Esquire Exclusive: Jo Koy on the Filipino Brand of Comedy
Filipinos love to laugh. That is what Fil-Am stand-up comedian Joseph Glenn Herbert, who is better known as Jo Koy (or, to those who've seen his act, “Josep”), has observed from his own extended family and from the audiences of his sold-out shows. Fresh from the success of his Netflix comedy special, he is coming home soon to perform his brand of comedy in Manila and Cebu (his mom isn’t coming with him, though). Esquire was able to catch up with him for a quick interview, where he talks about “having the best job in the world.”
ESQ: How does your mom feel about the jokes that you have made about her?
JO KOY: Oh, she loves it! What mom wouldn’t? She enjoys she enjoy hearing the stories, she loves it. If I did it disrespectfully, I think she wouldn’t enjoy it, but I put it in a way that I shine a light on my mom and a put it on a platform and it is also something that people relate to. That is what mom likes the most. It is not about just being a Filipino mom, too. Yes, she is Filipino but she is still a mom and people get it.
ESQ: How excited are you to be coming home?
JO KOY: I can’t wait! It brings back so many memories of me being a kid at the time when I used to live there. Being able to go back and perform—I cannot explain the excitement! When I first started stand up, one of my dreams was to perform in the Philippines where people knew who I was and they were coming to see me, they were coming to see Jo Koy Live in the Philippines. It has been a dream of mine when I started 28 years ago, and you can just imagine the journey it took me to get here, it is overwhelming.
ESQ: What made you decide it was the right time?
JO KOY: When we had that special, it took me a year to write it, back in 2014. In 2015, we tried to get it on to Netfilix, then we shot it in 2016, and it aired 2017—it was a long process from the idea of that special to actually get it on Netflix and see the immediate response , it was so cool. The timing was just perfect, we knew this is the time. Netflix gave me that platform where everyone was able to see it, especially in the Philippines.
ESQ: People have by now probably been going up to you and saying that when you get here, you have to do this and try that. Which suggestions are you most likely to try out?
JO KOY: I was out there about two years ago with my friend Apl de Ap and we did everything! Now I can’t wait to do it all over again by myself – from riding a bamboo bike in the city, to going to Boracay, to just eating off a banana leaf. I want to do it all and I can’t wait!
ESQ: What is best part about growing up with an extended Filipino family?
JO KOY: What I notice the most about basically every Filipino family is how close the family is and how tightly bonded we are. One thing we like to do is entertain. If it was not me doing comedy, it is my sister singing, if it is not me singing, it is one of my cousins dancing. I always notice that with Filipinos, it is very family-oriented; it is all about entertainment and having fun and laughing. I always see that. We are jokesters, if wasn’t a comedian, I would be the funniest one in the family out of a bunch of funny people.
ESQ: Did you use to watch Filipino comedy movies and comedians? What is your observation about the Filipino sense of humor?
JO KOY: I used to live in the Philippines and used to watch Tito, Vic, and Joey and die laughing at the TV shows growing up. It is very slapstick, physical, in-your-face style of comedy. As a kid I could speak broken Tagalog, but one thing about the comedy in the Philippines is you don’t need to really understand anything verbally, because physically, they were funny too! That is what I love the most about the Filipino style of comedy. Now we have this Western style of standup coming there and becoming big in the country now and it is great to see that.
It is actually cool to come back the Philippines and bring my style of comedy out there, which includes a physical aspect, which is very Filipino. You see me physical, animated, and acting it out as a character on stage – that is our typical style of comedy. That is where my influence comes from.
"One thing about the comedy in the Philippines is you don’t need to really understand anything verbally, because physically, they were funny too!"
ESQ: Let’s talk about your journey. What did you have to do to get to this point?
JO KOY: Oh man, what didn’t I have to do? (laughs) I worked so hard. I started in 1989, I’ve done every job, I have worn every hat. I produced shows. I have done everything I could possibly to do to get out there. That was the biggest thing to push it forward for me.
ESQ: With the chances that you will have a 99.9% Filipino born-and-raised audience when you come here, would you have to tweak your material?
JO KOY: No, I won’t. Funny is funny. If they got it in Texas, and if they are laughing in the Philippines right now, I won’t have to tweak anything. Everyone there loves to laugh, so as long as I can tell the story and it is funny, they are going to appreciate it.
ESQ: What can you say to the kids who want to go into non-traditional jobs like comedian or Jabbawockee?
JO KOY: …Which is basically my joke! (laughs) One thing I can say is that if you can dream it, it can happen. Dreams do come true, as cliche as it sounds. It may take longer, this didn’t happen overnight, but one thing I didn’t stop doing was stop dreaming. There was a lot of times when I just wanted to throw in the towel and give up, but I didn’t. That is possible—if you dream it, you really believe in it, if you have passion for something, then you need to go after it. No one is going to believe it more than you. You have to believe it from the heart. When I told my mom and everyone else I wanted to be a comedian, they were basically laughing at me—‘Okay, good luck with that’. But I think this special was that blessing, kind of me the stamp of approval from everyone.
ESQ: What kept you going through all those years?
JO KOY: I just love stand up. I personally feel in my heart that I have the greatest job in the world—To make people laugh. I get to fly to different cities and different countries just to make people laugh. It is a God-given talent and God gave me this talent to make people laugh and they are willing to see me. That is what keeps me going, that is what keeps me motivated. If I didn’t have a Netflix special or Comedy Central special I will still be doing stand up till I die. I will always get on that stage and tell a joke no matter what.
ESQ: What can you say about Filipino women?
JO KOY: They’re the best! I love everything about my culture, my race, because that is my other half. If you are talking about Filipinas, you are talking about my two sisters, you are talking about my mom, you are talking about hard-working educated women that work hard and play hard, who enjoy life. They are funny people and they are beautiful. That is what I think about Filipinas, they are the greatest molds that are hard to break.
ESQ: What would you like to say to your Filipino homies?
JO KOY: Mahal na mahal kita. I love all of you! When I was on The Tonight Show, 10 years ago or whatever, I was still working at a mall at that time—I had all these part-time jobs. I went and brought a Filipino flag and I had my sister Gemma sew it on my chest, thinking, ‘this is for my Filipino people!’ They didn’t know who I was at that time, they didn’t know me 10 years ago, but I put that flag on my chest for my mom and for the Filipinos out there. I wanted to represent what was never represented for Filipinos before and that was standup, and I was able to showcase it on the biggest platform ever and that was the Tonight Show, and I got a standing ovation, and that night changed my life.
Jo Koy will be performing at the Theatre at Solaire in Manila on November 30 and December 3, and the Atlantic Hall at the Waterfront Hotel & Casino in Cebu on December 3. For tickets and more info, visit jokoy.com.