“I’m sorry, man…you called at the worst time,” said Jo Koy when I connected with him on the phone to talk about his newest Netflix comedy special Jo Koy: In His Elements. After a beat, he laughed, “But this is actually the best time because you get to embrace the chaos I call my life.”
Jo Koy has been in the comedy game for over three decades and has jumped a lot of hurdles to achieve success, but the day I hopped on the phone with him, he was dealing with another issue. His son’s scooter ran out of gas and he was stranded on the side of the road. That said, while being interviewed, Jo Koy was in the middle of rescuing his son.
“Oh, the youth!” Jo Koy jokingly sighed.
Sweeping in to save the day and delivering gas to his son while completing an interview he committed to speaks to Jo Koy’s perseverance and willingness to complete a task at any cost. His latest Netflix comedy special In His Elements, where he returns to his Filipino roots is the third for the streamer but getting his first special was not easy. In fact, Netflix wasn’t interested at first.
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“27 years in this business and — I’ll even put this out there — I was the number one comic on the Improv circuit, man,” he declares. “No one has my records at those Improvs. I was selling out 18 shows in a row in basically every Improv, you know what I mean?”
With so many years of experience under his belt, Jo Koy was confident he had a solid hour set for a special so he went to Netflix and they said no — but he would see comedians who opened for him land specials.
“Imagine being in my shoes,” he points out. “I was doing standup before these motherf***** were born and I’m not even being looked at?! It was just killing me inside…but we all face obstacles. We all have to. You have a choice: you can go around the obstacle or you can let that obstacle stop you.”
Jo Koy did exactly that. He went around Netflix and funded a special himself. When the streamer found out he was making it happen for himself, they said the answer will still be no. “When you watch Live From Seattle and you see me laughing and having a good time…I was also broke,” he said.
He emptied his piggy bank for the aforementioned special and wore every hat, hiring the director and entire crew. He even shelled out to rent the venue. Jo Koy knew he had something great with this special and was confident that once Netflix saw it they would have no choice but to buy it.”
“The minute we submitted it to them, they called us within minutes and go, ‘Don’t shop that around. We want it,’” he said. “I cried — I’m tearing up now!”
Live From Seattle debuted on March 28, 2017, and that led to his second Netflix special Comin’ In Hot which was released on June 12, 2019, and then exactly one year later, he returns with Jo Koy: In His Elements.
Part comedy showcase, part travelogue with a smidge of Who Do You Think You Are?, Jo Koy travels to the Philippines to not only revisit his roots but to bridge that small gap between being a Filipino and Filipino American by celebrating the culture showing the joy and hope of the people that is often eclipsed by a country going through its own civic unrest. While doing so, Jo Koy says this will serve as a way to further amplify the culture to the masses.
“There’s a fire that has been burning inside me since the beginning of standup,” said Jo Koy of where the idea for In His Elements came from. His mom didn’t think comedy was ideal career for him and he used to think that he would go back to Manila and perform for a large audience to prove to his mom that it success can come from a career in comedy.
Jo Koy had a vision of bringing Filipino American comedians to perform in the Philippines alongside him, but in addition to that, he wanted to celebrate the country and put an authentic spotlight on the archipelago which is rich in history and culture — something America often overlooks.
There is a misconception that Filipino audiences won’t get jokes and idioms because of a language barrier… a language barrier that doesn’t exist. “I played that country twice before I shot the special, and one of my biggest pet peeves is people in American have no idea that Filipinos speak perfect English — they know how to speak ‘hip’ English,” he laughed. “They get all the jokes… how the world not know this yet? It’s 2020! I just feel like that was the whole point of this special — to get that out and let people know about it.”
