Joel Kim Booster knows this may never happen again
The comedian talks about his massive breakout month, the limits of representation, and his "hot idiot" persona.
Joel Kim Booster knows that what he’s going through right now may never happen again. The 34-year-old comedian is currently in the eye of a pop culture tornado. Just weeks after the buzzy release of Fire Island, the acclaimed film which he wrote and starred in, his first major Netflix stand-up special, Psychosexual, was released on Tuesday. And on Friday Apple TV+ will premiere Loot, a new show starring Booster and Maya Rudolph. June has undoubtedly been the biggest month of his career.
And throughout this month, which happens to be Pride, people keep telling him how much they love Fire Island and its delightful, somewhat improbable adaptation-of-sorts of Pride and Prejudice. Booster reconfigured the Jane Austen classic into a party romp-romcom about a pair of gay Asian-American men (played by Booster and his real-life friend, the Saturday Night Live star Bowen Yang) and their larger queer chosen family as they vacation on the titular islet that has historically been a haven for a certain wealthier, whiter subset of gay men. But there are also a few people here and there who in these same public spaces tell him that they decidedly did not like the movie. “It’s a combination of a sort of gay familiarity with each other, and also alcohol,” Booster says.
Most of the feedback, though, regardless of its tone, is in some ways viewing Joel Kim Booster the person as a stand-in for queer Asian-American culture. And Booster understandably has conflicting feelings about that. “Both the positive and the negative critiques all seem to come from this place of how I'm representing the community — I’m completely removed from that,” Booster explains. “And that feels frustrating.”
It’s the kind of double-bind he, a comic who happens to check many boxes of identity politics (queer, Asian-American, transracial adoptee), reckons with, mocks, and deconstructs via a meta-structure that he bakes into Psychosexual, with the help of an unlucky audience member named Ben.
Booster spoke to Mic through Zoom from his Los Angeles home about changing his public persona, the limits of representational politics, and the difference between how people perceive him versus John Mulaney.
Mic: You said you were afraid that Fire Island would either change your life or be the biggest flop of your career. Now that it’s out and has, by most metrics, seemed to do pretty well, what do you feel? Has it changed your life?
Joel Kim Booster: It's hard because I don't think my brain will allow me to accept anything. When I was saying that, all of my imaginings of how it would go were really that it would be a huge failure. So even though I was like, it will be one of these two things, I think I was only really visualizing the failure and wasn't preparing myself for being a success. It's hard to gauge whether or not it is a success.
You still aren’t sure in your head if it’s a success?
I’m still not sure. It's funny, before it came out I was like, oh, everyone's gonna hate this. And now that it's come out and we've gotten some fairly good reviews and lots of positive response from people who come up to me on the street, now my brain is like, oh my God, I'll never do anything as good as this ever again. [Laughs] So, I don't think I will allow myself a win in any way.
Do you feel more vulnerable about how your comedy special will be received?
The special is a culmination of a lot of years of work. Since college, since I've been writing plays and stuff like that, I've always internally identified first as a writer. It's interesting because I realized when the movie came out, some of the positive response has been sort of framed as surprise — like, “Oh, we didn't know you had depth, too.” That has been the tenor of some of the positive responses that I've received, because I realized for the last five or six years, the thing that I've been most known for is my standup, which I'm very proud of obviously. But I think the movie felt like a huge departure. And so the special in some sense to me feels just like a return to what I think people know me for the best, and sort of like the next evolution of that part of my career.
It’s interesting that you say people are surprised by the fact that you have depth, because your work is filtered through a deliberately crafted persona that you’ve called “Hot Idiot.” Do you feel that in Fire Island and with Psychosexual it’s a turning point for the way that you present yourself and your work?
I think it's just like a slightly more dimensional version of myself. The trick of my act as a standup and even Fire Island — which is obviously a story that's very close to who I am and sort of ripped from the headlines of my friendship with Bowen — is to give people the impression that they're getting a real intimate look into who I am. And I still think I just upped it from like 20% of who I actually am to now like 35%. But the trick is convincing people that they're seeing 360. But I definitely feel like I’m showing a little bit more now. I’ve been doing Hot Idiot for the last several years of my career and now I'm trying to pivot into a little bit more complicated stuff.
If this is only 35%, how much of the rest will stay protected?
I think we're getting close to capacity, with the movie and with the special. When you're in a profession where you're naked constantly, and that's sort of the point, it is important to hold some things back, just so that you don't feel like your entire being is being consumed. I think there's a lot of insecurity that I'm still sort of holding back. There's just a lot of stuff that I feel I need to keep for me so that I don't feel like I'm just like completely out there, vulnerable, flayed, skinless.
“When you're in a profession where you're naked constantly, it is important to hold some things back, just so that you don't feel like your entire being is being consumed.”
I think beyond feeling vulnerable, there is an element of you just becoming a product for consumption. How much of this kind of self-protection also intersects with your awareness of becoming a commodity?
