Few occupations require as much fortitude and character as being a comedian. You make fun of yourself for a living, for goodness sake.
Oftentimes, when you find your mantra, your groove, your shtick, it’s at the end of a very long road and at the expense of your own personal psyche. But hopefully it works. It endures. It resonates.
It took Jo Koy almost three decades to figure out his shtick. Making fun of Asian culture, Asian accents and Asian insecurities found an audience initially in the United States, and now all around the world. As a Filipino-American (or American-Filipino?), this was OK. After all, only those who are Asian can make fun of other Asians in these modern times, right?
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I am a relatively new Jo Koy fan. Only last year did I catch his first two specials on Netflix: 2017’s Live from Seattle and 2019’s Jo Koy: Comin’ In Hot. By watching them so closely together, you can observe how he refines his craft. Live in Seattle was a bit crass, with very long-winded jokes that sometimes end in cricket-chirping moments, while Jo Koy: Comin’ In Hot was more fine-tuned, focusing more on his ethnicity and personal experiences not just as an Asian-American but specifically as a Filipino-American.
It is in these two specials that the world got to know ‘Josep!’ His mother Josie’s familiar idiosyncrasies (cue in Vick’s VapoRub) and Josie’s son’s lack of hygiene left Pinoys in stitches, while his impressive accents and sexual humor opened him up to a wider demographic.
Last week, January 15th, Jo Koy brought his brand of relatable humor back to the Philippines, at the Mall of Asia Arena. From the get-go, I knew it was going to be special.
He arrived a few days earlier and visited a local comedy club, surprising three local comedians with a chance of a lifetime —opening for Jo Koy. At MOA Arena, a local dance troupe also performed, followed by two comedians he had brought with him from America. The crowd laughed their hearts out watching the two comics. But the man everyone showed up for was the man who represented them, even though he was half Caucasian and had only spent six of his 48 years in the Philippines. And Jo Koy did not disappoint.
Most headliner comedians have 45-minute sets. After all, they need to feed off of situations in the crowd, which is no easy task. Jo Koy had just had a show in Solaire the week before; filmed to become a future Netflix special. What that meant was his jokes from the previous week could not be used that evening in MOA. As he told the audience, any Filipino that would hear the same jokes on the future Netflix special would undoubtably complain, as we had all paid good money for the MOA show. “So all the material during tonight’s 45 minute stint would be different and new.”
So Jo Koy focused on his Pinoy roots and relatable humor at the MOA show. He spoke with familiarity. He chatted about topics that many of us could connect to. And boy, was he in his element. At the end of it, he had a big smile on his face and expressed heartfelt gratitude to what, at this point in his 30+ year career, was probably just icing.
In front of us wasn’t Jo Koy, the comedian, but Joseph Glenn Herbert, the Filipino-American, telling tales of his life, his culture, his childhood and his parenting style. Tales that we as a Filipino audience could totally relate to. How many of us can remember being forced by our parents to showcase our ‘talents’ to household visitors? Jo Koy’s talent, he said, was doing the moonwalk and other Michael Jackson moves — which his Mom would always force him to perform to guests until he finally got fed up with it...at 33 years old.
How many of us thought of our mothers as Dr Jeckyl and Mrs Hyde, complete angels until the dark side suddenly takes over? Anecdotes about how Josie once slapped him in front of a policeman (who did not disapprove of the mother’s action; those were different times) and how she claimed she didn’t care if she killed her children for being disobedient — because she could just return to the Philippines. These jokes filled the arena with belly-aching laughter.
More funny moments: the one where he warns about sharing a loaf of bread with a 16 year old son deep into “self discovery” (especially when he likes to sift all the way to the middle of the pack to get the perfect slice; but I guess you have to be there to get the joke). The one where he says a car honk in the Philippines is a loud “Hi!”
He even dug into Filipino ingenuity with the tabo (‘Josep! Fill the tabo for me’) and the yo-yo (‘a weapon created by Filipinos; no wonder we lost to the Spanish’).
The jokes went on and on, feeding off of the laughter and energy of each of the 9,000 souls in that arena. He also got the karaoke-loving crowd to sing along to 90s RnB hits by Boyz II Men, K-Ci and Jojo, SWV, TLC, Usher — while surprising us with an impressive voice himself. He probably didn’t realize how much time had already passed; how his 45 minute set had turned into an hour, then an hour and a half, then finally hitting the two hour mark. He was having a great time. He wasn’t thinking about where the next joke was going to come from. He was shooting from the hip, confident in knowing this crowd was his. His kababayans. As he posted on his Twitter feed the next day: “Last night my people came out.”
After the show, Jo Koy surprised everyone by venturing into the audience area, giving fans high fives while basking in the warmth of their chant: “Josep! Josep! Josep!” He was in the zone. After three decades in the business, he deserved to soak up the praise and take pleasure in the moment. Jo Koy’s dreams had come true, and we were there as witnesses.
The struggle was worth it.