Comedian Jo Koy on Being Cursed Out by Chelsea Handler and Jay Leno’s Apology for Asian Jokes

Matt Wilstein
·11 min read
Photo Illustration by Kristen Hazzard/The Daily Beast/Photos Getty
Photo Illustration by Kristen Hazzard/The Daily Beast/Photos Getty

When comedian Jo Koy made his late-night stand-up debut on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno 15 years ago, he introduced himself as “Asian” as opposed to Filipino because he wanted to appeal to as wide an audience as he could. “But then I wore the flag on my chest to let everybody know that I was Filipino,” he recalls

This struggle between broad and specific has been the driving factor in Koy’s comedy ever since. But as he explains on this week’s episode of The Last Laugh podcast, it wasn’t until he started relaying the specificity of his personal experience as a half-Filipino, half-white son of an immigrant mother and a military dad that he really started connecting with audiences and ultimately selling out stadiums around the world.

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“It was easy to go to the dick jokes,” he says of his early days performing comedy on the Las Vegas strip. “Because it was easy to be funny that way. But how can I tell people who I was without doing the basic comparison shit? Like, ‘Filipinos eat this, but white people don’t eat that, am I right?’ I wanted to do it the right way. I wanted it to represent my mom’s culture and my culture the right way. And give it a voice so people would relate to it and appreciate it. And I was willing to not do it until I figured it out, you know?”

Koy’s long journey to success, which he chronicles with humor and depth in his new memoir Mixed Plate, contained more hardship and trauma than even some of the most troubled comedians out there. But through all of the rejection—including some by Koy, who turned down high-profile projects he felt were beneath him—he ultimately prevailed, producing three hit Netflix specials and an upcoming movie based on his life called Easter Sunday that he’s making with Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment.

Sometimes we see people and we see how they’re successful but no one really wants to dig deep and find out the backstory,” Koy says. “Why don’t you find out what they did to get there? And maybe that’ll inspire you. You don’t have to like me, but just love what I did and love my hustle.”

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Below is an excerpt from our conversation and you can listen to the whole thing—including stories about how his Filipino mom became the central figure of his stand-up act and why he refused to take no as an answer from Netflix—right now by subscribing to The Last Laugh on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google, Stitcher, Amazon Music, or wherever you get your podcasts and be the first to hear new episodes when they are released every Tuesday.

The hustle that you made along the way really comes through in the book, because not only are there things like the Live from Seattle special that you paid for yourself and then ultimately sold to Netflix, but you also talk about opportunities that you turned down for various reasons. One is [Comedy Central’s] Kims of Comedy, which was a special featuring four Asian comedians that was offered to you. And you said no. And then you also turned down the chance to be Chelsea Handler’s sidekick on Chelsea Lately. What made you decide at that point in your career—when it’s not like you were wildly successful—to say no, I don’t want to do these things?

No disrespect to the Kims of Comedy, because I’m friends with them. I’m friends with Bobby Lee, Ken Jeong, Kevin Shea, and Steve Byrne. I love those guys. And I was supposed to be number four. And I said no to it. I was working at Nordstrom Rack at that time. And I needed the money. My son was a newborn. But my goal and my dream was to be a stand-up comedian. And I wanted my hour special. Why is it that none of us had our own specials? Bobby Lee is funny on his own. He deserves an hour special. This is before Ken Jeong was in The Hangover or anything. He was literally going by Dr. Ken Jeong. He would go up on stage with a guitar and then go home because he was a doctor. We’re all funny on our own and we all deserve our specials. Why do we have to come together as one to get on Comedy Central? Don’t get me wrong, when I saw it air on TV, I was kicking myself, like I made the wrong decision. And then I saw them all blow up. But I’m glad I made the decision that I did because I wouldn’t be where I’m at right now. Chelsea Handler, on the other hand, she told me about the idea [for Chelsea Lately] and went really far, to the point where we’re about to shoot. But when it came down to actually taping it, I pulled out. And for the same reason. I wanted my hour special and I wanted a Jo Koy show.

You didn’t want to be her sidekick.

I didn’t want to be known as the sidekick. I knew if I took that on, I would be known as Chelsea Handler’s guy on the side. I didn’t want to be Andy Richter or Ed McMahon. I wanted to be Jo Koy. She cursed me out so hard on the phone. Every curse word you could possibly think of, telling me it’s the stupidest decision. And I get it. She was offended. She knew that this thing was going to be a hit and here I am pulling away as if I don’t believe it or something. I would have done the same thing. And when the show premiered I remember just saying to myself, I fucked up.

Again!

Yeah, again. But then Chelsea called me up and she put me on the show and next thing you know everyone thought I was one of the cast members because I was on it so much. And that’s the beautiful thing about Chelsea, by the way. She shares her limelight. She shares it and she understands that it takes a team for something to be as big as it was.

