Jo Koy has always told us about his roots. For many years, he’s been up onstage telling us stories about his family, his son, and his mom, as well as talking about growing up half-Filipino. Not only did it become a staple of his act, but it also was something that served as a small introduction for audiences that may have previously been unfamiliar with the culture. For all these years, these have been things that Jo Koy has told us.
And now, he’s done telling us about it. He’s going to show it to us instead.
Jo Koy has partnered with Netflix for his third comedy special that is titled Jo Koy: In His Elements. And this one is his most personal yet. This time, he’s doing something a little bit different. He has decided to go to the Philipines to bring us a different kind of stand-up special. Yes, you definitely get a lot of Koy as he serves as the emcee for the whole thing. But it feels more like a really fun variety show. He has brought some other Filipino comics with him, who have never been to the Philippines, a DJ, dancers, a jeepney ride, and even showcases some authentic food as cooked by his sister and aunt.
We recently spoke on the phone with Jo Koy all about his new special, what he wants people to get out of it, some of the most surreal moments of filming it, going to the Philippines for the first time as a comedian, how he got his first Netflix special made, who he’s going to watch this new one with, and much more.
Can you tell me a little bit about how this special came together?
This was something I dreamt about doing was highlighting my mom culture and embracing the culture and showing the world about it because it really is personal to me. Growing up half white half- Filipino and having an identity crisis myself, always figuring out what sides to embrace. “What do I talk about?”
When I was a kid growing up, people were always asking me, “What’s Filipino?” If I told them I was Filipino they would always go, “What’s that? Where’s that at? What do you guys eat?” It was always like I was an ambassador for the Philippines. When Netflix gave me an opportunity to do a special, they asked me what I would like to do. I said, “You know, what I would like to do is just showcase the Philippines a little bit and bring some Filipino American’s back to the Motherland and show them where their parents came from. That way they appreciate everything they sacrificed for them and show the world that the Philippines is a beautiful place to visit as well. Look at the beautiful people here and that we’re speaking English here and they get it! As long as I could do that then I was happy. This was the idea behind it was to do a variety special where I could showcase other Filipino Americans and also embrace and show off the culture a little bit to the world.
As someone who was admittedly pretty unfamiliar with the culture going into the special, it was definitely really cool to see just how much you were able to teach people through it.
Yeah, and I wasn’t able to do it on the big scale because we still had to do comedy and showcase the entertainment. But as long as I could just show the world a little hint of Filipino: A Tagalog word here, a Filipino dish there, some kind of food or some kind of dancing or the jeepney or the parks there. As long as someone that’s not Filipino or lives somewhere that they had no idea what Filipinos were… As long as you can watch the special and at the end of it go, “I’d like to visit that place. That looks like a fun place to go,” then I did my job and that makes me happy.
Totally. And what made it even more exciting, from an audience perspective, was watching the two comedians you brought with you get to experience it all for their first trip there.
Yeah man, I mean especially Andrew Lopez. That’s the one I always talk about the most because Andrew Lopez’s parents came from the Philippines and they moved to Iowa and that’s where they decided to start the family, in Iowa! When he made that joke about him being the only Filipino, he wasn’t exaggerating! He might have been overly exaggerating, but how he felt as a kid was that he was the only Filipino. For him to see anything about the Philippines was a Google search. He had to Google Philippines to see what it looked like. So for him to actually go to the Philippines, really see it, and then his family was there and they got to see his son shooting for something for Netflix in the Philippines, where they’re from, it was a beautiful moment, man. And it was just something really cool to see for me as well.
And can you tell me a little bit about how you landed upon the cultural elements that you wound up showcasing?
As far as on location stuff, I really wanted to show the food. I have been an ambassador for Filipino food since I was a child. I feel like I always get jealous anytime any other ethnicity says what they are and people always quick to compliment it. Like if someone was Thai they go, “Have you ever had Thai food?” And everyone’s always like, “I love Thai food!” Or if they were Indian, “I love Indian food!” Chinese, “I love Chinese food!” Mexican, “I love Mexican food!” When you get to the Philippines, “Oh what find of food do you guys eat?” Goddammit! Like my whole life [it’s been like that].
So that was very important to me to show off that market and have my aunt and my sister there cooking me chicken adobo and telling the world, “Hey, try chicken adobo.” And then eating it. It was a small segment but the fact that I was able to eat chicken adobo and that there was going to be 180 countries out there watching it made me happy.
What was it like the first time you ever went there to do a show?
The first time I was out there was with Russel Peters and we did it like 14 years ago. It was my first time ever going back to the Philippines since my childhood. I just remember the minute we got off the plane together, immediately I had flashbacks of me running through the streets, riding tricycles and jeepneys, buying soda pop out of a sandwich bag. All these memories started coming back that I didn’t know I had. I knew I had it, but not that fond and memorable. That’s when I realized how much I loved being in the Philippines and that’s another reason why I had to shoot the special there. I always talk about my culture on stage, I always talk about my mom on stage and this was that time where I finally got to show everybody what I’m actually talking about, where this is at, what my people look like, what they eat, what the country looks like.
It’s so cool you were able to do this. And onstage, you mentioned that this is the highlight of your career. As you walked offstage, did you have a feeling that it lived up to everything you imagined it would?
Oh, yeah. I mean, it was just a sigh of relief, man. I remember my sister and I just hugged for the longest time and she cried and of course I cried. It was just cool, you know what I mean. It’s something that we’re proud of. We’re very prideful people. My mom is a very prideful person. To be able to put that out there and have it be part of the Netflix library. The word Philippines is on there, the flag is on there, the jeepneys are on there. That’s really, really cool and something that we were really proud of. From the idea to finally shooting it, it was just a long process, a long road, a long journey and it was just fun to see it finally happen.
