“A lot of people have told me recently that they did not think I was smart enough to write a movie,” Joel Kim Booster says, laughing, over Zoom. For years, the comedian has been operating under the guise of what he calls his “hot idiot persona.” In stand-up sets and on social media, Booster has played the part of a hyper-sexualized narcissist, in an effort to both draw laughs and subvert expectations for what an Asian male comic could be.
Booster does something different in his own way Fire IslandHulu’s rom-com, which he created and stars in, is now available on Hulu. Based on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, the movie follows a group of friends on Fire Island—a famously gay enclave on Long Island—as they party, chase love, and confront hard truths. Both critics and viewers have given the movie rave reviews.
Und Fire Island This is but one aspect of a big month for Booster. They are also releasing a Netflix special. PsychosexualStarring in Apple TV+’s June 21 special, Loot alongside Maya Rudolph (premiering June 24). Booster, a San Diego resident, talked to Booster about his creative partnership, drawing from Jane Austen. SNL’s Bowen Yang, and leaving behind his “hot idiot” act. These are extracts of the conversation.
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TIME: You’ve done a million interviews this month, and the general theme of the coverage has been, essentially, “June 2022 is a huge month for Joel Kim Booster.” Has it felt that way to you?
Booster: Yeah. It’s a little hard to take it all in at once. It’s the largest month in my whole career. I’m glad it’s happening at this point in my career, because I’ve been doing this long enough to know that it’s a moment, and it might not happen for me again. So I’m just really trying to enjoy it.
Is it easy to achieve all of the success?
My brain is the most dysfunctional in this country. It’s really hard for me to focus on the positives and not just seek out every negative comment online. And it’s just a lot to suddenly be perceived in a way that is less controllable than I’m used to. With stand-up, I’ve been presenting a very curated version of who I am, and one very select side of myself. So the stakes felt less high because when people reacted, either positively or negatively, I could say, ‘Oh, that’s just 20% of who I actually am.’
Now they’re seeing the movie, which is actually much more revealing. And between the special and the movie, it’s very difficult for me now, because suddenly I’m being perceived a little bit more for who I actually am, and for a much larger audience.
In Vulture, E. Alex Jung Call you “a horny Magellan.” What did you think of that description?
The horny portion is more precise than the Magellan one, I believe. I’ll have to take his word for it; I think Alex is extremely perceptive. But I don’t know how much of an explorer I am.
Versions of these products can be viewed on the internet. Fire Island You were in and out of studios for many years. How did that feedback compare to other responses?
I would hear: “We love your perspective as an Asian American, and as a gay man. But there’s a lot going on here.” A lot of what this industry has wanted to do to me, since I started, is to bisect those two identities, to present me as one or the other. Parts of the industry find intersectionality confusing. It’s hard for them to look at me as a three-dimensional human being who is lots of things all at once. A big part of the feedback is that they didn’t understand how they could tell a story that was that specific—and whether or not it would alienate people in its specificity.
Fire Island It is a parody of the tale Pride and Prejudice. Why did Jane Austen choose Jane Austen as the best frame to tell this story.
Jane Austen captures the essence of characters who are made to live with others they don’t consider worthy. What is the best way to communicate with these characters and keep a friendly tone while being incredibly rude to each other? Most people aren’t terrible to one another on the surface. Most gay men that I interact with aren’t just like, “We think you’re ugly. Please leave the party.” Very few people are that bald in their discrimination or classism.
Even the whole ‘no fats, no femmes no Asians’ thing: so much of that has moved behind the curtain now. You don’t actually see that very often in dating profiles because it’s no longer socially acceptable to just come out and say it. So what’s interesting now is to see all the ways that the gay men say that without saying that. And all the ways in which they communicate that loud and clear without just saying, “I’m not attracted to you, so I consider you less valuable in this scenario.”