Was that your biggest national TV exposure at that point?

Yeah and I always tell her, thank you, you were literally the modern day Johnny Carson. When you’re a comic, you always heard those stories about Johnny Carson, if he waved you over to the desk, you made it. If you sat down and he interviewed you, it was done. He was literally telling Hollywood, you need to sign this guy. And we missed that. He’d already retired. And Chelsea was a big part of that change. She adapted to the new culture. There was a new style of talk show. And if you made it on that show, you basically made it.

You did get something kind of close to the classic Johnny Carson moment when you went on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno though, right?

That guy changed my life. When I got the Tonight Show, it was late in the game. Back when Johnny was doing it, the whole world watched. Now, there are so many outlets and so many shows, but the Tonight Show still has that signature name. It was my first national set on a huge platform. I was going to speak to people that had never seen me before. So my mentality was, I’m going for the jugular. I need my life to change. I’ve got four jobs right now and I’m tired of going on stage with mustard on my shirt because I was cleaning tables. And at the end of my set, I got that standing ovation. And I remember looking to my side and I see Jay waving me over. And I got to sit on the couch. It was one of the best moments of my life.

You obviously have so much admiration and respect for Jay Leno. We happen to be talking right after he just put out this big apology for decades of jokes about Asian people that he now feels were not appropriate. What was your reaction to that?

It’s beautiful. If you’re going to apologize, that means you’re aware of what you’ve done. And you can only appreciate somebody for that. But you also have to understand that I’m not giving Jay an excuse. You can be ignorant for so long and if you choose to stay there, then that’s on you. You choose to be that person. But if you want to learn and really be aware and understand and open up, then that’s a beautiful thing. That’s what makes us move forward as a human race. And I would be lying if I didn’t say that the times that we grew up in, this was so normalized that we didn’t think that that was bad. And I played into those norms and it sucks. I too have to apologize. I’m glad that I was able to change and figure out the right way to represent my mom’s culture and also be a good voice for the AAPI.

This is what we need and we’re at that time now where it’s happening and I’m so happy. We don’t have to wait for the seven o’clock national news and pray to God that they talk about something locally that happened in Atlanta. There was a time where we prayed that we get to see something like that, to see what happened in Atlanta with these women. But now with social media, with TikTok and Instagram and Facebook, you’re going to know about it right now. You’re going to know about it today. And whoever did it, we’re catching your ass. Because we’re a community now. And it’s not just Asians, it’s everybody. And we’re going to plaster your face all over the place and we’re going to get these people in trouble, and we’re going to put them where they need to be put. And it’s great to see this. If I could say that there’s one great thing that’s happening, it’s that. It took something so evil and so horrific to happen, but what’s coming out of it is actually beautiful. People are talking, people are apologizing, people are banding together and supporting, and I love that.

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Do you really feel like you have things that you want to apologize for or maybe even jokes that you regret? Because there’s this idea that white comedians are apologizing for certain things, but maybe because you’re an Asian comedian that you wouldn’t have to apologize or you wouldn’t feel like you would need to, but are you saying that you do feel that way?

Well, I think we all should take responsibility. I mean, we all fell victim to it. But you also have to understand the pressure it is for you to be an Asian American, especially during the times in the seventies and eighties and nineties. Just watch the movies. How do you get inspired by that? How do you not think that that’s normal so that’s what I’ve got to do? So I do apologize, but I also understand the times, you know what I mean? It’s a lot of pressure, man. Mr. Miyagi didn’t speak Japanese, man. Pat Morita was a comic from America. But that’s how Hollywood was. If you want to play an Asian character, it’s going to be this Asian character.

Do you ever worry about sort of being pigeonholed as an “identity comedian” as opposed to being a broad comedian that everybody can enjoy?

I love that question. Because I’m talking about my mom and I’m talking about family and I don’t see the difference between me talking about my mom and doing an accent or watching Eddie Murphy do his mom. So I don’t know what the difference is between my mom or Louie Anderson’s mom or Eddie Murphy’s mom or anyone that’s doing their mom on stage. I’m acting like my mom. The joke isn’t the way she’s saying it, the joke is what she’s doing. And I love that you asked that question because my second special, Comin’ in Hot, came out on Netflix and Steven Spielberg watched it and he got it and now we’re making a movie together. So anyone out there that’s still struggling with “he’s speaking to a specific audience,” well I’m glad that specific audience has Steven Spielberg in it.

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Next week on ‘The Last Laugh’ podcast: Comedian and Oscar-nominated screenwriters of ‘Judas and the Black Messiah,’ Keith and Kenny Lucas (AKA The Lucas Brothers)

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