Movies & TV

Jo Koy Puts the Spotlight on Funny Filipinos in His New Netflix Special

To Jo Koy, Filipinos need cultural touchstones they can claim as uniquely theirs and, as a Filipino, he must contend with creating them.
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Joseph Glenn Herbert, more popularly known as Jo Koy, has found himself in the enviable position of being famous and successful, but not after a long fight. “Comedy is all about timing. I had several opportunities to break… development deals that fell through, but I’m glad I wasn’t mad about it, because now that I think about it, it just wasn’t the right time,” he says.  “Now is the right time.” 

Top Story: Where Do the Philippines' Rich and Famous Send Their Kids to School?

Discovering Rasberry Bibingka

After a journeyman career through the early ’00s and ’10s comedy scene, he checked all the right boxes to become one of Netflix’s breakout comedy stars with 2017’s Jo Koy: Live From Seattle. While no match for halfie juggernauts like Vanessa Hudgens, Jo Koy is the rare case of one who is not incidentally Filipino, but whose work and therefore success is directly correlated with his Filipino identity. “You have to remember, there was no Internet when I was a kid. The way I found out Rob Schneider was Filipino was when he said ‘raspberry bibingka’ [in Deuce Bigelow: Male Gigolo] …look how far we’ve come.” 

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In a way, you can consider Jo Koy one of the most successful Filipinos of all time. While no match for the local machine that funnels millions of people into fandom, Jo Koy’s home is Netflix, a massive conglomerate platform with far further penetration for anyone in the world to see. 

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“I’m good friends with Rob now and, one day, I kinda just asked him, ‘What the fuck is that? Nobody eats raspberry bibingka,’” he continues. “He told me it was a struggle just to get bibingka into the script, which he wrote! The writers said nobody was going to know what bibingka was, so he had to settle for raspberry.” The average Filipino probably raves about Filipino food to their foreign friends every now and then, but here, finally, someone is able to talk about it freely, uninterrupted.

Photo by Netflix.
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The number of Filipino and part Filipino celebrities has become something of an inside joke. From Lou Diamond Phillips to David Archuleta, the list grows every now thanks to genealogy shakedowns on international press tours. And often, when it comes down to it, the celebrity in question is forced to reckon with the fact that their exposure to Filipino culture was a Gary V concert at Cerritos Mall in 1997 and maybe something about pancit. With respect to them, the Filipino identity has often been reduced to an afterthought, a shout out or an empty promise to visit. But to their defense, what is a Filipino American? 

Figuring It Out On Stage

Filipino culture has not been exported the way, say, American culture (burgers and fries) or Indian culture (curry) has. Is it Jo Koy’s duty to constantly be discussing the merits of adobo? Does it interest him? “It’s a responsibility these icons have… It’s a beautiful thing to see Apple D App singing ‘Bebot’ in front of 25,000 fans. You just need to show your love, you’re prideful…because I didn’t have that,” he says.

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To Jo Koy, Filipinos need cultural touchstones they can claim as uniquely theirs and, as a Filipino, he must contend with creating them. To him, it is a duty, a calling, a responsibility, not simply because he didn’t, but because he knows that there are others out there who still don’t.

Photo by Netflix.
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Jo Koy was born in Tacoma in 1971, and then moved back to the Philippines for a stint between 1975 and 1981, before moving back to the States. “What are you? I used to get that a lot. I didn’t really know how to explain it. I had Chinese friends—everyone knew what Chinese people were. There were Chinese movies, there was Chinese food. Japanese food, Thai food, everyone had something,” he says. In the stand-up’s arsenal, the main goal is to find things audiences can relate to. “There was no one I could point to and be like, ‘That’s what a Filipino is.’ It was all me figuring it out on stage.”  

To the foreign-born Filipino, outside of the family unit, there are no strong role models for what being a Filipino is, no guide for how to take pride and exemplify the culture. In fact, to anyone, there are only vague ideas of what a Filipino means internationally. In 2020, there is something about singing and dancing, something about sneakers and basketball. That’s a few bits right there, but consider it in the context of a stand-up special. The comedian must literally do nothing but speak for an hour straight, weaving and controlling the flow and energy of the crowd. Are there really that many karaoke jokes?

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Putting on a Filipino (Variety) Show

Jo Koy's new Netflix special, In His Elements, is functionally a variety show, showing off Filipino breakdancers, musicians, and stand-up comics. What stands out in In His Elements is how its Filipino performance of choice is very rudimentary. It focuses on what they already or only have: their bodies and minds. The performing Filipino does not use tools to express himself. The performing Filipino has been so stripped of resources that he can only express himself through himself by speaking, singing, and dancing. 

Like Imelda leaving her shoes, the performing Filipino makes use of nothing because that’s all he has. Immigrant culture does not take kindly to the idea of material possessions. There is no point getting attached to a thing or an object, when all you’re really supposed to be moving is yourself. So for the immigrant to become himself, he has no choice but to express himself, by himself. 

