TRANSCRIPT Bullseye with Jesse Thorn: Joel Kim Booster

Joel Kim Booster is everywhere these days. Fire Island, the romantic comedy he wrote and stars in, debuted last month on Hulu. It’s a modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice. His latest stand-up special Psychosexual is currently streaming on Netflix. He’s also starring on the new Apple TV+ workplace comedy Loot. To celebrate all his most recent projects we’re revisiting our 2018 conversation with Joel. He talked with Bullseye about his religious Illinois upbringing, and the parts of his career he’s most proud of.

Guests: Joel Kim Booster

Transcript

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Speaker: Bullseye with Jesse Thorn is a production of MaximumFun.org and is distributed by NPR. [Music fades out.]

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jesse

It’s Bullseye. I’m Jesse Thorn. Joel Kim Booster is everywhere these days. He's writing on hit shows like Big Mouth and The Other Two. He wrote and is starring in the new romantic comedy, Fire Island, which has been a critically acclaimed hit. And he’s also starring alongside Maya Rudolph in Loot, a brand-new show on Apple TV+. If you’ve been following Joel Kim Booster’s career for the last few years, or if you’ve listened to his standup comedy, all this success shouldn’t be too surprising. Joel is—I mean, he’s great! He's a hilarious, compelling actor. He is a brilliant writer. He is a terrific standup. He brings a very distinct presence to the stage. Goofy, confident, even kind of preposterously goofy and confident sometimes, and vulnerable when he needs to be. He’s not afraid to show his flaws. And he also really, sincerely loves chain restaurants. When I talked with Joel in 2018, he’d just released his debut standup album, Model Minority. In this bit from the album, Joel is talking about one of his biggest pet peeves: when people try to guess his nationality.

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[The audience laughs regularly.] Joel Kim Booster (Model Minority): I do have to say, I actually—[chuckles], I hate it when they guess correctly, though. ‘Cause it’s almost always worse for me, because—like, for instance, I waited tables at the Olive Garden for two years in college. Hold for applaaaause. [The audience claps and laughs.] Again, you know, when I have to ask for it, it means less. No, I worked there for two years, and I will always remember this. I walked up to a table. It was like a table of three like older White guys. And I—you know, I introduced myself. I got them their [censored] breadsticks. And then, at one point one of them just turns around and looks at me and he’s like, “Hey, son? Are you Korean?” And I was like, “Yeah. I am. That’s an amazing guess. Like, how did you know that?” And he was like, “Well, I fought in the Korean War, so I know a thing or two about that.” [Shocked “oh”s and groans from the audience.] And I was like, “Oooh.” [Laughs uncomfortably.] What does that mean for this relationship now? You know? You’ve put me in an odd place. Uh. Do you need a new server? Are you having a flashback? What is the situation? You know what I mean?

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joel kim booster

Wow.

jesse

Joel Kim Booster, welcome to Bullseye!

joel

Thank you so much. [Pleasantly.] I hate listening to myself! [They laugh.] This is gonna be a long interview for me, as we listen to these clips of bits that I now hate. Um.

jesse

Good news, JKB. We’re recording this whole thing! [Joel laughs.] We’re gonna run it on the radio!

joel

Thank you so much for having me.

jesse

Of course. It’s a joy to have you on the show. So, I didn’t know before I heard this album that you were adopted. [Joel confirms.] You grew up in the Midwest. Where in the Midwest did you grow up?

joel

Like right outside of Chicago. Like 40 minutes outside of Chicago, on the south end. So, like the southwest suburbs. Plainfield was the name of my town, which is sort of sandwich in between Naperville and Joliet, which are cities that more people know about than Plainfield.

jesse

What did you think of it when you were growing up there?

