Joel Kim Booster is the prince of unusual beginnings. As a baby, he was adopted by white, conservative, religious Midwesterners, an experience he sums up this way: “As you can imagine, it was a little weird growing up in the Midwest with this face and that family. I literally knew I was gay before I knew I was Asian.” His standup career also got off on an uncommon foot. Instead of grinding it out at open mics (“I didn’t really understand the open mic scene”), Booster, an active member of the theater community, would open for plays, doing brand new material every single time. But after moving to New York, the process of comedy became clearer and Booster’s progress began to accelerate. He’s now performed on Conan, written for Billy on the Street, and this Friday night at midnight his Comedy Central Stand-Up Presents half hour will premiere. I talked to Booster before his half hour taping about his awkward start in Chicago, his teenage awakening, and the benefits of diversity in comedy.
You grew up in the Midwest and started comedy in Chicago, right?
Sort of, very briefly. It’s hard because Chicago is my artistic home in many respects, but it’s hard to say that Chicago owns me as a comedian in the same way that a lot of other people that I’m close with in New York – like Will Miles, Kenny DeForest, Drew Michael, Liza Treyger, or Megan Gailey – people who are blowing up now who are known as Chicago comics even if they’re living in other cities. It’s weird for me to self-identify that way, because in many ways I don’t feel like I started doing comedy until I moved to New York. When I was in Chicago I was doing theater, trying to be an actor, writing plays. I was so immersed in that community. Trying to switch to standup at one point just didn’t work, because I could never hang out or dive head-first into the comedy community. Nobody knew me and I was doing a bunch of weird gigs that were not comedy shows. Most of my standup in Chicago was doing comedy on weird, arty burlesque shows. I remember I opened for this show at Steppenwolf called We Three Lizas. I would go out and do 15 minutes of standup before the play would begin. The only reason I was getting these jobs was because I was so involved in the theater community. They were like, “Oh, you’ve done standup once, would you like to do it here?”
No one in Chicago ever really took me seriously as a comedian. Until right before I moved, I didn’t really understand the open mic scene. I was one of those embarrassing people who would be like, “I think I’ll go to open mic tonight,” and then invite everyone I knew on Facebook to come and check me out. The feature on Facebook where they show you your past posts is so humiliating. That’s who I was in Chicago. It wasn’t until, on a lark, I went to New York to visit friends and ended up doing a bunch of shows that were way too good for the level of comedian I was. I remember Marianne Ways, who was the producer of Night Train with Wyatt Cenac, saying to me, “Oh, you’re good at this. If this is what you want to do you should just move here now.” I literally went home, applied for a job, and a month later moved to New York. One year of being in New York and I became ten times the comedian I was.
What did your parents think whenever you said, “This is what I’m going to do?”
It’s so funny because when I told them I wanted to go into theater they were very reticent about it. In terms of my hopes and dreams, my parents have a very hands-off approach. They’re not supportive, but they’re not unsupportive either. They’ll listen to me talk about it and be like, “That’s okay.” But they were very happy when I had a steady day job. As soon as I said I was doing comedy they said, “Have you been writing any plays?” I had found the truly most evil thing in their eyes, because it made doing theater look good. They don’t know I’m doing this. They don’t know about Conan. I sold my first script recently and they were like, “That’s great,” but they didn’t care to ask what it was about. We’re in a good spot because they know they won’t approve but are being as supportive as they can be. It’s sort of a don’t-ask-don’t-tell situation.
What is it about what you’re doing that they don’t approve of? Is it the content?
Yeah, it’s the content. They certainly don’t have anything against comedy. My dad was a big Red Green fan growing up. That’s the big comedic influence. My mom introduced me to Madeline Kahn. They like comedy and, at least in terms of Madeline Kahn, they have good taste. They definitely would not like me talking about my sex life. They barely like to acknowledge my personal life when we are chatting on the phone.
You were also raised religious.
Very much so.
And your parents are still religious?
In your act you talk about your sexual identity, your racial identity, and what it’s like being adopted into a family in the Midwest. Do you remember a point where you realized you had to get out of there?
I talk about this in my set, but once I went to public school and was around secular people for the first time in my life…I had never been around non-religious people until I was 16. The only non-Christians I knew were on television. I really did know that I was gay before I knew that I was Asian. I remember when I was 4 explaining that I like to look at naked boys more than naked girls to my brother and sister and coincidentally, it’s the first time I remember making someone laugh. They thought it was the funniest joke. I remember thinking, “Okay this is funny, but it’s also true.” That kind of sums up my comedy now. I always knew I was different, but I sort of had this plan of what my future would look like. I would be a youth pastor, I’ll be closeted, God will figure it out. That is what I had set for myself, but then I went to school and suddenly this whole other world was open to me. Within a month of being in school I came out of the closet, drank for the first time, tried weed for the first time, hooked up with a guy for the first time. All of this stuff was happening at once. I think you go crazy because of all of a sudden that future that you spent 16 years building for yourself is gone in a flash and you have nothing to replace it. It took me years to figure out what the other option would look like for myself.
The joke writing on your Conan set is so good. It’s funny, endearing, educational. It’s a good representation of what comedy can be, because in five minutes people really get to know you.
That makes me feel really good coming from someone like you. The horror of being a double minority in this industry and having everything you do either pathologized or politicized is tough to deal with. It’s tough to hear other comedians talk about the horrors of the diversity hire. I’ve even heard people stay about this half hour, “They passed over a lot of good comics because of diversity pressure.” I’ve been told before that I don’t write jokes and that if I weren’t gay the stuff I say onstage wouldn’t be funny to people. I have that constant thing in my brain of, “Am I writing jokes? Would this be funny if I didn’t have these two other things going on in the background?” It’s a real mindfuck.
I think anyone who would say that this is just a diversity booking should ask themselves why the industry is looking for talented people of diverse backgrounds. The reason is because there is a demand for diversity right now. The industry wants to make money, so they’re not taking a big gamble. They realize it’s been missing, people want it, and it will lead to better ratings for them.
I made a comment once when I was running a bar show in New York. I said, “I really want to find X person.” Someone said, “Well, why don’t you look for a funny person?” That’s always the comeback when we talk about diversity in this industry. It’s like, “Yeah, no shit. Everybody is funny.” In New York if you’re looking at the list of working comedians it’s like, yeah, I’m not looking at people who aren’t funny. So why not? If you look at this pool of people who are all funny enough to do a Comedy Central half hour, why not whittle it down and find a lot of different viewpoints and stories? I don’t want this to turn into a thing and I don’t want people to think I’m tortured with the question of whether I’m funny or not. I know I’m good at what I do. Sometimes I wonder if I’m as cutting-edge as I could be or if I’m pushing form enough. You have those kinds of artsy-fartsy questions, but I know I’m good. I don’t need anyone to pat me on the head and say that. I don’t want anyone to come away from this interview thinking I’m neurotic, but it is in the back of my mind.