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Photo by Netflix.

Presenting Comedians, Breakdancers, and More 

A respected dancer in the competitive B-boy world (Twitter and Instagram verified and also followed by Lil B), Ronnie Abaldonado has all the traits of your prototypical Filipino American. A quick scan of his Instagram shows a positive-minded person who genuinely loves life. Wife and child, vacation photos, throwbacks. However, Abaldonado does not let us forget who he is. In his vacation photos, he is holding handstands. Videos of his wife and child are from traveling for competitions. And, like much of the dance world right now, he is occupying his time with living room choreography. 

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Abaldonado does not let us forget that to be a great dancer is to be in full control of one’s body and mind, and to be able to express oneself through this control. Dancing is shamanistic and ritualistic. People of great skill, talent, and discipline have been doing it since the beginning of time, and Ronnie is humbly continuing that tradition, taking it from the ancient bonfire avatars that are Instagram, YouTube, and Netflix. 

Photo by Netflix.
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Of the Filipino stand-up comedians highlighted, there is a contrast between all that stuck out. The first comedian, Andrew Lopez, comes out dressed in skinny jeans, black shoes (shoes, not sneakers), and a jean jacket. He’s a little dorky. He, in fact, sounds a little neurotic, and goes off about swiping right on everyone on Tinder because he doesn’t discriminate. 

The last comedian, Andrew Orolfo, is dressed in baggy overalls a hoodie and Jordan Bred 11s, and has a sort of knowwhatimsayin twang to his material, whose biggest laughs come from some dick size jokes. Between them is Joey Guila, who focuses more on tito humor and is wearing again, a jean jacket but also baggy jeans and Adidas Superstars. 

None of their material really resembles each other, but that’s because, as immigrants, they were forced to look elsewhere to models their art on. Orolfo resembles a more vulnerable Hannibal Burress, while Lopez seems to come from the Aziz Ansari school of animated comedians. Guila, who seems a bit older than the two (Mr. Guila, if you are closer in age to them I apologize), is reminiscent of the clean comedy movement icons like Jeff Allen. 

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Photo by Netflix.

Like Orolfo, there are the Filipinos who have latched on to elements of African American culture, something B-boy Abaldonado is also closer to. Then there’s the suburban, upper middle class vibe that Lopez and Guila subscribe to. Without strong role models, Filipino performers are forced to take after whatever they can. 

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Serving Filipino Hospitality

While performance is highlighted as a large part of the Filipino immigrant experience, In His Elements as a variety show also highlights hospitality as a deeply ingrained trait. Throughout the special, Jo Koy himself is barely featured. He serves as more of a guide to his world of Filipino American culture. From this, it’s clear for him that the special is not for fame and fortune, but to get Filipinos out there, so that they may not be lacking in role models. And this is just the metaphorical, big-picture hospitality. 

The rest of the special is filled with literal displays of representation disguised as hospitality. He picks up the performers at NAIA sticking his head out of a flamboyant jeepney. There’s a segment where he takes Orolfo to Farmer’s Market in Quezon City, where they explore Filipino food. 

Photo by Netflix.

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The segment on producer Illmind runs about six minutes and, in it, we watch Illmind and DJ Medmessiah create the intro song for In His Elements. While not uninteresting, it is a nerdy, geeky detour in an otherwise active variety show special. Throughout the segment, there is a lot of studio noodling and sampling that may prove incomprehensible to the uninitiated. The daily life and work of a producer are not often glamorous, but mundane and repetitive. But how else was Illmind supposed to be featured? 

In Abaldonado's B-boy segment, Jo Koy spends a minute with one of the dancers, Arnold Carballo, who shouts out Parañaque, reveals he lives in a jeepney, and teaches kids not to use drugs. Carballo will now forever or, at least until Jo Koy’s special is watched for the last time, represent the Filipino as a jeepney driver who is poor but loves to dance and keeps kids off drugs, and it is the world’s privilege to know that someone like him can exist. 

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Training the Spotlight on Others

It wasn’t so long ago that the world might not have even known Jo Koy existed. Of his breakthrough special Live in Seattle, he says, “Netflix said no about four times. They passed on it. I literally invested my own money, I shot it, I was in the editing bay for a week, and then took it to them and said, ‘I know you said no, but please just watch it.’”  

Photo by Netflix.

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With him now able to lend his spotlight to others, it’s hard to believe that there was a point at which he almost quit. “I just wanted to give what little opportunity I had to these guys and get their feet wet with Netflix, because I know how hard it was for me to get into the door,” he says. 

At the end of the day, there is just a strong desire to get your voice heard that relates to all people, but mostly to Filipinos simply because there is so little representation. The desire to be heard comes from not being heard. Jo Koy has made it his mission to be the model he didn’t have growing up. 

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Enrico Po
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