joel

I loved it growing up. I mean, [muffling a laugh] I think it’s an excellent place to leave. But it was sort of—I don’t know. It was ideal for me in a lot of ways when I was really young. It seemed—I don’t know. It was a nice mix of like being close to a Target, but there’s fields everywhere and cows and [censored]. Mm. Yeah. I don’t know. I didn’t really—it’s only really in hindsight and sort of as I got older that I realized that it was not my favorite place to be, I think. I had very narrow sort of expectations for a hometown when I was growing up. So, it suited me fine.

jesse

Were you self-aware about the fact that you were Korean and everyone that surrounded you was White, ethnically, in the town that you lived in?

joel

Not until much later. I was much more aware. And like, full disclosure, this is like a bit, but I mean, I talk about knowing I was gay before knowing I was Asian. And that is something that is unfortunately very true, because we were homeschooled until—I was homeschooled until I was 16. And it really wasn’t until right before middle school or around middle school that I started to sort of be more aware of the racial dynamics in my town. But for me, like—you know, I was only at home. I hung out with my brother and my sister and my family, and that was pretty much it. My parents didn’t have adult friends that they hung out with. We didn’t go to a traditional church until I was in middle school. So, for me, it just—in my mind, you know, [chuckles] I was just like, “This is just what families are. And this is what families look like. And I’m sure every family has an Asian son.” [Chuckles.] In some regard. I was much more preoccupied with the gay stuff, I think, and being—‘cause I—even from a really young age, you know, that was sort of blasted that this is wrong. You know. Nobody ever said that it was wrong, that I was—no one was ever sort of aggressively racist in, you know, any way. Or at least, I wasn’t exposed to it when I was a kid. So, I never thought was weird or wrong. I just sort of thought that’s how it was. It was when I went—we went—my mom’s side of the family is in the south, and we went to a family reunion in Alabama, in Birmingham, when I was like seven or eight. And that was when I think it really hit me. ‘Cause there are so many pictures of just like—you know, 70 people in a photograph and then me. And it is very clear that I stick out. So, I think that was probably when I started putting two and two together.

jesse

Did your parents homeschool for religious or ideological reasons? Or—

joel

Yeeeah. They—my parents were and are very evangelical. And they were very—and very right-wing evangelical, too. In a way that like, I think they probably skew more like libertarian, but it’s very distrustful of A) the state educating your kids and B) like not having control over the kinds of knowledge that is being transferred in public schools. They didn’t want me learning about evolution. They didn’t want me learning about sex. They didn’t want me learning, you know. They wanted to make sure that I was—you know, learning about history in a very specific point of view, and yeah.

jesse

Your older siblings are your parents’ biological children. [Joel confirms.] Was like part of your life an explanation of the situation? Was like there something that your parents told you?

joel

Um, no. I mean, [sighs] for me like growing up, it was just like a very matter-of-fact explanation of like, you know, “Some moms aren’t ready, and—or can’t, and this is why.” And you know, “And this happens. And we are so blessed and lucky that, you know, we got to have you instead.” I will say, you know, I have a lot of thoughts and feelings about adoption and sort of the way it’s viewed in the world and stuff like that. But one thing my parents never did and never framed it as and would shut down very quickly when other people would say it, is they never—when they got like, “Well, aren’t you a lucky boy? For being adopted.” And my parents would always be like, “No, no. We’re the lucky ones. Like, this is not—” And I hhhhated when people were like, “Oh, you’re so lucky that you got rescued.” Or like anytime—any framing of that, like when I see interactions between like adopted kids and people out in the world. Like, that is the most infuriating thing I think for everybody. ‘Cause nobody says that about babies. Like, biological children. And it’s the same concept. Like, parenting is parenting. You are—you know, if you want a child—if you can’t frame it as like, “I’m doing a good thing by doing it this way rather than having a biological kid.” And I think like that’s one thing my parents really did nail growing up, for all their faults, is they never made me feel like I was a charity case or that they loved me any differently than my—or they wanted me any differently than my brother and my sister. It was always, you know, “We are lucky that we were able to have you.” And I think that, I think, is probably—it is why I don’t have a lot of angst about it today.

jesse

Even more to get into with Joel Kim Booster after the break. Stick around. It’s Bullseye, from MaximumFun.org and NPR.

