In the midst of his Funny Is Funny world tour, Jo Koy talks to Mariane Perez all about his Netflix beginnings.
Despite having just landed the day before, Jo Koy was all smiles, offering us tea and making sure we all felt at home. It was easy to fall into a rhythm with him, bonding over a shared love of Filipino food and of Filipino moms, and of places we have yet to explore in the country.
Jo Koy is now an established name in the international comedy scene, selling out arenas the world over. His rise to the top was the result of years of hard work, beginning with a young Joseph Glenn Herbert getting his “first laugh” at a coffee shop in Las Vegas, followed by the entertainer gradually gaining traction on the comedy circuit.
He built a solid fan base and had been headlining shows all around the United States, becoming a global sensation when the streaming platform Netflix finally took notice of him. That career-making moment was something he had to make happen himself. Referring to Live from Seattle, his first Netflix special in 2017, Jo Koy shares, “I paid for that. I made it myself and then I sold it to them, after they already said they didn’t want it. And when I had all the cameras inside the theater, they called me and they said, ‘We really don’t want it.’” But his tenacity won out. He brought it to them, and landed a multi-special deal.
“When people saw my first few specials, it started clicking. And then my sales went through the roof,” he says, recounting how they had initially thought the project would be shelved for being too specific. “They were wrong. Because the world grabbed hold of it, and they fell in love with it.”
The success of his first special was followed by Coming in Hot, and his third, Jo Koy: In His Elements, which the performer is extremely passionate about. “It was all my idea! One hundred percent!” he tells Vogue Philippines, explaining how he wanted the show to be a way for people to get to know the beauty of our country and our culture. “My whole goal for that show was that if someone who wasn’t Filipino watches it, that happens to be a fan of mine, I want them to go, ‘Let’s go there next summer.’”
Jo Koy says that a lot of the performers on that special were people whom he had known for years, like his best friend Joey Guila, who also joined him in his current tour, as well as dancer Ronnie Abaldonado. Aside from bringing Fil- Am talent to the motherland, he also wanted to give local performers a chance to be on the world stage. “Those were all people that I wanted to showcase. Behind the scenes, like even behind the camera [it was all] Filipinos.”
And this isn’t the first time Jo Koy has woven his heritage into his work. During his pivotal appearance at the Tonight Show with Jay Leno, he performed with a Filipino flag sewn into his jacket.
Racial identity and family are recurring themes in Jo Koy’s comedic oeuvre, but it took him years before he ended up telling his first mom joke on stage. It was that bit about how his mom got him to buy her a Wii without actually asking him to buy her a Wii. It’s a joke so relatable that people around the world still come up to him with controllers to autograph.
Watching Jo Koy do an impression of his mother Josie, he has captured her voice, mannerisms, and feistiness to a tee. “I wanted to let people know that I was Filipino without telling them that I was Filipino, I wanted to show people that my mom had an accent without saying ‘Hey, my Mom has an accent.’ I just wanted to become my mom on stage,” he says, emphasizing how he wanted audiences to fall in love with her.
In his memoir, Mixed Plate: Chronicles of an All-American Combo, Jo Koy gets real about the struggles he faced while coming up in the industry, about what it was like being half-white and half-Asian, how challenging it was to try and overcome the “white wall,” and about the personal challenges his family faced. It was his story, and yet it was also the story of many immigrant families, filled with both grace and grit that has inspired many of his best jokes.
Other family members, especially his son Little Joe, have also figured largely in his humorous anecdotes. On the surface, the well-polished routine, coupled with impeccable timing, delivery, and his gift for improv, add up to comedic genius. But the 51-year-old says that sometimes his humor connects with audiences because it is about something deeper.
“When I talk about my sisters getting kicked out, and my Mom getting into a fight with my sister. That’s when you start getting the real people coming up to you, saying, ‘My sister [also] got kicked out, and I thought I was alone.’ I made it comical, but in no way was it comical when it happened,” Jo Koy says, mentioning his sister Gemma, who accompanied him on tour as part of his management team. “But that’s the best part about comedy. It’s therapy.”
