'Everything that’s on my chest, I say on stage': comedian Jo Koy on his painful path to stardom

We chat to American-Filipino comedian ahead of his Dubai show at the Coca-Cola Arena

Filipino-American comedian Jo Koy's Dubai show ended with a standing ovation. Courtesy Coca-Cola Arena
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If you don't have a Netflix special, are you any good as a stand-up comedian? It's the proverbial chicken and egg situation that has permeated the stand-up community ever since the online streaming company established itself as the leading platform and global business card for a professional comic.

For every blockbuster special by superstars such as Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock, Netflix has also shed light on relatively little-known talents, catapulting them to international acclaim.

One beneficiary of the "Netflix effect" is Jo Koy. The American-Filipino comedian built a strong and steady career in the US with regular tours and TV appearances on late night shows such as Jimmy Kimmel Live! and Last Call with Carson Daly. But it was after Koy released two Netflix specials, 2017's Jo Koy: Live from Seattle and last year's Jo Koy: Comin' In Hot, that he began to tour internationally.

As part of his latest global trek, Koy will touch down in Dubai for a show at the Coca-­Cola Arena next Monday.

When I ask him about the importance of having a Netflix special, Koy is reflective. While he is aware of the transformative effects that such shows can have on a comedian's career, he also offers a word of caution, saying they also risk making inexperienced comics lazy.

"The thing is, people need to realise that these things shouldn't be the goal," Koy, 48, says. "The effect of Netflix and things like that are definitely real and they can be really alluring, but none of it will work if you don't have good material to back it up. And that just takes time, man."

It also helps if your material has universal appeal. Koy's act is made up of the major comic food groups that are often eaten up by a broad array of fans – there are colourful tales of youth, parental anecdotes and, of course, a dazzling command of various accents. While this is not exactly innovative, Koy makes these tropes his own by channelling them all through his cross-cultural upbringing.

Born Joseph Herbert, Koy is the son of a Filipina mother and a US Air Force officer. Koy was born in America, but as a result of his father's career, the comedian spent most of his preteen life as a "military kid", which meant stints living in countries such as the Philippines and Japan.

"I loved it because I got to travel the world when I was so young," he says. "A lot of times I was seeing things that others my age never saw before, so it made me feel like I was living 20 years ahead of everyone."

Unfortunately, he also endured more painful experiences. There was bullying and racism – and that was only at school. The family home was also characterised by prejudice, with his paternal family never accepting Koy's mother.

It is when he gently delves into these deeper subjects on stage that his comedy specials rise above the good-natured yet safe material. Koy says talking about those experiences night after night on stage is a cathartic experience.

“It definitely helps me and it is a form of therapy for me,” he says. “Everything that’s on my chest, I say on stage. I may turn them all into jokes but, man, there is lots of pain laced within those jokes, too. And I am glad to see people from different ethnicities feel the same pain and laugh at the same thing.”

While crediting his father for showing him the world and giving him the ability "to latch on to any culture that I am in", it was Koy's mother who instilled in him the resilience needed to not only navigate the school playground, but the similarly choppy waters of the US stand-up comedy scene. It is because of her encouragement that Koy began performing in school talent shows and community events, beginning his stand-up career with a performance at a Las Vegas cafe in 1994.

And this is what the immigrant experience gives you. It gives you this sense of sternness and toughness. My mother was all about me working hard, going to college and getting a job.

It is no coincidence the funniest material from each of his shows relates to his mother's no-nonsense approach to life. Whether it is her use of Vicks VapoRub to treat all wounds, or how she prepared traditional lunches for him to take to school, any child of migrants would have grown up with a parent like Koy's mother.

"And this is what the immigrant experience gives you," he says. "It gives you this sense of sternness and toughness. My mother was all about me working hard, going to college and getting a job. Now, she thought that me being an entertainer and successful was absolutely crazy, but I used that attitude and the work ethic she gave me to push through in my career and to prove her wrong."

It also gave Koy the strength to withstand the setbacks he has faced throughout his career, including Netflix's initial rejection of his breakout stand-up special Jo Koy: Live from Seattle.

Unperturbed, Koy financed the production himself, from the camera crew to the venue hire. He says he returned to Netflix with the finished product and "made them watch it". Not only did the streaming company purchase the rights to the show, it also produced Koy's follow-up special, Jo Koy: Comin' In Hot, which was filmed in Hawaii.

While he is aware the majority of his fans in the UAE know him for those specials, Koy says his Coca-Cola Arena show, which part of his Just Kidding world tour, will be "100 per cent new material", including a sizeable riff about his experiences in Dubai. Therefore, expect him to arrive a few days early to immerse himself in the city. And fans shouldn't be shy about asking for a selfie.

"Listen man, the whole point of the Dubai show started with me just wanting to vacation there," he says. "So when the chance came to actually go up there and do a show I was super excited. This is two birds with one stone. I can't wait to see you all up there."

Jo Koy performs at the Coca-­Cola Arena, Dubai, on Monday, January 20. More information is available at www.coca-cola-­arena.com