It’s been a busy Pride Month for Joel Kim Booster. In early June, Hulu dropped Fire Island, a queer rom-com written by and starring Booster that’s set against the summer tradition of gay men reveling in the New York locale of the same name. Significantly, the film places Noah (Booster) and Howie (Bowen Yang)—two gay Asian males—at the center of the story, a modern retelling of Pride & Prejudice.
Then, later in the month, Netflix released Psychosexual, Booster’s hourlong comedy special that finds the standup comic speaking transparently about his sex life, firing punchy (but never mean-spirited) quips, and tackling his complicated Korean identity. And his latest project (and one that’s on a third streamer—we see you Joel!), the Apple TV+ workplace comedy Loot, premiered just last week. In the show, Booster plays Nicholas, the assistant to billionaire and recent divorcée Molly (Maya Rudolph), who’s on a quest to help others, meaning she (and thus, Nicholas) must leave the private jets and wild parties behind in order to embrace a more down-to-earth office life.
Booster recently sat down with The A.V. Club to talk about all of these releases, as well as the necessity for lighthearted, no-trauma, no-tears queer storytelling.
The A.V. Club: Most of my favorite scenes in Loot involve you and Ron Funches. How would you describe the friendship between your characters, Nicholas and Howard?
Joel Kim Booster: At the start, Nicholas is dragged kicking and screaming into a friendship with Howard. It’s definitely not something he’s used to. I think Nicholas is used to a sort of transactional friendship, a very competitive friendship with the rest of his friend group that you see a little glimpse of early in the season. I think it’s honestly transformative for him to meet somebody who actually cares for him on a genuine level, and who cares about his wellbeing and doesn’t want anything in return. It’s a beautiful arc that you see both of them go through. It’s a lot of fun to play it with Ron, especially. You know, we’ve both sort of orbited each other in the standup world for a long time and have done shows together. But to get to work with him on this level was a lot of fun.
AVC: Do you think your shared standup backgrounds aided those scenes together?
JKB: Oh, absolutely. The thing is, with Ron and I, it was really nice because we both were so prepared. We’re both kind of nerdy “A” students in that way. So we would come to set, lines memorized, and we would knock out [scenes] as scripted in a couple of takes. And then [Loot co-creators] Alan [Yang] and Matt [Hubbard] were nice enough to give us a few fun runs. It was really comfortable and really easy to do that with Ron because I think we knew where we each come from comedically. It was fun to always have someone you could go there with. You could throw out something from left field [and he’d] take it, flip it, and send it back.
AVC: I feel like you’re part of this circle of creators that we watched come up online—people like Quinta Brunson, Jaboukie Young-White, and Desus & Mero. Over the last seven years, we’ve seen so many sides of you: a culture writer, a TV writer, a standup comic, a film writer ... Is there any form that comes most naturally to you? Or one that you’re most drawn to?
JKB: You know what? I will always probably in my heart identify as a writer first. Just because that’s, I think, where I’m most comfortable in a lot of ways. But in Loot, it was so fun, in part because I didn’t have to wear as many hats. I just got to come to set, learn my lines, and get to play with a really wonderful, talented group of people everyday. And I got to work with my idol. Maya shaped a lot of my comedic sensibilities from the time I was watching her on SNL. It was really wonderful.
This might not be a popular opinion, but I think acting is quite easy at the end of the day. You get to come to work and sit in a chair and drink LaCroix. And then you get up and the actual work is so much fun. It’s hard to see it as work.
AVC: What feels more comfortable for you, acting or standup?
JKB: Standup, I think, is scarier because there are fewer layers between you and the audience. Like, there is a whole fourth wall between you and the audience when you’re acting. That makes it feel a little bit safer in a lot of ways. But with standup, I’m being myself. So there’s that element of ease. But it’s also that the audience is right there. You can touch them. So, there’s the immediacy that makes it a little bit more challenging, but really rewarding too.
AVC: You touched on this earlier, but Fire Island and Psychosexual are sort of like your “brain children.” Obviously, Loot is different because you didn’t write it. So, did that change the way that you approached that role?
JKB: A little bit. I mean, it definitely feels like there’s less weight on my shoulders at this job. That’s in part because I’m not executive producing and writing it as well. But it’s also because I really trust Matt and Alan. They created something really special. Alan has worked on some iconic shows, and Matt with 30 Rock and we worked together before on Sunnyside. I just really implicitly trusted them and their comedic chops and they’re amazing leaders. I think, if anything, the only worry was that I just didn’t want to let them down.
Also too, this part wasn’t exactly written for me, but it was written around me in a lot of ways. I remember getting the breakdown and it was like: “There’s this sort of mean gay guy who’s Asian, from Indiana, from the Midwest.” And I was like, “Well, if I don’t book this, then there’s a real problem.” [Laughs] Like, this is something that I should be able to do very well. With that in mind, they made it really easy and fun.
AVC: So obviously Loot and Fire Island are pretty different, but they’re both pretty lighthearted. I was reading another interview that you recently did in which you talked about the importance of queer stories that aren’t traumatic or full of tears. For queer people of color, rarely do we see ourselves onscreen just hanging out and having a good time. We don’t really have enough low stakes, not-that-deep media. Are those kinds of stories you want to create the most?
JKB: I’m of a generation of queer people that came up [during a time] when all the stories were about trauma. You know, they were about coming out, unrequited love, disease, death, homophobia, all of those things. And I don’t want to speak too much for her, but Michaela [Jaé Rodriguez] and I talked a lot about this while we were shooting. It was just nice that our queerness was incidental. [Loot was] this world where we just got to exist and have pretty everyday struggles—even though we were dealing with a billionaire [laughs]. But it really felt so refreshing to just not have to excavate our trauma to create something together. It was really a nice breath of fresh air. And I’m not opposed to eventually doing something a little bit serious, a little bit more dramatic. But for now, I think I’m really glad to be a part of something that is about joy at the end of the day.
AVC: When a story like this is made, is it because the media is finally shifting and being like “Okay, these are the kinds of things we want to see. We want to see queer people just existing.” Or is it more like you feeling confident enough in your craft and knowing that you have an audience that you’re just like, “Okay, I’m going to make this happen?”
JKB: I’m not exactly sure, but I think that a big part of it is these bigger networks and studios and platforms really understanding that there is a really wonderful sort of universality and specificity involved. The great thing about Fire Island that they allowed me to do was to tell a very specific story about my specific experience as a queer Asian man. And not wanting me to water it down or try and make it pedantic and explain every part of that experience and just allowing me to be specific. I think that as people begin to trust more creator-driven projects and support them, you’re going to see a lot more of that. I think that that is the big shift: these places really looking to find unique voices and giving them a platform to tell their very specific stories.