Joel Kim Booster Isn’t Your Typical Hot Idiot
The star of NBC’s “Sunnyside” talks being adopted by white, Midwestern, Evangelical Christian parents, ruffling feathers with his franknesss about gay sex, and finding his lane.
Joel Kim Booster knew he was gay before he knew he was Asian.
It’s a great line. It got him on TV. As the 31-year-old stand-up and, now, sitcom star was finding his feet in the comedy world, it was the perfect thematic centerpiece: a succinct, witty, and attention-grabbing identifier of his perspective—not to mention a great lead-in to talking about his atypical childhood.
Last Thursday, he made his debut on NBC’s Sunnyside, a sitcom from Kal Penn, who also stars, and the widely adored Michael Schur (The Good Place, Parks and Recreation, Brooklyn Nine-Nine). The show centers on a disgraced New York City councilman (Penn) who sets about doing penance by helping a group of immigrants in Queens to attain citizenship and avoid deportation.
Booster plays Jun Ho, a vapid, spoiled millennial who protests during a lesson on the Constitution, “I don’t know why everyone expects me to learn things now. It’s not my brand.”
When we connect over the phone earlier this month, Booster laughs when I bring up the line. If you watch his own comedy, you know he’s very much obsessed with personal brands. The one he’s currently honing through his stand-up is that of a “hot idiot.” Also, he happened to ad-lib the line and was flattered that they used it.
Booster was born in South Korea and adopted by a white Illinois couple as an infant. They were Evangelical Christians and raised him in the church, homeschooling him until he was 16. “As you can imagine, it was a little weird growing up in the midwest with this face and that family,” he jokes in a 2016 set that aired on Conan, teeing up his big line: “I literally knew I was gay before I knew I was Asian.”
In the set, he jokes about his experience as a rare minority in the Midwest, which he says “is just as racist as the South, it just has none of the personality. It’s all the hatred and violence, but no sweet tea.”
Comedians have incorporated their parents and families into their jokes ever since microphone stands were first placed on dark stages in front of basement clubs’ brick walls. Booster’s unusual upbringing made for great material. His parents found out he was gay when they read in his diary about all the men he had been sleeping with. Soon after, he moved out of the house. They reconciled later, when he was in college.
These are all things that Booster has talked about before, on-stage, off-stage, on Conan, on his 2017 comedy album Model Minority, with journalists, with editors who put him on numerous “Comics to Watch” and “Best Comedians Under 30 Lists,” on Twitter, with me. Identity dysphoria begs such exploring. But watch any of his other stand-up sets available online, or see his one-hour headlining set in person, and you notice how much he’s evolved beyond the aforementioned great line.
Yes, he’s exploring what it meant to grow up Asian in a white, Christian, suburban Midwest community—and then gay with all the same qualifiers. But he’s also interrogating what it means to be Asian in the gay community, gay in the comedy community, a comic in the gay community, and the standards and stereotypes about beauty, sex, and sexuality in all of those spaces. It’s a traffic jam of intersectionality where great and, as it turns out, polarizing comedy is born.
In addition to appearing in shows like Hulu’s Shrill and TBS’s Search Party, he’s written for Billy Eichner’s sketch gameshow Billy on the Street, Netflix’s animated fan favorite Big Mouth, and, one of the best new series of the last year, Comedy Central’s The Other Two. If nothing else, it’s a resume that oozes taste.
Last week, it was announced that he would write and co-produce a gay rom-com inspired by Pride and Prejudice that takes place on Fire Island, called Trip. He has nearly 80,000 followers on his Twitter account, @ihatejoelkim. (NBC has told him as long as his ribald humor steers clear of insulting NBC, he’s welcome to continue tweeting away.)
After starting his career in Chicago and then moving to New York City, this was his third pilot season in Los Angeles. When he originally got the breakdown for his character on Sunnyside, he was written as more of a corporate finance douchebag. Booster didn’t think he could sustain a character like that over the course of a series, so he played him instead according to his own very specific strengths.
“I’ve been playing with this ‘hot idiot’ on stage the last couple of years in my standup, and then this character sort of falls into my lap,” he says. “It is the most fun to go in every day and play this catastrophic idiot.”
Booster playing a hot idiot is, in its own way, transgressive. Not in the sense that he is not attractive. On the contrary, he has the kind of chiseled cheekbones and bone structure that God intended for one day filling the frames of endless Instagram selfies. As revealed in one set that was posted online earlier this year, in which he performs while wearing a crop top, Booster also seems to have at least a dozen abs—even that sculpted “V” thing at his waist line.
