By TERRY TANG
Like many famous comics, Jo Koy had early struggles at comedy clubs. But, unlike them, the half white and half Filipino comedian could only seem to book spots on ethnic theme nights like “Wonton Wednesdays’’ and “Asian Invasion.’’
“There’s a lot of comics that had to do it. I’m not just saying Asians—Black people, Latinos, anyone that was ‘other’ had to do these themed shows. And it sucks,’’ Koy recalled recently.
Segregating comics may sound bizarre and offensive in today’s world but that underlying racism “baked into“ the comedy club circuit was acceptable in the early 2000s, according to Koy. How he went from there to being a Netflix darling and having a movie deal with Steven Spielberg is part of the career journey Koy, 49, tells in his new memoir.
“Mixed Plate: Chronicles of an All-American Combo,’’ released on March 23, is an ideal companion to Koy’s stand-up with its humorous—and at times painful—origin stories behind some of his most popular bits. The book shows how Koy’s mixed-race background ultimately shaped his brand of comedy and his determination not to give up on his childhood dream.
“I’m not trying to pat myself on the back. It was a long road,” Koy said. “And when I finally got to this point in my career, I just looked at my manager. I was like, ‘Man, I would really like to tell people, you know, this struggle, and how hard it was to really get here.’’’
With the help of a writing partner, Koy, born Joseph Glenn Herbert, lays bare how he grappled with his mixed-race identity as a child growing up in Tacoma, Washington. He doesn’t shy away from deeply personal topics including an older brother with violent schizophrenia and a father who left when he was only 12 years old. (The book also documents their reconciliation.)
“I’ve always been open to just letting people be inside my life,’’ Koy said. “So when I said I was going to write a book, of course I’m going to tell them everything. Or else, you’re not going to really know the story of how I got there.’’
Koy, who’s sold out stadium shows, has aspired to make people laugh since age 11. He didn’t “speak school’’ and was never interested in conventional pursuits like college. For him, earning $5 doing stand-up on an open mic in a coffeehouse was more thrilling. By the 1990s, he followed his mother and stepfather to Las Vegas and started doing comedy contests and small clubs there. In 2001, he decided to make the big move to Los Angeles.
The comedy club circuit wasn’t exactly receptive to his bi-racial appearance.
“You come to Hollywood, and they have no idea what they’re looking at—as horrible as that sounds,“ Koy said. “’What’s your story? We don’t get it. Where do we put you?’’’
Koy took whatever gigs at clubs like The Improv and the Laugh Factory—even the ethnic “theme nights.’’ Meanwhile, he juggled as many as three part-time jobs. By 2003, he also had to factor in his newborn son.
In the book, he recounts performing at the Laugh Factory while a then-unknown Tiffany Haddish would be off to the side watching his son.
“We had that little bond of ours, you know, that we both had seen struggle,’’ Koy said. “I love Tiffany, that she was there during that process. She still is in my life to this day, which is even more amazing.’’
Seeing his toddler son play with his mother, it hit Koy that family life could be funny fodder.
While mimicking his mother’s accent and mannerisms is now classic Koy, he initially hesitated for fear of being labeled “the Filipino comic.’’ But he saw that all audiences seemed to find anecdotes involving his mother relatable.
“That’s when I knew. I was like, ‘Oh, I got something good here. I know how to do it now,’’’ Koy said.
His Filipino roots shine brightly in the book. Koy may be the first comic with a memoir that’s part recipe book. There are instructions on how to make Filipino dishes like lumpia and chicken adobo. He wants to keep being “an ambassador for Filipino food’’ and culture.
With three Netflix comedy specials under his belt in the last four years, including one filmed in Manila, Koy said people often think that the streaming service discovered him. But like other times in his life, he was rejected by them for their 2017 comedy slate.
Determined to give them a reason to say yes, Koy put on his own special. He booked a theater in Seattle and paid for a high-quality crew to film it. The final product was enough to elicit an offer from Netflix.
Since then, Koy has built a reputation as an in-demand comedian. With plenty of on-screen experience including being a panelist on Chelsea Handler’s old E! talk show, “Chelsea Lately,’’ Koy seems one sitcom or film away from the next level of stardom.
One of his Netflix specials got Spielberg’s attention. The director’s production company, Amblin Entertainment, is producing a starring vehicle for Koy, “Easter Sunday.’’ Based on Koy’s own experiences, the movie comedy follows a family gathering on the titular holiday.
Even with all these opportunities, Koy’s mother sometimes asks him if he’ll drop stand-up for a regular job “with benefits.’’
“I don’t think about retiring. I’m gonna die on that stage,’’ Koy said. “That’s kind of hard to explain to an immigrant parent. They don’t understand that. But you know what? We’re all enjoying this.’’