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Thumpy rock music.

jesse

It’s Bullseye. I’m Jesse Thorn. If you’re just joining us, my guest is Joel Kim Booster. Joel is the star and screenwriter of the new romantic comedy, Fire Island, which is streaming right now on Hulu. He’s also starring alongside Maya Rudolph in the new TV show Loot, which just debuted on Apple TV+. Besides that, he’s a standup comic—a great one. When I talked with him in 2018, he’d just released his debut album, Model Minority. Let’s get back into our conversation. Your parents’ religion sounds like—at least from your album—like it was a little bit ad hoc. Um.

joel

Mm-hm! That’s one way to put it! [They chuckle.]

jesse

I think, yeah, on the album you describe it as “retrospectively maybe a cult”. [Joel agrees.] But what was your experience of religion like in your house when you were a kid?

joel

I mean, for us it was mostly Sundays spent with my dad reading the Bible to us aloud and sort of having like—within our family—discussions about it and just sort of the very sort of black and white, moralistic view of the world. And for me, that just meant control. Like, I felt really controlled in everything that I was consuming, in—you know—media-wise, and what I was allowed to watch and who I was allowed to hang out with, and what I was allowed to read. It was really frustrating. I mean, I remember when I was like nine, my parents—they listened to every CD and read every book and comic book and everything like that and watched every show with us to make sure that it was okay. And I just remember them sitting me down because I wanted The Backstreet Boys CD, and I was nine maybe. And they said that—you know, upon review, they could not let me get this CD, because of the song where the lyrics are “no matter who you are or what you’ve done, where you’ve been, as long as you love me”. And they sat me down—a nine-year-old—and were like, “Joel, it does matter what a person has done. And it does matter who they are. And if they don’t have—” You know, and it just—and I was like, “I’m nine!” [Laughs.] “And I wanna listen to The Backstreet Boys! How is—?” And so, like it was always things like—those situations always stick out to me. Because like that’s what I saw religion as. Until I started going to a real coocoo bananas evangelical church of my own when I was in middle school. It was all sort of—it was never like sort of Jesus-focused, love-focused in my house. It was rules-focused. It was you cannot do this because God does not approve of x, y, or z. And so, it was just very frustrating. It was not primed as something for me to enjoy on my own.

jesse

Do you believe in God now?

joel

Um [stumbles over his words], wow. Um. No. I don’t—I think at best, I’m an agnostic at this point. It’s sort of hard to untangle yourself completely when you’ve been indoctrinated for—you know—half your life in this certain set of beliefs. And so, it’s really hard for me to, you know, say—when you grow up looking at the world as sort of like created and there’s a plan and there is like another side, I think like that’s probably the biggest sticking point for me, is it’s really hard for me to come to terms with the fact that I will die and that’s it. You know? Nobody can really wrap their head around it, but for me, it’s always been easier to believe that—I would rather believe that I will be chilling in a house as a ghost for eternity than not having anything once I’m in the ground. [Jesse laughs.] And maybe that makes me a child. I’m sure that there are people who believe that. I know that there are people—there are people in my life who believe that about me. But yeah. It’s hard to sort of step away from it completely, I think.

jesse

I mean, it’s good to know that you’d be a chill ghost and not one of those like chain-rattling ghosts.

joel

[Laughs.] No, no, no. I think I would be—I would be fun. I would be—

jesse

Like with a mimosa and everything?

joel

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Exactly. Exactly.

jesse

You worked as a writer for Moshe Kasher’s television show on Comedy Central. It was like a talk show about like—a comic dialogue about hot issues.

joel

Yeah, the ethos of which—

jesse

Sources of cultural conflict.

