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Fire Island‘s Joel Kim Booster Wants to Leave His ‘Hot Idiot’ Act Behind

15 minute read

“A lot of people have told me recently that they did not think I was smart enough to write a movie,” Joel Kim Booster says, laughing, over Zoom. For years, the comedian has been operating under the guise of what he calls his “hot idiot persona.” In stand-up sets and on social media, Booster has played the part of a hyper-sexualized narcissist, in an effort to both draw laughs and subvert expectations for what an Asian male comic could be.

Booster shows a different side of himself in Fire Island, a rom-com that he wrote and stars in that arrived on Hulu this month. Based on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, the movie follows a group of friends on Fire Island—a famously gay enclave on Long Island—as they party, chase love, and confront hard truths. The movie has received rave reviews from critics and audiences.

And Fire Island is only one part of a huge month for Booster, who is also releasing a Netflix stand-up special, Psychosexual, on June 21, and starring in the Apple TV+ show Loot alongside Maya Rudolph (premiering June 24). Zooming in from San Diego, Booster talked about drawing from Jane Austen, his creative partnership with SNL’s Bowen Yang, and leaving behind his “hot idiot” act. Here are excerpts from the conversation.

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TIME: You’ve done a million interviews this month, and the general theme of the coverage has been, essentially, “June 2022 is a huge month for Joel Kim Booster.” Has it felt that way to you?

Booster: Yeah. It’s a little hard to take it all in at once. It feels like the biggest month of my entire career, bar none. I’m glad it’s happening at this point in my career, because I’ve been doing this long enough to know that it’s a moment, and it might not happen for me again. So I’m just really trying to enjoy it.

Has all the success been easy to enjoy?

I have the worst brain in the country. It’s really hard for me to focus on the positives and not just seek out every negative comment online. And it’s just a lot to suddenly be perceived in a way that is less controllable than I’m used to. With stand-up, I’ve been presenting a very curated version of who I am, and one very select side of myself. So the stakes felt less high because when people reacted, either positively or negatively, I could say, ‘Oh, that’s just 20% of who I actually am.’

Now they’re seeing the movie, which is actually much more revealing. And between the special and the movie, it’s very difficult for me now, because suddenly I’m being perceived a little bit more for who I actually am, and for a much larger audience.

In Vulture, E. Alex Jung called you “a horny Magellan.” What did you think of that description?

I think the horny part is probably more accurate than the Magellan part. I’ll have to take his word for it; I think Alex is extremely perceptive. But I don’t know how much of an explorer I am.

You shopped versions of Fire Island around studios for years, and were rejected many times over. What kind of feedback did you get during that period?

I would hear: “We love your perspective as an Asian American, and as a gay man. But there’s a lot going on here.” A lot of what this industry has wanted to do to me, since I started, is to bisect those two identities, to present me as one or the other. Intersectionality is very confusing to parts of this industry. It’s hard for them to look at me as a three-dimensional human being who is lots of things all at once. A big part of the feedback is that they didn’t understand how they could tell a story that was that specific—and whether or not it would alienate people in its specificity.

Fire Island mimics the story of Pride and Prejudice. Why was Jane Austen the right framework to tell this story?

What Jane Austen nails so well in her stories is when characters are forced to be around other people they consider beneath them. How do they communicate with them and maintain this air of politeness while also being really terrible to one another? Most people aren’t terrible to one another on the surface. Most gay men that I interact with aren’t just like, “We think you’re ugly. Please leave the party.” Very few people are that bald in their discrimination or classism.

Even the whole ‘no fats, no femmes no Asians’ thing: so much of that has moved behind the curtain now. You don’t actually see that very often in dating profiles because it’s no longer socially acceptable to just come out and say it. So what’s interesting now is to see all the ways that the gay men say that without saying that. And all the ways in which they communicate that loud and clear without just saying, “I’m not attracted to you, so I consider you less valuable in this scenario.”

