Jo Koy Is Still Hustling
Easter Sunday, the new film from veteran comedian Jo Koy out this weekend, is a funny, if familiar family comedy— there’s the occasional tense situation punctuated by laughs, relatives in trouble, and characters who put blood above all. But what’s special about this depiction is that it’s the first time a Filipino cast gets to tell this story in a nationally released theatrical comedy.
The film, which was greenlit and produced by Steven Spielberg after he saw Koy’s Netflix special, Comin’ In Hot, is an intimate love letter to Filipino-American culture. Everything from food to Lou Diamond Phillips gets a shout out, all of it brought to life by a cast that includes Jay Chandrasekhar (who also directs),Tia Carrere, Lydia Gaston, Brandon Wardell, Tiffany Haddish, Elena Juatco, Jimmy O. Yang, Eva Noblezada, and a magnetic Eugene Cordero. At the center of the ensemble is Jo Koy, playing a version of himself, who, like in his stand-up specials, never stops moving, never stops hustling.
The journey for Koy to get to this point was over a decade, filled with stop-starts and paths of most resistance. He worked for over fifteen years as a stand-up before landing his first network special, 2009’s Don’t Make Him Angry. He passed on a comfortable life working as a valet for The Mirage, and then turned down an opportunity to be Chelsea Handler’s sidekick on Chelsea Lately (who he later wound up dating for close to a year). Instead, he worked to get spots at clubs, performed on landmark showcases like Showtime at the Apollo, and passed on morally compromising but otherwise career-changing opportunities on his way to success.
In 2017, despite having two Comedy Central specials and a successful career headlining around the country, Netflix initially passed on the opportunity to work with him. However, after shooting his third special himself, Koy was able to impress the streamer enough to, landing himself a multi-special deal. Koy’s specific point of view was able to reach Steven Spielberg and put him in a position to display Filipino excellence on the big screen.
GQ talked with Koy about breaking barriers, Asian discrimination in the industry, his embracing of Black culture, and what he wants to say with Easter Sunday.
Easter Sunday does a great job of creating its own vibe in a way where you’re really just holding up and celebrating Filipino/Asian excellence, and letting audiences know it’s here for them if they can click with it. How did you go about cultivating that feeling?
The whole point of Easter Sunday was, how do I tell my story, talk about my culture, let people know about my ethnicity, and then also make it relatable? As an immigrant, as a product of an immigrant parent…my mom came to this country in like 1968, ‘69,. I was growing up in the seventies and eighties, and already I was struggling with my identity. Like, no one knows what my mom is. I was always having to explain who she was. There’s nothing for her to watch on TV that looks like her, sounds like her, or even gives a great depiction of what an Asian is like. It’s so offensive, and to see my mom deal with that type of racism and then for me to latch on to Black movies and Black comedy because for some reason, that was relatable to me. If I heard the struggle of a Black family, I was relating to it, like, yeah, “the strong Black woman in this movie is my mom, this strong Filipino woman.” So I’m identifying with that. That’s why my earlier works were always opening for Black comedians, and doing BET’s Comic View, and Showtime at the Apollo and, you know, being inspired by Black entertainment.I felt like that was the closest thing to what my mom was. That’s why Friday was such a big movie in my life. When I watched Friday, I was like, “ I know all these characters.” And that’s why Easter Sunday came about. I was like, “ I’m gonna do the same blueprint. I’m gonna get all these characters involved, and I’m going to explain to you guys who they are. And we’re going to do it in one day. And at the end of the movie, I want you all to be relating to them,” like, “Oh, okay, that’s a Filipino mom. That’s just like my mom.”
This interest in celebrating Asian excellence comes through even in the music selection. Dan the Automator is your music supervisor for this. His music with Handsome Boy Modeling School, I think, gave you hype music if you didn’t exactly fit with the vibe of, say, DMX or Talib Kweli.
That was a very important part of this movie. Like I wanted to showcase not only my mom’s culture, but the culture that I embraced living in this country. Growing up, there was no Internet. Now, if you want to find your identity or learn about your ethnicity, you can Google it. When I was a kid, it was like when Rufio walked on to the scene in Hook. Here’s a movie that I couldn’t wait to watch because it was a Steven Spielberg movie. How ironic that I referenced that! [laughs] And here I am on a date, sitting in the theater, and this dark brown actor walks out, crushing it. The first thing I say to myself is “he looks like my cousin. I don’t know if he’s Filipino, but he’s something.” Now my heart’s pounding fast and I’m excited. I can’t wait for the end credits because I’m going to find out if he’s Filipino. And then the end credits rolled and they said, Dante Basco. I went nuts! Just that alone was like a big thing in my life. Entertainment was a big part of my culture and my identity and to see someone like Dante Basco on the big screen motivated me and gave me a voice. It gave me inspiration to make it in Hollywood. And music was such a big thing because, you know, my community, Filipinos love to dance. A lot of Filipinos were B-boys. So hip-hop was a big part of my life and culture as far as being a Filipino-American. Black music was a big thing in my life because it gave me an identity. I was seen. That’s why, in this movie, I had to choose those types of songs and move it forward.