joel

Right, yeah. It was sort of—the ethos I think really was “everybody is wrong a little bit”. And so, you would sort of—we would look at issues through that way, and sort of—you know, try and be like—I don’t know that I could work on a both-sides sort of show anymore. [Laughs.] But back then, in 2015, it felt very fresh.

jesse

When you started doing standup, did you feel like you had to either be a club comic, an alternative comic, or a gay comic?

joel

Hm. Yeah. I mean, those last two are sort of one in the same in many people’s eyes, I think. It’s so funny to me, because especially when I was coming up in New York, you know, people would call me an alt comic. Which is so wild to me, because I was doing basically—like, it’s pretty standard. I was not pushing the form in any sort of way. You know, I’m not like taking it and like reimagining it and then making it work for everybody. I was doing what John Mulaney and Tig Notaro and Aziz and everybody was doing at the time. And it’s just observations about my life and things that I’ve seen and things that have happened to me. You know? And writing a punchline around it. And so, it was always very strange to me when people would be like, “You’re an alt comic,” because of the things that I would be talking about would be eating [censored]. You know. And it’s— [They laugh.] Why—you know, the structure is the same. It’s just the subject matter, I guess, is a little bit out of left field. But I definitely felt that, especially in Chicago. I think I felt the pressure to be, you know. When you’re in a smaller city like that, I think there’s definitely—you know—more accepted ways to be successful. And so, you know, it’s like you gotta do these mics and you have to do these shows, and then you have to move on. And it’s like a very set pattern. And then you move to a city like New York, and suddenly there is no right way to do anything. And it is sort of you choose your own adventure of like, “Well, what kind of career do you wanna have?” And you can sort of cobble it together from any of these venues. And I don’t know. I feel very lucky that it was a really freeing time to be a gay comic. Like, there—I think there were moments in comedy, you know, even just a couple of years before I started eight years ago, where one person’s success meant that that door was closed for the rest of us. It’s sort of like a one in, one out sort of situation. And now, I don’t know. Like, so many of my closest friends are comedians, and there is not even—there’s like a natural sort of like competition that goes on that just is like running below the surface of any, you know, comedian’s career. But for me, it’s like, “Oh, like when John Early or Matteo Lane or Bowen Yang or any of these other comedians—gay comedians are finding success, it just means like there will be more for all of us now. And it’s so nice to not have to worry about like anyone like grabbing for the scraps from the table anymore, because it does feel like things are changing and there’s enough room for everybody at the table.

jesse

Your comedy character, particularly online—on Twitter—but also to some extent onstage, I think is probably dumber than you.

joel

Oh, absolutely, yeah.

jesse

And like more romantically desperate.

joel

I think—yeah. My [chuckles]—my brand onstage and online is “hot idiot”. [Jesse laughs.] That’s what I’m going for. And if I can—and I think it’s a lot like—you have to be a good singer to sing deliberately offkey, and I think you have to be smart to play that dumb well.

jesse

I wanna play another clip from my guest, Joel Kim Booster’s, album Model Minority. Joel is talking about gay guys who fetishize Asian men. [Joel laughs.] Which has a name in the gay community that I will allow you to say, kindly, Joel.

joel

Rice queen.

jesse

And this is the moment that he realized he was on a date with one.

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[The audience laughs regularly.] Joel: I went back to his apartment, and he was making me a drink in his kitchen. And I was just looking around his kitchen and I noticed he had like 14 Thai cookbooks. And I was like, “Oh no.” [Chuckles.] “I see you now.” You know? Like, I see who you aaare! And it was like a horror movie, you know? ‘Cause suddenly I’m like—I saw his entire apartment and there was just like rice paddy hats everywhere. [The audience gasps.] Two katanas over the bed. You know? And it was very strange for me. But it got worse. [Scattered groans.] Like, we—in the middle of foreplay, like I went there with him. I was like, “All of this is fine.” And in the middle of foreplay, he leans into my ear and, I [censored] you not, he said to me, “So, you gonna be my little Geisha boy tonight?” [The audience screams a collective “NOOOOO” that loses steam the longer it goes.] Yeeeeah! Yeah, it was bad. But you know what’s worse, is that I stayed. Um. I stayed! Yeah.