When Bowen [Yang] and I were on Fire Island, we were staying with two of my hottest friends. They would bring us to parties that they were invited to because they have a lot of sexual currency on the island. And it was interesting to see people that knew we were friends with the hot people, so they had to deal with us. But how they interacted with us was so wildly different from the people they wanted to f-ck.

And as I was reading Pride and Prejudice, the parallels were so clear: So much of her work is how people communicate their distaste and classism without saying it. So that’s what I wanted to get at: As we’ve moved out of the baldly racist dating profiles, what are the ways gay men have figured out how to communicate this stuff secretly, or in subtext.

Have you received any feedback on the movie from these type of Fire Island men you’re critiquing?

I’ve seen some hot white people online: there’s a group of them who don’t like the movie. I’ve seen a lot of, “This is boring, this doesn’t speak to me.” I do wonder: it might be boring for you because you’re not centered in the story in the way you’re used to.

But no one, to my face, has been like, “You really came for us.” I think it’s really easy for a lot of guys, because it doesn’t center them, to not have any introspection about the movie’s critique of our culture. A lot of it has flown completely over their head.

Margaret Cho plays the quasi-matriarch of the friend group in the movie. What was her impact on your development as a comic?

It’s hard to put into words what she means to me. She existed at a time when very few people like her did exist. She was the de facto representation for Asian queer people of all sexualities and gender expressions.

It was really transformative for me to see [her 1994 sitcom] All-American Girl. In Western media, if you saw an Asian person, they were either relegated to the side, usually a nerd, or on the other side of the spectrum, a super action-star kung-fu master. Neither of those things resonated with me. Then you had All-American Girl, which felt really close to my experience in a way I had never seen before. To see a whole cast of people who looked like me doing that: I don’t think I ever thought about being an actor until that show, honestly. That show and Brandy’s Cinderella were the things that blew my world open to the possibilities of what I could do in that profession.

And then when I discovered her stand-up, it was someone who was talking about their life so frankly, so passionately and unafraid of judgment, that really inspired me in my own work. I can draw a straight line from Margaret Cho’s work to mine. I wouldn’t exist without her.

You and SNL’s Bowen Yang have had a longstanding creative partnership that takes center stage in Fire Island. What makes your partnership so special, and how has it evolved over the years?

We’ve both had other Asian friends and gay friends. But specifically experiencing all those identities in this industry can be really punishing. To find someone who’s sort of a life raft to cling to in the midst of all the bullsh-t that we deal with was really life-saving in a lot of ways, for both of us.

And I’ve had gay Asian friends before, but I don’t think we ever connected the trauma of gay racism. Sexual racism. Feeling fetishized. Bowen was the first Asian friend that I went really deep with on a lot of these issues. Part of it is going to the pressure keg that is Fire Island. Suddenly, there’s so much wonderful weight lifted off of you as a queer person because there are no straight people. There’s a part of you that feels very free to experience a weightlessness that you don’t feel constrained in society.

And then there’s this crushing disappointment when you realize the sexual freedom promised by Fire Island is not afforded to everyone in the same way. We really understood that on an intrinsic level with each other, and processed and unpacked a lot of that together. When you unpack and process stuff like that, it bonds you for life. I’ve always looked to Bowen as my ultimate confidant.

A couple weeks ago, a minor Twitter firestorm ensued around Fire Island when a writeralisal accused the movie of failing the Bechdel Test. What did you think of that whole discourse?

I absorb all criticism, and don’t want to dismiss anything out of hand. But the Bechdel test is one of the most abused critical frameworks: It’s a very narrow way of looking at media. And Alison Bechdel has talked about this: It’s a good gut check. It is not supposed to be a pass-fail grade.

In earlier drafts of this movie, there were more cis-femme female characters in the mix. But it’s one of those things where I have to sort of take a step back and realize the limitations of my own ability to tell everyone’s story. There are definitely legitimate critiques of the movie that I’ve taken to heart. But that was not one of them.

