Joel Kim Booster reflects on the 'Pride and Prejudice' of Fire Island's party scene
Booster's film Fire Island, which he wrote and stars in, was inspired by the Jane Austen novel. The movie is a rom-com about a group of gay friends and explores racism and classism in their community.
Other segments from the episode on June 27, 2022
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Our guest, Joel Kim Booster, wrote the new gay rom-com "Fire Island" and stars in it with Bowen Yang. It's about a group of gay friends vacationing on Fire Island. Booster is also a comic and has a new stand-up special called "Psychosexual." He's written for shows like "Big Mouth," "Billy On The Street" and "The Other Two." He spoke with guest interviewer Sam Sanders, the former host of the NPR show It's Been A Minute. Sam is currently working on a new weekly culture podcast for Vulture and New York Magazine, which is set to debut next month. Here's Sam.
SAM SANDERS: Joel Kim Booster is having a great year. His movie, "Fire Island," was released on Hulu this month to rave reviews. The film is a very gay and very Asian retelling of "Pride And Prejudice."
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FIRE ISLAND")
JOEL KIM BOOSTER: (As Noah) This week is sacred. We're going to Fire Island. It's like gay Disney World.
SANDERS: And Joel is featured in a new Apple TV+ comedy out later this month with Maya Rudolph. It's called "Loot."
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LOOT")
MAYA RUDOLPH: (As Molly Novak) I can't believe how long that meeting was. What was that, like, three hours?
BOOSTER: (As Nicholas) It's 9:50 a.m.
RUDOLPH: (As Molly Novak) Really? And we have to be here till 6:30?
BOOSTER: (As Nicholas) We don't have to be, though. We don't have to do anything. That's why I'm so confused right now.
SANDERS: There's more. Joel Kim Booster is also out with a new comedy special on Netflix. It's called "Psychosexual," and it's full of what Joel does best - biting, sarcastic, hilarious takes on subject matter that could be extremely depressing in other hands.
(SOUNDBITE OF COMEDY SPECIAL, "PSYCHOSEXUAL")
BOOSTER: Don't believe that overpopulation is the major issue at play here. I do think that if you want to have kids, you should have kids. But I do think that if you are having kids, knowing everything we know about the way the world is going, it is sort of like when you're at a party that you know is dying down, you know, and then you get a text from a friend and they're like, hey, should I still come to the party?
BOOSTER: And you're like, yeah. Yeah. Jump in that Uber, girl.
BOOSTER: I'm sure it'll be fine. I'm sure there will be ice still at the party by the time you get here - when what you should be doing is calling them immediately and being like, don't come here. Somebody has put on a podcast.
SANDERS: So a lot of Joel Kim Booster's work is about identity, what it's like to be gay, what it's like to be Asian while also being gay, what it's like to be Asian and gay while growing up with white evangelical adoptive parents. In most of his work, behind every stare and every line, you can see Joel or his characters working through all of that, looking around, trying to figure out just where and how they fit in.
Joel Kim Booster, welcome to FRESH AIR.
BOOSTER: Thank you so much for having me.
SANDERS: You're having this great year. You've got "Fire Island." You've got the Netflix comedy special. You've got the Apple TV+ show. Are you allowing yourself to believe now in 2022 that you've, quote, "made it?"
BOOSTER: No (laughter). In some respects - like, listen, I - you know, I've made it in the sense that I am able to support myself as a writer/performer. And that, you know, is something of a feat in and of itself. And I'm very proud of that. But I don't know - I guess I'm lucky in some senses that it's all happening in the span of one month, Pride Month. I think the metric for me of actually making it next time will be if they let me release something that's not in June during Pride. That'll be when I really know that I've hit an upper echelon.
SANDERS: Can we talk about your movie, "Fire Island?" Give our listeners a 30-second description of this film for those who haven't seen it yet.
BOOSTER: Yeah. "Fire Island" is a modern-day retelling of "Pride And Prejudice" set on Fire Island, and it is about the experience of vacationing with a chosen family and what it's like to fall in love in a very short amount of time on vacation - and class and race and body politics.
SANDERS: Yeah. Yeah. And now I guess we need a 45-second description of what exactly Fire Island is for those who've never been. And I myself have never been.