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joel

Oh god. [Laughs embarrassedly.]

jesse

I mean, what’s telling to—what’s telling to me about that bit is that, sure, you’re calling this guy out onstage, but you’re ultimately questioning your own sense of self-worth.

joel

Yeah. [Laughs.] I think there was a tag too, that maybe I started doing—either before, I don’t know, left, but it was like—yeah, I’m pretty sure that guy stopped texting me back, too. Which is maybe the saddest part about that. But yeah! And it’s so—it feels like—I mean, a lot of this—this was all—that whole album is material that I’ve been, you know, working on for—at that point—six or seven years. And so, it’s so weird to hear that stuff, because it’s changed so much for me. Now, I mean, I was writing jokes about myself, and I was being, you know, sort of self-deprecating in a way to make myself more palatable for people. There is a special that delves deeply into this! And for me, it just like wasn’t helpful. And it’s not how I really feel about myself now. And so, there was like a shift like right around the time I was recording that album where I was like, “But like, this isn’t—this isn’t like my—this isn’t being honest.” Like and this outlet for me is so refreshing, because it feels like I’m able to be as honest as I can be. And that’s like—for me as an artist, like—especially as a comedian, that’s the question I always ask myself. Is this funny? Is this honest? And is this new or is this interesting? And for me, a lot of those jokes now—when I listen back to them—they’re still funny to me. And they are real in the sense of that that was what I was—that’s the life that I had when I wrote them. But for me now, like to say that joke—it’s just so weird. I’d have to really refigure it out for me now, because—I don’t know. I wouldn’t stay, now. [Chuckles.] That’s I guess the bottom line is I wouldn’t stay.

jesse

We’ll wrap up my interview with Joel Kim Booster after a short break. He’ll talk with me about the feedback both good and bad that he gets from other Asian Americans and how he deals with it. It’s Bullseye, from MaximumFun.org and NPR.

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Thumpy rock music.

jesse

This is Bullseye. I’m Jesse Thorn. I’m talking with Joel Kim Booster: comic, writer, and star of the new Apple TV show, Loot. Let’s get back into our conversation. Do you feel like you have to deal with the expectations of Asian American fans because you—you know, you share many experiences with other Asian Americans and Korean Americans. Certainly, you know what it feels like to walk into a room full of White dudes and be the only Asian guy or whatever. For example.

joel

That is sort of the—yeah! Everybody knows what that’s like [chuckles] in our community.

jesse

But like, I don’t know—you know, you never have the experience of bringing something to school for lunch that other people thought smelled weird or these other things that—

joel

No. Yeah. My parents are White, and I had that and—you know, they are—their family have been here for however long, and you know, we had—our traditions were very midwestern and everything like that. So, there is a lot that I feel a little boxed out of, experience-wise, and I think it’s sort of frustrating to some people that are seeing my success and are maybe frustrated that I don’t represent that side of the Asian American experience. The sort of, you know, second/third generation experience. And I guess, for me, like—I don’t know. I’m really fascinated by what is the Asian American experience. Like, what is the culture that we have created for ourselves here that is sort of—as a biproduct of just existing together as this race of people, not sort of as a culture from what we’re—I don’t know. It's difficult. It’s hard and it’s something that I’m sort of trying to figure out like as I go on. And I hear it! I hear from a lot of Asian people who are—who don’t like me or my material. And I think I especially hear from Asian men who are very frustrated with like, “Ope! They put another effeminate Asian guy on TV. Of course, they did. This is the media conspiring against Asian men to emasculate all of us. And like that’s always a little hard to absorb, that I am the face of a media conspiracy [laughs] to emasculate Asian men. Because I don’t know that I necessarily feel that way about myself. But um—

jesse

You do talk in your album about how big your junk is. To your credit! [Joel agrees and laughs.] Working against the conspiracy.

