Over the course of his 32 years on the stand-up stage, Jo Koy has always leveled with his global network of fans. Whether it be through his international tours, numerous TV appearances, or his handful of wildly successful stand-up specials, Koy has unabashedly provided a first-hand look into the minutiae of his life — but up until now, he’s only told a part of the story.
Now, with his new book, Mixed Plate: Chronicles of an All-American Combo, which hit shelves this week, Koy is finally sharing his story in a way he’s envisioned for years, by starting at the very beginning and bringing readers through the ups and downs he’s endured on his journey to stardom.
Vanyaland recently caught up with the hard-grinding comic to talk about the book, his thoughts on how the food of different cultures can bring people together, and what it means to him to be able to represent Filipino culture by going back to his roots to share his truth. Check it out.
Jason Greenough: Jumping right in, the best place to start, I think, would be your new book, Mixed Plate. How are you feeling about this book hitting the shelves?
Jo Koy: I mean, I’ve waited so long for this to happen, and now that it’s here, I’m pinching myself. I remember going to the airport, ya know, back when we used to travel, and walking past the bookstores and just dreaming about seeing a book that I wrote on those shelves. Or if I was buying a book by one of my peers, I would just get excited for when I was able to buy my own book. Now that time has come, and I am so excited.
Publication was delayed from last year, if memory serves me right. Did that delay affect your excitement toward the eventual release?
I think I handled it the way the world handled everything coming to a stop. It wasn’t like ‘oh man, this sucks, my book isn’t coming out.’ I was more concerned with the world and my son, and just life in general. That came first. I knew it would pick back up again, and when it does, it would be the best time for this to drop. I was honestly kind of excited to have it postponed just a tad, because for one, my touring stopped. That was the whole point of releasing the book, to go out on tour and promote it and get with the fans again at book signings, and do the whole thing. So, it’s actually a good thing that it’s been postponed until now.
So a tour is the next thing you’re trying to put together?
Yeah, all I think about is this book, I swear. Going on tour, doing shows, then afterwards, doing the book signings. Whatever I can do to engage with the fans and get my story out there.
So you’ve been doing stand-up for quite some time now, and have only gotten bigger all around the world. What inspired you to write a book now at this point in your career?
I think now is the best time. I love the fact that I didn’t press it hard in the beginning. I’ve wanted a book for almost 10 years now, but now I look at it. And I wasn’t ready then. Even though I felt like I was ready to tell my story, I think now, with where I’m at in my career and what I’ve gone through to get to where I am, it’s a great story for people to read, and hopefully it can inspire. Especially people who are my ethnicity, and hopefully give them a voice and give them something to be inspired by because it was tough for me. It was tough to get into entertainment, and do stand-up. But this is just the best time. With everything that has happened with my specials I’ve put out, like the first one, Live From Seattle, which I actually had to pay for and produce myself even when Netflix said no, from my time on The Tonight Show and my mom not wanting me to do stand-up, to even personal stories about my brother and his battles with mental illness. I had never talked about my brother, and I’ve wanted to talk about him on stage, but I could never find the right way to say it, and my book was the best way to really express how I truly feel and tell that story.
And of course, being a mixed kid in America during a time when it was new. It was new to see half white, half Asian kids walking around, and being a product of a divorced family and my dad moving out and me being raised by my mom. Those are things my son probably won’t relate to, because it’s not new to him. Whereas it was very new to us when we were growing up.
At this moment in time, support for the Asian-American community is becoming a bigger deal as hate crimes and bigotry toward them continues to amp up. Does that aspect of where we are at this very moment add any sort of extra emotion to being able to release this book, tell your story and represent your community in that way?
You know what’s crazy? It’s something I’ve been dealing with my whole life. Especially, as a kid who struggled with identity growing up half white and half Asian, and being raised by an Asian mom, and my dad and his side of the family pretty much not being in [the picture]. My dad moved to another state, and here I am struggling with my identity, not looking like your typical Asian, but here I am going places with my Asian mom and people didn’t know how to feel about it.
