On a Friday night, standing in front of a packed crowd at the Japanese American National Museum (JANM) in Los Angeles, Filipino-American comedian Joey Guila jokingly compliments the “beautiful” set behind him.
There's actually not much on stage: two dividers on either side of him — which he refers to as "Geisha changing rooms" — and long plain curtains lit by a blue light hanging against the wall.
"I want to do comedy, and I also want to heal people because I think comedy is very healing. It made me forget about what I was going through."
“This set is beautiful, huh?” he says, gesturing toward the backdrop. “Look at that, looks like my auntie’s curtains. It’s cheap, my god! Eight bucks at the fabric store!”
His audience laughs and applauds.
Guila has the crowd entertained for nearly the entire hour he's on stage. His jokes, based largely on his life, are accompanied by sharp and expressive gestures, lively facial expressions, and energetic dancing.
It’s been just over two decades since Guila was inspired to make people laugh for a living. At 23 years old, he fell ill with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a type of cancer that affects the lymphatic system. When he underwent treatment, watching stand-up comedy lifted his spirits.
“I said that when I’m in remission, that’s something I want to do,” Guila, 45, told NBC News. “I want to do comedy, and I also want to heal people because I think comedy is very healing. It made me forget about what I was going through.”
When he went into remission, however, Guila’s goal of pursuing comedy took a backseat. Battling cancer caused him to lose his hair, so he chose to follow in the footsteps of his grandfather by attending cosmetology school and becoming a hairdresser.
That life detour was one of the anecdotes he shared at the show with the JANM audience.
He landed his first job as a hairdresser in San Francisco, and in the late 1990s, he took a job in Beverly Hills where he was advised by a friend to pretend to be gay during the interview.
Re-enacting how he approached the job with a wide smile on his face, a high pitched voice, and rapid clapping, Guila again succeeded in making the crowd laugh.
Guila said that when he worked in Beverly Hills, he felt that stand-up comedy was still something he wanted to do.
He took a step toward doing that after one day when comedian Jerry Seinfeld walked into the Beverly Hills salon to get a haircut. Guila said he immediately afterward went to enroll at a stand-up class.
Shortly after enrolling, Guila’s cancer returned, which prompted him to quit comedy and move back up to Northern California. In 2001, he opted to undergo alternative treatment for his disease instead of undergoing chemotherapy. Not long after that, Guila went into remission once again, and then gave stand-up another shot.
While comedy wasn't a career Guila seriously considered until his encounter with cancer, he said he was always entertaining his family when he was younger. His mom told him she always knew he would become a comedian because he frequently imitated their landlord’s accent, Guila said.
Of all the comedians he’s seen, Guila said one of his favorites is Robin Williams. But the first comedian in his life was his dad.
“A couple people have told me they looked into my eyes as if I sent some sort of signal to send some sort of healing. That just makes that whole day.”
“He was always making fun of his brothers, sisters, he was dancing, always in different characters,” Guila said.
His mom, who is Burmese-English-Irish-Spanish-Italian but was born and raised in India, also serves as a source of inspiration for his humor. He likes to poke fun at how he had an Indian accent when he was a kid and at his experiences at Indian barbershops.
Guila describes his comedy as light and refrains from taking tragic issues and spinning them into something funny.
“I don’t really go into dark issues and flip it around, although I think that's my next challenge,” he said. “I think it’ll help me more.”
One subject his material doesn’t touch on, however, is politics.
“I feel like if I don’t know someone, then I can’t judge them,” he said.
Guila's home club is Tommy T’s in Pleasanton, California, in the San Francisco Bay Area. The show he did in Los Angeles was part of a live stand-up series featuring Asian-American comics called “Comedy InvAsian.” In 2013, he headlined the Filipino Kingz of Comedy Tour, which stopped in several cities in North America, including Irvine, Brea, and San Jose, California; Chicago; Dallas; New York; and Winnipeg, Canada.
"I don’t really go into dark issues and flip it around, although I think that's my next challenge. I think it’ll help me more."
Outside of comedy, Guila has hosted two shows on Myx TV called “That's My Jam” and “Myx Rated.”
When he's not on stage depicting events in his life and observations, Guila said he is somewhat of a house husband who cooks three meals per day for his fiancee, and watches their 8-year-old deaf French bulldog, named "Asia."
“Then once in awhile I go to the gym for 15 minutes. That’s it. That’s all I need. I don’t want my hair to go down. I’m a hair stylist,” he said, laughing.
As a cancer survivor, Guila said he doesn't get up on stage solely to make the audience laugh, but to bring healing to people the way comedy did that for him when he was sick.
“I knew through my comedy I could reach people and maybe change the energy of the body, to bring them healing because it makes you forget you’re sick when you’re laughing,” he said.
Wherever he goes, whether it's to the supermarket or the mall, Guila said he tries to inject humor into his encounters with others to make their day better.
After some of his shows, he said some people have approached him to say he's done just that.
“A couple people have told me they looked into my eyes as if I sent some sort of signal to send some sort of healing. That just makes that whole day,” he said. “It makes me feel like I know what my life purpose is now.”