Bowen [Yang]When I and my friend were in Fire Island, they were staying with two our sexiest friends. Because they had a lot sexual currency, they would invite us to their parties. It was fascinating to observe people who knew that we were close friends with hot people so had to get to know us. However, their interactions with us were so different than the ones they wanted to be friends with.
As I was reading, Pride and PrejudiceThese parallels are so obvious. So much of her research is about people communicating their disgust and classism in a way that’s not too explicit. So that’s what I wanted to get at: As we’ve moved out of the baldly racist dating profiles, what are the ways gay men have figured out how to communicate this stuff secretly, or in subtext.
Have you received any feedback on the movie from these type of Fire Island men you’re critiquing?
I’ve seen some hot white people online: there’s a group of them who don’t like the movie. I’ve seen a lot of, “This is boring, this doesn’t speak to me.” I do wonder: it might be boring for you because you’re not centered in the story in the way you’re used to.
But no one, to my face, has been like, “You really came for us.” I think it’s really easy for a lot of guys, because it doesn’t center them, to not have any introspection about the movie’s critique of our culture. They have seen a lot of it go completely beyond their heads.
Margaret Cho In the film, she plays the role of the quasi-matriarch among the friends. Was her influence on your career as a comic?
It’s hard to put into words what she means to me. In a time where very few other people were like her, she was able to exist. She represented all Asian queer individuals of any sexuality and gender.
I found it really transformational to finally see. [her 1994 sitcom] All-American Girl. If you were to see an Asian person in Western media, it was either someone who had been relegated to the side (usually a geek) or somebody on the opposite end of the spectrum (a super-action-star kungfu master). I didn’t like either of these descriptions. Then, you had All-American GirlIt felt like I was there, and it made me feel so close. To see a whole cast of people who looked like me doing that: I don’t think I ever thought about being an actor until that show, honestly. That show and Brandy’s CinderellaThese were the moments that opened my eyes to all the opportunities that I had in this profession.
When I first discovered her stand up, it was someone who talked about their lives so honestly, so passionately, without being afraid of judgement. That was what really inspired my work. I can draw a straight line from Margaret Cho’s work to mine. I wouldn’t exist without her.
It is possible to SNL’s Bowen Yang have had a longstanding creative partnership that takes center stage in Fire Island. Your partnership is unique. How have you seen it evolve over time?
We’ve both had other Asian friends and gay friends. However, it can be quite difficult to deal with all these identities. To find someone who’s sort of a life raft to cling to in the midst of all the bullsh-t that we deal with was really life-saving in a lot of ways, for both of us.
And I’ve had gay Asian friends before, but I don’t think we ever connected the trauma of gay racism. Sexual racism. Feeling fetishized. Bowen was my first Asian friend with whom I really got to the bottom of a lot these issues. It’s part of the Fire Island pressure cooker. Suddenly, there’s so much wonderful weight lifted off of you as a queer person because there are no straight people. There’s a part of you that feels very free to experience a weightlessness that you don’t feel constrained in society.
And then there’s this crushing disappointment when you realize the sexual freedom promised by Fire Island is not afforded to everyone in the same way. It was an understanding that we shared on an intrinsic level. Together, we processed and unpacked lots of stuff. This is what binds you for the rest of your life. I’ve always looked to Bowen as my ultimate confidant.
A few weeks ago, it was Minor Twitter firestorm started Around Fire Island When a criticalisal claimed that the film failed the Bechdel Test. Was that a good idea?
I absorb all criticism, and don’t want to dismiss anything out of hand. But the Bechdel test is one of the most abused critical frameworks: It’s a very narrow way of looking at media. And Alison Bechdel has talked about this: It’s a good gut check. You are not allowed to give a failing grade.
There were more female cis-femme characters in earlier drafts. But it’s one of those things where I have to sort of take a step back and realize the limitations of my own ability to tell everyone’s story. There are definitely legitimate critiques of the movie that I’ve taken to heart. That was just one.
