Jo Koy on New Netflix Special, Being “Hurt” by Hollywood

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Jo Koy is more than ready to get back to laughing, and he’s pretty certain audiences are, too.

He’ll put that theory to the test Sept. 13, when the best-selling comic parlays his arena act into his fourth Netflix special. The hour, titled Live From the Los Angeles Forum, delves into his struggles in Hollywood, where he and his Filipino heritage weren’t always celebrated. It was directed by Shannon Hartman and executive produced by Koy, Hartman, Joe Meloche and Michelle Caputo.

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During a brief stop at home in Los Angeles, the newly single Koy spoke candidly about telling jokes in an increasingly fraught climate and why he thanks God for Steven Spielberg.

You’re about to release your fourth Netflix special. What was important to you this time around?

This is the biggest one I ever shot. It was at the Great Western Forum, so I had to be big in this one.

What does being “big” entail?

I used to work at Nordstrom Rack on Sepulveda [Boulevard], and I lived around there, too, so I’d drive by the Great Western Forum, which is now called the Kia Forum, all the time. It’s just so iconic and in your head, you’re like, “Oh, that’ll never happen,” but then you convince yourself that you’re going to perform there one day. Fast-forward to 20 years later, and here I am, on that stage, and so I had to bring it. We sold something like 28,000 tickets, which is massive, and I knew I wanted to come out swinging and then to maintain that energy for that many people, for that long, is a lot.

What did you find you wanted to say with this set?

My main focus was about my struggle in the business. You see an hour special on Netflix and it’s me inside this huge arena, but that that’s not what it was just few years ago. There were a lot of no’s. Netflix initially said no to me, and it became about me having to not listen to them and pay for [a special] myself and produce it myself and edit it myself and then bring it in to them. [They ultimately bought and released Jo Koy: Live From Seattle in 2017.] It was a big deal, but we live in a time and a generation that reacts differently when they hear no, and I wanted to show people that none of this would’ve happened if I had just taken no for an answer. And so I talked about Netflix, I told the Netflix story on Netflix, and I thought that was pretty cool because my relationship with Netflix wasn’t always roses.

There are plenty of people who will tell you that going out onstage right now is scary, both because you don’t know what might happen and because you don’t know how your material might land out of context. Do either of these concerns resonate with you?

No. My whole style is storytelling and I like to stay within my pocket: It’s about me and my family. So, I don’t fear that at all. I’m always able to say, “Hey, I’m being honest and this is my family and that’s my truth.”

Whitney Cummings announced recently that she’d be releasing a stand-up special, but that she’d be maintaining ownership of it so that she’d be able to do whatever she pleased with it in the future. Does that strategy hold appeal to you?

With Live From Seattle, I was one of the first ones to do that. Now, it was a specific year that I wanted to be on [Netflix]. It was the year [2017] that they made that first push with all the big comics and I thought that I belonged on that roster. I was just like, “No, you’re not going to say no to me. I belong here and I’m going to shoot it myself and you’re going to see why.” So, that was my main reasoning then, I was not going to be denied that spot, but having complete control was another benefit and also knowing that I had other places I could go with it.

You’ve said in the past that Hollywood didn’t know what to do with you for a long time. When do you think that changed?

When Live From Seattle dropped [in 2017], we could literally feel the difference overnight in ticket sales. I broke that record in Hawaii. I sold more tickets than Mariah Carey. It was like 12 sold-out shows in a row — we sold something like 23,000 tickets, the most I’d ever sold. Then we started noticing that across the country and then overseas, and it was crazy.

And how about as it relates to Hollywood?

Hollywood was just not biting. That’s what I talk about in the special, so I don’t want to give too much away, but I just felt like, “What are you acting like you don’t see? Or what is it that you’re not seeing? These numbers are clear as day. I’m an arena act. I’m on a list of people that aren’t comics who are selling out arenas. It’s like, Elton John, Billy Joel, Jo Koy and Coldplay. Like, what aren’t you guys seeing?” And it hurt. It hurt a lot. And yeah, it was offensive that I still had to convince a lot of people that what I’m saying is relevant and funny. Then [his 2019 Netflix special] Comin’ in Hot dropped, and that’s when Steven Spielberg saw me, and when Steven watched it, he was like, “I love this.” And when Steven says that, everybody in the industry’s like, “Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah.” (Laughs.)

And next thing you know, he has you making Easter Sunday

It’s crazy. I struggled for 32 years, wondering who’s going to notice me, and then Steven Spielberg notices me and then he wants to make a movie off of what I’m talking about and he’s my biggest fan. Nobody would believe this story, but thank God for Steven.

When you set out to make Easter Sunday, what did you find became particularly important to you?

The most important part for me was that I finally got a chance to represent my people, my culture, my mom, and I didn’t want to do a movie where I’m making fun of — where people were laughing at us. I wanted to celebrate my culture; I wanted to represent my people, and I wanted to make sure that they were proud, that they go to this movie and see everyone laughing with us and not at us, because for years they’ve been laughing at us to the point where they’re like, “We don’t know what to do with you in Hollywood.” And now we get to change that and we get to show that, “Hey, this blueprint that we’re doing can work for everybody.” It just happens to be with Filipinos here, but there are a lot of voices in this country that need to be heard and celebrated.

What’s the status of your ABC pilot? I know it was passed over this spring, but there seemed to be some rumblings about trying to figure out another way in.

We’ll keep throwing stuff at the wall until it sticks. I don’t mind trying; that’s what I’m here for. I want to keep telling my story, and I want to tell other people’s stories.

What else is on the bucket list?

More movies. I love it. I also want to direct and produce more, and I want to find other talent out there. I know how hard it was for me, so now that I have the door open, I want to let more of these people in.

When I spoke with you and Chelsea Handler back in December, you talked about this very idea of potentially launching a production company where that would be a focus. Is that still the plan? [Editor’s note: This interview was conducted before Handler and Koy announced they’d split.]

Well, no disrespect, but this is something I’ve always wanted to do separately as Jo Koy because there’s a lot of friends and comics that I’ve been working with for a long time and this is something I’ve been passionate about solo and I want to accomplish first as Jo Koy. So, yeah, that’s always been my thing and I can’t wait to do it. Like, we already have a few that we’ll announce soon. I’m very, very excited, and I’ll make sure to call you first.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

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