HANGIN' WITH JO KOY
Filipino-American 'Tonight Show'comic JoKoy headlines Asian talent showcase
By Carl Kozlowski
Growing up all around the planet as a military child, JoKoy dreamed of being a standup comic. Watching Eddie Murphy, Robin Williams and Whoopi Goldberg during their 1980s performing heydays, he could barely wait to graduate from high school in order to break off on his own and take the plunge into onstage stardom himself.
Like countless other performers in the entertainment industry, the road to success wasn't fast. But thanks to incredible perseverance, JoKoy (a stage name he took from his childhood nickname) finally landed on "The Tonight Show" in January and achieved one of the most incredible and rare feats that any comic could hope for: a standing ovation on his first appearance.
With his career newly afire from that success, he has found himself in greater demand than ever across the country and landed an appearance on ABC's fellow late-night show "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" this past Monday.
This weekend, the Filipino-American performer takes the stage at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium as the headliner of "Asian Elevation," a show being touted as "the premiere Asian Pacific American talent show," and gives Pasadenans a chance to catch his magic live and in person.
"'The Tonight Show' was amazing, and that was the greatest day of my life. I got that from [performing at the Just for Laughs comedy festival in] Montreal, where the show's talent bookers saw me, liked my routine and wanted to put me on the show," he recalls. "I couldn't wait. Six months later, I was finally on it. And then to have a standing ovation was even more amazing because they told me I was only the third comic ever to receive one on the show."
It is that kind of acclaim that has made JoKoy, who was born on an American military base in Japan but finally settled in Seattle with his family for his high school years, a hero to legions of young Asian-American performers. His presence at "Asian Elevation," which features 10 eclectic acts vying for a $1,000 grand prize, should easily garner him a similar response to his appearance on "The Tonight Show."
The 35-year-old comic started performing in 1995 in Las Vegas, where his family had moved after he graduated from high school. He credits his experiences there, in which he balanced "odd jobs" with nonstop performances at open mikes and eventually rented theaters to produce his own showcase shows all over Sin City, as his true "growing-up years."
In fact, JoKoy is part of a small but die-hard group of Asian-Americans who have braved the standup comedy world amid decades that have seen other minority stars from the aforementioned Murphy to current Latino favorite Carlos Mencia get their moments to shine. He's proud to be in a tradition that includes Pat Morita, Kevin Shea, Edwin San Juan, Dan Gabriel and current "MAD TV" star Bobby Lee, but he feels that the time has come for Asian-American comics to truly kick in the doors to success.
"There's basically a handful of Asian comics out there, and just a handful of funny ones too. I want more. That's my goal, and it just takes time," he says. "Hopefully we're the pioneers to helping others get out there because the more of us, the better. I don't want us to be Asian comics; just be a funny comic, and if you're Asian, you're Asian. I can make anybody laugh, and I want my fans to be every color."
Onstage, JoKoy is able to elicit waves of laughter by talking about anything from bathroom habits to male-female relations to his personal stories of life with his 3-year-old son. But his strongest barbs come in attacking the stereotypes held against his race:
"Being Asian in LA means you get the worst compliments. 'Oh, you're Asian? I love orange chicken,'" he squeals in an excited Caucasian girl's voice. "Don't thank Asians for orange chicken, thank the Mexicans. They know how to cook it."
"Asians are always considered to be bad drivers. I drove here; I've got a car. We build the best cars; you don't think we can drive them? You think an engineer at Lexus is bragging about what he built, but when it comes time to drive, he goes (in thick Asian accent) 'Oh no, I just build car …'?"
Speaking of his inspirations for material and the road he's traveled thus far, JoKoy also notes how amazed he is to be actor/comic Jon Lovitz's official opening act for both Lovitz's weekly Wednesday night shows at West Hollywood's Laugh Factory and for Lovitz's upcoming national comedy tour. But as he notes, sometimes all the timing falls into place.
"They say it takes you 10 years to find your [comedic] voice, and it really came around my ninth or 10th year onstage. I realized I know how to say something and say it funny, and no matter the topic, I can make it funny," he explains. "Some things I say are my point of view — being Asian in America and then about my son also and observational off- the-wall stuff — but it's all delivered the same way. I'm having fun, and people just get it."