But as he tells stories about that one night he spent at an Amersterdam sex club in college, or the last man to tell him that he loved him, said after splitting a bottle of Nyquil and watching The Passion of the Christ, he suspects that he’s poking at the audience’s own comfort level and expectations for who gets to call themselves “hot.”
“It only works comedically because it's not self-evident,” he says. “I'm having to tell people a truth that I decided about myself, and I don’t think that most people agree. If I were a hot white guy, six feet tall and, you know, had very low body fat, I wouldn't be able to get away with it because I think that people would already sort of be on edge about seeing a hot person on stage.”
There are Western ideals of beauty that were ingrained in him through his upbringing, and that he is reminded of every day on dating and hook-up apps where racism and an anti-Asian bias can be normalized. “I’m not a masculine guy. I’m not white. I am fit, which I will give myself, and I sort of embrace that about myself. But it’s not something that I think most audiences are on board for buying.”
I tell him that, objectively, I think he’s good-looking. He laughs. “You fell into the trap! Interview over, let’s end it there.”
When he first started doing stand-up, the whole “I knew I was gay before I knew I was Asian” bit proved to be a great springboard for him. At a time earlier this decade when minorities, women, and gay comedians found catharsis and success in focusing sets on raw, unfiltered material and confessions, he followed suit, which worked out well for him.
Looking back, though, he’s surprised by how much of his stand-up career was spent writing jokes about how bad he felt about himself, how ugly he thought he was, and how hard it was for him to get a date. The jokes were good, he thinks. “But at a certain point I decided I couldn’t do that to myself anymore psychologically.”
Then there’s the matter of representation. He was becoming more well-known in the Asian and gay-Asian community, and saw more of those faces in the audience: “I don’t know… it just felt bad.”
“It did feel like a responsibility in that moment to be like, OK, like we’re getting enough of this elsewhere,” he says. “Like we hear that Asian men are ugly all the time implicitly from the media and explicitly on dating apps. I don’t need to be adding fuel to that fire.”
It’s inevitable that we end up talking about sex. Or, at least, how he talks about sex in his comedy—which is often, and in frank detail.
He agrees with the idea that, as a gay Asian man, having a comedy act that is so unapologetically sex-positive is subversive, but only in the sense that early on in his career he was warned not to talk about sex. The argument was that it would be off-putting, or viewed as a gimmick, or dismissed “as that’s what all gay comics do, just talk about their sex lives.”
But he likes to think about his sex jokes, in addition to being very good, as refreshingly universal, as far as these things go.
“Sex feels as mundane as airplane food to me,” he says. “We all do it. I feel like a lot of comics stop at this sort of shock-and-awe aspect of, oh my god, he's talking about anal sex or eating out or cum or masturbation or something, and just stop there and don’t ever sort of dig deeper into what is the unique experience that we all share in sex.”
Fans rally around that. It’s a matter-of-factness with which they talk about sex with their friends, especially in gay safe spaces, that isn’t typically reflected in a mainstream comedy platform. But then there are those who get frustrated with the way Booster talks about it because they’re anxious about how he’s representing the community.
“What they're getting wrong is that they are taking on stereotypes as their issues,” he says. “I think like a lot of my personality and interests and a lot of the things I talk about on stage, on a surface level could be seen as stereotypically gay interests. Sure. But I think if you listen to them and you sit with me for an hour in my set, there's more depth to it than that. And I think if you are only looking at sort of the surface, then that's your problem.”
I ask him more personal questions than I’m used to in interviews, when such things tend not to be my business. Maybe it’s because he’s so outspoken and confessional, or because the subjects are such a major part of his past comedy sets, or because we, though a tangled web, share a mutual friend. (When he lived in Chicago, he shared custody of cats with his lesbian college roommate. He called them Little Richard and Lea Michele. Those were not their names, it was who they looked like. That roommate now dates my own former college roommate. The gay world is a small one.)
I wonder how his dating life is these days. Is he single? Does he want a relationship?
Single by choice, he says. When he lived in New York, he so desperately wanted a boyfriend. Being there and not having one just seemed sad. Then he started to date and realized, “Oh this is actually hard work. I don’t like that part of it.” He laughs and we say goodbye, wondering what his fancy new TV network will think of all that we just discussed. He chuckles again: ”They know who they hired when they hired me.”