Jo Koy & Easter Sunday Helped Me Better Understand My Filipino Family


In case it isn’t clear: Jo Koy really, really loves his mom. The comedian/actor has skyrocketed to fame over the past few years, thanks in large part to impersonating his Filipino mother and her accent in his stand-up specials, but it isn’t to mock or make fun of the woman who single-handedly raised him and his siblings. People might interpret it as mean-spirited, but it’s all out of love and respect, Koy assures me. And there’s no bigger way for him to show that love than through his new movie Easter Sunday.

The star and executive producer’s film, which spans a whirlwind of unlikely events on a holy day, celebrates the loving, albeit complicated dynamics of the Filipino American family. And although it’s a huge moment of representation for the 4.2 million Filipinos across the United States — to see people who look like them on the big screen for the first time — for me, a first-generation Filipino American, Easter Sunday helped me better understand my relationship with my own family and mother and reminded me that we as a people have so much to be proud of.

For many Filipino Americans like Jo Koy and myself, defining our identity has been complex. Although we are the second-largest group among Asian Americans in the United States and were arguably the first people to land in America, the stories of our history as part of this nation have been silenced or forgotten. We’re often just known for the stereotypes people have heard about us over the years — that we’re all nurses, that we make delicious lumpia, that we’re good at karaoke. Easter Sunday touches on these clichés, and the light-hearted movie doesn’t dive into the complexities of our rich past. But Jo Koy didn’t set out to make a movie about the Filipino diaspora — he wanted to make a family comedy that made us feel seen and proud. And he did just that.

I chatted with Jo Koy ahead of Easter Sunday‘s theatrical release, an intentional choice because he wanted to give Filipino families the experience of seeing themselves on the big screen (which I will be doing with my own family), and it was like sitting down in front of a mirror (our outfits were even twinning). He shares why he thinks it took so long for Filipinos to get their own movie, the reason he thinks our family members are so close-knit (for better or for worse), and the main reason he has always been unabashedly proud to be a Filipino American, an explanation that brought him to tears.

The following interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Refinery29: Filipinos have been around forever. We were the first Asians to settle in America. 

Jo Koy: We were around before Columbus!

So why did it take so long for us to get a movie? Is it because Filipinos are misunderstood by American society and media? 

It baffles my mind all the time. Why do all ethnicities get treated that way here [in the United States]? It doesn’t make sense. Look at this room right now. We’ve got a few Asians, we got some white people, go down the hallway, we got some Latinos, we got some Black people — we’re all Americans. And we’re all speaking English. It doesn’t make any sense to me. This movie — although it is specific to being Filipino — it’s also not specific because what I’m trying to drive home here is that it’s about a family. It’s a family that loves, a family that fights, a family that cries, a family that laughs, and when you walk away from this movie you’re going to be able to relate to it. And you’re also going to learn some stuff from us. 

I loved how much you infused Filipino American culture so authentically into this movie. My parents also immigrated to Daly City from the Philippines in the ’70s with my sisters, and we still have so much family there. In the movie, there was the Balikbayan box (a care package of American goods that Filipino immigrants send back to their families in the Philippines), the kamayan (a meal eaten by hand), and so many parts of the culture that we all love. But at the same time it must’ve been difficult to celebrate those things without leaning into the stereotypes too much.

I love that you said that because that’s the first thing that people want to say when it comes to making a movie like this. ‘Oh, you’re doing a stereotype.’ But I’m not. It’s about my family first and foremost. ‘Oh, you’re doing the accent.’ The joke isn’t the accent. That’s a Filipino mom being a mom in a movie. And there will be some Filipinos who go see this movie, ones with accents and ones without, that get to go, ‘There we are.’

My mom came here in 1969. For 51 years she’s been here, and this is the first time she’s seen anything that’s Filipino [in the movies] and characters calling themselves Filipino. Think about that. 51 years. Out of all the cable channels, and all the TV channels, and all the movies that have ever been made, this is the first one? So yeah, we get to say everything. Let’s talk about the Santo Niño. Because this is the first time it’s ever been on. When else am I ever going to be able to do it? 