The entire span of two days was quite bizarre to me. I went off Twitter for the premiere: for mental health reasons, I didn’t want to engage with whatever the discourse around this movie became. I was then messaged by a thousand people about it. It was a little heartening because it was the closest I’ve ever become to being the main character on Twitter. This is quite a frightening prospect. Alison tweeted about this caveat. [she]It was an amazing way to close the loop.
Netflix’s special, Psychosexual, is hilarious, but parts of it felt like the crowd wasn’t entirely with you. You felt that way onstage?
I don’t know, it’s difficult. This is sort of my problem with stand-up specials in general: there’s an artificiality to the production, and there are realities to filming that take it away from the essence of stand-up and what I love about it. It’s almost impossible to feel the immediateness.
Last night, I was able to play to a packed crowd. These were people who were predominantly gay or Asian and queer or had previously listened my podcast. And we didn’t have as much control over the audience. It was an incredible audience, I thought.
Specials have a different production aspect that is more challenging than normal. Because my sets don’t feel complete, it is strange that I know the special is done. I never feel like I’m done writing or shaping them. It’s a constant process of evolving and changing, depending on who you are writing for. So it’s a really scary thing to have it be out there.
Your standup also talks about bipolarity. How have you viewed bipolar representation in culture lately? It was a great experience. Gata’s arc in DaveFor example,
Sally Field, a bipolar woman was my first encounter with one. ER. I don’t want to say the depiction was inaccurate, but I find a lot of times when we’ve seen bipolar people in the media, they’re going through the worst moments of their disease, and they’re maybe unmedicated. In dramas, you want to see people at their most heightened, so of course, when you see a bipolar person in a drama, they’ll be flying off the handle, which is very real. I’ve definitely experienced that myself.
I think we’re starting to see a more balanced perspective on what it means to be bipolar. It is something that people can live with, but it doesn’t define their lives. It’s not the framework through which I experience the world every day. It’s not difficult to navigate the world with a lot support and medication. It is definitely an obstacle for me at times, but it’s something that is mostly just running in the background.
You expressed your desire to portray a gay canonical superhero, like Northstar in a recent interview. Is that something you would like to see happen, and why?
Comic book fans are my passion. At age 9, a comic book was the first item I bought with my allowance.
At this stage, the idea of playing gay superman feels like an absurd dream. It doesn’t feel within the realm of possibilities. So it’s like a silly thing I can say in interviews, and I can be as thirsty about it as I want.
It’s funny to have people tell me that it could happen. Maybe it’s true. It’s all about superheroes. But I definitely think that it’s more likely that I’ll play someone at the control center, which I would still love. For me, living in the superhero universe would be my ultimate goal.
Now that you’re transitioning out of your “hot idiot” era, what kinds of characters would you like to play?
It is my desire to be more reflective and less archetypal. It was really easy to latch onto “hot idiot” for a while, because it was less of an archetype. It felt transgressive or groundbreaking to be like, ‘I’m Asian and I’m hot and I’m stupid.” And when I was doing it, I think people didn’t believe it, necessarily. When I would come out and say, “I’m hot,” people would laugh, and I think it was because there was this understanding of, “no: culturally, you are not considered hot. So it’s cute that you’re saying this on stage now.”
It seems that this has begun to change to the point when it is really offensive to repeat it. It’s interesting how the needle has moved on what we consider attractive as culture writ large. Asians have pushed their way into the zeitgeist in that way, which is great, and makes my “hot idiot” persona moot in a lot of ways.
So now, I want to go back and be “sensitive shy book hot guy.” That’s a little bit closer to who I actually am. To be seen as more thoughtful, I would like to think that. People have often felt comfortable in telling me they didn’t think I was intelligent enough to create a movie. Now that the cat’s out of the bag that I can string several thousand words together, I guess I have to make good on that promise and start actively reading books in public when the TMZ cameras are on.
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