Joel Kim Booster on his radically transparent comedy, critiques and "the Bechdel test of it all"

The comedian spoke to Salon about pal Bowen Yang and the goal of "Bridgerton"-esque "incidental representation"

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published June 25, 2022 3:30PM (EDT)

Joel Kim Booster in Joel Kim Booster: Psychosexual (Terence Patrick/Netflix)
Joel Kim Booster in Joel Kim Booster: Psychosexual (Terence Patrick/Netflix)

Joel Kim Booster only has to hang on for a few more days, until the end of Pride Month. Once July comes around, he's unplugging for a much needed vacation. You can probably guess where.

Until then, he's riding a wave of exposure thanks to his work on three projects that have premiered across the month of June. First came the hilarious and genuinely touching "Fire Island," which Booster wrote and stars in beside his close friend (and the best reason to watch "Saturday Night Live") Bowen Yang. The "Pride & Prejudice"-inspired romantic comedy was an instant talker, beloved by most and memorably misunderstood by at least one writer.

Last week tossed two more coals on his hotness, with his Netflix comedy special "Joel Kim Booster: Psychosexual" arriving within days of the premiere of "Loot" on Apple TV+, in which Booster co-stars with Maya Rudolph and Mj Rodriguez. All of which is to say that if you didn't know who Joel Kim Booster was before this summer, several major streaming services are giving you wonderful ways to remedy that.

RELATED: Move over, Colin Firth – our favorite new Darcy is on "Fire Island"

Booster was kind enough to fit Salon in to his harried schedule, sitting down with us directly after a Writers Guild of America panel but right before performing two stand-up shows. If he was exhausted, you couldn't tell from his bright demeanor, thoughtful candor regarding representation and his work, and his perspective on the viral tweet that temporarily made him "the closest I've ever been to being the main character on Twitter."

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Within a very short span of time you've already gone from promoting "Fire Island" to your stand-up special, and I'm guessing you're probably to be doing some press for "Loot" if you haven't already. How are you doing with all this attention?

I'm tired. And then Pride sort of on top of all of that, too. So it's a lot, it's a lot. But it's all good things, you know? I'll know I've really made it when they let me release something outside of Pride Month; that will be a big turning point in my career. But I'm happy to do it. I can't talk enough about how much fun and how grateful I am for all these projects. So it's alright.

"At the end of the day, representation was a byproduct of the story I wanted to tell."

I shouldn't be surprised by this, but were these networks consciously saying, "We're going to release all these projects during Pride Month?" Or did it just happen to be that way?

I think there was a little bit of calculation going on . . . well, not so much with "Loot." But I definitely think with the special and with the movie, they definitely wanted to capitalize on the general feeling in the air of Pride.

How is that feeling for you? I ask because it seems as if every single year, there are one or two people who are selected to represent their community. Last year, Bowen [Yang] was called on a lot for stories about the surge in violence against Asian Americans. So what it is like for you to be, for lack of a better way of putting it, this year's representative?

It's really scary. I mean, it's definitely not something that I really signed up to do. I'm so happy when gay Asian men come up to me at various Pride events, and they say how happy they are with the movie and how they love to feel represented. But it is a double-edged sword. It really is.  Because as many gay Asian men feel seen by my movie, there are plenty more that don't and are frustrated by being told by the media that they should feel represented by my movie.

Fire IslandNoah (Joel Kim Booster) and Howie (Bowen Yang) in "Fire Island" (Jeong Park/Searchlight)At the end of the day, representation was a byproduct of the story I wanted to tell. I really just set out to sell a very specific story about Bowen and our friendship. And in that specificity, I think a lot of people have found a lot of takeaways. And that's great. But you know, it is a big scary thing to be asked to speak for a group. I try and shy away from it as much as possible, honestly. Seeing Bowen going through all of that for the last couple of years because of "SNL" really made me wary, I think, going into this project in a lot of ways.

