There are two Joel Kim Boosters: the real Booster, and the one he plays onstage. In his stand-up sets, Booster makes himself out to be aggressively oblivious—the kind of guy who can’t not sweat the small stuff, like a waiter with an enormous neck tattoo of the name “Julia.” The way he tells it, the server got upset when Booster asked him to explain the ink: “He was like, Julia’s my ex-girlfriend…. And I was like, Oh, no, no, no, this isn’t my fault,” says Booster in his act. “When you broke up with Julia, you broke up with V-necks too okay? So wrap a scarf around it and give me another glass of rosé, okay? I don’t have time. I do not have time.”
His voice as a comic is preternaturally confident—but offstage, Booster wasn’t always so self-assured. “I think I was resistant to doing stand-up at first, because it just didn’t feel like there was a future for me,” he told me in a recent interview. “Looking at the makeup of the industry from when I started, there weren’t a lot of people that looked like me, were like me, or telling jokes like me. So I felt like there would always be a sort of ceiling to the amount of success I could have as a stand-up.”
As it turns out, he was wrong. Booster has found his niche by playing “Joel Kim Booster,” who’s funny in a rude way, punctuating his punch lines with a slight yell. Onstage, Booster jokes about everything from the annoyance of tableside guacamole (“I’m sitting there across from my date, trying to walk him through my student loan debt; meanwhile, Danielle can’t get the pit out of the avocado!”) to growing up gay and Asian in a largely white, Midwestern town. (“My dad has two sons and they both turned out gay,” he says. “I don’t think there’s a clearer sign from God that he is done with his bloodline.”)
That brash, explosive character is markedly different from many of the acts currently dominating stand-up—self-deprecating comics like Dan Soder and Matt Broussard. “There was a short period of time where comedians were cool,” he explained of his inspiration, citing Sarah Silverman as an example. “I feel like I want to see people get up onstage and be cool. So that’s sort of the extreme that I’ve created in this persona.”
This hyper-confident routine has helped Booster book gigs on Conan and The Late Late Show With James Corden, as well as his own Comedy Central Presents special. This fall, he’s also headlining the Mike Schur and __Kal Penn–__produced show Sunnyside, which premieres on NBC September 26.
But Booster—who was born in South Korea, but raised and (literally) corn-fed in Illinois after being adopted by a white family—also wants the world to know he’s more than a pretend-jerk of a performer. He studied theater in college, and has written for series including Billy on the Street, Netflix favorite Big Mouth, and Comedy Central’s The Other Two, which he produces as well. “I think we’re in the age of the multihyphen,” he said. “I don’t ever want to give up those other sides of my artistic identity.”
He’ll have a chance to win over a whole new audience through Sunnyside, which is centered on a disgraced politician (played by Penn) trying to redeem himself by helping a small group of immigrants become citizens. Booster plays Jim Hao, half of an enormously rich sibling duo that pays for everything in stacks of hundred-dollar bills and has an outrageously evil billionaire father. The character easily could have been undercooked in lesser hands; in Booster’s, Jim is bored, smug, and low-energy, giving his lines a disaffected air that makes the jokes hit even harder.
The show’s casting people told Booster that Jim was meant to be “a Wall Street douchebag type of guy,” he explained. “I thought, you know, I could do that, and not do it well, or have it be labored to get me there. Or, I could go with this personal take that we talked about—this persona of hot idiot that I have in my stand-up. And I went with that.”
Winning as Booster’s performance is, it’s his chemistry with his TV sibling, Poppy Liu, that really sells Sunnyside. While the two didn’t screen test together, they work in tandem to make every joke land, and are constantly together onscreen. “The face I’m making and the way her arm lays on me is as much a part of the joke as the way we’re saying it,” said Booster. “So there’s a weird negotiation we had to figure out. And I think we landed on something really great and cool.”
The central concept of Sunnyside—the struggles facing American immigrants—is something close to Booster’s heart. Though he grew up in the States, he’s all too familiar with how it feels to be told “you don’t belong here” and “go back to where you came from.” To this day, he said, people he’s just met often ask him where he’s actually from. “The experience of feeling deeply American because I’ve been here since I was an infant…and yet still outwardly don’t fit that description for people is something that hits home,” he said. “The conflict of what I feel inside, versus what I present outwardly, is a big part of the show, and it’s a big part of my experience.”
Sunnyside is also an opportunity for him to test out a twist on that stage persona—and to move away from the stock gay or Asian characters still commonly found on screens big and small. And it’s not the only place Booster is showing off his range: On Hulu’s Shrill, he plays a smooth, poised, drama-adverse artist. He’s also set to play an evangelical Christian on the third season of TBS’s Search Party, and is developing a Fire Island–set rom-com inspired by Pride and Prejudice for Quibi.
Projects like these, Booster hopes, will help the public separate “Joel Kim Booster” from the person he actually is—and acknowledge everything he’s capable of doing. “The way I look at it is that I have a very specific persona and life that I’ve carved out for myself, and I’m not willing to blunt any of those sharp angles to make it easier for anyone to slide me into a slot,” he said. “It’s a specific problem to have—but I’m not going to change anything about the way I live just so I can play the next James Bond or whatever. I’m mostly interested in continuing on the way I am.”
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