Jo Koy talks “Lights Out” and making it in Vegas vs. making it in L.A.

Jo Koy’s new stand-up special, “Lights Out,” debuts on Comedy Central tonight, and becomes available as a longer CD or DVD on Tuesday.

Koy also took some time in this past week to talk to The Comic’s Comic about what it’s like to start your comedy career in Las Vegas, how forging his own path outside the casino/resort system helped him build a following even while working three different day jobs, and his relationships with his mother and as well as with Chelsea Handler.

But first, a clip from “Lights Out,” in which Koy talks about bad advice his mother gave him about going out to the bars and nightclubs. Roll it.

And here is a bonus clip from the DVD in which Koy goes home to Las Vegas and visits his Filipino mom (who still really does have a strong accent as Jo displays in his stand-up) at the radio station where she has become a DJ.

Watching that video of you visiting the first place in Las Vegas you performed stand-up at in a strip mall, it seems like a particularly tough comedy scene in which to start, since it’s dominated by the casinos and resorts who have their own policies and politics. How is it, really?

“It’s the worst. I hated it but I loved it at the same time. Because it taught me how to wear several hats. I was the talent. I was the booker.”

And how long did it take you to move up the ranks in Vegas?

“They wouldn’t let you up at the big clubs,” Koy said.  “I don’t know how many times the Improv (in Vegas) would say, ‘Move to L.A., get a rep, work out an act and then we’ll work you here in Vegas.”

So what did you do?

“I started working the local rooms, and then I’d work the nightclubs where they would shut it down at night and it’d be a comedy night. I’d be on the dance floor. But it was cool. Next thing you know…a guy from Catch A Rising Star hapened to be at this nighctlub, and he said, ‘I’m going to give you a week at Catch…I go and do this week. Seven nights, and I think it was 2, 2, nine shows in seven days, and he gave me a stack of two-for-one coupons and said, ‘Give them to all your friends,’ and I do, and all of a sudden, they all came to see me…none for the headliner…I thought, why am I going to let the headliner make all of this money?”

So he found his own room.

“Next thing you know I’m selling tickets for $14 a pop, 600 seats apiece. It went so well, I had comics calling me saying, ‘I heard you had a room.’ It went from that to befriending a lot of big-name acts….they told me, ‘You have to get to L.A., get that TV exposure.’ That took me about 13 years to make that move, and then when I made that move it was the best move of my life.”

“A year later I get a girl pregnant, and have a baby. That wasn’t the smartest move, but it was the best move,” he says. Because he had to think about someone else. “I went from nonchalant comic, $100 here and $100 there, to all of a sudden I have a baby and I need health insurance. So I just stepped it up. Writing jokes and getting gigs.”

Here Koy jokes about becoming a parent, advising young people to “pull out” before it’s too late:

As the big-name comedians had advised, that TV exposure made all of the difference for him about five years ago when he performed on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.

“That Tonight Show set changed my life. Literally three days after the Tonight Show, I quit my day job, i got a commercial deal, went on tour.”

What was your last day job?

“I was working at Nordstrom Rack. I was s shoe guy there, selling shoes. That went from 7 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. five days a week, I was at Borders books, shelving books, that went from 12 to 9. And then weekends, I was on a catering yacht. I was a bus boy, I was cleaning all the tables. But I had to do it. I had a baby son. I needed the work,” he said. “But after the Tonight Show, that was over. Thank you, Jay!”

I take it you didn’t find it hard to take sides when that whole Jay-Conan thing went down, then, huh?

“Jay’s the reason why my son is going to private school,” he said.

And how is your relationship with Chelsea Handler these days?

“Chelsea’s always been nice to me. I knew her when she was broke Chelsea. I met her through Jon Lovitz, because I was opening for Jon.” Lovitz talked up Handler to Koy. “Next thing you know, Chelsea is MC’ing these shows with Jon and I. She needed the money. And then, bam, overnight she runs Hollywood.”

Handler certainly enjoys giving you a hard time whenever you’re on Chelsea Lately, though.

“She’s been nothing but nice to all the comics. She wants to get under your skin to get the reaction.”

How do you balance out your material between how much you devote onstage to your son and your mother, versus other topics or observations?

“I’ve never been that observational guy. It’s easy. Well, it’s not easy. I shouldn’t say that,” he said. “I was always inspired by Bill Cosby, Eddie Murphy, the storytellers. So when I made that push into stand-up, it just subliminally, it just happened. It indirectly happened. So I’d just tell a story…it just came naturally to me.” Koy said he so enjoyed hearing Murphy talk about his aunt and uncle onstage. “That’s what I did.”

In that DVD footage we see of your mother on the radio, how long has that been going on?

“She just started, dude! She retired and became a DJ. She says if i ever complain, ‘Mom, this is an expensive hobby,’ she says, ‘I give birth to you, that was kind of an expensive hobby, too.’ But it makes her happy, so it makes me happy.”

You were supposed to be on Handler’s NBC sitcom this winter, but they ended up recasting your role. Do you still have a desire to do a sitcom?

“Oh my god, it’s my ultimate goal. I just booked another pilot. We already shot it, with Leah Remini (on ABC — it’s called White Man Van). Acting is my thing. I think it shows onstage. If not I’m always going to do stand-up. I think that’s every comic’s ultimate goal is to get on TV or a sitcom.”

In “Lights Out,” you mention that your mother wasn’t initially supportive of your decision to become a stand-up comedian. When did you win her over?

“When I started making money. When I stopped borrowing money from her. She said, ‘Ah joesep, I knew that was going to be the best decision, stand-up comedy.’ I was like, ‘No, you didn’t!'”

Here’s another DVD bonus clip from “Lights Out,” in which we learn that among the friends visiting Koy backstage before the special’s taping were comedian Anjelah Johnson, Michael Yo, Tia Carrere, and from The Black-Eyed Peas.

You can purchase “Lights Out” via and iTunes:

Jo Koy

Sean L. McCarthy

Editor and publisher since 2007, when he was named New York's Funniest Reporter. Former newspaper reporter at the New York Daily News, Boston Herald and smaller dailies and community papers across America. Loves comedy so much he founded this site.

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