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Jo Koy followed his dream from Las Vegas to Hollywood

Jo Koy recalls the days when he was that guy at work.

He was toiling for minimum wage at Foot Locker in Las Vegas while moonlighting at The Mirage. But mostly, he was selling himself and a dream.

To that end, he would rent out the Huntridge Theater and stage his own comedy shows — and then pester his co-workers for support.

“I’d literally go up to people at work and say, ‘Hey, are you going to come to my show? Can I put you down for 20 bucks?’” Koy recalls.

He financed those early shows himself. “It was $800 back then to get the theater, which was a ton when you worked at Foot Locker. Then insurance cost $250, and I’d pay the other performers $250 to fly out, plus I gave them money to eat. I’d be invested about 3,000 bucks total for every show,” he says.

Koy actually went door to door in Vegas selling tickets. And what about those people who gave a quick yes at work, figuring it would get him off their backs? “I would legit go to their homes, walk up to the front door, knock and say, ‘Hey man, I need my 20 bucks for those tickets,’ … and they would give me the 20.”

Cut to 2022 and Jo Koy is eating pizza with his publicist on a warm summer day in Los Angeles. They’re waiting backstage at one of the bigger multiplexes to premiere his new film “Easter Sunday,” which was produced by Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment. That movie is just part of the reason why the 51-year-old Filipino American is about to take over Hollywood.

In “Easter Sunday,” opening Aug. 5, Koy portrays a single father with a teenage son dealing with their loud, dysfunctional Filipino American family on Easter Sunday.

Then there’s his fourth Netflix special, “Live at the Los Angeles Forum,” which premieres Sept. 13. Koy is also close to selling out T-Mobile Arena as the first comedian to headline the venue Nov. 19.

“I was offered a residency at a hotel I won’t name but turned it down,” reveals Koy, who has a house in Summerlin and lives there part time. “I said, ‘If I go back to my hometown of Vegas where I started, I can’t do a residency. I’m doing an arena.’”

Review-Journal: How excited are you about playing T-Mobile? Does it feel like a full-circle moment?

Jo Koy: Do you know how many concerts I’ve gone to at T-Mobile? I always told myself, “I don’t want to just go here. I want to play here.”

You grew up in the Philippines, where your father was in the U.S. Air Force, but moved to Vegas after high school.

My grandma, who lived in Vegas, had cancer. I was living in Tacoma with my mom, and when I graduated high school, Mom said, “We’re moving to Vegas.” Five days post-diploma I was living in Vegas and driving my grandma to chemo while going to UNLV. It was 1989.

Your tightly bonded family is the premise for “Easter Sunday.”

It’s about family, including my mom and my aunt fighting and Mom cooking the big dinner, and all of these big personalities in one room. Bottom line, it’s about people you just want to shower with love. Yes, it’s about a Filipino family, but it’s relatable to anyone. This is my family; this is your family. Your family does what my family does. We all fight over stupid stuff in families, but at the end of the day, we are together and we get it. Family is the most important thing.

How does it feel to have Spielberg producing your family?

Incredible. A dream comes true. Turns out, he’s a fan. I pitched this movie to him and the minute the pitch was over, I heard, “We’ll take it.”

Was there a moment during your struggle to get to this point that you thought about quitting comedy and acting?

Of course. It was 2015 and Netflix said no to me after I pitched them an idea for a comedy special. I couldn’t believe they were saying no. If it wasn’t for me producing those shows at the Huntridge, I would have been crushed. But those early shows in Vegas taught me I could produce a special myself. Hey, I heard no before. My thought was, “Let’s show them why they should say yes.”

Does some of your backbone come from the fact that you were bullied as a child because of being Filipino?

Oh yeah. I’ll tell you a story. My mom and dad were divorced, and my sister and I really wanted to win a J.C. Penney raffle for a new TV. We literally sat at J.C. Penney where my mom made us fill out about 1,000 raffle tickets. We won! We were so excited and got on the escalator to claim the TV. My mom says “Hi, you’re so cute” to a little kid on the other escalator. Immediately, he turns to her, pulls his eyes back and makes the buckteeth. … Everyone around just laughed at the kid like, “It’s OK to do that to Asian people.” Thankfully, we live in a time now where it’s not OK.

And now we live in a time when your face is on giant billboard everywhere for the movie or your Netflix special.

It’s crazy. I was on Sunset in L.A. with my son and my nephews. Boom! This giant billboard is my face, and my son says, “Hey, that’s my Dad.” … I was so proud because my face is our community, our ethnicity. We’re getting love. This is a big moment.

What does this mean to your 19-year-old son?

Finally, he can see Dad’s grind. When he was younger, he didn’t get it. I did miss some birthdays and some Christmases. I was out there doing shows. Now, he sees this and appreciates those days. He sees how hard it is to pursue a dream.

This film also celebrates amazing food lovingly prepared within the family. Do you have some favorite foods?

Right now, I’m chewing on pizza in a movie theater. Honestly, popcorn and pizza are it with me. But, then again, I also love an amazing Filipino breakfast of the sunny side up eggs, fried rice, tocino, or sweetened pork strips, tapa. Delicious. My last special, I was in the Philippines and got that breakfast from a food truck. I sat on the steps with my friend eating. It was perfect.

What’s a good Sunday for you if you’re off?

Either time with my son or family or I will drive to an open mic night anywhere, even at a coffee house. I will find that mic. If I find a stage, I will walk up and perform.

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