With ‘Easter Sunday,’ Jo Koy Is Bringing Filipino Culture to the Forefront

Easter Sunday, the new film from veteran comedian Jo Koy out this weekend, is a funny, if familiar family comedy— there’s the occasional tense situation punctuated by laughs, relatives in trouble, and characters who put blood above all. But what’s special about this depiction is that it’s the first time a Filipino cast gets to tell this story in a nationally released theatrical comedy.

The film, which was greenlit and produced by Steven Spielberg after he saw Koy’s Netflix special, Comin’ In Hot, is an intimate love letter to Filipino-American culture. Everything from food to Lou Diamond Phillips gets a shout out, all of it brought to life by a cast that includes Jay Chandrasekhar (who also directs),Tia Carrere, Lydia Gaston, Brandon Wardell, Tiffany Haddish, Elena Juatco, Jimmy O. Yang, Eva Noblezada, and a magnetic Eugene Cordero. At the center of the ensemble is Jo Koy, playing a version of himself, who, like in his stand-up specials, never stops moving, never stops hustling.

The journey for Koy to get to this point was over a decade, filled with stop-starts and paths of most resistance. He worked for over fifteen years as a stand-up before landing his first network special, 2009’s Don’t Make Him Angry. He passed on a comfortable life working as a valet for The Mirage, and then turned down an opportunity to be Chelsea Handler’s sidekick on Chelsea Lately (who he later wound up dating for close to a year). Instead, he worked to get spots at clubs, performed on landmark showcases like Showtime at the Apollo, and passed on morally compromising but otherwise career-changing opportunities on his way to success.

In 2017, despite having two Comedy Central specials and a successful career headlining around the country, Netflix initially passed on the opportunity to work with him. However, after shooting his third special himself, Koy was able to impress the streamer enough to, landing himself a multi-special deal. Koy’s specific point of view was able to reach Steven Spielberg and put him in a position to display Filipino excellence on the big screen.

GQ talked with Koy about breaking barriers, Asian discrimination in the industry, his embracing of Black culture, and what he wants to say with Easter Sunday.

Easter Sunday does a great job of creating its own vibe in a way where you’re really just holding up and celebrating Filipino/Asian excellence, and letting audiences know it’s here for them if they can click with it. How did you go about cultivating that feeling?

The whole point of Easter Sunday was, how do I tell my story, talk about my culture, let people know about my ethnicity, and then also make it relatable? As an immigrant, as a product of an immigrant parent…my mom came to this country in like 1968, ‘69,. I was growing up in the seventies and eighties, and already I was struggling with my identity. Like, no one knows what my mom is. I was always having to explain who she was. There’s nothing for her to watch on TV that looks like her, sounds like her, or even gives a great depiction of what an Asian is like. It’s so offensive, and to see my mom deal with that type of racism and then for me to latch on to Black movies and Black comedy because for some reason, that was relatable to me. If I heard the struggle of a Black family, I was relating to it, like, yeah, “the strong Black woman in this movie is my mom, this strong Filipino woman.” So I’m identifying with that. That’s why my earlier works were always opening for Black comedians, and doing BET’s Comic View, and Showtime at the Apollo and, you know, being inspired by Black entertainment.I felt like that was the closest thing to what my mom was. That’s why Friday was such a big movie in my life. When I watched Friday, I was like, “ I know all these characters.” And that’s why Easter Sunday came about. I was like, “ I’m gonna do the same blueprint. I’m gonna get all these characters involved, and I’m going to explain to you guys who they are. And we’re going to do it in one day. And at the end of the movie, I want you all to be relating to them,” like, “Oh, okay, that’s a Filipino mom. That’s just like my mom.”