Entertainment & Life

Comedy: Michael Yo finds the funny in stories

Michael Yo’s career as a standup comedian could be seen as one big joke.

Yo, 39, has garnered much success as a standup comedian in the past three years, but “I’ve never written a joke,” he said by phone this week.

His stage humor, he explained, is based on his storytelling.

“My standup is not jokes. It’s real-life stories that seem to be amusing to people,” Yo said.

As the headliner of “Hot Mess Comedy” tonight and Saturday at Punch Line Sacramento, he doesn’t expect to deviate from the advice of his co-host and mentor, Jo Koy: “If you sit down to write a joke, stop. If you sit down and write a real life story and you can find the funny in it and punch it up, that’s where you want to be.”

With no jokes prepared, he will have an order of stories in mind before he takes the stage. The topics can range from relationships – he likes to talk about his parents – to the entertainment industry he knows as an expert.

Self-proclaimed as the “half black brother with a Korean mother,” he has been the popular-culture expert on E!’s comedy late-night talk show “Chelsea Lately” for seven years. When the show’s namesake, Chelsea Handler, and others started teasing Yo about his defensiveness of celebrities (he’s “just telling their side of the story,” he says), the back-and-forth banter turned into a bit. From there his career as a comedian was launched.

Since then, he’s appeared as a correspondent on shows such as “Showbiz Tonight,” “Today” and “Extra.”

He admits that his success appears almost effortless, like when he got a random phone call seven years ago from Ted Harbert, then-president and CEO of Comcast Entertainment Group, which oversaw E! News. Harbert had heard him on radio and wanted to hire him. (Before television, Yo had radio programs in Austin, Texas; Houston and Miami.)

“I didn’t even know what E! was,” he said.

Once he was in, he said, his success became less about luck and more about hard work.

“Once you’re here, you have to take advantage of the opportunity, and I think that’s what I’ve done,” said Yo, who is dogged about rehearsing.

Although his days typically starts at 5 a.m. as a co-host on “OMG! Insider” on CBS, he can be found practicing his act three or four nights a week at comedy clubs in the Los Angeles area.

He calls standup the “great equalizer.”

“It’s not about how many years you do it. It’s about the stage time,” he said, repeating the advice of friend and veteran standup comedian, Russell Peters.

His efforts with standup comedy had to withstand his rule of three chances: “If I go up three times and I bomb, I’m done.” Standup comedy passed.

To keep his act as true to himself as possible, he won’t even watch other standup comedy acts.

“I know it’s weird but … I just don’t want to copy anyone’s angles,” he said. “I just go on and do my thing.”

Early on, his close friends and family didn’t think he was funny, and rightfully so, he said.

“I’m not funny in real life, I don’t think,” he said. “I’m witty, but I’m not funny.”

Two years ago, just as he had started his career as a standup comedian, Yo returned to Houston for a homecoming show.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” he recalled friends asking. “Because you’re not really funny in real life.”