In between stand-up sets by himself and Filipino American comics Andrew Lopez, Joey Guila, and Andrew Orolfo, Jo Koy includes segments that showcase the modern and traditional culture of the Philippines. He shows the thriving hip hop culture that has influenced the country with the talents of B-boy Ronnie from the Full Force Crew as well as acclaimed music producer Illmind. We see Ronnie perform with fellow B-boys from tenements in Metro Manila and see Illmind team with DJ Medmessiah to create a theme song for Jo Koy’s special that merges traditional sounds from the culture with sick beats. At the same time, he pays a visit to a local Filipino farmers market and eats traditional food with his family and picks up his fellow comedians from the airport in a Jeepney, which he claims is the “first Uber”.
In addition to showcasing the culture for the masses, Jo Koy wanted to give fellow Filipinos an opportunity to see themselves on screen. When he first started, Jo Koy was one of the few Filipino Americans that had the opportunity to step into the spotlight. He was inspired by comedians like Eddie Murphy, Brian Regan, Dennis Wolfberg, Whoopi Goldberg and Ellen Degeneres, but didn’t have a Filipino face in film and TV to look to for inspiration. “I was in love with storytellers and I wanted to tell my story,” he said.”
However, there was no social media so connecting with other Filipinos in comedy, film or TV required analog research like newspapers, microfiche and word of mouth. Then he watched La Bamba.
“I didn’t know Lou Diamond Phillips was half Filipino!” exclaimed Jo Koy. “Imagine being a kid that’s half white and half Asian in 1985 and seeing this actor play the Spanish lead of a very important movie — and he’s Filipino! That’s so f*cking inspirational for me. That was the moment where I said, ‘Oh, I can make it in this business.’”
Even so, as a lone Filipino in stand-up comedy, Jo Koy could easily fall victim to being the poster child for being THE Filipino American to look at in the entertainment business. And being biracial, Jo Koy admits that added another layer of struggle with his identity.
Jo Koy’s parents divorced when he was 11 and he was subject to kids pulling their eyes back as they made fun of his Asian culture. At the same time, he is what many people refer to as “white-passing” so when he was at the mall with his mom, who is Filipino, he joked that people would think she was kidnapping him. “Because they don’t know what the f*ck I am!” he said.
He fights through his struggle by embracing his Filipino culture and putting it on a pedestal. “It’s my identity,” he declares, adding that he admires storytellers and he wanted to tell his story.
As for being a poster child for Filipinos in entertainment, he didn’t feel pressured to represent the culture, he just wanted the culture to be accepted into the masses instead of it being specifically for Filipinos. To that, he said, “I want to be able to talk about my mom and everyone get it as if any other ethnicity is talking about their mom.”
He added, “I didn’t want to be a Filipino comic, I wanted to be a comic that happened to be Filipino.”
With In His Elements, Jo Koy gives younger Filipino Americans what he didn’t have when he was younger: a chance to see themselves on screen. He not only amplifies fellow Filipino American comedians but recognizes that this is part of a bigger movement when it comes to representation of Asian Americans in film and TV. He praises Ken Jeong, Ronny Chieng, Bobby Lee, Dante Basco as well as Jimmy O. Yang, Jessica Gao and Ken Cheng of the Crab Club, Inc. production banner which, alongside Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Partners and Dan Lin’s Rideback are developing Easter Sunday, a comedy feature based on his experiences.
“[Spielberg] was shooting West Side Story and during a break, he and his daughter watched Comin’ In Hot on Netflix,” he said of how the partnership came about. “Next thing you know he sent a mass email to Amblin asking me to come in.”
He continued, “You just have to have genuinely, authentically good people like Ken, Jessica and Jimmy onboard.”
This goes back to when Jo Koy pitched his first Netflix special. He explains that if he Live From Seattle didn’t happen, Comin’ In Hot wouldn’t have happened. “[Because of Comin’ In Hot], Spielberg would have never seen me… he would have never known who I was,” Jo Koy said.
That said, if he quit after Netflix told him no to his first special, none of this would have happened — and that includes In His Elements. He hopes that people — not just Filipinos — is inspired by this.
Jo Koy said of his Hollywood journey: “If someone says, ‘no’, you got to show them that they should have said yes. It’s up to you.”
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