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Joel Kim Booster is having a month.
The comedian, writer and actor is fresh off his well-received screenwriting debut Fire Island, a queer spin on Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice, and rolling right into the release of his first Netflix comedy special, Psychosexual. Topically, the two projects are so complimentary they could be watched as a double-feature.
But the one-hour comedy special from the Los Angeles-based multihyphenate offers a more direct look at who Booster is, personally and creatively. A three-act takedown of what he’s faced over the course of his artistic career, Psychosexual sees Booster dissect how he’s dissected by audiences through a series of jokes for (and not for) said audiences.
Seemingly a declaration that the comedian is no longer concerned with others’ concerns, Psychosexual offers a hilariously biting deconstruction and reconstruction of Booster’s identity onstage; a repudiation not only of himself as a representative or “role model” for his various communities, but an affirmation that as a comedian, his only job is to tell jokes — regardless of whether that speaks to any community at all.
Ahead of Psychosexual’s Netflix debut, The Hollywood Reporter chatted with Booster about how his two current projects overlap, the frustration of representing an audience, the one topic he’d never touched on stage before, finding his Nanette moment and the “weird” experience of being the center of a Twitter news cycle where cartoonist Alison Bechdel made his work an exception to her rule.
There’s a lot of topical overlap between the jokes in Fire Island and Psychosexual. Was that intentional?
I was writing this special in 2018, 2019 and pretty concurrently with the earliest drafts of Fire Island. So there are definitely parallels as I was developing both pieces. I think the only thing with the special is that I had to take a break from doing stand-up for that full year of lockdown. And so I was really coming back to a lot of it in early 2021 to basically rebuild it, because we’d sold it during the pandemic during lockdown. So they diverged slightly after I came back because I was writing Fire Island pretty consistently throughout lockdown.
You’ve broken this special up into three distinct sections, which you note in the set while talking about YouTube comments from straight white men arguing your jokes weren’t “relatable” to them. You also talk about your awareness of audience members from your communities feeling represented by your comedy. Were you trying to break out of a one-dimensional perception about you with the structure, or was it born from something else?
A little bit of both. It definitely is a reaction. I was very intentional in the arc of the three acts, the first section being all of the jokes that hit really heavy on my identity; the second section being all the jokes that could have identity removed from them and on paper could be said by anybody else; and then the third act, which is, I think, the most loaded in a lot of ways, being the sex act. I’ve gotten a lot of flack as a comedian for hyper-sexualizing myself and other people and talking about sex a lot. And what that means as a queer person and what that means as an Asian person, it’s interesting, right? As a queer person, I get dinged because we are as a community over-sexualized and the emphasis is always too much on sex. When I talk about my promiscuity or being promiscuous, I get gay guys in my DMs because it’s like, “Oh, you’re harming the community by creating the images of an oversexed gay guy.”
But then on the flip side, as an Asian man, a lot of people see that as very empowering because Asian men are so desexualized in the media that me talking about sex and the amount of sex that I’m having suddenly becomes this very empowering act. The entire special is about exploring those weird intersections where suddenly the things that I’m talking about — depending on which identity lens you’re looking at it from — become either empowering or detrimental to whatever community I’m representing, and the frustration of that. Because you can’t cordon off your identities. When I’m speaking, I can’t just speak as an Asian man only or as a gay man only. I am all those things, all at once, all the time. So there is no easy way to figure out how to talk about those things without it becoming an issue. I was really intentional in that. It was also, in part, a response to the structure of talking. I wanted to take people through a journey of my thought process on the tiered aspect of my act.
One thing that’s signature to your comedy, and a big part of a running joke in Psychosexual, is audience interaction. You’ve also got that conversational narrator element in Fire Island. What do you like about being able to be in conversation with the audience?
For me, the conversation is a big part of my writing process. I’m not the kind of comedian who sits down with a notebook in a coffee shop and writes down all my jokes and thoughts and then tries them out in front of an audience. It’s much more that I know the areas I want to talk around and when I’m developing jokes, it’s so much about the conversation that I’m having. In the early stages of my stand-up, many of my jokes were all pretty crowd-work-heavy. I start with asking questions, I sort of interrogate the answers that I get from those questions and then move on from there. So all of it starts with the crowd work and then, for this special in particular, a response to reading the comments. It was really wanting to not only just present my work, but interrogate my work as much as possible while it was going on.
