Comedian Jo Koy knows how to joke about his family. He’s a college dropout and the divorced single father of a hormonal teenage son who often forgets to shower. For Koy, a family and his son provide more joke material than stability. In his 2017 Netflix special, Jo Koy: Live From Seattle, there are a lot of jokes about living with a teenager. It’s a chaotic situation that, upon closer inspection, is very, very chaotic — and also fine.
Fatherly caught up with Koy as the comedian merged off the expressway, pulled his son out of school early, and narrowly avoided injuring another parent in the parking lot. It was an unusual conversation.
Your dad is mostly absent from your comedy. Is that because he was absent from your life?
My dad wasn’t there. I know that sucks to say. I don’t want you to think he just up and left the family. There are deeper issues. We went through a lot of drama with the family. Thank god for comedy!
So you never really knew him.
When he left, I was 10. He took my grandparents. He took his brothers. He took that whole side of the family. I don’t know the Herberts. I have that name, my last name is Herbert, but I don’t know them. So I can’t identify with them. And it hurt.
Did you ever reconcile?
We have a great relationship now. My dad’s my biggest fan. When I went to college, my dad came into my life in full-on dad mode. I was doing comedy and he was so excited for my comedy, whereas my mom wasn’t. So we bonded through comedy. We’ve kissed and hugged and made up and moved forward.
Does he wish he was in your act?
After one show, we sat and talked. He’s like, “Jo, I understand. I’m sorry I wasn’t there. But I totally get it. And I don’t want you to feel bad.” But I did feel bad! I told him, “I don’t talk about your side of the family because I don’t know anybody!”
So has he influenced your life?
I learned from my dad’s mistakes. I think that’s why I’m so into my son. I bring him lunch every day. McDonald’s, Taco Bell, whatever junk food a kid likes, I will bring it for him. I’ve canceled gigs so I could be at moments for him. That wasn’t a big thing for my dad. I don’t want my son to feel the way I felt.
How do you ensure that? You’re divorced as well.
Me and my son’s mother, we’ve been divorced for a while but we’ve been really great parents. We’re good friends, we’re very relaxed when it comes to our son’s time with one another. We have an open door.
How do you maintain that?
God, I’m sorry. I’m driving to my son’s school and trying to merge. If I cut off anyone during this interview, I’m sorry.
There you go. I have now merged. So yeah, I’m in a position where I can provide a little comfort for my son. It’s easier when you can say, I can help you without having to go to a lawyer. We’re good friends raising a beautiful child together — why fight over money? That only hurts my son. Whereas my mom and dad, their divorce was ugly. It was ugly until just recently. And it affected the kids. I didn’t want to be like that. It’s just money, who gives a shit? Let’s just make this work.
Have you been able to pass on your Filipino pride to him? Your heritage obviously hugely impacted your life and comedy.
My son’s mom is also half white, half Filipino and his grandfather on his mom’s side was in the Navy. So it’s a similar story. I don’t really have to teach him anything because there are so many Filipinos in his damn life! His favorite foods are Filipino. He’s been to the Philippines for almost a month to see where his grandmother grew up. It’s kind of neat. Things I never got to do when I was a kid, my son is doing.
It sounds like you’re deliberately giving your son the opposite experience from your own.
I’m doing my dad thing right now. Today is my son’s last day before spring break and they have class until 11:oo. He texts me, “Please get me at 11:15 because from 11:15 to 1:00 we’re doing mass.” The dad thing to say is, “No, go to church. I paid for it, you go do it.” But I’m like, it’s spring break, let’s roll! So I’m picking up him and his best friend.
I love being a friend to my son. We go to the mall together. We shop. He picks out my clothes. We hang out. We go to different cities together. We like the same music. I think that’s why he appreciates his mom and me so much — we treat him like a friend.
Did you pick him up?
I just saw him walk by.… You should see these kids. They’re dressed in red and blue. It’s like bloods and crips here.
You lean into your son’s school pretty hard in the special.
I’m trying to find the funny in every situation. I’m in a position where I can provide my son with a bit of an advantage — I think every parent would take advantage of that opportunity. It’s a very small school. My son has a lot of one-on-one with his teachers. I love the dress code they have installed. So for that, I admire the private school system. As much as I do the comparison joke between public and private, I’m happy he’s at a private school.
Yet you urge the audience to send their kids to public schools.
I also appreciated when my son was in public school. He had a bigger class so more friends, more diversity. And I was more involved. Raising money, writing checks, helping teachers with things. With private school it’s like, here’s tuition, teach my son. With public school, I would ask teachers, ‘What do you need'” I would buy them books. It’s not like I don’t care now, but you pay that money for those things to be taken care of.
But you’re okay with the choice.
Oh, yeah. I have my little problems that I poke, but I would do that if he was at public school. Private school is funny. You pay all this money and they still ask for donations. Wasn’t this already paid for? Come on, man.
At 13, he’s old enough to know what you do and say for a living. What’s that like for him?
He loves it, man! Especially the special now. I’m so happy we were able to put it on Netflix platform because I wanted everyone to be able to see it. And his classmates have all seen it. It’s cool to see his friends enjoy what his dad does.
Did you consider that when you were writing?
When I wrote the jokes, especially the personal ones about him, I made sure I wasn’t just bagging on him. I wanted to make sure he knew we all do this, dad does it, so it’s all good. His head is held up high when all his friends are laughing and they love it.
Seems like your son is happy. But is your mom proud of you yet?
Finally! She’s extremely happy. She’s reaping all the benefits. I got a restaurant in Vegas, she takes friends there all the time. On me.
To be fair, she’s practically the star of the special.
I really bonded with my mom. That’s why I identify with being Asian, with being Filipino. Those stories are true. It’s from my heart. It’s what I lived growing up so that’s all I can talk about.
So she doesn’t mind all the impressions.
If you’re making fun of other people, you’re not being funny, you’re just being an asshole. But if you can self-deprecate and make yourself the butt of the joke and enjoy your flaws as much as everybody else’s, then we’re all on the same team. I enjoy making fun of myself; it’s more relatable.
I assume you said that for your son to hear.
Oh, yeah, for sure. He’s got his dad’s humor.