Arts & Entertainment

Jo Koy in Manila: Was He Funny?

We break down what happened at the comedian’s biggest-ever show in the motherland.
IMAGE Mandee Johnson
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“It is an impressively arrogant move to conclude that just because you don't like something, it is empirically not good.” 

That’s one of my favorite quotes in the immensely quotable book Bossypants by Tina Fey. I need to keep reminding myself of this whenever I watch a movie or hear a new song or album, and my critical self comes to the fore. What somebody else thinks of an artistic creation shouldn’t get in the way of our personal preferences.

Take humor, for example. On the long list of artistic or creative pursuits, comedy has to be one of the most subjective. What’s hilarious to one may be tepid to the next guy, and even offensive to another. How we respond to jokes has a lot to do with our own sensibilities and prejudices, I think. Comedians—just like actors, musicians and any other artist—will always have a contingent of non-fans who won’t be impressed with their brand of humor, but the ones who appeal to a broad swath of audiences are often, and as expected, the most succesful.

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Which brings us to Jo Koy. The Filipino-American stand-up comic is one of the most well-known in the world today, and not just among Asian-Americans. He’s been featured on American primetime TV, has toured the globe many times, and has two comedy specials on Netflix, with one more coming soon.

On Wednesday night, he performed to a sold-out audience at SM MOA Arena. Capacity: 15,000. This isn’t Jo Koy’s first go-around in the “motherland;” he’s been coming here as a professional comedian since at least 2008. But this was by far his biggest show yet.

Full disclosure: this was the first time I’ve ever seen Jo Koy—live or on TV or performing in one of his specials online. I had heard of him, of course. You can’t have a discussion about succesful comedians today or what to watch on Netflix without his name popping up. But prior to showing up at the venue at 8 p.m. that evening, the only thing I knew about his comedic material was that he based much of it off of his Pinoy mother and growing up half-and-half in a Filipino household in the U.S.

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A parade of comedians, plus an all-male dance group, warmed up the crowd, including a guy named Eric Schwartz who was the best of the lot. Commenting on his bald, mixed-heritage looks, Schwartz said he thoroughly enjoyed a recent visit to India because people said he looked like Gandhi, whose face is on the country’s bank notes.

“Can you break this though?” he had asked people there, holding out Indian money. “Cause Gandhi says I want to be the change.”

Jo Koy himself materialized onstage at about 9:15 p.m. to thunderous applause. Immediately he came out swinging, commenting on Metro Manila’s traffic situation, which drew knowing chuckles from most everybody in the venue.

“Motorcyclists give zero f***s for cars,” he said, mimicking how our two-wheeled brethren weave in and out and in between the four-wheelers on the road. “For them, car honks mean ‘hi.’”

Wearing a very hip ensemble of a black bomber jacket, tight dark jeans cut just above the ankles, and white sneakers, Jo Koy took his time going through a few of his signature topics—Filipino food (“I like that Filipino spaghetti is both dessert and dinner”), Manny Pacquiao (specifically how he spoke English at the very beginning of his legendary boxing career), and, of course, his mother (“Josep!!!”). He called out a couple of “superfriends” in the audience (“What are you, like, super heroes?”), rummaged through a bunch of people’s purses and bags looking for snacks (he found a couple, and a lot of cigarettes), and went through a succession of early to mid 90s R&B hits (Boyz II Men’s “On Bended Knee,” Usher’s “Nice & Slow,” K-Ci and Jojo’s “All My Life,” SWV’s “Weak”) just to hear the audience sing the chorus and prove what we all already know—that Filipinos love to sing.

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His observational comedy routine is far from subversive or original, but he seemed to get the job done. The guy threw out joke after joke and hardly any of them landed on “meh” faces. One hardly needs to deconstruct humor—this isn’t an academic paper—but it doesn’t take a genius to understand what makes Jo Koy click.

We Filipinos enjoy being reminded of our Filipino-ness—all the quirks and idiosyncracies that make us who we are—but only if delivered by a fellow Filipino. Anybody else does it and it’s inappropriate and insulting, and we’re up in arms. By virtue of his Filipino heritage, and seeing as how he sold out one of the biggest events venues in the country—as well as a smaller show in Solaire where he reportedly filmed his next Netflix special, and another show in Cebu on Friday, January 17—Jo Koy not only gets a pass, but he’s become something of a modern-day chronicler of the Filipino way of life.

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He’s not the first and certainly not the only one to do it for sure—we’re thinking of names like Tim Tayag, Mike Unson, Alex Calleja, Rob Schneider and, of course, Rex Navarrete—but Jo Koy’s brand of off-the-cuff, relatable, expletive-laden humor clearly resonates with a specific group of Pinoy audiences. High-brow might be relative, but his gut-busting two-hour set proves that Filipinos are more than ready for humor that goes beyond what we normally get from noontime variety show hosts.

Jo Koy made people laugh—hard—at his big Manila show and really, that’s all you ever need from a comedian.

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About The Author
Paul John Caña
Associate Editor, Esquire Philippines
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