There’s a joke in this special about calling your white family members and having to avoid their discussion on statues. Does having to navigate or deflect that kind of stuff in your personal life impact your comedy?
Yeah, because I often find myself observing these conversations rather than engaging with them. I find myself sort of receding at parties or at events or in conversations, and just taking a step back and observing how these conversations are playing out. I think that separation is so important to me and my own personal and mental health. Finding that separation is also where I’m able to find the distance to make observations about it at all. A lot of the times when I’m too in the conversation, I’m not able to have that separation and without that separation I’m not able to make any interesting comment on what I’m actually talking about.
People coming to you through Fire Island likely see you as a new rom-com writer, but your stand-up work has always tackled romance, desire and sex. You’re particularly good at overlaying overt sexuality with romanticism. Why is it an interesting topic for you?
It’s the vulnerability, I guess. It’s really about when we are our most vulnerable selves and when we are at once trying to project a very specific version of ourselves — the most desirable version of ourselves — and that’s very telling. Who that person is that we project when we want to be desired is not always necessarily in line with who we actually are. Then when that person that we actually are begins to creep into that narrative of who we’re trying to project, that becomes very interesting to me. It’s the dichotomy and the butting of heads of this very curated projection of ourselves versus who we actually are. It’s the liminal space in between those two people that I find really interesting as an artist and as a comedian and as a writer.
You talk in this special about people criticizing your decision to joke about your recreational drug use — jokes which can force the audience to interrogate their own relationship to it. Why is drug use something you want to keep talking about?
It’s the same reason I want to talk about sex so openly. It’s these things we keep hidden that I think are the most interesting things to talk about, because it makes people uncomfortable. Also, it’s one of those things that everybody has an opinion about. Everybody has a very strong point of view on drugs, on sex, on religion, on politics — all of those things. I find that a lot of comedians, they’ll go in on politics and a lot of them will go in on sex. There are certainly comedians who talk about drugs — weed gets a lot of play — but I do think that there is a reality to the way I live my life that I don’t often see reflected in the media. To me, recreational drug use is usually depicted as someone’s rock bottom. I’m not interested in glorifying drug use by any means, but again, I feel compelled to try and triangulate around my most honest and open and raw self when I’m on stage in that way because it’s the only way I know how to communicate as a comedian. It’s not that I set out to write amazing jokes about drug use. It’s just — this is a part of my life. This is a part of the way I party, and I want to talk about the way I party on stage.
There’s a joke about you being bipolar in this special — and correct me if I’m wrong, you’ve never tackled that onstage before. Why did you want to do it with this special?
I actually thought about pulling that joke because it’s a newer joke and, honestly, I haven’t talked about being bipolar onstage before. It was sort of like, “Oh, is that its own special in and of itself? Do I want to drop that?” But then again, in the spirit of where I was while making this special of this is just a part of me — one facet of myself — I didn’t want to “have to save this joke for when my next special becomes all about mental health.” If I’m precious about this joke and precious about introducing this part of myself in the special, then suddenly, I’ve given in to the impulse to want to make my identity the forefront of my comedy, which is not what I want to do. So dropping a really stupid joke about being bipolar in the middle of this set that’s already about so many other facets of my identity, it felt really freeing. This special isn’t about this, but I can still talk about it. So I decided, “No, I’m not gonna save this for the bipolar special. I’m just gonna say it.”
It’s a joke that I wrote while I was working out the special and it felt like it fit in that moment, and it fit in the section that it was in. I just didn’t want to be afraid of it anymore. I’m open about being bipolar. It’s not ever been a part of my comedy, though. For such a small quick joke — a small, stupid joke, especially — I really did think about it a lot because I was like, “Oh my god, if I say this, then it’s out there and it’s now become a part of my comedic identity.” What I had to decide was if I wanted to be really precious about that, or if I wanted to throw it away and not treat it with any sort of importance. Because if I gave it that power, then suddenly it would become another thing that I would be weighed down with having to represent. So I was like, “Let’s just do it now and not make it a thing because I just don’t want to get bogged down by it.”
Comedy is really an act of consent. You consent to pay to see someone live, to open a laptop and watch their special. And your comedy talks a lot about consent with this special, specifically, addressing having something done without your consent: your nudes being leaked to a website. How, if at all, has comedy informed your ideas about consent?
