Jo Koy laughs about how strange it is that his “Break the Mold” tour made it all the way to Singapore and Malaysia before it reaches Long Island on Thursday, Jan. 31 when he headlines The Paramount in Huntington.
However, the Filipino-American stand-up comedian is used to forging his own path, especially in a field where there few who look like him. His specials — including last year’s “Jo Koy: Live from Seattle,” with its tales of the healing powers of Vicks VapoRub and teenage boys’ hygiene issues, have become such big hits on Netflix that he has landed a new animated series “This Functional Family” on TruTV and a role in the live-action “Anastasia” movie. Koy tells Newsday’s Glenn Gamboa about how his comedy tries to show how similar people really are.
You perform all around the world. Do you have to change your material depending on where you are? Or are stories about your family universal?
It’s universal. Hands down. It’s a mom story. It’s not a Filipino story. It’s a story about a mom and a son. Everybody relates to that. It’s just that mine happens to have an accent… That’s why I’m able to go from England to Australia to Malaysia. In some of those places, there are no Asians going to those shows. I go to Nashville and it’s predominantly white and black and that’s it. I remember doing that show and there were maybe four Filipinos in the audience. It’s pretty cool to see people just relating and it doesn’t have to be specific or targeted.
It must be a rush to see people relate to your story.
One thing that I always prided myself on — because it took me 13 years before I started talking about my mom — is I didn’t want it to be specific. I didn’t want people to think, “This is when I go to the bathroom” or “This is when I go buy drinks because I don’t relate.” I always wanted to tell a story that everyone understood. I think Filipinos love when I do that because now it’s a voice that they can identify with, but they also enjoy because they love hearing people say, “My mom does the same thing your mom does” or “My mom used to put Vicks on my eyes.”
I know when you were growing up, there were no Filipino-Americans in pop culture that you could relate to. How does it feel for you to be a role model in that way now?
I love it, man. That was my biggest thing, especially being a half-breed. I had a little bit of an identity crisis, especially when my dad moved out when my parents divorced. I didn’t really get a chance to latch on to my white side of the family. I always had to identify with my mom’s side. I was always around Filipinos, whether it be my aunts and uncles or all my mom’s friends, that’s all I knew was that lifestyle, that culture. Finding Rob Schneider during that time when there was no internet, when there was no YouTube, was something. Hearing him say “raspberry bibingka” in one of his movies, I remember jumping out of my seat in the movie theater. I thought I discovered gold. Now, me and Rob Schneider are friends and I told him that story. I didn’t think he understood how important it was for me to hear that. And he said, “Yeah, man, it was important for me to say it.” He knew that he was on a platform that was really high at the time and he wanted to give just a little bit of a shout-out to his mom. That little thing was what inspired me to think I could go forward and do stand-up comedy and be and actor. Now, social media has all these platforms, people can find stuff to motivate them. It makes me happy that I can put my stuff out there and hopefully inspire a lot of kids to pursue their dreams.
You will reach even more people with your show “This Functional Family.”
The pitch that I gave the network was my life. I come from a divorced family. I’m half-white, half-Filipino. My sister is married to a black man. He’s got kids who are mixed as well, Native American and black. Of course, I’ve got my kid, who is half-Filipino and half-white. And I’ve got my ex-wife who has a Latino boyfriend, who lives with her, and we all raise our kids together. When my son was playing basketball in middle school, when we all walked into the gym, I’m pretty sure people went, “Holy [expletive], look at this dysfunctional family.” From the outside, you already assume that everything is wrong with that family. In actuality, we’re the most functional family at that school. My son has the best life. He’s got two dads. He’s got two of everything. Everybody loves each other. Everybody’s encouraging each other. And sometimes, you can see a picture-perfect family, where the mom and the dad are still together, and you can feel the tension. They’re only together because people said they should be together. My play on words is that we’re not a dysfunctional family. We’re “This Functional Family.” I can’t wait for that show to hit
This will be the first Filipino family on TV. Right?
There are other multiracial families on TV, but it’s the first family with a Filipino lead. That’s pretty badass.
Do you feel part of a movement of Filipino artists getting a higher profile? Like Darren Criss recently winning a Golden Globe?
Very much so. It’s kinda cool. I was on this journey 30 years ago. I started in ‘89… I look at it as I’m just doing stand-up, living out a dream. I didn’t really realize the importance of what I was doing until someone like Apl.de.Ap from the Black Eyed Peas says, “Thank you, bro, for getting our message out there, letting people now about our culture.” I just hugged him pretty much in tears because you don’t realize what your body of work does until you hear it from somebody else like that.