Arts & Entertainment

Jo Koy On Filming a Movie with Steven Spielberg and on Being a Comedian: 'There Was No Plan B'

The stand-up comic talks about writing his first book, Mixed Plate.
IMAGE MANDEE JOHNSON, DEY STREET BOOKS
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In Jo Koy’s first-ever book called Mixed Plate, the comedian talks about his growing up years in vivid detail that he only hints at during his stand-up comedy performances. He punctuates the stories with a punchline in his live act, but in the book, he gets serious and bares it all: how he grew up in near-poverty supported by his doting mother; dealing with an absentee father, who skipped out on the family before he hit puberty; and his strained relationship with a schizophrenic brother.

Any fan of Jo Koy’s has some idea of his life and his experiences growing up as a half white, half-Filipino immigrant in the U.S. But it’s in Mixed Plate where the comedian tears the curtains off and lets everyone in on his life that would eventually lead to him becoming one of the most celebrated comedians of our time.

In this chat, Esquire Philippines catches up with Jo Koy, who tells us about getting the idea to write the book, the thrill of getting that first laugh during one of his earliest performances, and how he ended up working with the Steven Spielberg producing a movie about his life. Excerpts:

Esquire Philippines: Hey Jo. Where are you now exactly?  

JK: We’re in quarantine for two weeks. We’re in Vancouver shooting a movie now. It feels good to talk to people in the outside world.

Have you gotten the vaccine already?

JK: Yeah. But it’s just a mandatory quarantine that they have in Vancouver. They quarantined us for 14 days. 

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I read the book and, I gotta say, you made me cry man. And you made me root for you even more. When did you first get the idea to write it?

JK: Thanks man. About three years ago was when I was like, I really want to tell my story. Everyone gets to see everything that’s happening now, but they don’t know the back story. I really want to explain to people, my fans, just how hard it was: the obstacles my mom had to go through, the mental health that my brother went through and is still going through. I just wanted to let people hear those stories and explain in detail without worrying about having to land a punchline all the time.

With the book I was allowed to be free and really tell that story. I really wanted to go in depth and tell everybody just how hard it was for me.

Photo by Dey Street Books / Harper Collins.
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Tell me about the actual process of writing the book. Was it all in one go, or did you write bits and pieces of it?

It was more stories after stories. One thing I love to do is tell stories. When you watch my standup, there’re stories. But with the book, I didn’t realize how many stories I had. I just kept going and going, to the point where I had piles and piles of stories that I told.

One it was fun to get those stories out there. And two, it was therapeutic, because some of those stories are very personal. So it was an emotional roller coaster. But yeah I was so happy after I was done writing it. 

You also have some recipes in the book of your favorite Filipino food. What made you want to include them?

I’ve always been an ambassador for my culture. Ever since I was a kid, back in the 70s and 80s, I felt like I was always campaigning and telling people who my mom was and what we ate. And I always found that, whenever I had that opportunity, I always want to make sure I showcase our food. I guess, to this day I still do it. It's like, okay I got a book, you know what, I might as well throw some recipes in there to get people to know everything about us.

I want everyone to embrace my culture and appreciate just how beautiful our people are through our food. Just try our food you'll probably even get to know us a little bit more and better by tasting our food. So that's what that was. I was like you know what, I got this opportunity to get some of these classic dishes out there. Let's go for it.

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And these are your mom's recipes, right?

Yeah, and my sister Gemma’s too. 

One of my favorite stories in the book has to be your very first performance at Buzzy’s Café, when you talk about getting that first laugh. I can just imagine the anxiety and fear you must have felt back then. I was wondering if, at that point, did you ever feel like you had to have a plan B for your life? Was it difficult for you to imagine that maybe, if this wouldn't work out, maybe I should start thinking about doing something else?

No, I wanted to be a comic, when I was 10, so there was no other option. There was no plan B. I was going to be a comic, no matter what. So even just getting that one little laugh that night was everything to me.