Jo Koy’s unique voice and style caught the attention of Steven Spielberg, whom he credits as the man who got Easter Sunday onto the big screen. The legendary directorproducer saw his second Netflix special and instantly became a fan. “Finally, after 28 years of getting nos, finally I get that yes. And it happened to be the greatest yes of all time,” he says.
With Spielberg’s blessing, doors started opening. “The minute Steven logged on, it was like, not only did we have writers attached but we had a waiting list of writers and directors. It’s like we had every audition,” he recalls, further noting that Spielberg only produced Easter Sunday and Jurassic World Dominion that year. Additionally, Jo Koy also credits his executive producer Dan Lin of Rideback, who produced the Lego movies, Aladdin, and It, among others, as instrumental in making it happen.
The film, which is centered around a typical Filipino-American family gathering on Easter, is one of the first Hollywood films to focus on our culture. There’s Jo Koy’s on-screen alter ego Joe Valencia, a hardworking performer based in LA, but there’s also balikbayan boxes, Lou Diamond Phillips, feuding aunties, and Manny Pacquiao. There’s a lot of the little quirks that make us feel distinctly Filipino all combined in halo-halo fashion, resulting in a beautiful collage of traditional family values and representation.
Behind the scenes
Being with Jo Koy in person is a bit like being with him on stage. He’s full of life and a consummate hugger, with a way of making everything fun. As he gets dressed, there is banter over what to wear, and they go back and forth between the cream sweater and ripped jeans he had on during the interview, and the sleek jumpsuit from his favorite brand Prada that he ends up donning. “He’s always like that,’ goes his sister Gemma with a smirk.
He also tells us he loved summer trips with his family, especially Cebu, and his dream of experiencing the beauty of the real Philippines, the “deep deep country.” With some hesitation, he also reveals his secret love for malls. “I’m not a touristy guy, I’m a mall guy. They tell me that I go to these beautiful cities in these beautiful countries and I’m in the mall, shopping. But he points out, “you can also see someone’s culture through the mall.”
King of the hustle
The comedian’s fourth special just came out on Netflix, Jo Koy: Live from the Los Angeles Forum, where he had an audience of 28,000 laughing out of their seats.
Amidst all the applause and standing ovations, there’s also a more intimate, and perhaps vulnerable side to him. As Jo Koy poses on the stage of the Mall of Asia Arena, which will be filled in a few hours with thousands of enthusiastic fans, he tells us about his signature microphone with its red cord. “Out of every entertainer, all a comedian has is his stool and his mic. So, I want mine to stand out.”
“When they say comedy is the hardest art form in entertainment, that is no lie. It’s really, really hard,” he says. A product of years of studying the masters and performing on various stages, Jo Koy is a master of his craft. “I want to flow, and I want callbacks [references to earlier jokes]. And I want it to connect. Like I want all that to tell a story.”
The comedian does stand-up with an engaging presence, owning the entire stage with bold movements and varied impressions. But he says his performances are also about having a conversation with his audience, about hearing them, seeing them and getting them to talk to him. “If I can’t feel you laughing, I can’t go to you,” he shares.
When asked about how much adlibbing he does out of a two-hour live set, Jo Koy gestures to his cameraman, “This guy records every show that I’m at, tell her how much is prepared.” To which he replies, “Ten percent?”
Jo Koy is clearly a natural, born with the funny gene, allowing him to turn everyday events into comedy gold. We try to get him to explain exactly how, but he himself isn’t quite sure. “I don’t know what it is but I can talk to someone… and for some reason they love it so much.”
He pauses a bit, and then with a smile, he says, “It’s my secret sauce. It’s my adobo. It’s my adobo with sauce.”
This article was originally published in Vogue Philippines October 2022 Issue