Joel Kim Booster is looking at his penis. It’s 2018, and he is tripping balls from the LSD Oreos he took with his housemates on their last full day on Fire Island. Earlier, they had gone to the beach, where the sand oozed between their toes and time lost its militant edge. They took a walk back home that lasted for what felt like an eternity (ten minutes), during which they listened to Lorde and SOPHIE and split open the most delicious pineapple in the world. For dinner, they made junk carbonara from pantry leftovers. At some point, Booster peeled off and went to the bathroom. He stripped, got hard, and now is staring at his reflection. His body, his dick. He has measured it upwards of 10,000 times and knows it is an objectively good dick, a gorgeous dick. Still, there is always a difference between knowing something and feeling it. At this moment, high as Mount Olympus, he can look down at his naked body with his third eye open and agree: He is fucking hot.
Fire Island Pines is a charged setting for such revelations. Since the ’30s, the narrow strip of sand on the eastern side of Fire Island has been a vacation hideaway for gay men of means or pluck: artists, photographers, white-collar executives, personal trainers, influencers, and Long Island teens working summer shifts at the Pantry. The Pines is where sexual hierarchies meet arcane property laws, allowing the place to maintain a rarefied air of nostalgia. There are no cars, paved roads, or traffic lights. In the months leading up to Memorial Day, men post thirst traps in the Facebook group Boys of Fire Island with increasingly desperate hopes of securing a room. Multiple forms of currency exist here — beauty, sex, drugs, real estate, whiteness, actual money — that can make a person richer or poorer. Priorities are laid bare. It’s a place that makes you know your place.
Fire Island, the movie Booster wrote and stars in, draws from his early years visiting the island, when he and his friends would sleep 16 to four bedrooms. After reading Pride and Prejudice on a trip, he saw how neatly the courtship mores of Regency-era England mapped onto High Tea at the Sip-n-Twirl. Jane Austen understood fags, even if she didn’t know any. Fire Island retains the familiar snappiness of Austen modernizations. Booster plays Noah, the Elizabeth Bennet of the group, who gets overly invested in ensuring that his best friend, Howie (played by his real-life Fire Island sister, the SNL-famous Bowen Yang), gets laid. While Noah and Howie both have endgame suitors (there is a wonderful Mr. Darcy played by Conrad Ricamora), the relationship between them provides the brightest contours. As an Austen archetype, Howie is less Jane Bennet, the most winsome of the sisters, and more Harriet Smith from Emma. When Noah makes a promise to put his friend’s fun and pleasure ahead of his own, it comes with a whiff of condescension: Howie couldn’t slut around the way Noah, with his rippling abs and icy gaze, could.
Inasmuch as Fire Island is one of the first major-studio gay rom-coms starring a queer cast, it is a film preoccupied with the inherent contradiction of gay liberation: The freedom of post-Stonewall sexuality is promised to some more than to others. Booster’s hyperawareness of his positioning — as Asian American and therefore on a lower rung of the sexual caste system — gives the movie a modern edge. To be gay and Asian American is to feel at times as though those two identities are at odds with each other. The video artist and writer Richard Fung has put it this way: “If Asian men have no sexuality, how can we have homosexuality?”
Sex and sexuality have always been rich texts for Booster’s work as a writer, actor, and stand-up comedian. His jokewriting style is traditional — setup, punch line, chaser — but the material itself bucks the unspoken taboo that gay male comics should not remind audiences what gay men do (butt stuff). Booster is a comedian who fucks, which he tells audiences with an exhilarating zest and frankness. For his recurring show The Joy Fuck Club, he plays a game in which he presents a slideshow of big dicks and people have to guess whether the wielder is Asian or not. (Spoiler alert: They all are!) He’s like a horny Magellan, returning from escapades in steam rooms and on cruise ships and putting them into his work.