Now that it’s out in the forefront, there’s the systemic racism that I didn’t even know about when I was a kid. I just thought it was the norm when you live in America. There’s one story I tell in the book where I was going up an escalator and this little white kid turned around and pulled his eyes back to make fun of my mom, and she just had to pat me on the head and tell me he was just trying to be funny, because that’s how she had to deal with it. Obviously, it had an affect on me, because here I am as old as I am, and it still fucks with me, and it’s still burned into my memory. What sucks is that we’re living in a country where that was normalized, and that comes with ignorance. A lot of people are ignorant, and now it’s at the boiling point where you’re actually seeing these ignorant people doing stupid shit. Now, as a community, we’re coming together, and what I love is that with the power of things like Facebook and Instagram, now we’re catching people. Something ugly always brings out the beautiful, and now we’re doing something beautiful. Whether you’re Black, Asian or Latino, we’re all seeing that this is wrong. This is hate, and these people need to be locked up or educated. Ignorance needs to be fixed. There are a lot of ways you can learn about different cultures and people, and learn to love and respect one another, and that’s where we’re at right now.
With this book, I love the fact that it’s not your normal autobiography. I really have enjoyed reading what I’ve read so far, but there’s also the added element of having Filipino recipes in there, so it’s also a cookbook too. What sparked that idea?
I have to give all the credit on that one to my editor, Carrie Thornton, over at HarperCollins. It was her brainchild, but she was inspired by these instagram videos I’ve done with people who aren’t Filipino just tasting something from a Filipino dish. One thing that always bothered me when I was growing up was how I always felt like an ambassador of my food. From the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s, all the way up to 2021, people still have no idea how delicious our food is.
One way to really embrace a culture and learn about another ethnicity is through food. It’s conversational, it’s fun, you get to learn the history and similarities, and that can all be done through food. I just took my favorite recipes and I shared them with the idea of ‘hey, just try it at home, and taste it,’ and if you love it, like I hope you do, that will inspire you to learn about us. That’s what all of that was. We live in a country that is very diverse, and one thing we love to do is embrace our cultures and talkabout where we’re from and who we are. The best way to do that is through food. Filipinos, for the longest time, have been a bit undersold, which is why when I had the opportunity to shoot my third special, I went to Netflix and begged them, for my mom and my family, to represent the Philippines and show the world how beautiful our people are and how beautiful the country is, how delicious our food looks and how much fun it would be if you visited. If I can continue to keep doing that, I will, and that’s why I put those recipes in the book.
You mentioned before how this book has been a long time coming. But when was the definitive moment where you put pen to pad, and started in on what would become Mixed Plate?
I think the Netflix special [Live From Seattle] was the moment for me. As hard as it was for me to get that special into Netflix, and then everything exploded after it aired, I thought about how people really needed to hear this story because right now, because at that point they were just seeing me as someone successful because I’m on Netflix. I really wanted people to see the backstory and really see where it all came from, what I had to do and the obstacles I had to face to get to where I am right now, and I hope that people embrace it and learn from it, and hopefully I can inspire like I said earlier. There’s a lot of Filipino people that live in America and around the world, and they want a voice, and they want to know that it is possible. I hope this book and my specials do that.
There are a lot of elements that make this book what it is, but what was the most rewarding part of putting this book together and being able to tell your story the way you’ve wanted to tell it?
First, I’ve gotta give another shout out to Carrie Thornton. From the minute we met, to signing the contract, to writing each chapter, she’s just been there loving the process and helping me find the right stories. It’s just been beautiful, and that’s been the most rewarding part knowing that I didn’t sign a deal because of where I am in my career. I signed a deal with someone who truly is passionate about storytelling and putting out the right product, and man, I can’t trade that in for the world.
Down to my last question for you, Jo. Above everything, what do you hope readers take away from this book?
I just hope they can appreciate the process that people go through in life, and I don’t mean just me, directly. When you read my story, I hope that one, it inspires you and two, I hope you understand what I did to do what I’ve done and where I’ve come from to be where I am, and you should take that with anybody or anything you see. We’re so quick to judge people, and not even know who they are. You take five minutes of what they did and all of a sudden, you write their story, but you need to hear the backstory first. You may not like the person, and there were quite a few people I was jealous of that had books, and I didn’t understand, but instead of hating and disrespecting, I learned about them and figured out what they’ve done and I figured out that I needed to do more than that, and I got inspired by that. That’s what a lot people need to do sometimes. Just really find out about a person before you go ahead and judge them.
That’s what I want this book to do. If you read about my life, you’ll see why I am where I’m at right now, and I don’t mean in terms of success, but just in life and what I did and the choices I made, you’ll see why.
Order Jo Koy’s ‘Mixed Plate: Chronicles of an All-American Combo’ through HarperCollins, or find it across all digital booksellers.