Comedy Troubadour JR De Guzman on Filipinos and Freestyling

Comedy Features JR De Guzman
Comedy Troubadour JR De Guzman on Filipinos and Freestyling

I first learned about the music and comedy of JR De Guzman via Instagram’s Filipino algorithm. Since I’m the eldest daughter of first generation immigrants, naturally I get served up posts and Reels of cooking tips for lumpia or lechon, karaoke outings and Pinoy humor. So when the video “Filipino Disappoints Parents” showed up on my feed, I was compelled to click. 

In the clip, De Guzman riffs with someone in the crowd. He learns that the audience member is a Filipino DJ and photographer and says, “Hell yeah—we’re breaking away from those nurse stereotypes, y’all,” then quickly adds in an exaggerated Filipino accent, “Puck you, mom! I’m an artist!” 

Like fellow Filipino American comedian Jo Koy, De Guzman leans into his heritage, but strikes a balance in his set for a varied audience. After his family moved from the Philippines to Sacramento, California, De Guzman eventually sang in the church choir and attended an all-boys Catholic high school with a pretty homogenous population. “There were two Filipinos and two other half-Asian kids [in school]. And then if I did the math, that was three Asians total,” he jokes during a phone interview from his home in San Diego.  

“So I think it wasn’t too difficult to make my set understandable for non-Filipinos because a lot of times when I was starting out in comedy, the audiences weren’t primarily Filipino,” he says. “I don’t want to cater to just the Filipino audience, but I also don’t want to make a set that’s pandering to a non-Filipino audience. I want to find that sweet spot where everybody can come in and feel like it’s for them.”

De Guzman was bitten by the performance bug early, though not for comedy. The aforementioned church choir served as a gateway to school musicals and then playing drums and guitar in a band in high school. By the time he attended the University of California, Davis, he began teaching voice, guitar, and drums, which he continued to do after graduating in 2012.  

Ever the dutiful son in a family of dentists, he studied psychology, minoring in music and theater. “This generation is starting to change things now, but for Filipinos, whatever their minor is, that’s really what their secret major is,” he says.  

At UC Davis, De Guzman took a stand-up comedy class that changed the trajectory of his vocation. (See ya later, psychology.) Although he was already a performer, something about comedy intrigued him. “I could see the craft of music. You learn skills, and then chords, and eventually start learning theory to write a song,” he says. “There’s no karaoke for stand-up. There’s no…‘This is what you do.’ There’s a mystique to it. I was just so fascinated with that process.” 

Over the next few years, De Guzman started to hone his comedy and incorporate music (he’s often with his acoustic guitar on stage). His signature style blends stand-up, improv, crowd work, stories, and songs, some of which he freestyles on the spot.  

In another Instagram clip, “Cousin Lovin,” he asks a couple in an audience how they met. The guy responds that she’s his cousin’s cousin. De Guzman quips, “So she’s your cousin…” He then busts out a short R&B ditty with lyrics that include: “Who cares if you kind of look the same / If you get married, you don’t have to change your name.”

I ask how he develops and practices freestyling music and lyrics. “Yeah, so I make it up on the spot. As far as practicing that, when I was growing up and in a band, a lot of my close buddies—even to this day—we would kind of mess around that way a lot. For fun,” De Guzman tells me. “For hours on end, we’d improvise whatever made each other laugh. And in a weird way that kind of became my career.” 

De Guzman credits the pandemic for giving his career a boost. Despite earning a modicum of fame by appearing on Comedy Central’s Kevin Hart Presents: Hart of the City (2016), being named a “New Face” at Just for Laughs 2017, and a quarter hour Netflix special on The Comedy Lineup (2018), De Guzman found himself back in Sacramento when the world shut down. “So I’m just at home, unemployed, living with my parents during the pandemic. And there were times where I’m [wondering], ‘Am I even a comedian now?’” 

Because of isolation and boredom, De Guzman started posting old clips to his socials every day, including one from the Kevin Hart show. “Nobody saw it on TV,” he says, “and then I put it on social media…20 million views.” 

In addition to constant touring since 2021, De Guzman’s landed a coveted gig that may elevate his profile even more than his TikTok or IG reels. He’ll headline a show at The Regent Theater on May 9 during the Netflix is a Joke Festival, which runs May 1-12 in Los Angeles. 

I asked if he has anything special planned for the night. “Because some people who found me online and know certain songs, I feel like they want to see those. So I’ll throw in some of the hits, the classics. I have a song called ‘Asian Guys Can Smash.’” (I found it on YouTube, and De Guzman addresses a few Asian male stereotypes head on in a song, from bad driving to small penises.) He may also have a musical guest or two join him onstage and test out new material from an upcoming special that he hopes to release this summer.  

One thing about the show’s for certain: De Guzman will bring his guitar, his jokes, and his incredible singing voice to one of the biggest comedy festivals across the U.S., which should make his family incredibly proud—even if he doesn’t use that psychology degree. 

Christine N. Ziemba is a Los Angeles-based freelance pop culture writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow her on Instagram and Threads at @christineziemba.

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