Comedian Joseph Coker is walking with a limp. I’m sitting at his dining room table, watching as he shuffles to the kitchen. He retrieves two glasses of freshly aero-pressed coffee — we both take ours black, with ice — and then sits across from me. He explains that he hurt his back doing jiu jitsu, which, coming from anyone else, may sound out of the ordinary. From Coker, it’s just another day in the life.
“My dad was a karate teacher,” says Coker. His own martial arts experience evolved as he got older, leading him to jiu jitsu, a Brazilian form of martial arts. The corner of his dining room is stacked with blue and red mats, which Coker uses for his kids’ jiu jitsu classes. During the summer his schedule is a little more sporadic, but during the school year Coker teaches upwards of 100 children a week.
While Coker calls jiu jitsu his profession, he’s got his hand in several other pots as well. In the past two years he’s become increasingly visible on the local comedy scene, hitting open mic nights as often as he can. “Last night I was at Compass,” he says, referring to the bar above Joe Pasta.
Coker is observationally funny, off-handedly remarking on his life while dropping a line that most people would describe as (a word that was only recently invented), relateable. He starts a lot of his sentences with “You know when” or “You know how” and you find yourself laughing and nodding along, “Yes, yes, I know.” “You know how you get a song stuck in your head and you can’t get rid of it until you listen to it?” he asks me. I nod as he hums the song he has in his head, Rihanna’s “Diamonds” remix with Kanye West. He plays it for me on his phone.
Coker says that his favorite kind of comedy is roast comedy. I suggest that some things are too mean to say on stage. He looks at me strangely and smiles, “But not if it’s really funny.” Coker’s affinity for roast comedy could stem from the fact that, as he puts it, “People haven’t figured out how to roast me yet.” He also claims indifference, saying, “I’m unshameable. I don’t give a shit.”
Coker credits his thick skin to experiencing tragedy throughout his life. One of five kids, Coker’s younger sister died when he was a child, and his older brother died suddenly while Coker was living in Denmark. He says that time of his life was particularly difficult, a year riddled with letdowns including his divorce and his acceptance to Berkelee College of Music, which quickly turned into disappointment when he couldn’t acquire any student loans.
Coker, who describes his upbringing as “very religious,” moved to Denmark in 2006 to work in a church. He recalls one of his side gigs working with his then-wife, who was, at the time, making balloon animals.
“I could do a giant horse that wraps around a person. It sets you apart from the wiener dog people,” he says. He also tells me that there are more balloon phobias in the world than you may think — but not as many as clown phobias. “People think clowns are old and dumb. I think clowns are fucking weird.”
This thought leads to a recollection; Coker tells me that he was recently in New Mexico. While there he went on a Tinder date with a woman who had attended clown school. This info, he says, was absent from her profile.
Coker and I go on like this for well over an hour, jumping around to various topics, having a normal but all-over-the-place conversation. Coker is almost interviewing me, too, because he can’t help it — it’s something he does on his podcast. I did mention he has a podcast, right?
The Joseph Coker Podcast features hour-long conversations with local musicians, comedians, etc., and it had surprising success when it came out in 2014, making iTunes “new and noteworthy” list. Coker is also working with local comedian Shawna Jarrett to produce the Charleston Comedy Mix Tape, which they plan to release later this summer.
We move on to another topic, because Coker’s got a new project he’s excited about: his music. A singer-songwriter who plays the guitar, lap steel, piano, and probably something else he didn’t tell me about, Coker has one album and an EP to his name. That list will grow later this summer when he heads to New York to record an EP with Roger Greenawalt, who has worked with artists like Iggy Pop, Rufus Wainwright, and The Pierces.
“It’s all the things I want,” he says of his life right now, “but it’s a back-breaking workload.” It’s a workload he’s created on his own, though, saying that opportunities rarely just fall into his lap. “I’m fascinated by people who have things come to them.”
Comedy, though, has kind of just come to Coker, who headlined his first show at Ms. Rose’s earlier this month. “I’m always thinking of stuff,” he says about his stand-up material. He picks up his phone and reads tidbits from his “new beautiful words 2016” list: paranormal investigator, you or someone like you, invisible harm. His “2016 bits” has notes on potential stories or jokes he could tell on stage. “Something funny could lead to something,” he says, emphasizing the “could.” He adds, “I’m not afraid to fail.”