Bridging two worlds in his accessible and relatable brand of funny, Jo Koy explores his origins in this layered approach to comedy and discovery starring the Philippines.
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“It’s more fun in the Philippines,” and so goes the country’s tourism slogan plastered everywhere from collaterals in travel fairs abroad to buses snaking their way through high-density traffic in New York and London. We know this to be very true, which is a notoriety we want to be associated with next to be being debilitating hospitable. And so does Jo Koy, the Filipino-American comedian who has made the name Josep (an inflection of his mother) so mainstream, every Joseph I know has at one point been called this iteration in a drinking circle. In fact, his conviction is so undeterred that even though he has performed in sold out venues all over the world in Norway, Amsterdam, Australia, Singapore, Malaysia, and New York City New York City, even taking to the stage in Radio City Music Hall and on The Tonight Show, he swears that performing in the Philippines is on his bucket list. But if he was going to have fun, he wasn’t sure as hell going to do it alone, because as a comedian representing the country in mainstream entertainment, he wanted to wave the flag high with just a little bit more flourish. Why not, right?
“I brought Netflix to the Philippines man. Are you kidding me,” he says, walking to the stage of his latest comedy special, In His Elements, on the massively popular streaming service platform. While he was obviously basking in hometown glory, relishing the thunderous reception and applause, this wasn’t just about him. Unlike his acclaimed turns on Jo Koy: Live In Seattle and Comin’ In Hot, this approach was more textured and nuanced than a straightforward act with a bare stage, a stool with a towel and a bottle of water on the side, and the wire of the microphone lassoing on the surface. Taking on a more lifestyle-coddled, docu-series-like approach, In His Elements unravels like an origin story, piecing through moments as the pieces of the puzzle that Jo Koy was putting together. “You know, I only get 59 minutes, right? So, my whole thing was, how can I cram a lot of my culture, and still be entertaining you? I mean, how can I just shine the light on the Philippines, that way the world can see just how beautiful it is and learn about it as quickly as possible, because you know, it’s still my job to entertain,” he explains. “I have to show the rest of the world what this culture is why do I talk about this culture so much, why do I love it so much, why do I embrace it so much like I have to go to the Philippines with this. And I also want to bring other Filipinos with me that live in America but never been to the Philippines and show them what the motherland looks like and show them what what a Filipino crowd looks like, and and embrace that culture, highlight our food, and everything about the Philippines.”
In His Elements functions as just that , a travelogue rife with entertainment much like a variety show where his comedic bits were interspersed with Anthony Bourdain-like inflections. While there was nothing thoroughly groundbreaking with his signature enactment of Filipino-American culture, we did get to understand him more, finding out how Michael Jackson was a very important figure to shaping his brand of performance, as well as why decided on his stage name, Jo Koy. But what was most compelling was how he was not only dead-set on sharing the stage with fellow Filipino-American comics, but by bringing them here to the country, to fully immerse themselves in a world they only know theoretically. “This is where we’re from, man. This is our bloodline,” says b-boy sensation, Ronnie Abaldonado, in their eye-opening interface at The Tenement community of West Bicutan. “It’s humbling. It’s a big honor to be here.”
This was a valiant effort on the part of Jo Koy as a creative mastermind, steering clear from the typical tourist tropes, and instead, bringing his friends to see a side of the Philippines that are never usually given that light of day. Sure, there was the colorful Sarao jeepney speeding through the airport to pick up Joey Guila and Andrew Lopez before wolfing down Filipino food, turo-turo style. Speaking of food, it wouldn’t be complete without making mention of chicken adobo, a personal favorite of Jo Koy, although he would be glad to give sinigang as much airtime next. “Mas maasim, mas mabuti,” he says. But here, he treats comedian Andrew Orolfo to a meal cooked by his auntie and sister in a farmer’s market in Quezon city, where they introspect a little further on what it means to be someone toeing the line between two contexts, in this case, Filipino and American humor.
“First of all, comedy is comedy, funny is funny,” assures Jo Koy. “The only time they’re not going to laugh is when you’re not funny.” This nugget of wisdom, as encompassing as it is, then sets a precedent for his earnest intent of giving more opportunities and working on Filipino representation in Hollywood. “How can I showcase other Filipinos on Netflix and also showcase the Philippines and talk about our culture?” he wonders. “What else better than a variety show where I can bring all my friends, you know, I mean? I know how hard it was just to get into Netflix, so now that I’m in and I got the door open, well I’m gonna bring some other Filipinos in. Here’s some more Filipinos, just in case you missed them. Here they are.”
Inspired by his early brush with comedy through Filipino variety shows such as Eat Bulaga, Jo Koy fashions In His Elements in the same vein, showcasing dance, comedy, and music, where he brought out Iñigo Pascual and Grammy-award winning producer, !llmind, who produced the original track, Kayumanggi, featuring young Filipino rappers, A, Tanikala, Fateeha, and Palos. “How cool is that?” he gushed to an audience of 10,000 in MOA Arena, a feat he calls a highlight of his career. “[This was] something that my mom just did not believe in. She didn’t think anything was gonna happen with stand up, you know? And here I am, 30 years later, 10,000 people at the MOA Arena, because of stand up comedy. Dreams come true man, that was the biggest highlight of my career. I’m just gonna be honest. That was amazing.” Already steeped in personal milestones for him, what was even more special for this was that he got to experience it with his son who got to visit the Philippines for the first time.
“When I got to bring him out on stage, I wanted to cry, because I was like, you know, being a stand up comic, you know when you got a Filipino mom, and you tell her you want to be a stand up comic, you’re usually kicked out of the family. So, for me to be able to perform in the motherland, and then bring my son out has shown that it is possible,” he muses, much like the time he went on The Tonight Show with a Filipino flag on his chest. “Whatever you want to do, whatever dream it is that you want to have, it’s possible. And that was that moment, walking out on stage with my son, I showed him that dreams come true.”
There isn’t anything more Filipino than that, invoking the spirit of family, which is a bond that ranks high above anything else. But for Jo Koy, he is always trying to take things further, pushing more boundaries, and paving paths for others to follow, just as he has. “This is me showing the world, hey, I’m Filipino, listen to my story,” he says with pride. And in this very Filipino affair, it was definitely made clear what he wants to set out for himself in the long run, which includes a movie called Easter Sunday, which is an idea he pitched and landed with Steven Spielberg’s production company, signing a deal that will realize this development. “It’s going to showcase more Filipino actors, and more Filipino stories, and we’re going to get this in as many movie theaters as we can, but just know Steven Spielberg is on it, and so is Dan Lin. These two powerhouses are going to back this for us, so I’m very proud to put that out there.”
While we will have to wait for that to start grinding and rolling, we still have an hour of Jo Koy and company to enjoy, which coincidentally streamed beginning on Philippine Independence day, a detail that has sort of become a signature for the comedian. “Let me be part of your celebration,” he offers. “So, if you guys are having late night eating with the family, when you’re done eating, throw me on Netflix.”
Clearly at ease and in his element, connecting two worlds and making sense of it as his cohesive truth in his brand of accessible and relatable funny, we cannot wait to see what else he has up his sleeves for a possible next installment on Independence day. “I’ll put that on there if I have to. I don’t care, as long as I can tell the world that I’m Filipino.” And mighty proud of it, if we may say so ourselves.
In His Elements is streaming now on Netflix.