Jo Koy on the ‘Easter Sunday’ Scene that Made Him Cry and ABC’s Decision to Reject His TV Show

Jo Koy’s upcoming film “Easter Sunday,” out on Aug. 5, is a dream come true for the comedian in more ways than one.

For years, Jo Koy has shared stories about his family and Filipino culture in his stand-up shows, selling out arenas across the country. He has always wanted to bring that story to the big screen, but the idea was often met with rejection. Their reasoning? The story was not accessible enough.

That was until Steven Spielberg saw his 2019 comedy special, “Comin’ in Hot,” and Amblin Partners struck a deal with Koy to star in the feature film. In a Hollywood first, “Easter Sunday” features an all-Filipino cast.

“It’s our time,” Koy says, calling the film a love letter to the Filipino community. Below, Koy speaks with Variety about the scene from the film that made him cry and the importance of representation.

The “Easter Sunday” trailer got over 9.4 million views in the first three days of its release. What did that mean to you?

My son and I could not stop refreshing it. We would watch the trailer and then we’d wait like 10 minutes, and it was literally moving at 150,000 views every five minutes. It finally hit 15 million and I said, “Thank you, Jesus.” I’ve been telling people for years that this needs to be seen, and people are going to love it. If only you could just give us a shot.

What was the journey like getting this film off the ground? How did you handle rejection?

I would get “no” all the time, but it didn’t make sense to me with the numbers I was getting on the road. Why am I selling 18 shows out in a row, or 12 shows in a row in Texas, and for some reason you’re telling everyone that it’s too specific? There came a time, for some reason, that Netflix wasn’t going to offer a special to me. I didn’t understand why and I didn’t care.

So, I paid for “Live From Seattle” myself. I was going to shoot it and cut it myself and bring it to them. A few days before we were about to shoot, we had cameras, directors and everybody, and they called my manager and said, “Hey, we heard Jo Koy is shooting a special. We want to let you know that we don’t want it.” You’ve not even seen it yet, and you’re saying no? But I brought it to them and they finally bought it. But those are the hoops and boundaries I had to go through just so that Filipinos can be heard.

I’m glad I did that, because that’s how I got “Comin’ in Hot” (2019) and Spielberg saw it. He said, “Oh my god, this is hilarious, let’s do something with it.” But it’s so frustrating that in 2022, we’re still trying to sell ourselves. It doesn’t make sense. We live in a time and you work with Asian people; Indians, Chinese, Filipino and every ethnicity… We understand one another, but when it comes to movies about us individually, it just won’t happen. It’s too specific.

Why was it important to weave in elements of Filipino culture such as Tupperware and Vicks VapoRub?

When I did that joke, do you know how many DMs I got from people who weren’t Filipino? I got so many people saying, “My mom did the same thing to me when I was a kid.” The other day, I did an interview for “SportsCenter,” and the camera guy walks up to me and says, “I want you to know your Vicks joke, I think I’ve watched that about 1,000 times. Let me tell you what my mom used to do to me. She would take a little teaspoon of Vicks, and make me swallow it.”

Here we are relating to crazy moms, and that’s what I love about comedy because that’s what brings us together, and that’s what brings cultures together and you find out that we are very similar. We’re very relatable.

This all-Filipino cast is a Hollywood first. Tia Carrere is amazing and so is Lydia Gaston. What was it like bringing them together?

Tia nailed it. I wanted Tia in this movie so bad. That’s one thing I told the producers: Tia and Lou Diamond Phillips paved the road for us. They kicked down these doors when they were dealing with racism.

Tia said, “This is the first movie in my 40 years in Hollywood where I get to play a character that’s been described as me. I’ve never been up for a Filipino character in my life and this is the first time, and it feels so good.”

Every audition she’s had were roles described as Asian with a thick accent and pretty. But that’s what she had to go through so that people like me didn’t have to.

Lydia Gaston is incredible. She needed to get my mom right because my fans are in love with her. If we do a movie where it’s not close to what I do, I’m going to hear it. I said, “We need to knock it out of the park. I still want you to be Lydia.” She had studied all my videos and she crushed it.

Lydia Gaston was modelled on the comedian’s mom. Universal/Courtesy Everett Collection

Food is such a part of Filipino culture, how did you go about the food representation in the film?

I went to every Filipino restaurant in Vancouver. We had catering by Filipino restaurants. It was cool to have a set where the crew was asking “What is this?” Filipino food for me is what brings cultures together. I taste your food, you taste mine and it’s a good icebreaker.

When they were writing this, I said, “We’re not going to do jokes where we make fun of my food. I’m not doing that.” We’ve been the butt of so many jokes for so long. Filipinos have such delicious tasting food, and if we can just celebrate it and show people what it looks like, then we won. That’s why it was so important to have that dinner table scene.

How did you find that balance of injecting humor without mocking culture?

I wanted it to be like my stand-up. When you watch that, I’m not making fun of Filipinos. I’m telling a story through the eyes of a Filipino kid and impersonating my mother. Those are real stories. I’m not making fun of; I’m telling the story, and that’s what I wanted with this movie. With the karaoke scene, if you come to my house on Easter, Thanksgiving or Christmas, I guarantee you, no one is grabbing that microphone faster than my mom or aunt.

“I’ve Got a Feeling” is the perfect karaoke song, but given Filipinos also love the Carpenters and ABBA, how did you land on that song?

We contemplated those. We even had Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’.” But, we went with the Black Eyed Peas because is Filipino and we had to shout out to him. Also, it’s a fun family song, an anthem.

Does your mom consider what you’re doing a job, and is she happy with you being a comedian?

They’re never happy. Are they ever happy? Art imitates life. I can’t do anything right in this movie to save my life. Here I am taking care of my family and then I hear, “God, if you just went to college, Joseph.”

There’s a scene with a Balikbayan box, what would you put in yours?

That scene made me cry. I was in tears because it brought back so many childhood memories. Sitting in the room with my mom filling up this box. I remember her putting chocolates in the box and getting jealous. She said, “They don’t have chocolates. You can get chocolate all the time, why do you want it now?”

For my mom to be an immigrant here — it’s more than just an opportunity, it’s also providing for another family and helping others. That was so important for me to show to audiences. So know that the co-worker that you work with, they’re not just working to put food on that table at home, they’re working to put food on several tables at another home.

Is there something you’re particularly proud of that you put into the film?

Yes, the Santo Niño was a personal thing for me. My mom’s house has one that is the same age as me and it’s a part of our family with missing fingers and nose. I remember I was watching “Talladega Nights” and there’s a scene where he says, “Who prays to baby Jesus?” I was in the theater thinking, “If only you knew.” There’s a baby Jesus in my mom’s house and in my aunt’s house right now. I wanted to show everyone this baby Jesus. Also, when Eugene wore the barong, that shirt took me back to my childhood.

What happened to the pilot for “Josep”?

ABC passed and that’s fine. It was an amazing pilot. They reasoned that it was too close to the movie. But I do have another deal and I’m still gonna come at it with another angle and we will get a show soon.

I want another movie. Why go to TV when we could show the world what this looks like on the big screen? It’s our time. Yes, we are going into the theaters to watch this movie, just like you did with every other movie.