Still, Booster’s own self-conception is in constant flux even though he looks, as his friend the comic Pat Regan says, “porn-ready.” His eyes are always trained on what he perceives he doesn’t have or what someone else might see when they look at him. Even when speaking of Fire Island, he says he could never look like his co-star Nick Adams, who is “so hot it’s scary and unnerving.” He is often concerned about “the optics” — whether he is reading as too Asian or too gay or not enough of either. Where does that come from? “Probably childhood.” As a Korean transracial adoptee, he has always felt slightly out of place. The first time he realized he was different from his white Evangelical parents “on an intrinsic, cellular level” came during a family reunion in Alabama — he was 5 or 6 years old — when his cousins asked why he was there. When he moved to Chicago after college, the prevalence of sexual racism among gay men suggested maybe he didn’t belong anywhere. Perfecting his body became the price of entry, a way to make himself visible and viable.
“I succumbed in a very different way than simply accepting myself where I was,” Booster tells me. “I wanted to look a certain way, and now I kind of do.”
The weekend Booster and his boyfriend — a tall, actor-handsome video-game producer named John Michael — declared themselves officially in a relationship, he had sex with a porn star. Not that they would ever be monogamous. Don’t be so homonormative about it. They were in Palm Springs for Pride, and Booster sensed that JM, as he calls him, needed some space. So he suggested they go to separate sex parties. When they linked back up around 5 a.m., their friends ran over to Booster to tell him, “He didn’t even have sex with anyone! He just stood in the kitchen and talked about you the entire time!” To which Booster replied, “Perfect.” The next day, he remembers JM recounting it as a sweet story: “And then we went to two separate sex parties but neither of us had sex.” “Finally, I had to tell him,” says Booster. “I was like, ‘Babe, I’m so sorry to have to ruin this cute story you have, but, unfortunately, I did have sex with someone else.’ ”
It’s a classic Booster story, ribald and unexpectedly touching. We’re sitting on a puffy cream couch in his newly bought $2.1 million, three-level house in the Hollywood Hills on a Friday night, waiting for the boys — other gay men in the industry — to arrive to pregame before going out. Booster secured a mortgage with his streaming money. Hulu’s Fire Island; a one-hour Netflix special, Psychosexual; the Apple TV Maya Rudolph show Loot, which Booster co-stars in — all come out in June. (Happy Pride!) He looks good. Very on trend. His hair is chopped up into short bangs and bleached blond. He’s wearing jock athleisure — a Reebok muscle tank that casually shows off his arms, green joggers, and white Chucks with one ankle sock artfully pulled over the pant leg. He’s 34 and will probably look eternally this age as long as he keeps using Retinol. He’s sucking on a vape pen the color of a green screen. He started smoking again a few days before production on Fire Island began. He’ll stop once his stress level goes down, which should definitely happen any day now.
The guys are trickling in: Yang and Matt Rogers, both longtime friends and Fire Island co-stars; a short, muscular man warming up his dinner of chicken, broccoli, and pasta in the microwave; TV writers Mason Flink (Minx), whose current crusade is to get the WGA to cover the costs of PrEP treatments, and Chris Schleicher (Never Have I Ever, Saved by the Bell), who once had an “Is this a date?” situation with Sam Smith. There are LaCroix, THC drinks, and White Claws in the fridge; vodka in the freezer; and tequila on the counter. Booster is taking a tolerance break right now, but there’s always weed if anyone wants it.
A couple of hours and drinks in, we face the nagging question of gay men in L.A.: Weho or Akbar?
Akbar is probably the most “Brooklyn” of gay bars in L.A. — it’s an institution on the east side in Silver Lake with a dive-y crimson moodiness. It’s less, hmmm, manufactured than Weho — known to some by its government name, West Hollywood — a cluster of gay bars and clubs around Santa Monica Boulevard that brings in a small nation’s GDP every weekend. The anti-Weho contingent points out that lately there has been a pickpocket taking people’s phones. One of them had his stolen at Stache. They’ve heard the culprit is a woman, which suddenly makes things hilarious. Women are invisible to gay men in Weho, so naturally it would be a woman. She is less a villain than a camp folk hero. That’s right — use your sexual invisibility to steal cell phones!
