HOLLYWOOD, CA - FEBRUARY 21: Joel Kim Booster attends Vulture x NeueHouse Present Comedians vs. Critics Awards Debate Live! at NeueHouse Los Angeles on February 21, 2019 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for New York Magazine)
Photo: Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for New York Magazi
Photo: Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for New York Magazi

INTERVIEW: Joel Kim Booster (Punchline, April 14) on verge of big-time stardom

He’s gay. He’s Korean American. He’s adopted. And he’s very funny. 

Originally posted Friday, April 12, 2019 by RODNEY HO/rho@ajc.com on his AJC Radio & TV Talk blog

Joel Kim Booster is not yet a household name but he’s hitting some notable marks after several years performing stand-up: a Comedy Central web series “Unsend,” appearances on “Conan” and “The Late Late Show with Corden,” small acting roles in a Hulu series “Shrill” and an indie film with Susan Sarandon, writing for a Comedy Central series “The Other Two,” an NBC pilot with Kal Penn

And he’s working the national comedy club circuit, headlining for the first time in Atlanta at the Punchline Comedy Club Sunday night. (Buy tickets here for $25 apiece.)

At this stage, the 31-year-old single recent Los Angeles convert said typically about 50 percent of the audience has no idea who he is, so he still has to define himself at the start of his set: he’s a gay Korean-American adoptee raised by a white conservative Midwest family. 

I talked to him Thursday and he admits his multi-minority status can be bit of a dilemma as a long-time performer. 

“I can only write so many jokes about my background before it gets boring to me,” Booster said. “And it also means I say jokes half the room have already heard. They’ve heard my adoption/Grubhub joke. They know my name is funny. But I also don’t want to confuse half the audience.” 

On stage, he plays himself as a bit self-centered, counter-acting embedded Asian stereotypes, joking that he doesn’t do math, knows no karate and carries a big package. And yes, he can be raunchy - like a new generation Margaret Cho. Off stage, he is ambitious and savvy about building his career. 

“It’s been a big year for me,” Booster said. “But I move the goal posts constantly for myself. When I was doing open mics in New York, all I wanted to do was support myself with comedy. That happened. Now I want a show. I don’t think I’ll ever feel fully satisfied where I’ll feel great about my career. But I feel pretty good.”

Booster grew up in a super conservative, religious environment where, as he joked on stage, he figured out he was gay before he was Asian. He never officially “came out” to his parents. They found his journal when he was 17 and discovered the boys he was seeing. When they asked him to leave the house, he called their bluff and did so.

Now, 14 years later, he and his parents are on civil terms but never talk about his sexuality. “They’re just happy I have health insurance, that I’m working,” he said. He isn’t sure if they’ve ever seen his stand-up work.

“I see them once or twice a year,” Booster said. “I talk to them every couple of months. It’s good to know I know they love me and I love them.”

Booster visits his hometown outside Chicago to see his older (non-adopted) sister and her kids. “I want them to know they have a cool uncle,” he said. He has no idea where she stands on his life choices, but they relate on other levels. 

He also has another non-adopted brother who came out as gay not too long ago, which he also jokes about on stage, but they are so different in other ways, that alone has not bonded them. 

Like many comics nowadays, Booster knows his fame has been fueled in part by YouTube. While those videos have boosted his celebrity status, he has mixed feelings about five-minute clips of his stand up seen by millions.

“I like it live,” he said. “That’s really the best way to consume comedy. Seeing it online can throw the context off. People can take it any which way. In a crowd, if they don’t like something or react funny, I can address it in the room. We can work it out together.” 

He said sometimes, people come up to him and say, “You’re that YouTube comedian!” “Oh, god! That’s not how I see it!” he said. “It’s just where everything ends up.”

He is excited about more acting opportunities, which is something he first pursued in college but is now getting back to. “I’m 31, which is like CW 16,” he said. “I think I could still play someone in high school.” 

Booster hopes Penn’s NBC pilot “Sunnyside” gets a greenlight next month. Penn is the executive producer along with “The Good Place” creator Mike Schur. Set in Sunnyside, Queens, the comedy centers on former New York City Councilman Garrett Shah (Penn), who finds his calling when faced with seven recent immigrants in need of his help and in search of the American Dream. Booster plays one of the immigrants.

“It could be a game changer for me if it happens,” Booster said. 

At the same time, he also has the itch to write screenplays. “That’s where I feel most comfortable,” he said. “When I’m acting or doing stand-up, I sometimes have a bit of impostor syndrome.”

Booster would be a great addition to any sequel to “Crazy Rich Asians.” He knows many of the actors and felt nervous before it came out last year because there was this impression that if it failed, it would be another 20 years before that type of Asian-American-oriented film would ever show up again. 

“We’ve been ignored for so long,” he said. “We’re so thirsty to see ourselves represented in a myriad of different ways. It’s exciting.”

He said the gay world isn’t much different, citing HBO’s “Looking” perceived as a relative failure and many straight white executives pooh-poohing any other show like it. “How many f***ing shows with straight white males have failed?” he said. “Why can’t I be seen as an individual and be judged on my own terms? That’s a privilege I’m not yet afforded.”

At the same time, unlike early pioneers Cho or Lea DeLaria, Booster is hardly alone in either the Asian or gay comedy realm. 

<<RELATED: My 2014 interview with Lea DeLaria

<<RELATED: My 2015 interview with Margaret Cho

<<RELATED: My interview with Akwafina, Ronnie Chieng and Nico Santos before release of “Crazy Rich Asians” in 2018

“There are now a lot of Asian comics working,” he said. “We have a lot of gay comics working. I feel lucky that in both race and sexual orientation, it’s no longer a moment where one of us needs to represent everybody. While comedy is intrinsically competitive, it doesn’t feel cutthroat. If Ronny Chieng or John Early gets something, it doesn’t feel like it’s taking away from me. A rising tide raises all ships. We can all be friends and join together and commiserate and laugh.” 

COMEDY SHOW

Joel Kim Booster

7 p.m. Sunday, April 14, 2019

$25

Punchline Comedy Club

3652 Roswell Rd, Atlanta

www.punchline.com

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About the Author

Rodney Ho
Rodney Ho
Rodney Ho covers radio and television for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
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