After leaving Havana, Cuba, for the United States as a young boy, Joey “CoCo” Diaz called North Bergen, NJ his home for most of his adolescent life. But this wasn’t some fairytale story.
Like many teenagers, Joey went through some troubled times. After his mother passed away, the suddenly lost young man started experimenting with drugs, getting into fights, and living a criminal lifestyle. Diaz left Jersey for Colorado to try to start a new life, but couldn’t overcome his demons. A few years later, the 25-year-old was sentenced to four years in prison for kidnapping and aggravated assault.
While serving time, Joey discovered his true love: comedy. He would get up and tell jokes when the movie projector stopped working, and after a while, started writing his own material. It took a few years for Diaz to right the ship after his release, but he eventually began performing and perfecting his craft.
After leaving Colorado for California, the up-and-coming comedian landed some acting roles, making appearances in BASEketball, Spider-Man 2, The Longest Yard and others. His most recent film, Grudge Match, hit theaters last Christmas. “Listen man,” Joey said to me in a recent interview, “I was in prison, I lost my mother, I had fuckin’ bad thoughts, I had so many things going against me. And last Christmas Day, I came out in a movie opposite De Niro.”
Diaz has quickly become one of the funniest comedians on the circuit, and the 51-year-old has not only developed a cult-like following, but most importantly, has made a complete 180 in his life, going from a troubled kid to a life coach. “Whether you have a prison sentence, a felony, no felonies, 10 felonies… If you put your mind to something, you can do whatever the fuck you want, and that’s what I’m trying to sell,” he says.
The laugh-out-loud entertainer will be returning to the Garden State this week, performing at the Stress Factory in New Brunswick from March 6-8. I caught up with the funnyman to discuss his upbringing, New Jersey, stories from his biweekly podcast (The Church Of What’s Happening Now) and what the future holds for him.
What’s it like for you emotionally when you come back to New Jersey? Does it bring back mostly good or bad memories given your checkered past here?
It brings back both. As soon as I land in Newark and I’m coming up Route 3, I just start thinking about everything that happened in New Jersey from me growing up, and it’s both good and bad. But after about an hour or so and I get some Chinese food, I’m back, I’m okay.
Some of your most talked about moments have come via illegal activity, whether it’s drug use, kidnapping, or even tackling a nun. Do you think you would have embarked on comedy had you not lived a little reckless?
Yeah, because… I don’t know, it made everything okay. Like when something happens and you add comedy to it, it makes it okay. So yeah, I think I was always doomed to be involved in some type of comedy because I was an only child, so I learned early on to justify everything in my head with comedy.
Do you think you would’ve gotten to where you are today had you not been sent to prison? Or do you think it was ultimately a wake-up call and it helped you find your niche?
It was definitely a wake-up call for me. It was a definitely a wake-up call for me, and it was a good wake-up call. When something bad happens like that at the time, you never think of… I never dreamed at that time. I never dreamed that I’d be alive at 51 with a one-year-old baby sitting on my lap. I never dreamed of that.
I remember looking at the year 2000 like something I was never going to hit. I remember being involved with drugs and going to prison and all that thinking, “Wow, when I’m 37, that’s the year 2000. I’m not even going to worry about that because I’m not gonna be around for it.” So that’s where I’m at right now, but yes, it was a wake-up call and it was the best thing that happened to me. It slowed me down and sort of let me think.
It’s funny, because when I got out of prison, it took me maybe an hour to go back to doing blow and being a criminal, but in the back of my mind, at least I always had that comedy thing that when I’m good and ready to stop doing what I’m doing, I’ll be ready for comedy. And I think it took me three years to get on stage after I got out of prison. Three fucking years of procrastination and I still messed around until maybe ’99. And after like, 2000, I was okay. I still told you to go fuck yourself if you needed to and stuff like that, but I was a little calm. Comedy had made its point; there was no reason to be a criminal when I had little things going with comedy. So comedy, in a way, saved my life.
When you left Jersey for Colorado, was it with the sole purpose of pursuing a career in comedy? Or did you feel like you just needed a change of scenery?