No one wants their phones stolen tonight, so the Akbar crowd wins. Booster starts counting people and cars and ride shares to make sure everyone has a way to get there. He has a sip of a Red Bull. He’s not drinking — he doesn’t usually — but he takes a jug of GHB from under the cabinet and pours it into a smaller vial that he’ll be dosing out. It’s just for “extremely type A” personalities, he warns, because you should only take one millimeter per hour, or something involving mathematics. The effect is somewhere between getting drunk and rolling on molly. I ask him if I should do it; I already have a mezcal soda in my hand. “No!” he gasps. That would be catastrophic. (It’s how date rape can happen.)
The dance floor at Akbar is a swirl of noise and ear-shouting to get above the beat. Nobody wants to dance, so we hang around on the carpeted perimeter. “Do you want another drink?” Yang yells. Absolutely. We stand at the bar failing to get the bartender’s attention. Some white women appear next to us, and he takes their order. To be fair, it is mayhem. Counterpoint: I am tall, and Yang is famous. One quick glance, though, confirms we’re experiencing the same familiar feeling of being looked through. “You could write about this!” Yang says, smiling.
Early on in his stand-up, Booster described his identity thusly: “I knew I was gay before I knew I was Asian.” Born on Korea’s Jeju Island, he was adopted by a couple in Plainfield, Illinois, at 3 months old. They had two older biological children, both of whom were homeschooled, in part to keep them from learning about sex and evolution. In practice, this meant his brother played Warcraft; Joel read books and wrote Pokémon fanfiction (Brock and Giovanni) and murder mysteries. In a family of introverts, Joel was a musical-theater kid who wanted to be out in the world. By the time he was 14, his parents had relented. First, he went to a private Baptist school; for his junior year, he transferred to the public high school, where he starred in plays and was the voice of the morning announcements. His parents’ greatest fears came true: Within a month, he was drinking, smoking weed, and sucking dicks (mostly guys he met on Myspace and Xanga). He came out to his friends. This went on until his parents found his journal at the start of senior year. It read like a BuzzFeed listicle: “Guys I’ve Hooked Up With, Lies I’ve Told.” They sent him to an inpatient mental institution.
Joel’s week at Linden Oaks was one of the worst of his life. He remembers the other kids: the boy addicted to heroin, the 13-year-old girl who shat herself as a way of acting out. His intended roommate was so upset before Joel arrived that he bit his own arm so he could keep the room to himself. Joel threw tantrums as a kid, sure, but these were crisis situations. A few days in, it seemed clear to the staff that Joel didn’t need to be there. “I remember phone calls with my friends just begging them to figure out a way to get me out,” he says.
When he returned, his parents gave him an ultimatum: Either live by their rules or he leave. He called their bluff and started sleeping on friends’ couches, including that of Sarah Casey, a popular girl whom he knew from the school choir. The Caseys had their own complicated living situation. Sarah’s mother, Becky, was the primary caretaker to three children and to their dad, the Methodist pastor in town, who had become a quadriplegic after a severe car accident. Sarah was active with the faith and their family believed in the acceptance side of Christianity. After he spent a night there, her parents said Joel could live in the basement.
Becky became, as she says, a “bonus mom.” She got him a dresser, packed his lunches with little notes of encouragement, and let the school know that if he was out sick, she was responsible. Supporting Joel became a community effort. Parishioners gave him gift cards; they gathered love offerings around Christmas and gave him the money so he could buy the things he needed; one member fixed his car. When it came time for college, the Caseys co-signed his student loans so he could study theater at Millikin, a school farther southwest in Illinois. “They’re my second family,” says Booster. “I don’t get texts congratulating me on career milestones from my mom, but I get that from Ms. Casey, so I’m good. I’ve cobbled together such a large extended chosen family to complement my real family.”
In Fire Island, there are some oblique references to the importance of chosen family, but overall the film re-creates the feeling of entering a bubble. The friends arrive detached from “real life.” During the script-development process, Searchlight Pictures wanted to know more about Noah’s backstory. “I get that note,” says Andrew Ahn, who directed the film, “and I don’t think Joel wanted to go there. Joel is very willing to show who he is. But there are moments where I’m like, You are hiding something very carefully. There are certain things he keeps very close.”