That whole span of two days was really bizarre for me. I went off Twitter for the premiere: for mental health reasons, I didn’t want to engage with whatever the discourse around this movie became. And then a million people texted me about it. It was a little heartening because it was the closest I’ve ever become to being the main character on Twitter. Which is a scary prospect. But then to have Alison tweet about the caveat [she] added was a wonderful closing of the loop.

Your Netflix special, Psychosexual, is hilarious, but parts of it felt like the crowd wasn’t entirely with you. Did you feel that way while on stage?

I don’t know, it’s difficult. This is sort of my problem with stand-up specials in general: there’s an artificiality to the production, and there are realities to filming that take it away from the essence of stand-up and what I love about it. The immediacy is sort of removed.

Last night, I played to a sold-out crowd, and they were people that were largely gay and Asian or queer, or people who have listened to my podcast. And we didn’t have as much control over the audience. I thought it was an amazing audience.

But for specials, there is a production element to it that makes it more difficult for it to feel natural to what I do normally. To know this special is out there and done is so strange to me, because my sets never feel complete. I never feel like I’m done writing or shaping them. There are moments that are always evolving and changing depending on the audience. So it’s a really scary thing to have it be out there.

You also talk about being bipolar in your standup. What have you thought about bipolar representation in culture recently? I really liked Gata’s arc in Dave, for instance.

The first time I ever saw a bipolar person was Sally Field on ER. I don’t want to say the depiction was inaccurate, but I find a lot of times when we’ve seen bipolar people in the media, they’re going through the worst moments of their disease, and they’re maybe unmedicated. In dramas, you want to see people at their most heightened, so of course, when you see a bipolar person in a drama, they’ll be flying off the handle, which is very real. I’ve definitely experienced that myself.

I think we’re starting to see a more balanced perspective on what it means to be bipolar. This is something people live with and it does not define their entire lives. It’s not the framework through which I experience the world every day. I have a lot of support and medication that makes it easier to navigate the world. It is definitely an obstacle for me at times, but it’s something that is mostly just running in the background.

In a recent interview, you expressed the desire to play a canonically gay superhero like Northstar. Why do you want that, and do you think it could happen?

I am a dyed-in-the-wool comic book fan. The first thing I ever purchased with my allowance was a comic book, at age 9.

Even at this point, playing a gay superhero feels like a joke, a pipe dream. It doesn’t feel within the realm of possibilities. So it’s like a silly thing I can say in interviews, and I can be as thirsty about it as I want.

It’s funny to have people tell me that it could happen. Maybe it’s true. The landscape is all superheroes now. But I definitely think that it’s more likely that I’ll play someone at the control center, which I would still love. To live in the superhero world at all would be the end-all be-all for me.

Now that you’re transitioning out of your “hot idiot” era, what kinds of characters would you like to play?

I think I want to be a little more thoughtful, a little less archetypal. It was really easy to latch onto “hot idiot” for a while, because it was less of an archetype. It felt transgressive or groundbreaking to be like, ‘I’m Asian and I’m hot and I’m stupid.” And when I was doing it, I think people didn’t believe it, necessarily. When I would come out and say, “I’m hot,” people would laugh, and I think it was because there was this understanding of, “no: culturally, you are not considered hot. So it’s cute that you’re saying this on stage now.”

I think that has started to shift to the point where it would be really obnoxious to say it now. It’s interesting how the needle has moved on what we consider attractive as culture writ large. Asians have pushed their way into the zeitgeist in that way, which is great, and makes my “hot idiot” persona moot in a lot of ways.

So now, I want to go back and be “sensitive shy book hot guy.” That’s a little bit closer to who I actually am. I want to be seen as a little more thoughtful. A lot of people have felt very comfortable telling me that they did not think I was smart enough to write a movie. Now that the cat’s out of the bag that I can string several thousand words together, I guess I have to make good on that promise and start actively reading books in public when the TMZ cameras are on.

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