Joel Kim Booster is part of a young generation of comics rooted in, but not constrained by, issues of his identity. Earlier in his career, Booster expended a lot of energy talking about the facts of his life and upbringing — as he used to joke about his adoption, “I knew I was gay before I knew I was Asian.” As he develops as a comedian, he becomes more interested in expanding on not just the issues that surround his life but the lives of Americans gay, straight, and every other part of the spectrum, all from the perspective from his “hot idiot” persona. It’s a sharp distinction that is immediately clear when watching his first late-night set on Conan in 2016 and his most recent one on The Late Late Show With James Corden only two and a half years later.
Booster’s clean, five-minute sets for television just hint at the sorts of playful and debaucherous realms he delves into on longer sets and in his first album, Model Minority. Yet these carefully constructed performances give a direct sense of where Booster’s art is going. That shift is the subject of this week’s Good One, Vulture’s podcast about jokes and the people who tell them. Read a short excerpt from the conversation or listen below. Download the episode from Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.
You’ve said that it takes a smart person to play stupid. Why is it important to let the audience know that you’re smart before doing stupid material?
I read a shit-ton and know that I’m intelligent, but I don’t like to big dog people in that way. I’m much more pensive than the internet has made a lot of people. Can’t we all just step back for a second and ask more questions and let things marinate in a private way? The certainty is a poison for me, like, Twitter especially. Everyone has to have their statement be, and be certain about, what they believe and why they believe it. It is weird because I might believe this about Venezuela but I would never deign to like shoot it out with certainty because there’s still so much I don’t know. So it’s more fun to play that as a stupid person.
Especially when you started, your act had a good amount of self-deprecation about your looks. How has your thinking on that evolved as your persona is now, as you describe, a “hot idiot”?
When I started doing stand-up in my early 20s, I was coming into it like, everything’s gotta be raw and real. I’ve struggled a lot with body-image issues because of the way that Asian-American men are viewed. It’s connected to masculinity as well. I’m one of the many men who’s lucky enough to feel the pressure of the male gaze in a way that a lot of straight men don’t feel. But I did a lot of work on my self-esteem, and I was talking down about myself in a way that no longer felt authentic.
I am not as confident as the person I portray myself to be onstage. I still have a lot of fucked-up things going on in my head. I don’t think it’s as interesting for people to hear about because conventionally I am attractive, so who wants to hear that person complain about neuroses? And for so long, minority comedians — Asian comedians, gay comedians — needed to put themselves below the audience so they could feel comfortable to laugh. And to come out and be like, I’m the shit, and you guys should be lucky to be looking at me right now — that is aggressive and gross and bad, and yet it’s a Carlin-esque school of thought. Can I turn the audience against me and then, at the end of the set, still have them on my side?
Your first Conan set feels like, This is who I am, this is my story. The Corden set is more like, This is what I’m like. How do you think about this change?
I don’t want to say I’m moving away from the identity stuff because it’s still all running in the background, but it is less biographical and much more heightened. Key and Peele said this thing to Zadie Smith when they had their show that really stuck with me — people laugh at the
mythologies that they recognize to be false. That is like a very fancy way of talking about hyperbole, and it is the ethos of the way I write jokes now. I usually go back to that frame of mind when I’m thinking about something that’s funny. It’s just shit that I say to my friends that makes them laugh, and then I’m like, How can I take this weird, unformed thing to the stage and have that conversation with an audience? How can I mythologize this concept?
I’ve heard you quote Guy Branum before saying gay men want to watch go-go dancers or drag queens — people who are entirely sexualized or entirely not. What is the line you have to walk, presenting yourself as hot?
In front of gay audiences, when I’m like, “Yeah, I’m hot,” half of them chuckle because they think it’s a joke. I’m fine with that, but it’s definitely changing. The problem with a lot of gay audiences is we grew up having to queer other peoples stories and, like, find ourselves in Muriel’s Wedding. I am walking out and saying explicitly, I am telling a gay story, and they’re like, Uh, that’s not my story, I can’t recognize that. I’m really, really trying is to split the difference between being like, I am representing all gay men — which I am definitely not — and just allowing space for me to be like, I am an individual who also is gay and it’s okay. If people think that we’re all like me, that’s not a problem for the community, that’s a problem for the world at large.
My colleague Alex Jung wrote a piece last year about how the comedy scene has become much more queer, both onstage and off, in the last few years. How much do you feel the difference in audience?
It’s not that the comedy audience has changed, it’s just that the comedy audience has gotten bigger. You’re seeing a lot of resistance from mainstream, straight-boy assholes, who are like, “Comedy audiences are getting more PC or less apt to laugh.” It’s like, No dude, the audience that laughs at ‘Asians have small dicks’ jokes is still out there, it’s just now there’s a larger group of comedy-literate people.
What does it mean for your comedy to have these audiences emerge for you?
I feel a little bit more comfortable splitting the difference referentially. There are a million jokes I wish I could make about poppers and gay bars and shit like that I just know people in Boise don’t know. But I’ve never been concerned about, like, ‘Oh, don’t talk about that, because talking about eating ass is gonna alienate people at these clubs in Bloomington, Indiana. I’m gonna make sure that there’s enough there that everyone can laugh at, but there’s gonna be something that is special for the people in my community, because that’s where I’m coming from, and that’s what I want to do.