Another thing that resonated really deeply with me was the family dynamics of the Filipino family. We’re all so close, like, maybe a little too close. We’re all up in each other businesses.

It’s too much.

For better or for worse, why are we like this?

I think when you’re broke, when you can’t go to the games because those are $100 a ticket, you can’t go to the movies because those are $20 a ticket, where do you go for entertainment? You get the kids to dance and sing. And then you can start a fight with your auntie and your uncle. And then you guys gossip about it. And then you take sides. It’s almost like our own sitcom or variety show. It’s the weirdest thing. I notice it with not just my family, but every time I come across someone that’s Filipino. I’m like, ‘Omg, your mom is doing that too?’

The amount of time our moms spend on the phone with each other talking about each other.

Gossiping!

And then we’re supposed to be Catholic and practice forgiveness, but…

What is that?! And it’s always the kids that are always talking about the parents. This has been my whole life. You and me. 

I get it! And you captured it so well because at the end of the day, they love each other, right?

Yes. Or how about this one — your mom and my mom, I’m talking about us — your mom loves me and my mom loves you. It’s the weirdest thing. [My mom will be like,] ‘Why can’t you be like her?’ And your mom is like, ‘Why can’t you be like him?’

Speaking of the mom guilt, the comparing, they know it’s not an acceptable form of parenting. I don’t know if that’s the Filipino culture or the Catholic guilt, but I have had a somewhat fraught relationship with my mom trying to figure it out. Obviously, you’re really close to your mom. How did you come to terms with all of that?

Hah!

I mean, you do seem really close to your mom!

We are living parallel lives. There’s a reason we’re both wearing this black jumpsuit. We have been at work at this for years. And that’s what this movie is. Art is imitating life as we speak. When you watch this, I know you — and not just Filipinos, a lot of people, especially immigrant families — are relating to this. But what you’re saying right now is my life. The guilt trips, the relationships, the constant banter, the proving, and the bickering between our parents. I don’t understand why we do this, and I also feel like, no matter what we do, it’s not enough.

It’s what I wake up thinking about. 

It’s exhausting, and I feel bad when sometimes I have to step away, but when you watch this movie, feelings are going to be hurt. And unfortunately I had to show it. 

But maybe it’s going to open up conversation with family.

For sure. But on top of that, the future will change. Because you’re able to see it. 

You’re arguably the most famous Filipino American. You’re icon status now! If you Google other famous Filipino Americans, sometimes you don’t even know that they’re Filipino because they don’t really talk about it the way that you do. For me, it took me a while to be really proud of my identity and my Filipino-ness, but you seem to have always been so unapologetically proud to be Filipino. Have you always been that way?

Yes. I love my dad [who is white], but it was my mom who raised me. He moved to Phoenix, and I had to identify with a side. What side was taking care of me the most? It was my Filipino side. Jo Koy is a nickname my mom’s sister, Ate Evelyn, gave me. My Ate Belle was always there for me. Ate Lynn cooked. That’s all I know. I was so prideful for that. And then you’re growing up during a time when you’re struggling with identity. I didn’t even know what I looked like. Filipinos didn’t look at me as Filipinos, and then white people were like, something’s wrong with your eyes. It was this weird identity crisis so I latched onto my Filipino side because they were so loving.

I wanted to carry my mom’s flag high because it gave me a sense of identity. It was cool for me to say I was Filipino and I enjoyed it. I went extra when I learned Tagalog living in the Philippines. To this day when I speak Tagalog, Filipinos are like, ‘Oh wow, talaga, ang galing ang Tagalog, wow.’ I did that because I love everything about Filipino culture and seeing the shit my mom went through, I wanted to make sure that this [movie] is what she’s been waiting for. 

Easter Sunday is in theaters now.

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