In 2016, after receiving repeated rejections from Netflix, the comedian Jo Koy dug into his savings account to hire a crew and shoot a comedy special himself. When it was done, Koy brought what he'd made back to Netflix, who told him something along the lines of "we already said no, but we'll take a look." Three months later, the streaming platform bought the self-funded Live from Seattle, and after that, Koy told VICE in a recent interview, "that's when everything else started happening."
Since then, Koy—who started doing stand-up in 1994—has sold out theaters and won awards, and he released his second Netflix special, Comin' in Hot, in 2019. But the release of his third special on the platform today is a particularly memorable achievement: In His Elements, which brought the comedian to the Philippines, is "a dream come true for me," Koy said. The result is just as funny as Koy's popular previous work, but it adds in a joyful mix of music, dance, travel, and food that feels like a festive introduction to people unfamiliar with the country, and a nostalgic throwback for people who miss it.
Born Joseph Glenn Herbert to an American father and Filipina mother, Koy has long used his background as a source of content for his stand-up routines. He often imitates his mom's accent, which he says has gotten thicker the longer she's lived in the United States, and he makes jokes like "how to tell Asians apart." (To that point, Koy imitates his dad in a separate skit, saying: "Rice is rice.") Koy's stage name is even the result of him having misheard the phrase "Jo ko," which means "my Jo" in Tagalog, as his aunt refers to him.
To Koy, In His Elements was important to make because it provided a chance for him to present the Philippines to the world. "My whole point with this special was that I wanted to bring something that the world could see—see just little beautiful things," Koy said, whether that's the colorful jeepneys that shuttle people around the busy streets of Manila, or the chicken adobo Koy still remembers eating for the first time there as a child. "I could have done another hour special, but I felt like this is the one where it's like, I'd love to showcase our culture, showcase our food, show how beautiful our people are."
Though Koy was born and raised in Washington, he spent six years of his childhood in the Philippines, a period he calls "the best of [his] life." When the opportunity arose to partner with Netflix for a third time, Koy wanted to draw on the shows that he watched during those years. Amid the basic TV options on the military base where his family lived, Filipino variety shows like Eat Bulaga! were a welcome alternative; though Koy didn't speak Tagalog fluently, the slapstick humor, singing, and dancing entertained him.
Drawing on those influences, In His Elements breaks up stand-up segments with dance routines, musical clips, and footage of Koy and friends exploring Manila. There's a breakdancing portion with B-Boy Ronnie, whose friendship with Koy dates back to when Koy hosted b-boy events in Las Vegas; a segment with Grammy-winning producer !llmind to create a theme song for the special; and scenes in which Koy introduces comedians Andrew Lopez, Joey Guila, and Andrew Orolfo to the Philippines for the first time, where they also get the chance to perform.
Relatability has been a consideration of Koy's for a long time. Though he has been doing stand-up for decades, his routines didn't always rely on his background. "Here I am in the States and I couldn't even figure out for the first half of my career, how to talk about me. How do I make that relatable? How do I talk about my mom and hope to God that I don't have people in the audience going 'I don't understand this because I'm not Filipino'?" Koy said. Ultimately, he realized that doting, overbearing, but well-intentioned moms span all cultures, even if there are specific winks and nods for the Filipinos in the crowd. "I want to tell my mom's story, but I also want to make sure that it relates to your mom."
Still, figuring out the balance between niche references and broader relatability extended to In His Elements. "Just that pressure alone was hard, so if you could just imagine me going to Netflix and pitching this idea, you know, because it is very specific but it's also very educational," Koy said. Comparing his goals to the experience of watching Anthony Bourdain's travel shows, Koy hopes that the special can pique some interest about unfamiliar places. "By the end of this special, I'm hoping and I'm praying that people will be like, 'I want to see a jeepney in person now, or I want to try that food.' To me, that's a win."
Though part of Koy's goal with In His Elements was to create an easy-access pop culture reference point to the Philippines, it's part of a bigger mission of his to create a platform. "How cool is it to be able to walk into the room and be like, hey, let's make sure every camera man is Filipino; let's make sure the venue is owned by a Filipino; the theme song is written by a Filipino; the performers—those kids—were Filipino?" Koy told VICE.
"If there's anything I can walk away from in this career of mine and leave behind, it's that. Hopefully I opened up a door for others to follow—that's my main goal."