What's crazy is, us talking about it right now, I still remember the smell of Buzzy’s. Weird man. Like when I talk about Buzzy’s café, there's a distinct smell…of that coffee house. And I loved it. It was such a cool, every Wednesday night-type vibe and man it just brings back great memories.

I went back to Buzzy’s, but it's not Buzzy’s anymore. It's like some kind of fish house and it was all by Filipinos. How crazy is that? It was still built the same way and was laid out the same way. And then the owner was like, ‘You’re Jo Koy!’ And I go, ‘This is where I started,’ and he couldn't believe it.

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A post shared by Jo Koy (@jokoy)

During those years, when you first started The Comedy Jam in Vegas. How old were you then?

I don't know man, it's so long ago I'd have to say 25 years ago. 

So you were around in your mid-20s?

Mid-20s, yeah.

When you were starting out, you hardly said no to anything. You were pretty much accepting all the gigs. But you did say no to that Asian theme night special (with an All-Asian cast of comedians). And, of course, you turned down being Chelsea Handler’s sidekick. During those times when you did say no, did that terrify you at all? Were you thinking that maybe if I say no to this, you know, I might not be getting gigs at all anymore?

No, no, it was the right decision, you know? Like you gotta know who you are, right? And I knew who I was and I knew what I wanted to be, and I knew that wasn't what I wanted to be. I didn't want to be known as Chelsea Handler’s sidekick. I wanted to be known as Jo Koy, the comedian. And I wanted my own show, like Chelsea got a show.

So I thought the best decision was to not sign that deal with Chelsea, because I would have been stuck in that place. I wouldn’t have been comfortable. I probably would have never pursued my own personal dreams, so I knew it was the right decision.

And then, of course, that theme comedy show with Bobby Lee and everyone else. Yeah, I just thought that was a bad idea. I was like, no I'm not gonna do this especially because I want my own hour-long special. I don't want a special where I'm only doing 10 minutes. I wanted my own hour, so I'll wait.

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And when Chelsea Lately came on TV, I was still working at a shoe store. I was kicking myself thinking that I made the wrong decision. But it all paid off in the end. 

You talked a lot about the comedians that inspired you over the years. At this point, you've met some of those heroes that you've always talked about back in the day. How did those meetings go? Because you know how they say like you should never meet your heroes…

I was actually very happy with the guys that I've met. Some of them became my best friends. Like Jon Lovitz was a hero of mine from high school, and here we are still best friends to this day. Rob Schneider is another hero of mine, and we're still like close friends. I got to work with Richard Jeni. I got to meet Robin Williams. That was amazing. So, I've been blessed man. It's been a blessing. 

What about Eddie Murphy?

I got to meet Eddie and I thought that was amazing. But I can't wait to meet them on a different level. Like kind of on a working level. That's what I'm waiting for. 

You talked a lot about your relationship with your family, especially with your brother, Robert. How's that going now? What's your relationship like with him now?

That's always been a tough relationship, and that's why it was so important for me to talk about that in the book. You know, I never told anybody I had a brother. I never mentioned my brother's name. And, partially, the reason why is because I was embarrassed to let people know that my brother was suffering from schizophrenia. And that's a selfish part on my end. But you also got to remember the time that we lived in, that was the kind of stuff you kept to yourself. You didn't tell your business, your family business out there like that.

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But now, it's okay to tell people that people are suffering from mental health issues and that you're not alone. I'm not the only one that has a brother that's suffering from schizophrenia and I shouldn't have to be embarrassed to say something like that because it is normal and it's okay. And it's okay to get therapy and it's okay to talk to somebody. So, I was just so happy to finally talk about that in this book and explain the history with my brother. Just get it out there. Because now people are hitting me up and DM-ing me and telling me their stories. And it feels really good man.

Entertainers have to deal with criticism of their work. How do you deal with the critics? Particularly those who may say not so nice things about what you do?