BOOSTER: Yeah. Fire Island is a small little barrier island connected to Long Island. And it is now, for close to a century, been a sort of safe haven for queer people to go and escape sort of heterosexual society for a little bit. I think one misconception about Fire Island is that it's completely gay. In fact, Fire Island is made up of several sort of neighborhoods or hamlets, and only two of them are gay - Cherry Grove and the Pines. And that's where the movie is set. And there are no roads. There are no cars, no cell service. There are huge parties and debauchery that can happen. And you can also go and make dinner and play board games and read by the pool if you want.
SANDERS: When did you first go to Fire Island? And, like, what was it like?
BOOSTER: We - so I went in 2016 with Bowen for the very first time - yeah, Bowen Yang...
SANDERS: Bowen Yang, we should say.
BOOSTER: ...Who co-stars with me in the movie and co-stars with me in my life as one of my best friends. And he and I had the opportunity to go. And we were a little apprehensive because another important thing to know about Fire Island is it does sort of have a reputation for being not only a safe haven for queer people but specifically a very specific subset of queer people, which is cis, white, muscly, gay guys who are usually rich and usually in their own sort of exclusive...
BOOSTER: ...Bubble and, you know, can be sometimes a little unwelcoming to people who don't fit into those categories in some way. And so we were a little nervous to go, but we ended up, you know, having sort of the summer of our lives out there for the first time and learning very quickly that Fire Island is a place for everybody, as long as - and it is very much about who you go with and who you choose to surround yourself with on the island. And I know that, like, a lot of people, when this movie was coming out, were sort of like, why would you want to celebrate a place that can be so toxic? And for me, it's always been like - it's one of the most visually arresting, beautiful places I've ever been.
And if you cede - if we avoid that island because there is this element of toxic gay guy culture, then we've lost something really special, you know? And I'm really heartened that, like, in the last couple of years I've gone, you are starting to see a lot more people of color going, a lot more queer, gender nonconforming, trans people going, you know, people of all body types. You know, we're sort of storming the island, and we're taking it back in a certain way and saying, like, this is for everybody. This is for everyone in our community. And, you know, we're not going to let just one subsection of the - of our community have it.
SANDERS: You know, so "Pride And Prejudice" is all about class. But your movie, "Fire Island," is a reworking of that text that becomes a commentary on both race and class. And I'm wondering, was it hard and, if it was, what was the hardest part about stretching this Jane Austen story to accommodate both of those things, race and class?
BOOSTER: Well, honestly, the mapping of it wasn't that difficult for me. I - so I brought "Pride And Prejudice" with me as my beach read the very first summer that Bowen and I went out there. As I was reading it on Fire Island, it was the first time I sort of made this connection where I realized that the way in which Jane Austen sort of rendered people of different classes communicating across class lines and the ways that people treated each other from different classes, it was very similar to what we were experiencing on Fire Island and the ways in which gay men create sort of artificial classes around themselves, you know, based on things like race and masculinity and body fat percentage and actual wealth. And it became very sort of clear to me on that trip that Jane Austen understood something really universal about not only, you know, the experience of communicating across class lines, but also just, like, how gay men communicate with each other. Like, in her novels, people are awful to each other without being awful to each other.
SANDERS: (Laughter) Yeah.
BOOSTER: They say awful, terrible things to each other but with the veneer of respectability and politeness that is similar to shade. You know, it is - I think, like, Jane Austen understood shade before - yeah...
SANDERS: It's a very gay thing to do.
BOOSTER: ...Before she - before the - you know, we even knew it.
SANDERS: You know, on top of all of this, there's this question of, like, what box a film like "Fire Island" fits into. Is it just a rom-com? Is it just a queer movie? Is it just an Asian movie? And I'm really intrigued by that last question because I've read that the cast of this film got more Asian as the project went along. Your love interest at first was not supposed to be Asian in the final film, though he is. How different of a movie would "Fire Island" have been had that remained the case - had your love interest not also been Asian?
