JOEY MEDINA: FROM PUNCHES TO PUNCH LINES
By Paul Freeman
As a professional boxer, Joey Medina won the New York state championship and had a shot at a world title. But he has enjoyed even greater success since switching from punches to punch lines.
Breaking through in the movie hit “The Original Latin Kings of Comedy,” Medina has been featured on countless TV shows. He had his own Showtime special, “Taking Off The Gloves.” He co-starred in the action-comedy “Zombie Strippers.” And he earned guffaws in such DVD releases as “Latin Palooza” and “Cholo Comedy Slam.”
Medina said both pursuits required a similar approach. “In boxing, you can’t just go into the ring, throw punches and see what happens. You’ve got to take the other guy where you want to go. If you want to hit him with the right, you’ve got to put him in the position to hit him with the right. In comedy, if you want to hit with a certain punch line, you’ve got to set them up for it.
“I watch comics before me on stage. I see what’ s working and what’s not. It’s the same with boxing. I say, ‘This guy’s definitely open to a left hook.’ Now I say, ‘This audience is definitely open to relationship material.’ ‘They’re definitely open to more blue comedy.’ Or less blue material. I always watch the audience the way I watch an opponent, so I can figure out how I’m going to win with this audience.”
Medina’s material often skewers stereotyping. “I like highlighting things that we look at and are afraid to talk about. A lot of people don’t see the funny, even though there are obviously funny things about it.”
Throughout his life, Medina has used humor as a coping tool. “It’s cheaper than therapy,” he quipped.
Growing up, his influences included Redd Foxx, Richard Pryor, Paul Rodriguez, Freddie Prinze and later, Sam Kinison, Eddie Murphy and George Carlin.
“Those kinds of comics broke open the door for present-day comics to do the kind of humor they’re doing now. Before those guys, comedy was like Catskills comedy, ‘My wife is that, my wife is that.’ It was corny, just jokes. Now we talk about what everybody’s talking about... except in a humorous way.”
Boxing dominated Medina’s teen years in the Bronx. But he always loved laughs. “I was a comedy fan the way some people are sports fans. They may not want to play a sport, but they love it so much, they know the stats, know all the players, know every time there’s a big game. I was that way with comedy. But I was very shy and never thought I would actually do comedy.
“I retired from boxing, then became a cop, believe it or not. And then I didn’t know what I was going to do. I went to a comedy club to cheer myself up, because I was feeling down. Then I said, ‘You know what? I can do anything I want.’ So I did a few open mic nights and found out what it felt like to be on stage. And I said, ‘I can do this.’ So I put all my focus and all my energy into it. And it turned out okay.”
Medina toured with Paul Rodriguez for seven years. That was an education in itself. “That really helped my stand-up. I got to learn from a guy who’s one of the best.”
What did he learn? “Well, I learned how to hold my liquor,” Medina said with a chuckle. “I learned that the more truthful a joke is, the better it is. But mostly I learned stage presence. Watching him on stage is like watching a great athlete in the ring. Paul is extremely polished. And he never ever did a set the same way twice. And I’m that way now. To become a really good comic, you have to leave your comfort zone. You have to really connect with the audience, not just talk to the audience.”
Medina said Latin comics no longer play to a niche audience. “We’re extremely mainstream now. It used to be, the only time you’d see a Latin comic on stage was when they were doing a Latin comedy night. Now you see Latin comics on the stage all the time. We talk about the same things as other comics.
“Gangsta rap has died out. The music has evolved. Same with comedians. The def comedy jams have died out. With black comics back in the day, that’s what was expected of them. Before, with Latin comedy, you had to do heavily Latin stuff. Now it’s like, just be funny. I don’t care what color you are, gay or straight, tall or short. Just be funny. I think that’s pretty much where we’re at now.”
There’s plenty to be funny about. “One thing about comedians - and pretty much all artists - we’re still evolving. When I was in my twenties, I talked about the clubs, going out dancing. I still talk about that, but now from an older perspective, a guy in his forties. So as long as you keep your eyes open and your mind open, there’s always material out there.”
The Los Angeles-based Medina has his own production company and makes music videos. He made his film directorial debut with the award-winning “El Matador,” from his own screenplay.
“The challenge is that people know me from the comedy. I have to get them to accept me in a dramatic context. I’m not just a funny guy. I’m a filmmaker.”
Medina doesn’t take anything for granted. “I appreciate everything I’ve gotten. I’ve traveled the world, made money, met people, made a lot of people laugh, young and old. Any time they send a limo to pick me up at the airport, I’m grateful. Any time I get a hotel suite with a jacuzzi in my room, I remember all the times I stayed in a Motel 6.”
Medina accepts both the good and the bad. “You’ve got to appreciate it all. I remember the first time I played Vegas, I was a middle act. I only had enough money to get halfway to the hotel. I walked for an hour, in 100-degree weather, with my bags. I’m thinking, ‘This sucks.’ Then I looked up and saw my name on the marquee. I thought, ‘That’s pretty cool.’
“When things are good, don’t become an asshole. Just because you’re good, don’t become cocky. Don’t start shoving people away, because things are going to get bad again. It may be in a day, in a year, in 10 years. But things are not always going to be good. Not always going to be bad. Just be cool, humble and respectful through it all.”