Joel Kim Booster has your number. Yes, yours. Oh, don’t pretend to be scandalized by his jokes about sex. You’re not fooling Booster, a comedian who has never met a penis story he didn’t want to tell.
“I think that a lot of people assume that I’m talking about sex the way I do to shock people,” Booster says by phone last week. He’ll be in Austin later this month for Moontower Comedy Festival, which runs April 24-27 at the Paramount Theatre and various satellite venues around town.
No, shock value isn’t what Booster is going for ― there’s a method to his mischief. Like many comedians, he uses his life as inspiration. He was born in South Korea and delivered to his adoptive parents in the U.S. as a small child (“the Grubhub of babies,” he calls it). His family is conservative and religious, and they home-schooled Booster to shield him from secular doctrines of sex and evolution taught in public school. He jokes onstage about being a nationally ranked Bible quizzer — “sort of on the flip side of that coin, I’ve never used a condom,” he kids, at the expense of his own lack of sex ed — and raised in the Midwest. “All the hatred and violence of the South but no sweet tea," one joke goes.
And, as you might imagine, that environment wasn’t always the most hospitable for a gay, Asian kid.
“I really do think that my work is a reaction to shame,” Booster says. “Growing up, everything was shame-based.”
He remembers his father giving him a book about reproduction instead of an in-person talk about the birds and the bees. Sex simply was not talked about then, and Booster doesn’t think we talk about it enough now.
So, the solution-oriented Booster has come up with his answer to this deadly silence: punchlines.
Although it’s hard to find a joke from his Twitter feed that can be quoted in a family (shame-filled?) newspaper, suffice to say there is one about how he hopes Pete Buttigieg’s campaign slogan is written like a Grindr bio.
“‘Is this the same for you as it is for me?’ That’s where I’m coming from,” he says. “That’s what most of us have in common. We’re all horny.”
Hearing Booster describe it, the looming specter of shame snakes through society like a puritanical hydra. “Toxicity surrounds it all," he says, especially in the sexual power dynamics that have allowed men in power to cause great harm (and which the #MeToo movement has sought to address).
“Young men in this country don’t seem to know how to relate to sex,” Booster says. “Because we’ve shied away from sex as an act of pleasure and an act of joy, shrouded it in shame, that’s made us unable to relate to it apart from shame."
Something relevant to mention when talking about how Booster jokes about sex: He’s attractive. His word, not mine. (However ...) You might even go so far as to say "hot," which Booster does when he talks about the “hot idiot” persona he plays around with on stage. There are also the shirtless selfies he regularly posts to social media, for which he sometimes gets flak from straight, male comics.
None of that is to say that Booster is full of himself ― as he is human, he is not immune to low self-esteem. But all the same, he understands how people perceive his appearance, and he admits that jokes about low self-esteem are well-trod comedic territory.
The $64,000 question: Is being hot funny?
“I can feel how I want to feel about myself all the time, but it doesn’t feel authentic to an audience,” he says. It’s more interesting, Booster says, to find ways to talk about being attractive and still have the audience be on his side. That often looks like acting like, well, a hot idiot.
“I’m following in a long line of comics who talk about sex on stage,” Booster says. Straight guys like Dane Cook have gotten away from “working blue,” as it's called in the comedy world, for years, he points out. Booster says those lewd wisecracks about what’s happening in his bedroom aren’t “gay” just because he is.
“I think a lot of what I do gets pathologized because of identity,” he says.
Speaking of identity, Booster speaks about identity with the articulation of someone who’s had to navigate it throughout his career. Though the comedy world is interested in "wokeness" these days, Booster says, starting out as a comic meant getting past a lot of straight, white gatekeepers. As an outlier, he says there was a temptation (maybe a necessity) to play the game, fit in, get energy from the crowd and get ahead. All of which, Booster says, can be demoralizing.
Now, he sees a change. More comics that don’t look like those gatekeepers are creating their own spaces ― women, people of color, queer people, “straight white guys who aren’t toxically masculine.” Booster points to comedians like Patti Harrison, Catherine Cohen, Anna Fabrega and Lorelei Ramirez as performers who he says haven’t needed those traditional spaces to move ahead. Watching them, Booster is jealous of the community they’ve created around themselves, even though he’s established himself.
“I wish I could just go back and do it that way,” Booster says. “I would have found my own voice sooner.”
He’s having a renaissance with that voice. Booster has starred in a Comedy Central special, made appearances on multiple late-night shows and written for TV shows like "Big Mouth" and "Billy on the Street." He's a producer and writer on Comedy Central’s “The Other Two,” and he also hosts a viral-clip web series with Harrison for the network, “Unsend.” He also recently appeared in Hulu’s buzzy “Shrill” (as did large-scale nude photographs of him).
It’s interesting to call it a renaissance, Booster says, because "inside of it, I feel like I am very far behind and growing old and withering away.”
Once upon a time, he just wanted to make a living in comedy. Check. Now, Booster feels like the goal post is always moving, and setting those new goals is inherently setting himself up for disappointment.
When you read through those credits, you get to the part where you ask what goal is next. Booster wants to write and produce his own starring vehicle ― his own “Master of None” or “The Mindy Project." He wants to have the definitive show about being gay and Asian but is aware of an “insane representation game you have to play where you’re everything to everyone.” In fact, many of the people who hate his act online ― it all its gleeful, shameless raunch ― are either gay or Asian or both, he says.
“If you don’t feel represented by what I’m doing,” Booster says, “go and do it yourself.”