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Entertainment & Arts

How Jo Koy found his voice on Vegas’ comedy club scene

Jo Koy
Comedian Jo Koy will headline at the Wynn’s Encore theater in Las Vegas in May.
(Mandee Johnson)

When Jo Koy first performed back-to-back shows in 2019 to a sold-out crowd at the Encore Theater in Wynn Las Vegas, it was a huge moment in his career — a dream come true for a kid who cut his teeth in the desert city’s comedy scene, living, working and attending college there from the late ’90s to the early ’00s.

“They were monster,” he recalled of the Wynn shows. “It was before my second Netflix special, ‘Comin’ in Hot,’ dropped.”

Koy’s long history in Las Vegas will see a new chapter this spring when his Just Kidding World Tour, featuring all new material, comes to Wynn (May 8, 9 and 29-31; Angelenos can catch him at The Forum in Inglewood Feb. 20 and 21). Koy’s highly energetic storytelling style hits all the feels, from family dynamics to cultural eccentricities — his mom is Filipina. He was named Stand-Up Comedian of the Year at Montreal’s Just for Laughs in 2018 and hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts in 2019 with his comedy album “Live From Seattle.”

But it all started in Vegas.

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Beyond the Strip, Koy still maintains a footprint in the desert with a residence and a restaurant, Yojie Japanese Fondue, on the west side. “I’m planning on turning it into an open mic,” he said of the eatery where he’s been a partner since 2015. “My nephew is thinking about stand-up, and he’s having problems finding places to go up. I always wanted an open mic, and I knew how it felt when you were 18 trying to perform and audition. I want to provide an intimate, small stage where it’s, like, 50 people capacity and you can do whatever you want. You can do poetry and sing. You can play guitar.”

Koy’s hunch to foster local talent is right on trend, as Las Vegas’ comedy scene is booming. On any weekend there are at least two comedians headlining Strip casinos at either Wynn, the Mirage or Cosmopolitan.

Sources from AEG, the company that books and promotes Encore, said the theater went from zero headlining comedy shows in 2018 to 29 in 2019 (more than a quarter of the venue’s overall 96 performances), with each show generating more than $125,000 in ticket sales on average. AEG anticipates that about one-third or more of the 1,480-seat Encore’s 2020 shows will be comedy.

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On a call from his home in L.A., Koy shared memories of his beginnings on the Strip and beyond, the legends that shaped his path, the early bombs and how a Lionel Richie impersonator gave him the courage to go on. These are edited excerpts from that conversation.

‘It was old-school Vegas that really motivated me to do stand-up’

I moved to Las Vegas in 1989 from Tacoma, Wash. My grandmother had cancer and she lived in Vegas, so right when I graduated high school, we all moved to be with her. We lived right behind a Bally’s. Let’s just say you could buy crack there. It was pretty bad. There were a lot of transients and prostitutes. It was a bad area.

This was when the Strip still looked like old Las Vegas. The Stardust was there, the Riviera was there, Dunes was still there, Hacienda was still there, Aladdin was still there. So it was old-school Vegas that really motivated me to do stand-up comedy. Everywhere you looked there was entertainment. I saw George Carlin, I saw Brian Regan. All my favorite comedians came through Vegas every week.

Shania Twain’s Las Vegas residency provided her the chance to recalibrate her career, lay down some roots and make some serious money.

I was referred to the valet manager at the Mirage — and to get a valet job at the Mirage was like gold. I got the interview. The guy offered me the job and he was like, “It’ll be random, it’ll be on call, but at least you’re in and you’re going to be a valet attendant.” I looked at him and I said, “I’m OK because I want to pursue comedy.” And his mouth dropped. He said, “I don’t offer this to anyone. You’re friends with my mom. And my mom says you’re a really good guy — and I’m going to ask you one more time. You sure you want to say no to this? Because I’m not going to offer this again.” And I said, “Yeah, man, I really love comedy and I can’t do on call.” I needed my weekends off to do stand-up.

‘I bombed so bad — but that night changed my life’

The first gigs I did were in bars in North Las Vegas and downtown Las Vegas. I did a show called “Star Mania” — it was a knockoff version of “Star Search.” The promoters would convince the bars to host the preliminary rounds and the people performing would bring family members to pack the bar. I went up at this bar on Jones and Tropicana. I wasn’t even 20 yet.

I had a baby hair mustache and I used my mom’s eyeliner to make it darker. I remember I ordered a Coke because I thought if I order a drink and they ask for an ID, I’m not going to be able to go onstage. I had never even been inside a bar before and I was scared that I was going to sweat and my mustache was going to start to leak into my mouth. I had patent leather shoes on, houndstooth chef pants, a purple tie and a triple-extra-large white button-up shirt. I thought that looked so good.

I bombed so bad — a lady at the bar was heckling me — but that night changed my life. There was a Lionel Richie impersonator who went before me and he crushed. He actually won the contest. When I got offstage, I sat next to him and he said to me, “Don’t be sad, man. I’ll tell you this much. You have a lot of stage presence.” And I didn’t even know what that meant, but I remember those words were the reason why I didn’t quit. It was the worst bomb of my life. I wrote five pages of material and I remember going over it for a few weeks, memorized every line. I knew it in my sleep. And the minute I got onstage, the first joke: no laughs. It was complete silence. And then my tongue got all chalky, sticking to the roof of my mouth. I couldn’t speak. And then I forgot everything. I was just mumbling and just trying to make up jokes onstage.

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Jo Koy
Comedian Jo Koy.
(Mandee Johnson)

The Rivera Comedy Club was run by Steve Schirripa, who ended up landing a full-time gig on “The Sopranos.” I used to call him every week and go, “Hi, my name is Joseph Herbert. And I do stand-up and I would love to open for any of your comics. Anytime you need another, please just call me.” And he would always answer. He was the only club manager that would. One day he said, “Hey, kid, look — if you want to work here, move to L.A., work your craft out, get a TV gig and an agent, and have your agent call me. All right, buddy?”

From $30 gigs to ‘The Tonight Show’

That was the last time I called. I started doing open mics, and then from open mics, that’s when I started meeting local comics. And then, of course, local comics have their own rooms and they pay you like $30 to do a set. There was an old nightclub called the Beach Nightclub. They used to do comedy nights upstairs by the pool room.

One night, Kevin Kearney, the booker for Catch a Rising Star at MGM Grand, happened to be in the audience and asked me to do a week. “I want you to open some comics,” he said, and gave me a stack of two-for-one tickets. “Just hand these out to your friends.” The audience was everyone I gave two-for-ones to — no one was really there to see the headliner.

I thought, “Why am I giving this guy two-for-ones when I could just rent out a theater and sell the tickets myself? These are all my fans anyways, these are all my friends.” That’s when I started renting out the Huntridge Theater on Charleston Boulevard and Maryland Parkway. And I used to rent that out for like $700, $800 a show. I had to get all the plane tickets for the comics and I would go solicit sponsors and make my own tickets at Kinko’s and I would sell that place out.

When I moved to L.A. in 2001, I still wasn’t an established comic, so I got another part-time job at Nordstrom Rack selling shoes. I eventually got into the Laugh Factory and the owner ended up being my manager, Jamie Masada. Thank God for Vegas. Because the 12 years I put in, when I moved to L.A. I was seasoned and ready. That’s how I ended up getting Just for Laughs. That’s how I got “The Tonight Show.” That’s how I became an opening act for Jon Lovitz. That’s how I got “Chelsea Lately.” All that came from my time in Vegas.

Now here I am, 30 years later, playing the Wynn. It’s like the chapter in the book that I’d never thought I’d reach.


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