Last year, Booster’s father contracted COVID and died. By this time, they were on better terms. During the pandemic, Booster had been using skills he had learned from his dad, a true farmer. He built a squat rack from concrete and plywood in his backyard and sent him videos of the process. He always said that he would have the big talk about his sexuality with his parents when he had a partner to bring home. His big regret is not doing so before his father died, but his mother assures him he would have loved JM as he loved his sister’s husband. During recent sets, Booster has been testing out jokes around this. “We lost my dad,” he’ll say — dramatic pause — “in the mall!” before the punch line: It made sense his dad died before he met JM because he has a “one in, one out policy” when it comes to white men in his life. His jokes are like small containers he can place traumatic moments inside that make them lighter, or at least more manageable.
Booster is onstage at a comedy show at El Cid, a flamenco supper club in Silver Lake, asking a woman in the audience if she can describe, in her own words, what a bottom is. “Uhh … the front?” she stammers. “The front!” he repeats. “She does not know what a bottom is.”
He has spent the week driving around to comedy shows to work on new material — about looking for a therapist, having a white boyfriend, impending race wars — that he can go out on tour with once Psychosexual is out. He writes onstage, meaning he works out his act as he talks. As a form, stand-up comedy is like a series of test screenings to see what lands, what doesn’t, where to push, where to pause — an iterative process that results in “a tight five.” Booster is masterful at crowdwork. Usually, he’s asking an uncomfortable question — about identity or sex or relationships — and ready to parry the answer. “I take immediate feedback and spin it a different way the next time,” he says as we speed-walk to the car to get to the next venue.
The downside is that he cares too much about what other people think. Since the start of his career, Booster has been a chronic reader of the comments — on Twitter, Reddit, even 4chan offshoots — as though to confirm his worst ideas about himself. Ever since the Fire Island trailer dropped in April, he hasn’t been able to pull himself away from his phone. He fixates on criticism, particularly from other people of color. One thing that has been sticking in his craw is the suggestion that casting Conrad Ricamora as his love interest, Will, was some sort of woke posturing. He actually hadn’t intended to cast an Asian guy as Mr. Darcy, in part because, in the original script, the big blowup fight between them was about how the guy didn’t understand what it’s like to be Asian. But Ricamora was the best during the chemistry read, and they cast him when he walked out of the room. “He was the only actor that flustered Joel,” says Ahn.
“Like, I don’t need a fucking medal for casting an Asian love interest,” Booster says. “It is funny how the fact that I have a real-life white boyfriend doesn’t validate that for a lot of people. I don’t think you can control who you fall in love with the same way you can control who you cast in a movie.” Rather organically, the movie became more Asian American than Booster had intended once they cast Ricamora and Margaret Cho as the surrogate mother. “He was excited,” says Ahn. “And he was also thinking about how this now feels like an Asian American film that would be scrutinized by the Asian American community and was worried about the rep sweats — the burden of representation.”
The first time I interacted with Booster was online, too. In 2014, he published a personal essay on The Toast (RIP) titled “No Fats, No Femmes, No Asians: Adventures in Identity,” in which he recalls various pressure points between his race and his sexuality. One pivotal lesson happens in the back of a Pontiac Sunfire. He gives a blowjob to a white guy, who tells him, “I’m just not that into Asian guys.” The writing is snappy and inviting, and the commenters at The Toast lavished praise and sympathy upon him. Still, later on his Tumblr, he noted that his haters were usually “other gay Asian men on Twitter” motivated by “IRRATIONAL JEALOUSY.” I was one of them.
“Do you remember when you came for me?” he asks. I laugh nervously. I remember. I had taken issue with a metaphor in the piece about “ugly Korean Christmas ornaments.” (South Korea is not a Judeo-Christian society, and what he was referring to was likely an orientalized form of a norigae, a tasseled accessory women wear on their hanboks.) Technically, I was right. Spiritually, he was completely correct. It was a thing to nitpick, a soft spot to stick a fork in. I had read the piece and felt pangs of recognition, envy, and horniness. Why wasn’t I writing about my experiences with sexual racism? Deeper down the spiral: Why wasn’t I having awkward sex in the back of a Pontiac Sunfire? Surely I would die alone. I sublimated those feelings and tweeted.
