was 11 (he and his father have since rebuilt their relationship). There’s the fact that he’s never known his father’s side of the family. And there’s his brother, Robert, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia in his teens and had to be institutionalized, where he remains to this day. These are parts of his life that Koy has been thinking about lately, but he is confident he can one day introduce them to his audiences. “It will happen,” Koy says.
“I just have to find the funny in it. Everything I talk about is based on a little bit of truth. All the stuff about my mom, my sisters, my son—it all happened, but I’m only going to give so much, and then I stretch it out and find the punchline. That’s stand-up. Otherwise it’s a one-man show.”
Black nylon suit and while button-down shirt by Prada, Koy’s own; Makeup Artist/Groomer: Marine Vaisset; Stylist: Niki Lips; Stylist Assistant: Maricris Garrett
Favorite Tagalog word/phrase: Mahal kita (‘I love you’)
If you weren’t doing this, you’d be: A comedic writer
Favorite thing about San Francisco: Clam chowder, sourdough bread
Your new bucket list item since you’ve checked off performing at Constitutional Hall: KeyArena
Preshow and postshow rituals: Pee a lot. It’s because in Cincinnati at a place called Funny Bone, I went onstage and I really had to pee. I looked at the crowd and said, ‘I have to go. I’ve been holding this.’ Now I have such a fear.
Who would play you in a movie? Someone who looks like me, Brad Pitt.
In-N-Out or Shake Shack: In-N-Out
Favorite movie of all time: "Coming to America" or "National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation"
Biggest bromance: Rob Schneider. He’s always been so sweet.
After the world tour, you’re going to: Hawaii
Photography by: Chad Riley