It’s funny, I went to Colorado at 19 and I missed New Jersey; I missed my friends so much. And I was making money in Colorado, I was taking classes at night, I had a ski pass, I had a nice apartment, and it made me get on a plane and go home for my birthday in 1984. And I ended up staying until June of ’85, like 18 months, and it was the worst 18 months of my life. It was the biggest mistake of my life me going home. And in that time, cocaine was all flared up. By ’84 in New Jersey, especially where I was at, we were the hub to New York City, so cocaine was everywhere. Bars were still open until seven in the morning and it was still crazy, so I knew I couldn’t grow if I stayed there.
I left, I grew a little bit, I went back to New Jersey and those were the worst 18 months of my life. But in those 18 months, I realized, “Once I leave here, I’m not coming back.” Like, “The next time I come back, I either come back successful or I don’t come back.” That’s how New Jersey affected me, man. But I think about New Jersey every day and where I’m from because I forget where I’m from and it takes me a few minutes every once in a while.
Let’s say sometimes I go into an audition or I go to a comedy club or I’m waiting to go up. While you’re waiting to do anything, all of your insecurities come up. You start thinking about all these insecurities. Then I realized, “You know what? I’m from fucking New Jersey. Fuck these motherfuckers.” And then I’d go in there and I’d rock, and that’s the truth.
We’re from fucking Jersey, bro. When Jersey sneezes, everybody else catches a cold. And it’s really weird, when I first came out here [to California], Jersey wasn’t on the map in ’97, ’98, and when I would sign with an agent, they’d ask me for my bio, and I’d say, “I’m from Jersey,” and they’d say, “Don’t put down New Jersey.” And now look at it. It’s the number one place in the country per capita where people live. Jersey has the most people per capita. It’s amazing, everybody wants to live in New Jersey.
Where did you tell people you were from then? New York?
I always told people I’m from North Bergen, New Jersey. And they’d look at me and go, “Bergen County?” “No, motherfucker. North Bergen, bitch! Hudson County, New Jersey.” So I’ve always been very proud of my Jersey roots. See, I wouldn’t be here without my fuckin’ Jersey roots. There’s no way.
If you go on Wikipedia and look at all the people from Jersey, your jaw will fuckin’ drop. Jersey’s amazing. Why? Because everybody always wants to be from New York, so we always had to work harder.
When most comedians perform at a venue, you generally see them for about an hour on stage and that’s it. But you take the time out to meet every member of the audience after your shows. Why do you take that extra step to reach out to your fans when most comedians wouldn’t give them the time of day?
You just paid $20 to see me. You just paid $20 to see me. Again, there’s a lot of funny guys. I’m not the funniest guy and I’m a little bit offensive, but I want you to get to meet me. I want you to shake my hand. I want to put the face with the name on Twitter. I want to put the face with Facebook. That’s very important to me.
I opened up for a comic about 12 years ago who will remain unnamed—he’s a big-time comic—and after the first show, I walked in and go, “Bro, there’s a bunch of people out there waiting for you. Aren’t you going to go out there?” And he goes, “Fuck those assholes.” And I said to myself, “These people are paying your bills you stupid motherfucker. The least you can do is go shake their hand.”
When you’re at a restaurant and they just feed you down, doesn’t it make a big difference when somebody comes over and says, “How was your meal? Is there anything I can do for you?” Everybody’s got a good product. Ford, Suzuki, Subaru—all those cars are good. Subaru went the extra mile—they give you free service now. Because it’s not about the product anymore; it’s about customer service and what you wrap around it.
You just drove a fucking hour on a Friday night from New Jersey to see me in the city. You paid $22, you parked, you bought drugs, you got a date… The least I can do is show you my hand. I can’t talk to everybody. I can’t hug everybody. But I can be accessible to you.
When you and I were growing up, we were fans of people. We had a poster of Richard Pryor on our wall, or a poster of Led Zeppelin or Tool or Pink Floyd. That doesn’t exist today. You don’t have fans saying, “We’re part of a community.” I can talk to you, Giorgio. I can fuckin’ talk to you. You could be Michael Kors or coach the New Jersey Nets or you can be an assistant coach and I can talk to you on Twitter. We couldn’t talk to Black Sabbath when we were kids. My friend talks to Chris Cornell on a daily basis on fuckin’ Twitter. You couldn’t do that 30 years ago, could you? You couldn’t talk to Bon Jovi online. You didn’t have access. The people who are going to be big next are customer service people—people that shake your hand.
