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Jo Koy, performing today, learned comedy ropes in Vegas

Has Vegas ever claimed a famous comedian before Jo Koy?

Yes, every comedian under the sun has played here after they made it. But Koy is the rare one who honed his skills while living in Las Vegas, and he was painfully aware of the gap that separated up-and-comers from the comedy rooms on the Strip.

“I remember I would lie to the guys that were booking them: ‘I opened for blah-blah-blah at the Comedy Store in L.A., and he told me to call you.’ I was lying, and they knew I was lying,” Koy now remembers with a laugh.

See, in Las Vegas it was — and still is — hard for aspiring comedians to get experience. It’s not expensive for locals to go see fully formed comics in a half-dozen clubs in the casinos (and that doesn’t include the solo-billed headliners, as Koy will be today at Treasure Island).

Another obstacle: In most cities, comedy clubs book their headliners Thursday through Saturday and have open mics on the slow nights. But in Las Vegas, headliners are booked for the entire week.

So about 20 years ago, a college-age Koy decided to be a comedian. He knew this all along, but growing up in Washington didn’t encourage the lad then-known as Glenn Herbert.

“I grew up in Tacoma, where it rained every day and I was miserable,” says Koy, who is now 41. “I was actually a very depressed kid when I was growing up, but I was always into comedy.”

When he was 17 though, his family was divided by divorce and his grandmother got cancer, so he moved with his mother to Las Vegas to help take care of her.

“When I moved to Vegas I saw sun for the first time,” he says. “Imagine being in rain your whole life and then you come to Vegas and it’s 110. … That sun brought this energy out of me. I wanted to go out now, I wanted to hang out.”

He enrolled at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, but soon realized he was more enthusiastic about the Runnin’ Rebels than attending classes. “I said, ‘Mom, I barely passed high school. Why am I going to college?’ That lasted about two semesters, maybe three.”

Instead, he started studying cable TV stand-ups “like I was going to college. … I was literally taking notes.” He knew he was on to something when he saw Richard Jeni on TV and realized he had come up with an almost-identical routine to one Jeni performed.

His confidence grew, and he started seeking out open mics at places like Buzzy’s Cafe on Maryland Parkway, and The Beach, which was a hopping nightclub in the ’90s, but not on early Saturday evenings when Koy would perform to the bartenders setting up for the night and a few lost tourists.

So he started pestering people such as Steve Schirripa, who ran the Riviera Comedy Club before he got famous on “The Sopranos.”

“I used to call him nonstop, man,” Koy says. Eventually, Schirripa said, “Hey look, kid. I know what you’re trying to do.” He told Koy he loved his “hustle,” but suggested he “move to L.A., get your name established, and come back in a couple of years.”

Koy did that, sort of.

“I kind of went the opposite direction: ‘Wait a minute, I’m funny. I can do it right here,’ ” he remembers.

Koy started renting out the Huntridge theater and filled it by selling tickets for $7 each. The rent was so cheap he could break even by selling 100 tickets. “I had a ton of friends, I worked at so many casinos and everyone knew I was funny, I knew I could get them to come,” he says.

“I really hustled my way just to get stage time.” But he worked so hard self-promoting the shows and attending to every detail, “when I was going up at the end of the night to close the show, I was exhausted. I wore every hat.”

Koy eventually did move to Southern California, and now he’s known for a loosely structured style full of stories about his family. “That free spirit of just conversation, and making it look like conversation, not scripted. I want people to think, ‘He’s doing that on the fly.’ ”

And Koy won a whole new audience — people who tell him they had never been to a comedy club before — once he got to be a panelist on “Chelsea Lately.” He has known Chelsea Handler since the days when Jon Lovitz used both of them as opening acts.

“Chelsea is this generation’s Johnny Carson,” he says. “If you do good on the panel, you’re going to do great on the road.”

So the road brings Koy home, briefly, today. No, he doesn’t live here anymore, but yes, he still calls it home.

Las Vegas, he says, is “what molded me. This is what made me a comic, this is where I started my life. This is where I became myself.”

Contact reporter Mike Weatherford at mweatherford@ reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0288.

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