You’re so kinetic in the film. You’re always moving, just like in your stand-up. It’s not a new concept that physicality and movement are things that help jokes move along or for standup to clarify itself for an audience, but specifically for what you’re doing, how do you approach physicality in relation to what you want to do on stage, or how you want to deepen your comedy?
The physical part of my standup is literally just my way of not only acting it out, but I want you to feel what I’m talking about. When I’m physical, it’s like I’m not doing it for the joke — I mean, I am — but I also want you to physically see it. And that’s what we wanted to do in this movie. I want to give you all of it. Like, you’re going to see me running; you’re going to see me acting it out. You’re going to see the craziness. You’re going to see the chaos, and what I go through as far as this family is concerned, because I want you to not only learn about my culture, but you’re also going to be like, “oh my God, that’s just like my family. And I run around with my head cut off, too.”
Do you find that you approach moving around and act-outs differently now as you’re trying to figure out how to deepen the stories you tell or sharing more of yourself with audiences?
Especially with this special that’s about to drop, I really want to tell deeper stories. That was always my love and my passion, putting it all out on the table to the point where it’s almost uncomfortable. It’s also very therapeutic because a lot of these stories I kept inside as a kid, and when I say it on stage, it’s relieving. It’s off my chest now. And the physical part makes it easier for me to just say it. There’s this one joke I do about my sisters, who left the house at a very young age. In the fight between my mom and my sisters, it’s very physical when I’m on stage doing it. But man, it was so rewarding for me, because it’s something I carried for a long time. Like that was a sad part of my life,. I never saw them again after that. Not only that, I was scared of them seeing it on stage because I didn’t know how they were going to react. I didn’t know how my mom was going to react to me telling that story because it’s so personal. And then my sisters, I don’t want them to relive that moment, especially through a joke, But being able to say it and laugh about it helped us all. I want to do more like that. I want to do more jokes that are deep and therapeutic.
I really loved how pious the movie is. There’s not a lot of bad language, and when you’re on stage and doing that small routine at church, you’re really careful about how you’re navigating that venue and being respectful of it.
The best part of that church scene was that we wanted to show that I was a stand-up comic, but we didn’t want to shoot it in a comedy club, because movies shooting a scene in a comedy club always looks bad. It always looks fake. So we were like, How can we tie the two together? And Jay Chandrasekhar, came up with the idea. It looks like a sermon, but it breaks off into a routine. And now in that, you get to tell your story about the bickering in the family.. Literally, we had the whole set written out. But Jay was like, “if you feel it, go for it.” And I swear, I was maybe two lines in, and I just went for it. I was really pulling from real life stuff. So when you hear me talk about my aunt and my mom, that’s real. That’s actually happening. I had to say it and I didn’t care. So it’s in the movie. And when they see it, they’re going to be like, [imitating family] “Oh, he’s talking about us again,” but maybe they need to see it, dammit! [laughs].
A thing that you write about and you’ve talked about is how back in the nineties and the early aughts, clubs would have, like, an Asian night or a gay night, as an example of one of many ways discrimination and gatekeeping worked at the club level. You also write about passing on the Comedy Central special Barry Katz was involved with. What was it called..
Take-out. It was called Take Out Comedy or something like that. And he wanted us all in a to-go box.
Right. The film has a plot point where you’re trying to reckon with and negotiate wanting to be on the sitcom and then not wanting to do this racist voice. As someone who is so successful and talented and at a level where you can start kind of making these calls, how did you navigate these aspects of the industry when you were younger?