That’s another thought that went into my head as I watched it. It just feels like a culmination of all the things you’ve been talking about onstage for years finally being able to come to life.
And you know what’s crazy is those are my friends, you know like the B-boy, Ronnie. I used to throw B-Boy events in Vegas and that’s how I met the Jabbawockeez. That’s how I met Ronnie and all these guys. I used to do comedy shows in Vegas and I used to have B-Boys open for my shows. Me and Ronnie opened for Snoop Dog 20 years ago at the Blaisdell Arena in Hawaii. So him on my special wasn’t because dancing is the new thing now. That’s my friend. And we did this 20 years ago and it was cool to have friends on Netflix with me, doing the same thing we’ve been doing consistently since 20 years ago. And also having !Illmind. !Illmind produced beats for Dre, JayZ, Beyonce, and he got a Grammy for JayZ. And here he is writing the theme song with another Filipino producer and then the kid rapping is Filipino.
It’s just important for us. It’s important for my mom to have something like that where her language is kind of mainstream now. Like people are going to watch it be like, “Woah, these guys can rap too? Wow! I had no idea they spoke English in the Philippines!” That’s so cool to do that. It was a long, long journey, man. With my first Netflix special, Live From Seattle, Netflix turned me down like 4 or 5 times and I kept telling them like, “Please, just watch this hour. I’d love for it to be on Netflix.” And they kept turning me down. And finally they said no the last time. And then what happened is my manager and I just decided to shoot it ourselves and that’s what I did. I literally cleaned out my savings account, 27 years worth of money invested into that damn special Live From Seattle. And that’s what I had to do just to get on Netflix.
No disrespect to Netflix, I always say that. I’m glad they said no, because I probably wouldn’t have worked as hard. That’s what I had to do to get on Netflix. I had to literally pay for the entire thing. Start to finish I wore every hat. Then I brought it to Netflix and they bought it and I’m glad I did that. I’m glad I invested because if I didn’t make that special, if I didn’t make it Live From Seattle, then I wouldn’t be having this conversation with you about shooting something in the Philippines. This probably would have never happened, and there wouldn’t be a special where I could show other Filipinos off to the world, where I can give 3 other Filipino comics who are up and coming a chance to perform for Netflix. I was able to do that and that’s why I brought those 3 other comics. Because I knew it was hard for just me to get in. If I’m going to open the door, I’m going to open it up a little bit and hopefully they can start running in.
And what must be crazy in retrospect is, in that moment when they turned it down, you could never imagine that the things would work out the way they did.
You know what’s crazy is when I shot Live From Seattle, they still said no. I remember I was backstage looking at my agent and I was so depressed. I remember telling my agent, “Dude. What if they don’t buy this? Like I’m out.” I’ve got to go on stage and be funny, but backstage I’m looking at my agent and my manager saying, “What if they don’t buy this? I have nothing!” My son’s asleep on the couch upstairs. The whole world was on my shoulders that night. I remember just being so depressed and then walking out there and being funny. I had everything riding on me that day. But I’m glad I did it. And I’m glad Netflix did say no because I probably wouldn’t have worked hard. They changed my life. And thank God. And now look. I’m able to open the door for some other Filipino entertainers. And that’s what this was all about.
That’s really cool how it was all able to work out, even from those most fearful moments. And going back to this special, has your family seen it yet?
No because I want everyone to be surprised when we all watch it. Once again, I was part of the entire editing process along with the producers and the director. They were all great. Everyone was so great. The one thing I love about Netflix is that they really want you to be personal with it. And they don’t do any project final until you go in there and really tell them what you like and don’t like. And I sat in there for 3 days editing base cutting that thing up. So it’s very personal to me. I know what it looks like. And we did our best and I’m very proud of it. And I want to see everyone’s reaction in front of me, you know what I mean? I want to be there when everyone watches it. Like I said, It’s a win for all of us. We’re all so happy that I was able to pull this off. It’s just so cool.
So do you have a big party planned for when it airs?
Yeah. They always want to have a viewing party and invite a bunch of people. But I’m not that guy, man. I just want to be with my immediate family, the ones that have been there when I was making $15 a show. I want my sister next to me. You know my sister a flight attendant and now she’s running my company. Back then, she used to be a flight attendant. And she used to give me, I can’t remember what they are called but she used to give me the tickets the employees have and that’s how I would get to gigs. She’s seen me perform at colleges in front of 8 people in the student union. So that journey to get to the Philippines and shoot that special. And after that I did the arena in front of 10,000 people right after we shot that special. That Tuesday we did the arena with 10,000 people. To see my sister smile from ear to ear like “Holy shit man, we did it.” That was cool and that’s who I want to share that with. People that have been there since day 1.
That’s really cool that you were able to have that support back in the day. And the last thing I want to know is, after all is said and done, what is something you most want audiences to take away from the special? I know we talked about the culture of it all, but is there anything else?
This is going to be so generic for an answer but it’s 100 percent how I feel. Entertainment, comedy, dancing, music, it’s the universal language, bro. And that’s what I want them to get from this man. Funny’s funny. And yeah I get to talk about my culture, but for the most part if we can just laugh together, that’s so important to me. That’s what I got out of that. I got to tell you about my culture through laughter. And that’s fun and hopefully it’s not specific where people go, “I don’t get it.” I want people to be like, “That’s funny,” or relate to it. Like “My mom says that too,” or “I was there when it happened.” That’s what I want to get out of that man and share that with the world. And like I said earlier, if anything, someone that isn’t Filipino can watch it and just go, “Holy sh*t. They speak English there. I want to ride a jeepney. I want to see what that looks like in person.” That will make me feel so good. I already won, you know what I mean? That’s what I want for the special.
Jo Koy: In His Elements is streaming on Netflix now.