I’m not sure that it has. I think my ideas of consent are formed as a person first and then brought to my comedy, not necessarily the other way around. I think of it as a way to process consent and the ways in which my consent has been removed from that situation. Obviously, it is very violating to be involved in revenge porn, which is what it is, but also processing it through comedy was a way to take the power back for myself and reframe it as something else. It wasn’t just a violation anymore. It was this empowering thing: I can make a joke about this now. I can laugh at it, and it sort of takes the power away from the person who violated me in the first place, who violated my right to privacy.
Between that improvisational audience interaction, a timed structure and dealing with lockdown, what was the most challenging part of doing Psychosexual?
It was figuring out a way to end it, honestly. This is not a pejorative, this is just a way to describe it, but I’ve been trying to figure out what my Nanette moment is. Stand-up specials are hard for me. I don’t watch a lot of them because it’s not the way I want to watch stand-up. I find the immediacy of stand-up so important. Being in that room, in that moment to see and live and experience it communally with that specific audience, is so important, and when you remove standup from that context, I find it becomes something else. Specials to me aren’t necessarily like a distillation of standup. They are their own beasts. I find that really successful ones have a point and I think, obviously, they should all be funny, first and foremost, but that’s standup. That’s what all specials are.
So I guess for me it was answering the question, why make this special? What makes it more than just a collection of jokes? If I’m going to do a collection of jokes, I’d rather do them night after night in front of a live audience, not take it out of that context and put it on Netflix. So I had to be able to answer the question of why and, for me, answering that question was really difficult and began to coalesce and form organically as I was asking these questions of the audience, specifically of my white straight guy in the audience. The special really became this almost indictment of representation. Because it’s such a frustrating position to be in as an artist to be constantly asked to represent. It does not feel fulfilling, it does not feel good. It does not feel anything but frustrating to be asked to be a representative for all of these different communities and for straight white audiences.
I wanted to really live that frustration out in the open and not just have it behind the curtain. I wanted to show how frustrating it is to have to deal with the different triangulations of being a comedian who has two separate identities, at the very least; to come to my material and be like, “OK, am I representing the Asian community well enough? Am I representing the gay community well enough? Am I representing them to my communities well enough? Am I representing them to people outside of the communities well enough?” Those questions are not questions I want to have to answer for myself. While I’m writing jokes, they’re ever-present, so for me, the special was about answering those questions and defending those questions and dismissing those questions at the same time.
During the Fire Island press tour, you talked openly about your approach to navigating the discourse around the film. Then that discourse hit a critical mass after a reporter on Twitter criticized the film for not passing the Bechdel test, making it trend. How are you feeling about having to navigate that, unfortunately and relentlessly, going forward?
I mean, it’s really intimidating. It’s really frustrating. The thing is, you can’t create art in a vacuum. That’s just not how it works. But for me, I think it’s really unhealthy to be too in the discourse. In the lead-up to Fire Island and while I was writing it, it was really important for me to try and stay ahead of it. There’s a part of me as an artist and as a comedian, especially, and as a writer that wants to be like, “OK, this is where we’re at in the conversation and I want to stay ahead of the conversation. I want to be agile creatively in that way.” It’s so that my observations aren’t old hat, they’re more interesting or more engaging than what we’re already talking about. I think [Fire Island director] Andrew [Ahn] said this to me a bunch while we were making the movie and it’s something that I’ve really tried to internalize both as a comedian and as writer: “We can’t write this movie for Twitter, Joel,” is what he kept saying. Despite my best intentions, and despite trying to stay ahead of the conversation, if I spent all of my time worried about what the discourse was going to be, I wasn’t going to create something honest. So for me, it’s about trying to create as much distance between what I think people are going to say about it and what I want to say
The result of that was, of course, Alison Bechdel carving out an exception to her rule just for you and Fire Island.
So surreal. The closest I’ve ever come to being the main character on Twitter for a day was that entire, I guess, Twitter news cycle. Then to have the loop closed so beautifully with Alison Bechdel — someone who I admire greatly. It’s just weird to be perceived in that way and to know you’re being perceived by people you admire. Like, it’s weird. I used to listen to Hannah Rosin’s podcast. It’s weird to be perceived by someone you used to admire on that level and then to be doubly perceived, too — it’s a level of exposure that I never really made space to think about. I knew the movie was going to be reviewed. I knew the movie would be seen. But to be discussed in this way was really bizarre to me. And listen, there are legitimate critiques of the film, but that was not one I expected to hear.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Psychosexual debuts on Netflix on June 21.
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