I won’t sell t-shirts after my shift. I don’t believe in it. And I didn’t do it when I was a coke fiend. When I was a coke fiend and I was broke and I would get off stage, I wouldn’t sell t-shirts because I want to focus on the comedy number one, and I don’t want you to feel like you’re dropping everything you got for me. I just want you to pay for the ticket and a couple cocktails and then we’ll go outside and smoke dope and hang out together. But that’s the cherry on the sundae is the meet and greets, to talk to people, and that’s it. You’re always going to get disgruntled people because they want to tell you their life story. I got 300 people here, and as long as I can touch a couple of them, I’m fuckin’ happy.
Would you ever like to create a show and draw out skits from your past experiences?
I would love it. I would love to do something like that. That’s the next step. I’m trying to put together something online right now, like a small web series. In fact, I just met with the people on Sunday and we’re going to meet again Monday to throw some ideas around. So yes, that’s definitely in the future.
You mentioned on a previous podcast that you’re hoping to write a book. What will you primarily be talking about and do you have any idea when it would be released?
By the holidays. Definitely going to release that by the holidays.
It’s about growing up to be a man. A week before my mother died, I came home late from a Halloween party and my mother got mad at me and smacked me and the next morning, she apologized and she said, “Listen, man. I do this to you because I want you to grow up to be a fuckin’ man.” And a week later, she died. So I never forgot that.
But that’s what the book is. It’s autobiographical, but it’s in stories. I’m telling you stories and right now, I’m writing about 1985, when I had to leave North Bergen and I was waiting for a Jersey City bus to go to Jersey City. My friend was going to pick me up and we were going to get something to eat and later, he was going to drive me to the airport. And I was home fucking clear. That’s it, I was getting out of New Jersey. None of the people that were looking for me were going to find me. And as I’m waiting for the fucking bus, I hear a motorcycle and a guy comes up. He drives into White Castle—it was on Kennedy Boulevard, it was on Bergenline Avenue in North Bergen—and it was my godfather who I owed like, 30 grand to. I’m taking a bus, I’m leaving at three in the afternoon. It’s now 11:30 and I see my godfather on a motorcycle. At the time he’s 50-something and I remember he had fronted me a bunch of coke and I just took it. This guy baptized me in a church and I fucked him over and I remember he said, “The next time I see you, I’m going to shoot you.” And he pulled away on the motorcycle and I got on the bus.
You know, I thought about that. I didn’t want to leave North Bergen, but I knew that for me to grow as a human being and for me to… I had too much negativity. I had too many bad things that happened and I’d always go back to doing something stupid. So that’s what the book is about. That’s one of the stories, it tells why I left North Bergen. And that’s when I realized it made me become a man because I did what was best for me—not what I wanted to do. And I remember it was a hard plane to get on. This is my whole life, New Jersey. I was 23 years old and I had fucked up and now I had to leave my friends. And it was a tough decision, but I had to do it. And at that time, I didn’t know that any of this was even possible. I was just buying time every day.
So hopefully the book will come out by December. I’m also gonna do an audio book—turning that into an audio book—and I really want to write like, three books: I want to write that, I want to write stories for my daughter, and I want to write a book on addictions, just to let people know the horrible things I did and the horrible situations I’ve put myself in. And maybe if they read it, it will help them with their addiction. People don’t get help because they’re scared, but after I did that podcast on addictions last week, I really saw how many emails I got and how many people that I had never met confess to me. Fucking confess to me online and I wrote them back and I said, “This is the first step in you taking care of yourself, because admitting it and telling somebody is different.” People knew I did blow, but I didn’t tell nobody my secret. People knew, but you never saw me high, so I understand. That’s what this book is about.
Listen man, I’m 51. I can’t be on the road forever. And I always had this wild dream of being The Old Man And The Sea. What’s that guy’s name? Hemingway! I always had this weird thing that I wanted to live like Hemingway, like fuckin’ drink and write books all fuckin’ day (laughs). So that was my dream, so I’m just trying to work on that dream now so when I’m 57, I don’t have to carry my own suitcase. I can make a living as an author.
Joey Diaz will be at the Stress Factory in New Brunswick, NJ from March 6-8. For more information, go to joeydiaz.net and stressfactory.com.