Jo Koy isn’t afraid of the word “specific.” His stand-up routine features an impression of his Filipino single mother, complete with accent and head bobs. This summer he starred in the movie Easter Sunday, a fictionalized take on his own Filipino family holidays that start with competitive cooking and end with karaoke. But while building his career, he was told his comedy was too narrow for mainstream audiences. As Koy, real name Joseph Glenn Herbert, points out, “My mom is everyone’s mom—my mom’s American. She lives in this country.”
In December, he returns to his hometown of Tacoma, a city he notices has “definitely gotten kind of shinier” since his days at Foss High School. Koy brings tales of parenting and the oddities of life in Los Angeles, and of first perfecting his mom’s voice so he could impersonate her on the phone while buying tickets to see Eddie Murphy at the Seattle Coliseum 35 years ago. “Every person that I know that is Filipino has an impersonation of their mom,” he says; Koy just puts his to work.
I never saw my dad, he was never a part of my life as a child. So I wanted to make sure, to go above and beyond [with my son].
I want him to see me do the things that I’m doing and inspire him, hopefully. Motivate him and show that it takes hustle and heart.
There was one joke about him, I stopped doing it. When I was warming up to tape my second special, he goes, “Are you gonna do it? That’s the shit.”
I trust his opinion. Every time he says something, I listen.
My intro music, he said drop that song. He told me to do that joke. He’s the one that told me not to wear those shoes. I made him associate producer on that.
Comedy has genres, just like music. There’s political comics, there’s musical comics, there’s clowns, people that just rant. And that’s fine. But I’m a storyteller.
When you first come to Hollywood, you get the note, “You’re too specific.” At first I was like, Oh, yeah.
As I got older, I’m like, Well, what the fuck do they mean by that? What kind of racist shit is that?
They say, “Pick up a newspaper, and talk about what’s in the news.” Like, that’s racist, man. You don’t want to hear me talk about my family.
I loved Pat Morita, Mr. Miyagi, one of the greatest actors of our generation. He was a great stand-up comic, onstage at the Comedy Store with Robin Williams and Richard Pryor.
But every time he went to audition, they would tell him to put on a thick accent. It’s like, I don’t understand what specific means anymore.
I came from a time where you watch a cartoon, if they did an Asian guy they would put a triangle hat on him and he’d have buck teeth and glasses.
It’s bad that it was a different time. Now we’re at a better time where we get to move forward. I don’t want it to be 1994 anymore.
It always lights a fire under me.
We got nurses in our family left and right that work 14-hour shifts at the hospital.
They go home, watch a TV show about a hospital and don’t see one nurse that’s Filipino.
I have a movie. And of course, my sister character—I’m gonna make her a nurse.
I’m not capitalizing on the fact that that’s a stereotype in our community. I’m doing it because, finally, you get to see a Filipino nurse on the screen.
My mom has been here for 53 years. And the only time she’s ever seen anyone talk about Filipinos on TV is from her own son.
I owe her 53 years worth of stories.