Comedian Jo Koy’s new special, Jo Koy: Live from Seattle, begins streaming today on Netflix. Koy has come a long way since his early days performing in whatever Las Vegas rooms he could start DIY shows in. He eventually became a regular on Chelsea Lately, released two one-hour Comedy Central specials, and is one of the few comics to ever receive a standing ovation on The Tonight Show. Koy called early one morning from his bed in Studio City to discuss the new special, the trials and tribulations of the Las Vegas comedy scene, and why he chose Seattle as the location for his latest hour.
I noticed that you do a lot of stuff in Vegas where you started out. Do you have a place there too?
I don’t have a place there, but I do own a restaurant.
When did you open your restaurant?
About two years ago. It’s called Yojie. I love going back there. Whenever I’m in Vegas I promote the hell out of it.
Did you open it as an investment opportunity or because you wanted to create a business in the city you came up in?
I always wanted to build something in Vegas, especially off The Strip. I know how it is for locals. They don’t like going to The Strip for entertainment or even to eat. When I was thinking of opening a restaurant I was like, “It’s definitely gotta be for the locals.’
I would imagine that Vegas is an interesting place to start standup. There’s so much entertainment there, but it’s really built around tourism and big headlining acts. What was the scene like when you started?
When I started there was no scene. It was pretty bad. We had a handful of comics doing open mics and trying to get into the clubs that were established already like The Improv at Harrah’s, the Riviera Comedy Club, Catch a Rising Star at MGM. But they were only booking headliners. We had to create the rooms on our own. I would rent out venues and sell tickets myself.
Would you say that being in Vegas gave you an opportunity to brush shoulders with bigger headliners or did you find yourself more separated from those big shows?
At the beginning of my career, no, absolutely not. We were so far removed from The Strip. It was hard to get in there. It was strictly just helping each other, word of mouth, finding out where the paying rooms were. That’s basically how it was until one of us decided to move to LA and establish ourselves there and start getting credits, building our names, and then coming back to Vegas. For the most part it was every man for themselves in Vegas. This was a long time ago though. I started in 1989. I was the booker, the promoter, the headliner. I wore all the hats.
I guess one good thing that came from that is that you learned about the business early on.
Yeah, indirectly I was teaching myself all the elements of this business. When I got to LA I was prepared.
If you had to pick one moment what would you say was your big break?
The Tonight Show. I was working three jobs at the time. I didn’t realize how many people watched The Tonight Show. I was working in the shoe department at Nordstrom Rack. People would come up and go, “Oh my God, you were on The Tonight Show last night.” Then it would be back to reality like, “Okay, let me get these in a size 8 for you.”
A lot of your material is about your family, especially your son. He’s a teenager now, right?
Yeah, he’s thirteen now.
How does he feel about his life being documented through your standup?
He loves it. His friends are fans of mine. He gets a lot of love for it. I’m always embarrassing him, but he knows that I’m also embarrassing myself as well. He gets it. He understands what this whole business is about. He likes watching the stories himself. He comes to the shows and takes pictures with the fans. He’s been really good about it.
Does he have your sense of humor?
Oh yeah, he’s good. If he becomes a comedian, which I really think he should…he’s going to be around some type of entertainment. He’s got the talent for sure.
Your first ever Netflix special debuts March 28th. You’ve had two Comedy Central specials already. What’s one of the biggest differences between doing an hour on Comedy Central and an hour on Netflix?
With Comedy Central they produced it and did everything. I just had to walk up there and tell the jokes. Whereas with Netflix I was heavily, creatively involved, from the logo, to the lighting of the room, to selecting the venue, to selling the tickets, and promoting it. I’m seeing my blood, sweat, and tears come to life. It makes me love this special even more. That’s what I love about working with Netflix. Creatively they let you do what you want to do.
You recorded the special in Seattle. You grew up near there, in Tacoma. Is that why you chose Seattle?
Ever since my first special I was like, “God, I want to tape one at home. That’s where I fell in love with standup. I saw Eddie Murphy live at the Seattle Coliseum. It’s where I went to my first comedy club. That’s where - when I was a kid - I decided I had to be a standup comic. I had to shoot this one in Seattle.