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Filipino American comic Jo Koy celebrates unity and tradition in new family comedy ‘Easter Sunday’

Comedian Jo Koy is photographed at Rideback Ranch in Los Angeles on Monday, July 25, 2022.
Comedian Jo Koy is photographed at Rideback Ranch in Los Angeles on Monday, July 25, 2022.
(Christina House/Los Angeles Times)

Jo Koy’s ‘Easter Sunday’ puts Filipinos front and center

Actors can spend months preparing for a role, but in the comedy “Easter Sunday,” opening today at theaters nationwide, Filipino American comedian Jo Koy just had to be himself.

It’s not as easy as it sounds.

In “Easter Sunday,” Koy plays Joe Valencia, who, like Koy himself, is a single dad and a stand-up comic. His mom (Lydia Gaston) insists that he drive to the family home for the Easter celebration, aka the “Filipino Super Bowl.”

The extended Filipino American family congregates in the Bay Area town of Daly City, where much of the film was shot, to attend Mass, eat a vast array of Filipino food and partake in a round of karaoke, a popular pastime.

Junior (Brandon Wardell), the sullen teenage son on academic probation from his private school, accompanies his father to the Easter celebration, where “home is where the crazy is.”

Real-life stand-up comedians with roles in the film include Tiffany Haddish, Jimmy O. Yang, Rodney Perry and Asif Ali.

“Acting is extremely hard and the people who make it look easy are so good at it,” Koy said by phone from Daly City, where officials were awarding him with a key to the city about 20 minutes south of San Francisco.

“I was so blessed to be surrounded by so many great actors and actresses. It was like angels were holding my hand and guiding me on each scene.”

The film came about because Steven Spielberg saw Koy’s 2019 Netflix comedy special “Comin’ in Hot” and executives from Spielberg-led Amblin Entertainment called with an unexpected opportunity.

Koy was thrilled.

“The first thing they said was, ‘Steven wants to make a movie, do you have an idea?’ I pitched ‘Easter Sunday,’ and at the end of the meeting they were, like, ‘Let’s make it.’ It’s all based on everything that I say. You see the jokes I do on stage played out in real life. It becomes dialogue in the movie and that’s always fun.”

While film acting is a new skill for Koy, the comedian is adept at his impressions of his family members, who inspire much of the humor in his three Netflix comedy specials.

In “Live in Seattle” (2017), he mimics the accent of his single Filipino mother, who relentlessly ridiculed him when she learned that his career choice was stand-up comedy.

“Why, Josep? Do you see any clowns in this family? Do you? Josep. Who told you you were funny? It wasn’t me, Josep.”

Koy’s animated characterizations get huge laughs, but they also celebrate and support Filipino culture with a relatable commonality.

Honing that skill took decades of perseverance.

A Filipino-American family gathered for a holiday shouts at the TV in the comedy "Easter Sunday."
Filipino family follies in “Easter Sunday”: Tito Manny (Joey Guila), Regina (Elena Juatco), Eugene (Eugene Cordero), Joe Valencia (Jo Koy), Tita Teresa (Tia Carrere), Tita Yvonne (Melody Butiu) and Susan (Lydia Gaston).
(Ed Araquel/Universal Pictures)

A not-so-funny journey

Koy, born Joseph Glenn Herbert, is half White, half Filipino. His father was in the military and his mother immigrated to the United States.

The family lived on military bases until his parents divorced when Koy was in junior high school.

After his father left, Koy’s mother raised him, a brother who suffers from schizophrenia and two sisters, one adopted.

Life was difficult, but his mother’s struggle, and Koy’s own experience with fatherhood, became inspiration for humor that resonated with a wide demographic.

Koy began his stand-up career in 1989, and in the early days, he was primarily known for off-color humor and poking fun at ethnic stereotypes.

“I didn’t want to be known as the Filipino comic,” he wrote in his memoir, 2021’s “Mixed Plate.”

“I wanted my comedy to be universal.”

