It’s not April, but “Easter Sunday” comes at just the right time for Jo Koy.
“Summer is all about your blockbusters, right? We have ‘Top Gun: Maverick’, ‘Minions'[: The Rise of Gru],”, “Bullet Train” – and the studio says, “We’re putting Jo Koy’s movie in this slot!” What a nice moment to celebrate,” says the comedian, laughing happily.
“I just passed another billboard in front of Universal Studios. And when I left that, there’s one more. They fully support this film.”
It must be pretty exhilarating. Koy, who once struggled to lure people into shows he didn’t even headline, eventually rose to sellout arenas and created four stand-up specials (two on Comedy Central, two on Netflix). Now he’s number 1 on the call log in a feature film and sees his face on billboards and bus stops all over Los Angeles. The movie Easter Sunday is all the more unlikely because it’s a major studio comedy (Universal via DreamWorks, Rideback Ranch and Amblin Partners) about a Filipino American Family.
“If they’re willing to give my culture and my people a chance to have a voice, then I’ll do whatever it takes to make sure everyone goes and sees it. And that’s why I don’t sleep, man,” says Koy with his typical enthusiasm, despite a busy schedule.
Joseph Glenn Herbert grew up in Washington State. His father, an Air Force veteran, left the family when Koy was 10, and his mother raised the children from there. The family moved to Las Vegas while he was in high school, and he began performing stand-up at Open Mics in 1989. (The stage name “Jo Koy” comes from a misunderstanding by his aunt, who called him to dinner in Tagalog: eat” or “My Jo, eat!”)
Koy has made a name for himself in comedy through his will.
In his early 20’s, after being scouted by someone from comedy club chain Catch a Rising Star, Koy became a regular support act for headliners and took to the streets touting and handing out 2-for-1 coupons. The number of visitors steadily improved.
Eventually he realized that the people came to see him, not the headliners. He still couldn’t get those coveted top-of-the-bill spots, so he invested his own money in renting a theater and persuaded local businesses to sponsor him by printing coupons for them on the back of his tickets . He was soon filling that house, then took part in the Black College Comedy Tour and appeared on BET’s ComicView and Showtime at the Apollo. (“And I won it,” he says proudly.)
He moved to Los Angeles, where he worked as a warehouseman at Nordstrom Rack and Barnes & Noble, cleaning yachts to make ends meet for himself and his young son, Jo Jr. But breaking into Hollywood was another long, slow drudgery.
“There was a lot of systemic racism. I know we throw this around a lot, but it’s true,” he said. “It sucked in the late ’80s and ’90s. You can ask Cedric the Entertainer, Steve Harvey, Margaret Cho, anyone from that era. There was a division in the comedy: it was literally called “White Nights”, Friday and Saturday. If you were of a different color you had to do these theme nights – Thursdays were ‘Asian Invasion’.”
Now Koy can go on stage at any time. It’s a hard-earned status he enjoys as he saunters through the hallowed halls of the club that founded him in LA, the venerable Laugh Factory. Up the stairs, in the most exclusive area, he teases the staff: “Where’s my poster?” Everyone knows him here, just like when his girlfriend Tiffany Haddish took him to a highfalutin party and he was stunned that all the big ones names made him happy.
“Everyone knows Jo Koy,” she says, laughing at the memory.
He still has to get used to who knows Jo Koy. After his 2019 Netflix special Jo Koy: Coming in Hot, Amblin invited him to meet up.
“As soon as we walked in, everyone else came up to me, ‘Oh my god, Steven can’t stop talking about your special,’ ‘Steven is a huge fan.’ I thought, ‘Are you talking about Steven from accounting?’ And they said, ‘No, Steven Spielberg’s your biggest fan. He wants to do a movie with you.’ And I suggested Easter Sunday to him.
“He was there from the beginning, from the writing process to director selection to casting, everything. Thank goodness for Steven Spielberg.”
Easter Sunday (directed by Jay Chandrasekhar and written by Ken Cheng and Kate Angelo) is heavily inspired by Koy’s life and stand-up routines.
“It was such a beautiful process to see parts that I bring to life,” Koy said. “Of the Balikbayan box to ‘You could have been a lawyer’ – all those things are just bits of my life that went into this film.”
The in-demand Haddish had a small role in the film despite the Canadian production’s two-week COVID-19 quarantine. She says Koy appreciated her willingness to help, but told her, “‘We can’t put you on lockdown for two weeks and then you only work four days. It is not worth.’ And I was like, ‘My friendship is worth it.’”
Koy befriended Haddish while she was aspiring at the Laugh Factory. “That’s my big brother, man. When I was homeless and he was basically a single dad, I would watch his son perform on stage,” says Haddish. “We were both pretty poor, but I didn’t have it no Money. I lived in my car. He took me to this hot dog man across from the Laugh Factory. We got a bacon wrapped hot dog. That was the best. He would give me two or three of them. Like the best.”
Koy smiles at the memory, eyes sparkling:
“Even if I didn’t have any money, I had to share it. I have a feeling this is a Filipino thing. I think I learned that from the Balikbayan box. ‘I don’t have much either, but I have enough for us.'”
It’s no surprise, then, that the balikbayan box – the tradition of Filipino Americans sending care packages to the Philippines – is an integral part of “Easter Sunday.” “It’s more than, ‘Oh, they come to this country and now they can live the American dream,'” he explains. “Now they’re making this money, and you know what? They have another family that they will support. Because they won’t leave her. I get emotional talking about it. Because I remember filling those boxes.
“My mother didn’t even have any money. She fills these boxes – I remember when there was no chocolate and I thought: we I don’t even get chocolate – I remember she put some Nestlé Quik in it. My mum and dad got divorced and she put Nestlé Quik in there.”
He wipes his eyes now, but that doesn’t stop the tears. “That’s the problem she had to deal with, and then this boy had to get his eyes back on her, and then she had to be really cool about it. And I had to sit there and watch my mom take it because that was normal.
Koy had told the story onstage the night before, during an event featuring a variety of other Asian comics at LA’s Rideback Ranch: When he was very young, Koy saw his mother stop for a small white child in a department store how handsome he was – and the boy responded by pulling back the skin on his eyes to poke fun at her Asian identity. She had to go to her son and tell him it was okay.
Personally, Koy is an exuberant guy, a genuine hugger who even meets you for the first time. He constantly tells the people he works with that he loves them. But as he steps under the lights, he finds another passage. There is boasting. He’s in his element. It also happens in “Ostersonntag”: He plays a fake character, balances work and family, but when a microphone appears in his hand, the room suddenly belongs to him.
Koy vehemently resists the view of many Hollywood gatekeepers he’s met that his comedy is “too specific.” He understands the universal powers of comedy not only as a performer but also as a fan. “Why did I identify with Eddie Murphy when he spoke about his? Aunt Bunny fell down the stairs?” he remembers. “I was referring to his mother disciplining the kids and having bionic ears. That is my Mummy! This is a black woman I am related to but my mother is Filipino. So why, when I talk about my Filipino family, do they say, “Hey, slow down…” Why Why? I do not understand this notice.
“There’s a reason I’m selling out two arenas in every market. I literally sell the same number of seats as the Golden State Warriors [at San Francisco’s Chase Center], if not more, because we added seats on the basketball floor. So to get 25,000 to 26,000 people to watch you tell jokes during the playoffs… Come on man. It’s not just Filipinos in there. It’s all in there.”