You get at that notion at the end of "Psychosexual" when you say "Hey, you know, I'm here, I'm up on stage, and I've talked about X, Y, and Z. But that's not why I got up here. I got up here so I could goof off and tell jokes." And you also referenced this when you spoke about representation as a double-edged sword. I always wonder for non-white performers whether that's one of those things you accept as a part of getting out there and achieving fame. You shouldn't have to, you know what I mean?

At the same time, this is what you've been striving to achieve for years.

Yeah. I think it's frustrating.

The most frustrating part about it is that for a lot of people, it calls into question why you were chosen and why you were you reached the level of success that you did. It invalidates my hard work for a lot of people. It does. People think I'm a diversity hire, and it's hard to get away from that.

I had to really fight against and overcome a lot of bulls**t to get my s**t made. And now that I've gotten it made, everyone thinks that it was a cakewalk because of who I am. What they don't see is all of this stuff that goes on behind the scenes that makes it incredibly difficult still, despite all these conversations about diversity and representation that we're having to make the kind of work that you want to make.

Do you feel like at this point you're able to get the stuff made that you want to get made?

I think it's a little too soon to tell. I haven't even begun to think about what my next writing project is going to be. I think I need a little distance from the last one before I can really focus on what that is.  And you know, I am experiencing a lot of anxiety about what that next thing is, because I don't want to flop.

It's so funny, before the movie came out, I was so convinced no one would watch it, or no one would like it. And now that it has been out and people seem to enjoy it. my biggest concern is like, "Well, I'll never write something that good again." There's no rest in my brain.

I'm just trying to really sit in and enjoy this specific moment and not go into this next phase of my career with any set expectations on, you know, how it may or may not affect my work moving forward.

The road leading to "Psychosexual" must have included a lot of different shows. And having been to a few of shows that ended up becoming comedy specials, I know that there's some distance between the taping and the actual rollout on, in this case, Netflix.

I'm sure you've performed the set a million times, but have you watched the final edit of the special?

I watched it once. And that is all I think I can do. It's really difficult for me in all of my work, but especially stand-up, because my stand-up is constantly evolving. I never see it as complete. So it's really difficult for me to see it now as, like, the definitive version. It's out there now, and those jokes are retired, they're out of my brain. As of last weekend I stopped doing that material.

I don't really like watching my stand-up in any sort of recorded form, because it just feels very different. I like the immediacy of telling those jokes with a very specific audience, and that audience that night is so important to me.  

I understand this is going to make it easier for me moving forward. And I'm so honored to have an hour-long special on Netflix. But it is also not what I love about stand-up.

So how does that impact your creation of your next stand-up routine? Are you taking a little a little break before you go back out?

"Part of how I approach stand-up is trying to project this idea of radical transparency."

I have two shows tonight actually. Yeah, I'm doing a lot of smaller shows around LA to build up that material I have. I'm almost at a new hour now. And I begin touring again in September.

It does feel like I accomplished what I wanted to accomplish with the special, which was talk about a lot of these ideas around like representation and rejecting it in some senses and sort of establish my mission, which is to just tell jokes, and not necessarily be some role model for the community.

Now I feel a lot freer moving into this new section of what I'm talking about, and how I'm talking about it. And hopefully, you know, people will come to this new material with that in mind seeing me as an individual more so than a representative of a group.

One of the things that I enjoy so much about your comedy is the way you talk about sexuality. There's no shame involved in the way you joke about it – it's more like you're celebrating the experience and laughing at the humanity of it. Was that conscious determination on your part, or is that something that just kind of naturally comes to you as you're formulating your material?

Part of how I approach stand-up is trying to project this idea of radical transparency. Part of the magic trick of stand-up for me is getting the audience to believe that they're seeing all of me, all sides of me, and they're getting a complete version of who I am. The magic trick is getting them to think that, when they're only seeing about, like, 25%, of who I am, as a person.

