You may not know Cokey Falkow by name yet, but Cokey isn’t even his real name. The 39-year old comedian/actor’s real name is Jonathan. But everyone calls him Cokey. The name has to do with a chemical dependency, but not the one you’re thinking of. His mom was addicted to Coca Cola when she was pregnant with him, and when he popped out, the family maid named him ‘Cokey’ - and it stuck.
Born and raised in South Africa during the tumultuous political upheaval of the 1980’s was an interesting backdrop for a creative kid with a lot of energy, who got his acting chops first as a stand-up comic. Falkow is not your run-of-the-mill comedian, he’s been doing stand-up since the mid-nineties and he demonstrates an uncanny grasp of improv humor as an art form and has showcased his double-threat talents as a writer and performer across the globe for decades. To see him do a set on stage, whether it’s ten minutes at The Comedy Store, or MCing at The Hollywood Improv, is to watch a seasoned pro artfully navigate his craft.
Being an accomplished improviser has led him into acting, writing feature films and working on voice-over gigs (he voiced the video games Metal Gear Solid V & the upcoming Uncharted 4). Included in his long list of acting credits are most notably Hawaii 5-0, Matador, NCIS (both the original and the Los Angeles spin-off), Body High, Something About Her, Starship Troopers: Marauder and Doomsday. In addition his stand-up gigs around the UK, he recently landed a recurring role on Showtime’s Penny Dreadful, playing the mysterious character Scarman in Season Three. We sit down with Cokey for a chat about his comedic backstory and how he implements his improv background into his acting.
Tell me about your comedy background. You’re not only an accomplished standup comedian, but you have quite an impressive history in sketch and comedic training, right?
Well, I trained with the legendary Augusto Boal and learned to use improv as social change. Beyond that though I did a number of years with a few comedy improv and sketch troupes as well as some shows that sold out at South Africa's National Arts festival. For a while I was one of the writers on a sketch show called "The Pure Monate show". It was a late night sketch comedy program. The show did really edgy commentary and pretty much all the guys in it have gone on to great things.
So once you got your comedic chops up, what was next for you?
When I started out doing stand-up, an English guy opened the only comedy club in South Africa so he was bringing out UK headline acts every two weeks and it taught me a lot. After that I wanted to get on the global scene as I had worked in television and stage in Africa, but wanted to see if I could make it elsewhere. I took a trip to LA and tried that on for size.
How was your first experience in the LA comedy scene?
I had some good and some bad experiences way back in about 2000. It was pretty scary and intimidating. I stood in line all day to do an open spot at The Laugh Factory on Sunset and they only give you 3 mins. But within two months I headlined a show at a club in the Valley so I guess I learned a lot about American audiences. It was a learning curve for sure. The LA club scene is tough because there are so many acts on the bill.
But since then it’s been quite different, right?
Yeah, I have moved on I suppose. I have been doing it a long while now. I have done one man shows and also established myself as a solid club act in different parts of the world. I tour in the UK a lot, and since my wife is English, I am lucky enough to go there often and get paid for it. The last trip to LA I got to close the show at the prestigious Venice Underground run by Matt Devlin and Bronston Jones.
In the interests of not painting your career with one brush, you’re actually a classically trained actor as well, correct?
True true, yes. I have done some drama training. I studied Shakespeare at Trinity College, London. However stage work is very different from film and especially TV in Hollywood. The best acting training I had for that was from Brian Riese in LA.
Tell me about your first on-stage, Shakespeare role? As I understand it, it has a little to do with the fact that you’re also a surfer.
Oh...ok...have you been speaking to people in Durban? While I was training as an actor I had a small role in Hamlet and had a few lines. It was at the National Playhouse theatre and one day the surf had been epic, just perfect double overhead barrels all day and my sinuses were full of sea water. As I walked onstage to deliver my line to the King, my sinuses drained all over me and splashed onto the stage in front of a full audience. I will never forget the other actor’s face just staring at me in horror as salt water and snot ran down my face.
Ok so fast-forward to when the comedy career was going well and acting roles are coming in...you booked a couple major movies out there...
I had been flown back to Cape Town to host a surfing show on TV and while there I booked a big magazine type show, which ran for two years and we won a few awards for. This led to a few movie auditions because casting directors knew who I was and knew that I did stand-up. Luckily I got some good roles and over a few years managed to get better at my film acting.
And then the big move to LA. How was that for you?
It was intense. I moved right in the beginning of the recession and Hollywood was in flux. The South African currency devalued and everything seemed big and crazy and out of control. Luckily I booked a film which flew me back to SA almost straight away and I got a great manager, Toni Benson, who helped me through everything. In fact I can quite easily say that without Toni I would have been lost. She has been beyond amazing and stood by me through thick and thin.
What made you decide to put the comedy on the back burner?
My manager advised me to stay in town and not go on the road and you don't make money doing stand up in LA so I wanted to concentrate on the dramatic side of the business. I had done comedy for about twelve years and needed a change.
And what changed after that? I mean, you went from totally not doing stand-up, to doing regular shows at The Comedy Store, and The Improv.
I decided that I needed comedy back in my life. Comedy makes me happy and it challenges me in a different way. I also did a film, Body High, with a bunch of stand up comics and they were all kidding around and talking about gigs and I got the bug again. Rick Overton and Lance Allen encouraged me to start again and Dustin David offered to start up a gig with me once a month at a bookstore so we did and that started it all off again. Camille Solari had a show at the Comedy Store and she was nice enough to let me have a spot pretty much anytime I wanted.
And while all this was going on, you worked on some great acting parts too.
I had a few good breaks yeah. I finally got another Theatrical agent after having no rep for a year or so. I did a few good guest stars on shows like NCIS and NCIS LA and some great indie films. Good varied stuff that set me up for other opportunities. I found that when I first got to LA people wanted to cast me as a Brit or a South African or Aussie and that was pretty much all. I had to fight to prove I could do American characters or things that they couldn’t necessarily see me doing on paper.
Of course the one gig that you haven’t mentioned yet is Matador. That must’ve been epic to work with Robert Rodriguez?
Dream come true. I can never thank Dan Dworkin and Jay Beattie enough for believing in me. They were the showrunners and gave me a massive confidence boost and break. Plus I got to work with one of my absolute heroes and do a running chase scene with the master of run chases Robert Rodriguez. I was pinching myself pretty much the whole way through the shoot and having to convince myself it was actually happening.
Your latest gig is Penny Dreadful, how was your experience on the show?
I am still shooting on it. I leave for Spain in a few weeks to do another 2 week stint. It has been a true gift of a show. John Logan is spectacular and Chris, the producer, is awesome. The director Damon has been a true gent and I have learned loads from the Stunt guy Pete. There’s not a whole lot I can say without spoiling anything.
What’s next for you?
More traveling, stand up and back and forth. I have to do my US citizenship in the next year as well, so quite a full-on year.
Before we wrap up--dinner party question--it’s a three-part question: Who was your favorite band you’ve ever seen? Who was your most memorable band you’ve ever seen. Why?
Favorite band was Rage Against the Machine in Sydney. Most memorable was Metallica. Jason Newsted had just started playing bass for them and it was such an incredible punch-in-the-face show.
Photography by Tyler Curtis
Written by Mike Falkow