Joel Kim Booster has done just about everything in Hollywood. Producing, writing, acting, podcasting, hosting, and stand-up, he’s mastered them all. His most ambitious project, Hulu’s Fire Island, which he wrote, produced, and starred in, was welcomed with both critical and audience praise. This spring, he reprises his role as Nicholas, alongside Maya Rudolph, for season 2 of AppleTV’s hit series, Loot.
His work in the entertainment industry has focused the spotlight on his identity as a gay, Asian actor, progressing the talk of Hollywood’s need for diversity even further. Joel’s relationship with his Korean culture came with some effort. Born in Korea, he was adopted by a religious, American family and raised in Illinois.
As much as I struggled with my parents on a lot of issues surrounding my sexuality growing up, they were open to me exploring my Korean heritage and my culture. It’s just unfortunate because when I was growing up, I was in an all-white town, all-white community, and my family was all white. When they offered for me to take Korean language classes or visit the Korean American Heritage Center, or any of those things, that was the last thing I wanted as a kid. I just didn’t want to feel any more different than I did already. That just didn’t seem like something that would make me fit in any better, to embrace that part of myself. So, it wasn’t until I was really an adult that I started to connect with that part of my heritage.
Joel admits that he loved attention early on as a little kid and credits watching his sister in her high school plays and musicals as his inspiration for getting into performing. He was homeschooled until he was 16. Going to public school would open his eyes to a variety of themes and people that he had not come across before. Was it culture shock, instantly being surrounded by a whole unfamiliar environment outside of his home?
In many ways it was, and in many ways it wasn’t. I had read so many books and I’d seen so many shows and watched so many movies that the American high school experience loomed so large in, the collective cultural imagination of our country that it just felt so second nature and old hat at that point to go to high school. And of course, the culture shock came in all the ways that high school wasn’t how they portrayed in the movies. We always think of scenes like that Mean Girls scene where they outlined the cliques in the cafeteria. My high school wasn’t like that at all. There was no popular crowd of kids, there were just a bunch of fractured interest groups. It coalesced around what you were interested in doing. And there were certainly popular people probably within those groups, but there was no Regina George in my life, and that was shocking. [Laughs]
Along with being exposed to a whole new environment, he also felt free to explore his sexuality. When he was a senior in high school, his parents found his diary in which he had written about his gay sexual experiences. The coming out was not a good one, and he found his way, leaving his house and staying with friends.
My experience was very specific. It’s not one that’s terribly unique. For me, it was about two things. First, making myself as independent as possible before I needed to be. I’ve had a job since I was 14, bought my own car, and was in a better place than a lot of kids. Second, was building a solid support system around me. I didn’t just go straight from living in my parents’ house to living on my own. I had a strong network of my friends’ parents, and people at school. I found the people in my life, the adults, who could fill a sort of parental role. I found the ones that I could trust to share who I really was. And so, when the shit hit the fan, I had a really strong group of supporters and people who understood my situation and knew who I was and what I was up against and were there for me.
His fortitude in surviving his coming out has stayed with him throughout his entertainment career. Pivoting genres, creating his own roles, and getting behind the camera to create his own projects, that’s what he’s done to make it. Despite a turbulent coming out with his family, his family instilled that fortitude.
Part of the credit has to be given to my parents. They raised me to be very independent and to be very self-reliant. It just sort of blew up in their face a little bit when push came to shove. But I’ve always gone into this business with the idea that there is no other option for me. There was no other job that I would be good at that would fulfill me or be able to pay my bills. For the better part of my adult life, I’ve dived headfirst into things because I needed them to work. Failure wasn’t an option. I wasn’t paying off my student loans or buying a house or being able to support myself doing any other job, and so it had to work.
Joel moved to Chicago and became a copywriter. During that time, he would get involved in the theatre community and would even perform his stand-up opening for plays. Comedy would remain a fixture in Joel’s life and help him get into the entertainment scene even further. What did he learn during his time in Chicago that would prepare him for the future?
The talent was high in Chicago and the pressure was so low to do well. It wasn’t like New York or LA where any night could be your big break – that wasn’t the vibe in Chicago. And that wasn’t the attitude of many people doing art in Chicago. It’s such a great incubator for that reason. The people who are contributing and consuming culture in Chicago are so intelligent that it really does push you at the same time, but with a lot of safety nets up around to fall and to fail big. I don’t know that I ever took bigger risks than when I was in Chicago. You can experiment as much as you need to in a place like that, but still have the kind of institutional support that Chicago affords its arts scenes. It’s incredible that it even exists, to be honest.
When Crazy Rich Asians was such a big box office success, headlines read that the Asian actors would finally get their place in mainstream media with more roles in front of and behind the camera. Being part of the industry, does Joel think representation for the Asian community is better in Hollywood?
Hollywood’s collective imagination for Asian people has widened a little bit in the years since Crazy Rich Asians. I don’t know that we can really measure true gains from statistics about casting, necessarily. I think that’s a dangerous sort of way to think about how we’re doing in the industry, just point blank like how many people are being cast and how many awards are being won for that. We water identity politics like that down to just sort of face-value statistics, it sucks the importance out of what we’re actually talking about. So yeah, I think it’s gotten better. Do I think it’s as good as I think some people think it is because of Everything Everywhere All at Once and Past Lives winning? Not necessarily.
When Joel wanted to play a certain role, he just created the project himself. Fire Island, with a diverse cast of newbies and industry veterans, was a hit. His retelling of Pride and Prejudice received a slew of great marketing, media buzz, and acclaim. Categorized as a rom-com, it was a bit more than that as themes of body positivity, racism, ageism, and classism in the gay community all played a part. What were Joel’s biggest challenges in getting his film made?
