After decades of pouring his heart out on stage, Jo Koy has taken his story to the big screen.
The popular Filipino-American comedian is currently entertaining fans on two fronts, with his Funny is Funny World Tour, stopping at Dubai’s Coca-Cola Arena on Saturday, and his autobiographical debut film Easter Sunday screening internationally.
The latter is a sweet family comedy starring a multi-generational Filipino cast including Lydia Gaston, Tia Carrere and Lou Diamond Phillips.
Speaking to The National, Koy says both projects offer fans deeper context into his career. It is a journey that comes with its fair share of laughter and pain, he says.
"With my stand-up career and now particularly with the movie, people are starting to understand the struggle that it takes for people to succeed in this business.
"To have someone on stage and in a film with people who look like me, representing my culture and telling my stories has been a really moving thing."
The military kid
Born Joseph Herbert in the US, Koy has a Filipina mother and an American father.
As a result of his father's career in the US Air Force, he spent most of his preteen life as a "military kid", which meant stints living in countries such as the Philippines and Japan.
Koy experienced bullying and racism at school, but it was the prejudice at home that cut the deepest, with his paternal family never accepting Koy's mother.
His parents eventually split up, with Koy and his siblings relocating to Las Vegas where they were raised by their mother in a single-parent household.
While he treads lightly into these topics during his stand-up show, Easter Sunday delves further into the isolation Koy’s mother experienced while raising her family.
Koy plays struggling comedian Joe Valencia, whose annual trip home for Easter Sunday is marred by mishaps because of his criminally minded cousin Eugene and fraught family dynamics.
At the centre of the film is Valencia’s mother Susan, played by Gaston, whose love for her son is laced with an unsentimental stoicism born out of daily struggle.
“I wanted to bring my mother’s story to the screen and that is one experienced by many Filipinos of her era,” Koy says.
"She moved to the country in 1969, she works and pays her taxes but she doesn't see anyone on TV or the cinema that looks like her. There was no Instagram or Facebook so it was hard for her to have or find that can allow her to embrace her culture away from home.
“On top of that was the racism which, at that time, was right in your face, physically and on TV.
“So to be invisible for all that time and finally bringing her story and familiar faces to the big screen 50 years later is powerful, not only for my mom but for all the Filipinos who have felt misrepresented.”
The Steven Spielberg effect
It is also a story Koy has wanted to tell ever since emerging as a fresh new comedic voice in the mid-90s, going on to become an arena act with four comedy specials on Netflix.
"I feel like I carry a lot of responsibility now and that means not taking the easy route with my first film, like pairing up with another comic and doing some kind of buddy cop film," he says.
"It would be funny but also selfish. I want to use my opportunity to open the door and show Hollywood that you can stick seven other Filipino actors in a movie, make it work and create opportunities for a lot of actors who rarely get them."
A man with the keys to Hollywood has helped open those doors.
Oscar-winning director Steven Spielberg, who was a fan of Koy’s 2019 Netflix special Comin' in Hot, reached out to the comic, through his production company Amblin Partners, to see if they could collaborate on a future project.
"I couldn't believe it because they kept telling me Steven loves you and wants to make a movie with you. It was absolutely nuts," Koy says.
"I remember walking into the meeting room and I pitched this idea about a movie about family chaos and love set in one day and that was it, they wanted it."
Considering Spielberg was also working on last year's Oscar-winning remake of West Side Story, the legendary filmmaker still played an active role in Easter Sunday’s production process. "He was 100 per cent hands on the project. Steven read the script and he approves everything," says Koy.
"I really can't get into it with too much detail but there were times that certain things that were important to project weren't going to happen and that really irked me," he says.
"It basically went down to letting Steven know and he would make a phone call and everything is solved. It was crazy man; it was like some mob stuff."
Koy hopes to continue that relationship with Amblin Partners for more stories featuring underrepresented communities.
Coupled with his busy stand-up comedy schedule, both aspects of his career not only now complement each other professionally, but go some way in healing old wounds.
"There was a scene in the movie where the character of my mom was filling up a box to send back to family members in the Philippines and she would get into a fight after with her sister, my aunty. When the scene ended, I was crying.
"I saw them play out something I saw in my childhood and the feeling absolutely crushed me. It felt like an out-of-body experience and very therapeutic.
“I realised how some of us never really understood our childhoods because we suppress those memories.”
Jo Koy performs at Coca-Cola Arena on September 3. Showtime is 9pm; tickets are priced from D180; www.coca-cola-arena.com