Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — If “laughter is a social glue” that brings people together, what is it about Filipino-American comedian Jo Koy’s comedy that makes him so popular across oceans and time zones? I understand why Fil-Ams would love him. He speaks from experience, sharing memories growing up with his Filipino mom — a first generation immigrant in America — and touches on the hilarity of her “Filipino-ness,” from her hard accent to her embarrassing lunches (and Cool Whip container lunch boxes), to the one language she seems to speak: “yell.” There’s a certain kind of pleasure derived from seeing your difference magnified and caricaturized, in seeing the quirks of your own family existing pretty much everywhere. I get that, but I’ve been breaking my head trying to figure out why Jo Koy is also such a hit back home.
I called my mom, who watched the live taping of his new Netflix special in Solaire over the weekend, to ask her what she liked about his show. “His stories are just very typically Pinoy,” she told me in a tone that made me feel like what she really wanted to say was “It’s not that deep, bro!”
But as she told me more about the new special, I felt like I began to understand Jo Koy, or at least his appeal, a little bit more. I wouldn’t consider myself a fan — I watched his last special, “Comin’ In Hot,” recently, and while I found it enjoyable enough, it wasn’t exactly brand new stuff either. His brand of “Pilipino” humor has been covered by everyone from Rex Navarrette to YouTubers like Mikey Bustos and Christine Gambito, to Filipino and Fil-Am TikTok-ers. And don’t even get me started on his bits about how men and women are different.
As it turns out, his new Netflix special is a departure from the old standard of a cut-to-cut edit of a comedian’s hour-long set, and instead intersperses footage filmed here in the Philippines during his brief stay.
“Get ready for Netflix. What I shot here is amazing,” Jo Koy tells CNN Philippines senior correspondent Pia Hontiveros in an interview. “I brought Filipino comics that lived in America that have never been here [like] Joey Guila and Andrew Lopez … and I also got some Filipino dancers from here to open up the show along with another professional dancer from the States. And I also brought a Filipino producer, and I brought him here to work with another producer in the Philippines.”
“So it's kind of this meeting of cultures and appreciating where we're from and bringing it back to the Philippines and representing our culture and our people, our food, and shining light on it,” he adds. “It's gonna be beautiful when it gets on Netflix. The world is finally going to see how much fun it is to be here in the Philippines.”
Jo Koy’s appeal, to me at least, isn’t that he’s a subversive and provocative comic. In fact, he makes it a point to remind people that among the dozen or so genres of comedy out there, he likes to stick to his “pocket.” “I like to talk about my family. I like to talk about me, my son, my mom. That's my pocket. So, if I'm gonna offend anyone, it'll be mostly me,” he says. But in doing so, and in sharing the stage with other Filipino talents in his upcoming special, I like to think that Jo Koy’s strength lies in making us feel seen and understood. And in an era of #OscarsSoWhite and the push for diversity and representation in Hollywood, it’s exciting to see where he takes us.
Of course, there’s much to be said about the reductiveness of his takes. How much more can be said about forgetful uncles and our moms’ obsession with Vicks VapoRub? It would also be irresponsible not to deliberate on why Filipinos take pride in validation from recognition in the United States anyway and how this plays into our need to decolonize from the US. And what does it even mean to be “proud to be Pinoy!” in the context of seeing ourselves and our culture on American television when most of what we see are stereotypes?
If laughter is a social glue that brings people together, I think aside from asking why we find humor in the things and people that we do, it would also be good to ask ourselves why Filipinos cherish humor so much too. Though he wasn’t really seeking to answer that question, in discussing how he ended up becoming a comic, Jo Koy unwittingly answered it anyway.
“When you don't have much, you use what you do have,” he says. “So if you don't have money or whatever it is, well, then you use the talents or the resources you have with you.”