The longer Booster has been doing this and the more famous he has become, the more versions of this he has encountered. As he scales up, he finds it increasingly difficult to anticipate criticism. Men will hit him up on Grindr, and if he doesn’t respond, they’ll keep badgering him — Hey. Hey. Hey. They’ll huff that they used to be fans but not anymore. Some will say it is so inspirational to see someone hot and Asian be hot and Asian. Other Asian Americans accuse him of being a banana — white on the inside — to which he’s like, “Yeah, no shit.” Or they’ll suggest he’s a race traitor because of course he’s dating a white guy. MRAsians (Men’s Rights Asians) believe he and Yang are part of a Hollywood conspiracy to portray Asian men as effeminate. The affinity groups he could trigger are legion, the problematic takes infinite.
So what will he do when every gay person with a Hulu password watches Fire Island? “I will go into cryogenic sleep when the movie comes out.”
For much of his 20s, Booster lived on a mattress in the McKibbin Lofts in Brooklyn, trying to hack it in the comedy scene. He had two goals: to have a boyfriend and to get his own TV show. He ended up falling for a (white) 23-year-old who told him they would never be in a serious relationship. He came close to getting the show. He wrote six episodes of a series called Birthright, a satirical take on his biography in which a Korean American adoptee searches for his birth mother and ends up in Maine, after the hundredth white executive told him his background was so fascinating. After two years of developing it — first for Fox, then for Comedy Central — it got canned. He thought booking the NBC sitcom Sunnyside in 2019 might be his big break, but the show was unceremoniously canceled after one season. “I was like, Oh, I almost made it,” he says. “Then there was this big fear: Oh God, is this where I top out?”
Sunnyside was a crucible moment for his mental health. The start of production was the catalyst that led to Booster’s diagnosis as bipolar. The table read for the first episode was to take place in L.A. right at the start of a planned vacation to New York City, then on to Fire Island. Booster was in the midst of a manic episode and tried to quit the show before it even began filming. “If I’m manic and one thing goes wrong, I explode,” he says. “I sent an email to producers saying, ‘I am no longer going to be on your show because I am going to miss part of my vacation.’ My reps were freaking out. I locked myself in my apartment for three days.”
He did, in fact, keep his travel plans — sort of. He flew to New York, where he stayed for 12 hours, then flew back to L.A. for the table read, only to hop back on a plane to go to Fire Island. “Everyone thought it was so funny and quirky I was doing this,” he says. “Meanwhile, I was truly losing my mind and almost losing one of the biggest opportunities of my entire career. I was finally like, Okay. This isn’t normal, and it could really hurt me in the long run.” It took him another year of instability before he made a change; he had read too many Reddit posts about how anti-psychotics can dull your personality. When the pandemic hit, he decided to go on medication. He went off them again before shooting Fire Island; he reasoned that because he had written the script off meds, he should perform it that way, too. “The shitty part is sometimes the mania feels amazing,” he says. “Sometimes I miss it, to be honest, but not enough to want to fuck up the rest of my life.”
At Akbar, people take breaks outside to do key bumps of coke, and in a powdered minute, it’s 1:30 a.m. and last call. Booster is trying to corral everyone up to finish the night out at his place. He looks remarkably alert — eyes popping. We’re standing outside waiting for another round of rideshares. A pale person with a bow tattooed on their eyelid is whispering something to their friend. They come over and ask me if I’m on SNL. Yang and I give each other a look.
The “Asians” — Booster, Yang, and I — are taking an Uber together. “I wanna be in the Asian car!” Rogers screams. After all, maybe he could be considered Asian American too, because he’s Greek. “We’ve had to fit in all our lives,” Yang says drolly. “But now we belong.”