joel

That is true. I don’t know! I’m just like—and it’s so weird to represent two minorities. And especially as like the audience gets bigger and the platforms get bigger, the opportunities that I’m offered are getting bigger and bigger. It is a very stressful sort of thought process that I have to go through of like, “Am I being, you know, the right representation for gay men and Asian men and Asian people and adoptees and this that and the other thing?” And it's just—I really wish I could just really think about “is this funny?” and not have to worry about that other stuff. And I ultimately do. You know. But it’s there, and it’s—you know, I do feel some responsibility to—I don’t know, make sure that everybody knows that this is my experience, my personal experience, my very specific experience. And I’m not trying to speak for either of these communities when I talk about—you know, any of the experiences that I talk about onstage. But it’ll never change. I will always get the blowback, no matter way. And I’m—I don’t know. I’m okay with it. You just sort of have to build that, you know, defense. The armor. And let it wash off of you. I’m literally—I think I’m having a stroke as I’m saying these words. [Jesse laughs.] Like, can you tell that—[laughing] like these sentences have no end. There is no punctuation anymore. I’m literally about to have a stroke. I hope any of this is useful.

jesse

Joel Kim Booster, I’m so grateful to you for taking all this time to be on Bullseye. It was really great to get to talk to you.

joel

Yeah! Thanks for having me. Again, I hope anything I said made sense and it makes me seem smarter than I actually am.

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jesse

Joel Kim Booster, one of the absolute best. He’s great in Fire Island. You can stream that movie now, on Hulu. His newest project—a TV show called Loot—just debuted on Apple TV+. And if you haven’t heard his standup, you ought to! His 2018 debut, Model Minority, is streaming on pretty much every platform. Go listen to it. [Music fades out.]

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Relaxed, chiming synth.

jesse

That’s the end of another episode of Bullseye. Bullseye is created from the homes of me and the staff of Maximum Fun, in and around greater Los Angeles, California—although, this week, I am actually recording from my friend’s guest bedroom in Woodside, California, where I have gone to The Antiques Roadshow. Thank you so much to the Roadshow for inviting me. I had such a great time visiting with my mom. We met some of our favorite appraisers on that program and had a great time in the Filoli Sculpture Gardens. Now, I will say [chuckles] that I forgot to bring headphones with me on this trip. And so, I have borrowed some from my friend’s four-year-old daughter. They are tiger themed. They’re orange and they have little tiger ears on them. I am recording this, right now, on video and we will share that on social media. So, make sure to follow us on Facebook and Twitter if you wanna see me making an NPR show in children’s tiger headphones. Our show is produced by speaking into microphones. Our senior producer is Kevin Ferguson. Our producers are Jesus Ambrosio and Richard Robey. Our production fellow at Maximum Fun is Tabatha Myers. We get booking help from Mara Davis. Our interstitial music is by Dan Wally, also known as DJW. Our theme music is by The Go! Team. It’s called “Huddle Formation”. Our thanks to The Go! Team and thanks to their label, Memphis Industries, for letting us use that. Bullseye is also on YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook. You can find us there, give us a follow, and we’ll share with you all of our interviews and the aforementioned picture of me wearing little, orange, children’s tiger headphones. I think that’s about it. Just remember: all great radio hosts have a signature signoff.

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Speaker: Bullseye with Jesse Thorn is a production of MaximumFun.org and is distributed by NPR. [Music fades out.]

About the show

Bullseye is a celebration of the best of arts and culture in public radio form. Host Jesse Thorn sifts the wheat from the chaff to bring you in-depth interviews with the most revered and revolutionary minds in our culture.

Bullseye has been featured in Time, The New York Times, GQ and McSweeney’s, which called it “the kind of show people listen to in a more perfect world.” Since April 2013, the show has been distributed by NPR.

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