I think getting people to take it seriously on its own merits was a challenge in and of itself. I originally wrote it as a television idea, and tried to take it out, but no one was interested in it. It pivoted and sold as, “Oh, remember Girls Trip or Bridesmaids? You like those, people will like this too.” Obviously, a comparison like that to either of those two movies is a boon for me, but I had to constantly couch it in terms of comparing it to other things when I wanted to do, ultimately (how successful I was, who knows?), was to create my own thing that didn’t feel like it had to echo these movies in ways that didn’t feel authentic. Keeping that authenticity was really hard.
The film received two Emmy nominations, for Outstanding Television Movie and for Outstanding Writing For A Limited Anthology Series or Movie. Joel was not expecting the nominations and was completely shocked. Fire Island did address the long-running conversation about racism towards Asians in the gay community. Even hookup apps like Grindr have been called into action for allowing preferences and certain language to be used in relation to race talk in the dating world. As a gay, Asian man, does Joel think we’ve made strides in dealing with latent racism in our community?
Yes and no. I do think that those preferences still exist by and large. But I do think the last couple of years have taught people to keep it behind the curtain a little bit more. They may still feel that way, but they’re not comfortable enough saying it in public or on Grindr. And I think that’s a good thing because, for me, you may not be attracted to me, that’s totally fine, but there’s a way to deliver or not deliver that news that can be varying degrees of dehumanizing. If people are stopping to think about the way they communicate that kind of information now, it’s probably a good thing. Whether or not it’s actually gotten better. Who’s to say?
Joel is part of a new kind of Brat Pack, with members like Bowen Yang and Matt Rogers, among others. We are seeing these actors appear in each other’s projects, and supporting each other off-camera and on social media. With the stereotype that gay men, especially in entertainment, can be extremely catty or jealous, how did Joel decide to do it differently?
It’s so funny because I can remember two moments in my life when I intentionally decided not to do this. And I think the first time was when, in 2010, I started doing standup, and Mateo Lane and I started just months apart from each other in Chicago. I remember having this conversation with him early on where we were like, you never see gay comics together because there’s usually only one spot on the show for us. Usually when we know that there’s only one spot, we try to pull the ladder up behind us and shut anybody else out who might, on paper, be similar. We just made a conscious decision that day to not do that because it made no sense to us. Why we wouldn’t be friends? We’re stuck doing these open mics all night long and we’re just going to talk to these straight guys all night? It just didn’t make any sense, so we decided not to do that.
I had a similar moment with Bowen too. I don’t know if we ever came out and said it, but the fact is, obviously demographically we line up in a lot of ways. But to admit defeat and say there’s only room for one of us because we’re so similar in Hollywood, that’s giving credence to this lie, this idea, that neither one of us wants to subscribe to. Is there is only room for one gay Asian comedian in this town, even though we are completely separate from one another? So, to have any weirdness between us would just be admitting defeat, and I don’t think either one of us wants to do that. We have to believe that there’s room for both of us.
Incidentally, The Hollywood Reporter and Out magazine have mixed up Bowen Yang and Joel. Seems like the media still has a lot to learn and work harder for in terms of representation.
Following the success of Fire Island, Joel marks his first TV show that has been renewed past its debut season. Loot on AppleTV is a quirky comedy, a hit for the network, and a boon for Joel.
It’s amazing. I mean, it’s a new experience for me. It famously did not happen for me the first time I was on a show, so this was exciting to experience coming back and having the same family, the same crew, the same cast all around me. It’s also really, really fun. I think comedy especially benefits from more time because now we all know our characters, and we all know our voices. Moving into season two, we were just able to be a lot funnier, a lot faster. I think there were expectations now that we could subvert.
Joel’s stand-up continues to remain part of his career. His Netflix special, Joel Kim Booster: Psychosexual, was also a hit. In it, he spills the tea about everything in his life, under the guise of jokes, to address many of the issues that affect his personal and entertainment life. With what stand-up comics should be allowed to say being a hot topic, especially regarding comments made towards the LGBTQ community, what is Joel’s take on restrictions of what a comic should be able to joke about?
My opinion is the same opinion that I’ve held since I started doing stand-up, which is that I don’t think there is a topic that’s off-limits as long as it’s funny enough. I think where a lot of people get in trouble is it’s just never that funny. There’s always going to be people who think you’re over the line. Everyone’s line is in a different place. But if you stand by what you said and trust the integrity of this process, which is if people are laughing, then you won – that’s the popular vote. If nobody’s laughing, and the voices on the other side of the line are saying this was f’d-up, then you have a problem. Most comics are not that worried about this. At least, I don’t find it to be so. Most comics know that the things they’re going to say or put out in a special or put out on video are going to be funny at the end of the day.
It is exciting to see where Joel’s career will take him. Over the decade he’s been on screen, he’s accomplished a lot for someone who had certain obstacles in his way. If he doesn’t see a role for him, he’ll just make one on his own, to applause. His message to his fans?
[My message] is one of gratitude. I am so grateful that anyone is interested in what I have to say or my perspective on anything. I think I’m incredibly lucky that I don’t get a lot of undue hatred all the time, every day in my inbox. I am so grateful for the people who stand by me and like my work.
Season 2 of Loot premieres this Spring on AppleTV.
(Featured Photo Credit Disney Maarten de Boer. Episodic Photos Courtesy of AppleTV.)
Last modified: February 1, 2024