It’s sad because now we have a generation of kids that don’t fully understand what the generations before them had to go through. What my mom had to endure was horrific. In Mixed Plate, I write about a little white kid pulling his eyes back at my mom on the escalator, and my mom just going,”he’s just being funny.” She had to swallow it because if she said something, she would be the bad person “ And then, of course, the representation on TV, seeing little Asians in cartoons bucktooth and walking around with the pail on their back. Or what Tia Carrere had to go through with auditioning for parts where the description of the character features a “thick, heavy Asian accent.” Not even a specific Asian, just “Asian.” And then, of course,what I had to go through. The stuff that was considered normal was almost brainwashing for me because it was like, okay, well, I can’t talk about my family specifically because that’s what they always say. “Oh, that’s too specific. No one’s going to get it. Just do what we consider normal and we’ll laugh at that.” And unfortunately I did, because during that time that was socially accepted. So of course I did the shitty Asian jokes, I’m not happy about it now. But during that time, how else am I going to get noticed? It was so normalized that I just did it. I had to say no to things that would change my life, like Take Out Comedy or whatever. I was working at a bookstore and a shoe store at the time. And I had a new kid. I needed money. I’m glad I stuck to my guns, even though Netflix said no to me at first. I shot my special myself, and I’m glad I did, because if I didn’t shoot it, I would have never got to shoot Comin’ in Hot, which is the one that Steven Spielberg watched. So to this generation, that’s doing what they’re doing right now, just know to stick to your story and stay true to yourself. Stay on your path because it’ll eventually happen. For me, I got to talk about my Filipino family, which is very specific. We made sure to show a movie that yes, it’s a Filipino family, but most importantly, it’s just a family. And you’re going to relate to this family, and you’re going to love my mom, and you’re going to relate to my mom because she’s just like your mom. That’s it.
Did Spielberg give you any specific notes on what he was connecting with?
You know, what’s crazy, man, is he was legit. Like, he gave me this deal in 2019, but then the pandemic hit. And I thought, “ Oh, great. Finally I get recognized, and now it’s not going to happen.” That didn’t stop him. Even though everything shut down, he waited for Vancouver to open, and when Vancouver opened, boom. He was right on it. He was in the casting process. He gave suggestions of which actors he liked, which ones he didn’t like. Script-wise, he was in the script writing process, and then the directing process. Steven was in this every step of the way; and he fully believed in this project. Just as much as it was in my heart, it was in his heart, and it showed.
How did you land on working with Jay? When you think of him, you might think of something like Broken Lizard films, which have a very specific tone, but his approach actually really lent itself well to the intimacy of the story.
I told Jay that, and no disrespect to him or anything, but I go, “ I don’t want it to look like that kind of a comedy.” When I agreed I wanted Jay to sign on and direct this, the conversation I had with him was like, “It has to be beautiful. It has to be cinematic. We’re not going to laugh at Filipinos. We’re not going to make jokes about Filipinos. That’s not what we’re doing here. We’re going to tell a family story and we’re going to laugh with them.” I go, “We have the responsibility to finally showcase my culture. So when it comes to the food scene, we’re not going to do the obvious food jokes and make fun of our food. We’re going to do a scene where it looks beautiful and I want people to leave the movie going, ‘Hey, we should try Filipino food,’ you know what I mean?” It was really important to me to really shine a beautiful light on this. We’re not going to do hokey joke jokes. It’s going to be a beautiful movie. And because we have the responsibility to all of these immigrants that came to this country, especially my mom. And he’s like, “I’m with you, buddy.”” [laughs]
A huge person in Filipino culture is Manny Pacquiao. A through line of the film is the acquisition of his gloves and the responsibility that carries. How important was it to capture the weight of Pacquiao’s meaning to the culture, and what do you hope Easter Sunday opens the door for?
You know, the Manny Pacquiao reference is something we had to have. And the reason why is if you live in this country —- and I’m talking specifically again for Filipinos —- but imagine living in this country where you’re everywhere. You work with a bunch of people, but they have no idea who you are. They don’t know anything about your food or your culture. They don’t even know what you look like on TV. There’s nothing representing you. Manny Pacquiao gave us a sense of pride and an identity in this country, because next to Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson, Manny Pacquiao is boxing. You say Manny Pacquiao and everybody knows who you’re talking about. And they’ll say, “oh, the Filipino boxer, oh my God, he’s incredible.” When Manny Pacquiao was champion, it made a lot of Filipinos proud, and we couldn’t wait for him to fight because we knew when we went to work we’d be talking about it for a couple of months. And that’s how it is for a lot of immigrants that come to this country. They come to this country and they’re just like, “well, you know, no one knows what we are. We can’t go to TV. We can’t refer to anything. There’s no movies about it. So what can we gravitate to?” We also had to shout Manny out because he was important to me, just as a Filipino trying to make it in this industry. I want to see more movies about other ethnicities. When we see more family movies like this, you’re going to find out that we’re all just very relatable, you know, and things like this are very inspirational. And, you know, the younger generation that’s coming up, these young kids, Filipino-Americans, they’re going to be like, “wow, I could be an actor. Look, this is a great movie. Oh, Steven Spielberg made it? We got a chance” Because like I said earlier, when I saw Tia Carrere, in Wayne’s World, it changed my life. So this generation gets to be like, I saw an entire Filipino family on the big screen, so I know I can make it in Hollywood.
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