I don't know man, I don't really pay attention, honestly. I think my favorite critic is my fans. And that's all I listen to. If they're happy, then I'm happy. If we live life wondering how other people feel about us all the time then we’ll never be successful, because you're too busy worrying about other people's thoughts. You can't do that man. You live this life only once. You should make yourself happy. 

And if they don't like you, they can turn off the channel. Easy as that.  

I was at the Mall of Asia Arena show when you performed there a couple of years ago. Tell me about the memories of doing that show here.

Oh that was a dream come true. I shot my Netflix special In His Element there, too. At Solaire two days before. And then I went over the Mall of Asia and did my show.

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But before all of that, I went to a local bar one night and just saw some local Filipino comics, and I picked three of them to open for me. Yeah, that was the coolest thing.

How crazy was that night?

It was insane man. I mean, you know who was there the night before? It was Disney on Ice. And it was like maybe 20 percent capacity.

Yeah but your show was completely packed.

Yeah. Sold out. I love the Philippines.

Are you coming back anytime soon? Obviously not right now because of the whole pandemic...

Yeah I hope so. I want to so bad. I want to go back as soon as possible.

In your book, you also talked about a doing movie with Steven Spielberg. Is that the one that you're filming now?

Yeah, that's what we're doing right now. It's called Easter Sunday. It’s basically a day in the life of me on Easter Sunday. Filipino family. Culture. Chaos. Everything. It all takes place on one day. So that's what we're doing right now. It's gonna be all Filipinos, by the way. 

Who else is in it?

Oh my god we got all kinds of people but I don't know if I can release those yet. But I'm telling you right now, there’s going to be a lot of Filipinos in it.

And you're playing some version of yourself there in the movie?

Oh yeah, it's me. I'm playing me.

And Steven Spielberg is producing it?

Yup. He’s paying for everything. Executive producer.

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What was that conversation like? How did you connect, and how did you pitch this to him?

It was crazy. My special, Coming in Hot, on Netflix? He watched it, and then brought me in for a meeting. He was a big fan of that special, and then got right to the chase. They were like, ‘Steven wants to make a movie with you. Do you have any ideas?’ I pitched the idea and they bought it in the room. And here we are.

It just sounds surreal telling you that right now. That it happened that quick. But that's exactly what happened. 

Yeah, I mean just the fact that you're actually doing a movie. And you're doing it with Steven Spielberg. And you're doing it about your life…

Me too, man, I'm so excited man and the fact that it's THE guy. It’s the GOAT himself supporting this. Thank God, finally we’re gonna get some recognition in Hollywood.

Did you write it also?

It was my idea, but it was written by Ken Chang and a couple other guys. But uh, yeah, it's gonna be amazing.

Okay, so I gotta ask. After all of the success, and your mom being like a huge part of your act and who you are right now, what's your relationship with her like now? Is your mom still sort of bugging you to get a real job?

(Laughs) No, no. We're, we're way past that. I think she knows. She sees the benefits now. Yeah, she's reaping the benefits. It's awesome. 

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How have you been spending the lockdown? I mean besides doing that movie?

You know, I actually enjoyed it. I'm not gonna lie, man. I enjoyed every single moment that I got to share it with my son. This year, I didn't realize how fast it was going and how many days I was going on the road and not seeing my son grow. This year I got to see my son grow in front of me. Literally he started like right here and now he's like up here (demonstrates growth with hand). Yeah, he's got a moustache now, so I got to witness all that. So I will cherish this year with my son.

It's his birthday today, by the way.

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A post shared by Jo Koy (@jokoy)

Oh wow. How old is he?

He's 18. He’s a man now.

This book has just come out but are you already planning like some sort of sequel? Are you planning to write another book?

Oh yeah. We gotta do another one. I gotta do another. Look, there has to be another story that, that we want to tell. It's addicting man, I'm not gonna lie. I love it. It’s a different style. I love telling the stories.

Mixed Plate by Jo Koy is now available on all Fully Booked branches and on www.fullybookedonline.com

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Paul John Caña
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