A change in perspective

In 2005, Koy was invited to appear on “The Tonight Show” with Jay Leno. He wore a shirt with a small Filipino flag sewn on his chest, a tribute to Filipino boxer Manny Pacquiao, a cultural hero.

Koy joked about the stereotypical way Whites try to relate to Asians by declaring how much they love orange chicken, which, Koy joked, is made perfect by Mexicans in Chinese restaurants.

At the end of his segment, Koy received a standing ovation, and he was invited to sit and talk with Leno.

Leno asked about Koy’s 2-year-old son, and in the euphoria of the moment, Koy riffed on his baby boy‘s babbling, unlike his son’s more articulate playmate. The crowd erupted in laughter.

Koy began to add real-life experiences to his comedy.

Diverse audiences responded enthusiastically to Koy’s live performances, and he began to sell-out large venues. He appeared on numerous television talk shows, including more than 100 episodes of “Chelsea Lately” (2007-2014) as a season regular round-table guest.

Koy attributed his positive exposure at that time to host and fellow comedian Chelsea Handler, a former girlfriend with whom he maintains a friendly relationship.

In 2015, Koy learned that Netflix went from licensing and redistributing comedy specials to financing and owning them. The streaming service was planning a lineup of shows featuring top-shelf comedians such as Jim Gaffigan, Jerry Seinfeld and Amy Schumer.

Koy was determined to be among them.

He invited executives to his stand-up shows, but they didn’t show up.

In frustration, Koy produced and financed his own special, “Live in Seattle.”

“I’d create something so awesome, so undeniable Jo Koy, that Netflix would have to take it, promote it and distribute it worldwide,” Koy wrote in his memoir.

His strategy worked and in 2017, Koy’s “Live in Seattle” became his first Netflix special, followed by “Comin’ in Hot,” the 2019 show that led to starring and having full creative control over “Easter Sunday.”

That same year, Koy sold out five consecutive shows at the San Diego Civic Theatre.

This image released by Universal Pictures shows Lydia Gaston, left, and Jo Koy in "Easter Sunday."
This image released by Universal Pictures shows Lydia Gaston, left, and Jo Koy in “Easter Sunday.”
(Ed Araquel / Associated Press)

Widespread appeal

“Easter Sunday” reflects the rising popularity of Asian-centric films, which often revolve around family relationships, a theme with widespread appeal.

And streaming services like Netflix and Amazon have an international audience, a financial incentive for producing shows that reflect diversity.

Consider the 2018 release of “Crazy Rich Asians,” the first Hollywood blockbuster with a majority-Asian cast, which grossed $238 million worldwide. And in 2019, the South Korean film “Parasite” raked in more than $250 million at the global box office and won the Academy Award for best picture.

Koy, now 51, transitioned from keeping his Filipino heritage quiet to promoting Filipino talent. He traveled to Manila in 2020 to film “In His Elements,” a Netflix variety special featuring Filipino comics, DJs and B-boys.

Next month, Koy’s fourth Netflix special, “Live from the Los Angeles Forum,” will premiere, and then he’ll hit the road with new material for the Funny Is Funny World Tour.

Today, though, it’s about family.

The comedian can be found on the red carpet for the opening of “Easter Sunday” with his 18-year-old son.

“We are going to shut down the boulevard, and it’s going to be beautiful,” Koy said excitedly.

“I went through a journey as a stand-up comic when everyone told me to stop doing it. This kid was my backbone, my inspiration — he was the one who indirectly inspired me to keep doing this. If I didn’t succeed, then we weren’t going to succeed. There were a lot of birthdays that were missed because Dad had to be on the road. There are a lot of those things that I can’t take back. But now I can share this grand moment with my son. That way, he knows that those sacrifices were made for him and for us — and not just us, the community as well. It’s such a big win.”

‘Easter Sunday’

Rating: PG-13

When: Opens nationwide in theaters today

Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes

Luttrell is a freelance writer.


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