From the start, Yang was set to play Booster’s best friend in Fire Island (initially, the names of the characters were Joel and Bowen). They met in 2014 through a mutual in the comedy world — a white guy — who thought the two gay Asian guys he knew should meet. Well, what do you know: Even broken clocks, etc. Despite their different styles and personae, they would still be confused for each other in the comedy scene, as if they were interchangeable. Moreover, as gay Asian men in New York, they bonded over their shared experiences with rice queens — that is, non-Asian men who only eat “rice,” get it, ha ha — even sleeping with some of the same ones. (There was one at Akbar, “a histrionic who sucked both of us into his orbit on separate occasions,” Yang tells me.)
In the movie, Noah and Howie’s relationship comes to a head when Noah tries to discourage Howie from hooking up with the resident rice queen of the island, who has “like five anime tattoos.” Howie is frustrated; he was just trying to have some brain-empty sex like Noah wanted him to. But not with him, says Noah. Anyone but him. “Stop talking about this like we’re the same,” says Howie. “But we are,” replies Noah. “No, stop,” Howie spits out. “You want to feel so good so badly that you did all this,” he says, gesturing up and down Noah’s toned body. The fight is a reality check that a shared experience of racism does not, in fact, make them the same. It is the best and most cutting part of the movie and the one that threatens to undermine the conceit of the rom-com.
Booster and Yang’s separate but rising paths have converged with this film. While Fire Island was in development — first at Quibi, before the platform’s implosion — Yang received increasing acclaim on SNL, including an Emmy nomination for acting. When Searchlight picked up the script, there was still a desire to cast famous names, and Yang now qualified; so did Cho. “Of course, I was jealous when Bowen got SNL and became the premiere gay Asian person in comedy,” Booster says. “But now I’m thankful he got there first. Every time we go out, he’s stopped by a thousand people. I’m like, Oh, I used to think that’s what I wanted.”
“Joel has been able to hack into the Matrix as a gay Asian man,” says Yang. “He’s cleared a lot of stage gates in gay culture: being visible, successful, desirable. Do I want to be him? In some ways, yes.”
Back at the house, some people settle on the couch. Yang and Rogers commandeer the remote and play iconic lip syncs from Drag Race — Naomi Smalls’s oeuvre and the time Jorgeous crucified Orion Story. After a stint in the bathroom, Booster, stone-faced, comes up to us and says at a slightly lower decibel level, “Sam Smith is coming.”
“Who?” I ask.
“The sing-er,” he says.
Oh, right, that Sam Smith, famously the first gay person to think they were the first gay person to win an Oscar during an acceptance speech. Apparently Schleicher saw Smith at Akbar and invited them to come back. Within minutes, Smith is standing in the kitchen, telling us they plan on going to the Tower of London to visit Anne Boleyn’s grave for their 30th birthday. Someone asks if they support the British monarchy. “I don’t support the monarchy, but I love the old queens,” they reply. “I’m always going to stick up for the girls of English history.” They feel bad for the royals. Imagine being so young and born into this public role. How suffocating must that be? I get the sense they can relate.
Many of those here tonight became part of Booster’s L.A. crew on the night of the Pulse nightclub shooting, when he texted his friend Louis Virtel, whom he worked with as a writer on Billy on the Street. Booster didn’t want to be alone, and Virtel and his friends had just done molly, so everyone was feeling tender and open. There was none of the clenching that sometimes occurs when gay men meet other gay men for the first time — what Yang describes as an internal line of questioning: “Do I want to be them? Do I want to fuck them? Or do I want to be friends with them?”
Maybe all relationships are some combination of the three: a way to find people who fill the voids you feel within yourself. Booster doesn’t always feel the post-acid-trip lucidity he had that day in Fire Island. “I don’t see that person all the time,” he says. “I still want to talk about feeling insecure, ugly, and undesirable, but I can’t because gay guys roll their eyes and say, like, ‘Oh, woe is you. It must be so hard to look like that.’ ”
Tonight, he looks more at ease than I’ve seen him all week. Active listening, active laughing. There’s a damp chill in the air, and the patio light hits his face just so. He isn’t checking his phone or looking for the exit. He has his friends, his boyfriend, a beautiful house. And what more could a person want?