I think that's exactly it. Especially in the time period that I came up, selling yourself and creating a brand on social media and all of that stuff became very big and a huge part of building a career in comedy. I wanna resist that as much as possible. There's so much stuff that I wanna keep private, and I think part of that is like being in a relationship for the first time too, having someone else in my life. I've been used to being able to talk about whatever part of my life and cannibalize whatever part of my life I wanna talk about on stage and in my work, and now suddenly I have this other person involved in it.
I imagine you moving away from the Hot Idiot persona comes with now having achieved wider success. Initially, how much of that construct of yourself was calculated to gain access or to subvert expectations in a space that would traditionally not know what to do with a gay Asian comedian?
I think it was more so about protection. It was both to sort of buck these ideas and stereotypes about Asian men, both being stupid and being hot, but also it was a layer of protection because suddenly I was like, oh, if I'm presenting myself as stupid, then that shields me from having to engage with my material on a certain level. I'm not presenting myself as some philosopher-king that a lot of stand-ups really love to (present) themselves as. There's a sort of protection there with the material where it's like, you shouldn't take this that seriously because I'm stupid, and that's the perspective I'm writing from. And I’m sort of moving out of that now. Not that I want to become philosopher-king...
Throughout the special, you use this audience member, Ben, who is a white dude, to build this meta-commentary about the double bind you are caught in as an artist who is cast as a representative of certain communities. Beyond ultimately using this device to voice your frustration with the burden of representation, at the end of act one you say that all these people who came to see you feel represented and seen. You say these lines in this sort of sarcastic, rote way that seems to reflect the fact that representational politics itself has become rote and perhaps shown its limits.
Totally. I think that the entire special is a reaction to the limits of representational politics. People come up to me all the time, especially after seeing the movie now, where they're like, oh, it feels amazing to be seen. I appreciate those responses to the movie and to my work obviously. But I have to remind people that it is all incidental, you know? It was not the goal. I wanted to tell my story and if my story resonated with you, then that's great, but that's a fringe sort of benefit to what I was setting out to do.
And it's the same with my jokes. I don't go out there with the intention of representing Asian people, or gay people, or gay Asian people, or adoptees, or anything. I'm just talking about my life. What I think happens is when people attach this expectation of being represented onto my work, it’s, I don't want to say a burden — but it puts my work in a different sort of framework than what I intended for it. It takes it out of my hands in a way that is frustrating for me as an artist. I just wanna be able to talk about my life without the expectation being that my life represents the ideal of what an Asian person should be, or a gay person, or a gay Asian person, or any of that.
“I don't go out there with the intention of representing Asian people, or gay people, or gay Asian people, or adoptees, or anything. I'm just talking about my life.”
Does that feel heightened during this time? Because a lot of the praise for Fire Island has been cast through the lens of identity politics.
Yeah. It's frustrating because both the positive and the negative critiques all seem to come from this place of how I'm representing the community. I'm completely removed from that. And that feels frustrating.
You as a person.
Me, the person, is removed from that. It’s like, oh, this is a terrible representation of our community or, oh, you did such a great job of representing our community — and I was like, this had nothing to do with our community. I would love to be a little bit more centered in the discourse. John Mulaney is centered in all the critiques, negative and positive, of his work. It’s not about whether he's representing the white straight male community well or not. It's about the work and it's about people's response to his work. And so my work being so intrinsically tied to representation — you know, at the beginning of my career, it felt like it was an honor. I felt like I was blazing these trails and all of these things. It's still an honor. I get that it’s an honor. But it is more of a frustration than anything because now I can't just write a joke. I have to think about how I'm representing the community.
A lot of your jokes do have to do with facets of your identity. How many of these jokes are consciously weighted or shaped in your mind by how it reads — whether you’re being “responsible,” or if you’re tokenizing yourself?
I will say in the material that I'm working on post-special, it does feel a little bit less concerned with those things. There's always gonna be a component of my work that is wrestling with identity in some sense, because I'm either trying to separate myself from it or understand where I fit within it. But also I like talking about the electoral college. And ketamine. It feels like I’m able to leave some of it behind after Psychosexual because I've explored it all. I feel like people are coming to my work now with a base understanding of who I am.
I also think that there are so many of us now. I don't feel like I'm alone anymore in trying to reflect back these experiences. Hopefully, it's releasing some of that burden. People who don't like John Mulaney, usually it's ambivalence about John Mulaney. I don't mean to drag John Mulaney — I love John Mulaney, but I think he's a good stand-in for a standard comedian. Brilliant joke writer, but people are either ambivalent or love John Mulaney. Whereas I think because of my connection to representation, it's impossible to be ambivalent if you are a gay person, an Asian person, or a gay Asian person. You have to either feel like, “Yes, that's me!” or, “Oh my God, that is not me. How dare he try to represent me.” And I'm hoping that because there's a host of other people checking the same demographic boxes that I am, that will lessen that sort of reaction to my work.
I think the anxiety of being seen through this lens can also mess with your own self-conception. Has the process of releasing this more vulnerable work recently revealed anything to yourself about who you are?
It has made me feel like I can make my world smaller. I’m not as concerned with the overall response anymore. I'm just trying to isolate myself a little bit more. It's so weird. I feel actually like slightly more closed off, even though I've revealed slightly more of myself.
Do you like that feeling?
Yeah. I do. I think it's healthier.