And part of that for me is not running from those moments when we are most human, when we are most vulnerable, which is oftentimes sex.  This is probably a direct response to the way I was raised. But all that stuff was kept behind closed doors, and it was locked and away from me for so long. And now that I have the freedom and a platform, all I want to do is talk about it and explore it and really understand it from as many perspectives as I can.

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We've talked a lot about race and representation, and I'm wondering whether there's ever going to be a time someone's going to talk to Joel Kim Booster and not expect him to talk about these issues.

Yeah. You know, it's so hard to conceptualize what that would look like for me, because as long as people have been aware of my work, it has been a part of the conversation. It's hard for me to conceptualize what it would what, what conversations would look like without it.

It would be an interesting perspective to have an interview that is just solely about the work. But I also have an understanding that right now, the work is very much tied to my identity. So a little bit of the onus is on me, you know.

"I would love to just be like Judd Apatow, who doesn't have to answer for anything except for the work."

A big part of what I've learned, and what I'm interested in, and what's informing the direction I want to go in both as a comic and as a screenwriter is about incidental representation – like, telling a story that is populated with people of color and gay people that maybe doesn't necessarily have to do with the intricacies of those identities.

"Bridgerton," for instance, is very incidental in its casting and even though race has pretty much no effect on any of the stories in production, it's still brought up because part of it is unusual.

I wonder if even if I do manage to make a movie that is, like, a murder mystery on a cruise ship that I'm starring in – so the detective is gay and the characters are diverse – will I ever be able to escape it, or will the media always want to attach it some meaning onto that sort of frivolous work? I would love to just be like Judd Apatow, who doesn't have to answer for anything except for the work. But I don't know if I'll see that in my lifetime. And I'm happy to take it so that for all of the wonderful queer Asian creators that I know who are coming up right behind me, it will be less of an issue.

And you're getting a lot of feedback on your recent work now. Has your relationship that feedback changed? I ask that because I interviewed somebody recently who said they don't ever read criticism, because if you take the good stuff seriously, you have to take the bad stuff seriously too.

I'm kind of the opposite, honestly. Like, there is a plenty of legitimate critique of the film that I have read and agreed with, and that I'm learning from. The challenge is delineating between the legitimate critiques that are helpful, and the Bechtel test of it all.

I'm definitely picking and choosing the sources from which I take the criticism. But you know, there are a lot of critics that I really admire and respect and read regularly and whose opinions I think are valuable. And so why wouldn't I take some of that to heart and make myself a better writer because of it?

Now I have to ask you fully open that door. Where were you when you saw the Hanna Rosin tweet?

It's funny. I had specifically removed myself from Twitter for a few days, when the movie premiered, because I wanted to miss the initial wave of discourse around it. I was not interested in everyone's opinion of the movie and what it meant and what it didn't mean, etc, etc. But unfortunately I think that was the closest I've ever been to being the main character on Twitter.

I got so many text messages about it. Not even telling me that it happened but, like, referencing it. And I had to look at it, just to understand what these text messages were saying. I was alone in my hotel room in New York. My boyfriend had left back to LA. And it was truly one of the most bizarre experiences of my life – not only seeing that critique, but then seeing the response to that critique. It was definitely not a framework through which I thought the movie would be judged.

And you know, I think her apology was great. If nothing else, I got the Alison Bechdel tweet out of it. I admire Alison so much, and to see them respond in that way and know that they watched my movie . . . I mean, thank you, Hanna Rosin. Without you, I would never have gotten that satisfaction.

Is that better than, say, a champagne gift basket from a network?

Absolutely. Much better.

"Joel Kim Booster: Psychosexual" is currently streaming on Netflix. "Fire Island" is on Hulu, and "Loot" is streaming on Apple TV+. Watch a trailer via YouTube.

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By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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Asian American Bowen Yang Fire Island Interview Joel Kim Booster Lgbtq Loot Psychosexual Stand-up Comedy