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Growing up in Tacoma, Washington, as a half Filipino in the '70s and '80s, comedian Jo Koy didn't see a lot of people who looked like him — in real life or pop culture. And when he launched his standup career in the '90s, he still didn't know exactly where he belonged.
"Unfortunately it was rough," Koy, 49, whose mother is Filipino and father is white, told TODAY. "Trying to find my place in the auditorium ... there was no place for me. I didn't really fit in with Asians, didn't really fit in with the white people."
'The possibility of making it'
It was so rare for Koy to feel represented anywhere that one particular movie he saw in theaters stands out decades later. It was "Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo," released in 1999, starring fellow mixed-race Filipino Rob Schneider.
There was a scene, he said, when the dad eats what he calls a "raspberry bibingka," referencing a popular Filipino dessert.
"I remember ... just screaming out loud, 'Yo, raspberry bibingka — that's Filipino!'" Koy said. "I was so excited. ... Just that one word gave me an identity, the possibility of making it."
Over the course of his career, Koy became close friends with Schneider and had the opportunity to ask him about the mention of the dish — which is traditionally made with coconut, not raspberry — during a dinner together.
"I'm like, 'You've got to tell me why you put raspberry in your bibingka,'" Koy recalled. "He told me the reason why is because he struggled with some type of systemic racism. He just wanted to say bibingka, and the writers were like, 'No, Robert, you can't.'"
He said Schneider told him the decision to add "raspberry" was made out of fear people wouldn't understand it's a dessert.
"He had to settle for it," Koy continued. "That's the kind of crap that doesn't sound like a big deal but it is. That's our food. Why do we have to misrepresent it?"
Paying his own way
There was so little space for Koy on the comedy scene that he said he had to pay to produce his first Netflix special, "Jo Koy: Live from Seattle," which came out in 2017.
"I wanted to make sure I give an identity to up-and-coming kids that are mixed race or Filipino just to have something that inspired them," he added. "When I'm doing an impersonation of my mom or a joke about nursing, it gives us an identity that makes us proud, and that's what that was all about."
Incorporating Filipino culture into his jokes, though, often created barriers for the comedian.
"What they always say (is) nobody gets it," Koy explained. "To me, that's very ignorant and doesn't make sense. It's just a lazy way of saying, 'We don't like it,' or, 'I don't want to invest in it.'"
"But whatever it is, once I put it out there, then we break the records, selling out areas in (Los Angeles), Australia ... and then they realize, 'Oh, everyone does get it.' Sometimes we're faced with obstacles and it's up to you to choose how you're going to fight that battle."
It is possible to stay true to yourself, talk about your culture and still be funny.
"We're all relatable," he added. "It has nothing to do with ethnicity or race. Funny is funny. ... I want to show that it is possible to stay true to yourself, talk about your culture and still be funny."
'Jo Koy: In His Elements'
Koy was eventually able to translate his pride in his upbringing in his latest Netflix special, "Jo Koy: In His Elements," released in 2020 and filmed in the Philippines.
"I always felt like an ambassador for my culture. When I was a kid, I used to always brag about food because there were no Filipino restaurants. I always felt like I was bragging because I just wanted to give myself an identity. I was proud of my mom and my family," he recalled.
"So when I shot ('In His Elements'), it wasn't even about trying to make a funny standup special. It was about giving an opportunity to a bunch of Filipinos that are struggling with shot to get on a platform that's so hard that it was even hard for me to get on."
"I was like, I'm going to let every single Filipino in on this one. ... I got a Filipino cameraman, DJ, producers, rappers, dancers. I brought Filipino comics, we celebrate the culture, the food."
It wasn't about "numbers or ratings," Koy continued. "That was me for 30 years wishing and praying that we had something on TV that we could identify with, and that's why I did it."
Lessons learned: Never quit
He said he's starting to see change in Hollywood's approach to diversity, especially compared to a few decades ago. For example, he's now shooting a film called "Easter Sunday," produced by Steven Spielberg's production company.
"(It's) all about Filipino life, culture, love, laughter, and it all takes place one day, Easter Sunday," Koy said. "It's going to be at least an 80% Filipino cast."
Koy also released a memoir in March titled "Mixed Plate: Chronicles of an All-American Combo" that maps his success starting from childhood.
"I hope it inspires (readers) that (they're) not alone," he said of the book. "It was a long road that I traveled, a lot of obstacles, there was a lot of times where I wanted to quit. So I hope whoever else is in the same boat as me and facing the same type of obstacles, I hope to God they don't quit, just get stronger. Things will happen and stay on the path. Enjoy the process."