Jo Koy Brings the Philippines to Netflix with His New Special 'In His Elements'

Jo Koy's latest Netflix special In His Element is so much more than an hour of stand-up comedy.

"Every element of this show is Filipino," he says at the top of the show, and over the course of the next hour, Koy guides the audience.

The 49-year-old comedian has long made a career speaking about his upbringing as a Filipino-American, but with In His Elements, Koy shows his audience the elements of Filipino culture he's speaking about. It serves as a comedy special, documentary, and variety show all in one.

For the special, Koy brought along famed breakdancer Bboy Ronnie, Grammy-winning producer !llmind, and three Filipino-American comics to show off different aspects of the Filipino culture, including the food, Jeepneys, and to have comics share their own experiences growing up Filipino-American.

Koy told Newsweek that he hoped that In His Elements makes Filipino-Americans feel seen and hopefully inspires people that aren't Filipino to learn more about the country and maybe even visit for themselves.

Koy spoke to Newsweek about wanting to shoot his special in Manila, bringing comedians with him, and why comedians who talk about their cultural upbringings resonate with large audiences. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Jo Koy
Jo Koy performs during his "Just Kidding" world tour at the Chase Center on February 15, 2020 in San Francisco, California Tim Mosenfelder/Getty

Why did you want to film a special in the Philippines?

I love that question. This was my opportunity, man. Netflix offered me a third special. I could've easily said, "Let's do an hour. Let's do one more hour special." I could've easily done that, but then I was like, "How can I give back to a culture that's given so much for me." All I do is talk about my mom and talk about Filipino culture. How can I give back? How can I show the world what I'm really talking about, where that's from and show how beautiful the people are and show some of the beautiful things about the Philippines and talk about our food, indirectly, while we still try to entertain. My whole pitch was: it's like Anthony Bourdain, only with performers. If there's a way we can eat food real quick in between a segment, just so I can say the words "Chicken adobo" so the world can say, "Oh! Chicken adobo! I wanna try that!" Then, I won. That was my whole pitch.

I always tell this story, but I used to live in the Philippines when I was a kid, from the age of 6 to 11, and my sister and I would always watch Filipino TV, and we didn't really speak Tagalog, but we could understand the TV shows that were on, because they were variety shows. There was always singers. With the comedy-we didn't always understand what they were saying, but the punchline was always a slap to the face or a pie to the face or someone falling. We loved the singers-we didn't really understand the songs, but we could sing with them, because it was a catchy song. That whole variety format was already embedded in me. It was ingrained in me.

So, I was like, this is what I've gotta do: I have to do a variety show. I have to get some Filipino cats that lived in America who had never been to the Philippines-let's go, go see this country that your parents are from. Perform in front of these people so that the world can see, hey, they speak English in the Philippines. A lot of people don't even know that: they speak English. You can perform there. You can do stand-up there. That's what I want. I want people that aren't Filipino to go, "Hey I do stand up." Well, go to the Philippines, because they understand it, and they love to laugh. If I can show that, that's a win for me. That would make me feel good.

You get so many aspects of Filipino culture into the special-food, music, dance. Was there any part that you didn't get in that you wish you could?

Yeah, there was other stuff I wanted to get at, but the cool thing is, I really wanted to showcase the guys. I wanted it to be about their first time in front of Filipinos. That was my whole thing. There's one kid- his name is Andrew Lopez, and I took him on the road for about a year with me before this special, and I told him, "Dude, I'm gonna pitch this idea to Netflix, and you're gonna be the first comic I ask."

His parents are Filipino that moved from the Philippines to Iowa, just so that their kids could have a better life. They moved to Iowa. He went to Iowa State, got a degree, and he ended up being a comedian, which is completely against any type of—if you have Filipino parents, that's the last choice. It's nurse or nothing. I told him, "Bro, I would love for you to see where your parents are from and perform there, and just see what they left so you can have the life that you have." Yeah, there were other things that I wanted to showcase, but that was the most important thing. There's a lot of Filipino immigrants—and just anyone that came to America, anyone that's here from another country—if their kids could just go back to see where they came from, the struggle that they had, just so they could have a better life. You'll appreciate your parents a lot more, man. That's what that was all about.

With the Filipino-American comics you brought along, was their experience filming there similar to yours when you went and performed for the first time?

Yes, it was magical. When I pull up at the airport with the Jeepney, and just seeing the expression on Andrew's face was priceless, because imagine being a Filipino kid in Iowa, and you research the Philippines, and you see a Jeepney, and all you've got is a picture. I don't know if that makes sense to you, but to know that that's a very iconic piece of history for the Philippines. It's an amazing story behind the Jeepney, and how beautiful it is and how creative Filipino people are, when it came to that Jeepney.

Just to see his face, to physically walk on it for the first time was so cool. He was so excited when that Jeepney pulled up—that was priceless. (Editor's note: A Jeepney is a popular mode of travel in the Philippines. They were first repurposed from abandoned U.S. military jeeps and painted a myriad of colors, a tradition which continues today. Its name is a combination of the words "jeep" and "jitney.") The fact that he had a cardigan on was more concerning. I was like, "You know you're in the Philippines? This is the hottest place on the planet, and you have a cardigan on."

Even though you focus specifically on your culture, but still have a wide audience. Its not uncommon for comics to talk about their own cultures but connect with a wide audience. Why do you think so many people of different backgrounds can connect with comics?

I think that's the beauty of comedy. If you're vulnerable, if you open up and put it out there and tell your story, one people are just interested. I love to hear about other people's cultures and backgrounds and foods. That's why the Food Network is blowing up. That's why these food shows are so popular. People want to learn. They want to hear about it. Where did that come from? Where can I get that? Did you hear the story behind that? They love it, and I love it. When you can really put yourself out there and really tell your story and be honest and vulnerable and make fun of yourself—that's one thing I love to do, make sure I put myself down before I put anyone down, and if you can do that, then they relate. There's nothing better than someone walking up to me at the end of the show that isn't Filipino, going "Dude, I love your mother." They really love her. "Your mom reminds me of my mom" or "My grandma used to do that." I love it. It's so cool.

Besides being a multi-media variety show, how would you say is In His Elements different from Comin' In Hot?

We get to embrace everything. Now, it's not just the stories of my culture, now you get to actually see it. Even if it's just for five seconds, you gotta see it, and that's what I wanted to accomplish with this special. The fact that there's going to be people out there that aren't Filipino or if there are Filipinos that have never been to the Philippines, it's something they get to brag about. It's something they get to tell people about. It's something for people that aren't Filipino to be like, "Oh that's cool. I wanna go there. Oh my God, they speak English there." Do you know how much of a win that is for me? This special gets to go out to 180 countries, and millions of people are going to watch it, and that makes me happy. It's gonna make my mom happy. It's going to make everyone on my Filipino side of my family happy. I'm just honored.

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