Joel Kim Booster’s recent forays into movie producing and Netflix specials – and why his job ‘isn’t to represent all of you’
- June was a huge month for actor/writer Joel Kim Booster, with three new releases, including the first movie he executive produced, and his debut Netflix special
- The entertainer talks about his Christian upbringing, self-discovery and how stopping trying to represent everyone allowed him to ‘make people laugh’
Joel Kim Booster knows about having “a moment”.
In the past five years, the actor/writer has voiced characters in Netflix’s BoJack Horseman and Big Mouth, guested on HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, and starred in the short-lived NBC sitcom Sunnyside.
But with a Hulu/Disney+ romcom (Fire Island), Netflix stand-up special (Psychosexual) and Apple TV+ comedy (Loot) all having premiered in June, the long-touted “comedian to watch” is finally poised to break out.
“Since 2016, when I ended up on [popular American chat show] Conan, well-meaning people in my life have been like, ‘This is it! You’re about to be huge!’,” says Booster, 34.
“I’ve been hearing that for years and it hasn’t exactly happened, so my response now is incredibly measured. I’m very grateful that I’m able to support myself doing this, and I’m very pleased that people seem to be liking [these projects].”
Co-created by Matt Hubbard and Alan Yang (Parks and Recreation), Loot stars Maya Rudolph as Molly, an ignorant yet well-meaning billionaire who turns to philanthropy after her husband (Adam Scott) leaves her.
Booster plays snooty assistant Nicholas, who tries convincing Molly to give up her noble new venture so they can go back to getting massages and buying castles online.
Nicholas “is like the most negative aspects of my personality blown up tenfold”, Booster says.
“It’s so fun to be heightened and just watch people like Maya do their thing. I don’t know that there’s a real villain in the show, but it is fun to be the devil on her shoulder. I don’t often get to play that part.”
For Booster, Loot (now streaming on Apple TV+) was an opportunity to stretch himself and just be silly after Fire Island, in which he and Saturday Night Live favourite Bowen Yang play two friends attempting to find love while on vacation in New York’s famed gay mecca.
Inspired by the tart humour and sweeping romance of Jane Austen novels, the film is also grounded in real-world issues of race, class and toxic body standards.
“Coming to a place like Fire Island can be so freeing, because as gay people, we don’t even realise the weight we carried around navigating heterosexual spaces,” says Booster, who wrote and executive produced the movie.
“But some people feel so free that they get emboldened, like, ‘How do gay men start to oppress each other when there’s no one around to oppress us?’ It really does become a microcosm of that.”
Conrad Ricamora, who plays Booster’s love interest in the dramedy, says it was “super inspiring” watching him navigate so many different roles in front of and behind the camera.
“I’ve seen white people in this role over and over again,” Ricamora says. “But I’ve never seen an Asian-American – let alone a gay Asian-American man – given so much guidance of a film, and then actually starring in it as well. It was healing to see how empowered we can be.”
That Fire Island (now streaming on Disney+) so deftly wrestles with queer trauma and identity is no surprise to anyone familiar with Booster’s comedy.
He was born in South Korea and adopted at a young age by white, evangelical Christian parents.
Home-schooled for most of his childhood in Plainfield, in the state of Illinois, Booster never thought he was “especially funny” until high school, where he realised that his “very blunt” sense of humour made other students laugh.
It was around that time that Booster was outed by his parents after they read his journal, which contained lists of “guys I’d hooked up with or drugs I’d tried”.
“It was very easy for them to sift through and find all the stuff I didn’t want them knowing,” Booster recalls.
“It wasn’t until I discovered playwriting [at university] that I really began to figure out how to process a lot of what happened to me through narrative. And then stand-up was a huge evolution of that; it was really the start of processing my experience and the way I navigated the world.”
Booster performed stand-up comedy for the first time while living in Chicago after university, when someone dropped out of his theatre company’s variety show at the last minute. He volunteered to fill in by testing out a few jokes, which “created the addiction in me”.
Psychosexual (now streaming on Netflix), Booster’s first hour-long stand-up special, is chock-full of bawdy humour about masturbation, threesomes and taking explicit pictures. But it also grapples with Booster’s struggles to get in touch with his cultural background and the expectations placed on him to be a “role model” as a gay and Asian comedian.
“I always wanted to talk about myself in a way that felt authentic, and early on, I was celebrated for that. That felt revolutionary,” Booster says. “And then suddenly, if [audiences] don’t see themselves reflected in my experience, they get very angry with me because I’m not representing everyone. It feels really frustrating when people feel ownership over you.
“There aren’t a lot of gay comedians. There aren’t a lot of Asian comedians. Scarcity creates resentment, and that’s what I’m trying to address in my special: my job isn’t to represent all of you and make everyone happy.
“A couple years ago, my inclination was, ‘Oh, what I should be doing is making as many people as possible feel seen.’ You lose sight of yourself and the real reason you’re up there, which is to make people laugh.”