BOOSTER: I think it would have been fairly different. You know, the love interest was always going to be a person of color. It was always going to be - but it was intended to be a person of color - a non-Asian person of color to sort of explore, like, the complicated dynamics of what it is for different people of color to interact and how it's different for Asian people versus, you know, possibly, you know, a Middle Eastern gay guy or an African American gay guy and trying to explore, like, the complications that occur when - you know, it's one thing to say that, like, it is hard to be gay and a person of color, OK? We - you can say that blanket statement, but it is specifically, on a granular level, difficult in different ways to be Asian and gay and to be Black and gay. And, like, it was a different kind of film.
But I think, like, ultimately, too, you know, there's something to be said - I think, like, for me, as an Asian creator, I'm glad that, like - I think it was better in the long run that I - especially as my first outing - tackled very specifically an Asian American story rather than trying to tell a million - and weave a million different stories and perspectives into one movie.
SANDERS: Our guest is actor, writer and comic Joel Kim Booster. He's the screenwriter and star of the new film "Fire Island." He also has a new Netflix stand-up special called "Psychosexual." And Joel co-stars with Maya Rudolph in the new TV show "Loot" on Apple TV+. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF BIG THIEF SONG, "SIMULATION SWARM")
SANDERS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Sam Sanders, back with Joel Kim Booster. He's a stand-up comic, actor and writer. He has a new stand-up special called "Psychosexual." And he wrote and stars in the new movie "Fire Island" with his friend Bowen Yang, and he co-stars with Maya Rudolph in the new Apple TV+ show "Loot." He's also written for shows like "Big Mouth," "Billy On The Street" and "The Other Two."
One of the most poignant moments in "Fire Island" is when Bowen's character confronts your character and basically says, I know you think we're in the same boat because we are both gay Asian men facing sexual racism, but it's more than that and it's different. Look at you, and look at me. The world treats us differently, right? One of us has a six-pack. And that conversation felt so real and so visceral. Let's hear some of that scene with you and Bowen Yang.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FIRE ISLAND")
BOOSTER: (As Noah) There are plenty of other guys.
BOWEN YANG: (As Howie) For you.
BOOSTER: (As Noah) For you, too.
YANG: (As Howie) No, stop it. Stop talking about this like we're the same.
BOOSTER: (As Noah) But we are. You and me...
YANG: (As Howie) No, stop. You want to feel so good so badly that you did all this. And now you want me to feel good, too, because you - I don't know, you feel guilty. Stop pretending like you don't understand how the world works.
BOOSTER: (As Noah) That's really unfair.
SANDERS: How much of that conversation had been had before in your real life, and how many times, with anybody?
BOOSTER: It is definitely a conversation that I have had more obliquely, I think, with friends, and specifically Bowen, you know? It's never been as contentious and confrontational as it was rendered in the movie. But again, it goes back to wanting to make sure that, like - yes, of course I experience discrimination, but understanding that I am still looking the way I do, coming from a place of relative privilege within this community, in a community that places a high premium on six-packs, you know? And that is a form of currency that I am able to trade in in this community. And I'm not blind to that.
I'm not - you know, I didn't want to make a movie where I was, like, some kind of, you know, victim the entire way through without acknowledging that, yeah, I also have a great deal of privilege because of the way I look. And I didn't want to let myself off the hook in that way. And I'm - you know, that's why that scene exists in the movie. And I think it's important for people to reckon with that kind of privilege as well, you know, and understanding the intersections of, you know, where you are marginalized and where you have privilege.
SANDERS: Well, and then there's just these moments that come out of nowhere that offer such a lovely, like, comedic reset. Like, I keep thinking of the fleeting moment where, like, Matt Rogers is reciting lines from "My Cousin Vinny." And I had to, like, stop and rewind and watch it five times because it's just like, yeah, yeah, that, you know? And it is a hard needle to thread - to get that in a movie and all this commentary that we're talking about. But you did it, Joel. You did it.
BOOSTER: Thank you. Thank you.
SANDERS: I have heard that you read the YouTube comments on your comedy videos on YouTube. I wonder, have you been reading the reviews of your film?
BOOSTER: Yeah, I've been keeping up with the - most of the reviews of the movie. I'm interested. I think, you know, as a first-time filmmaker, I find, you know, criticism to be very instructive, I think. And it's, you know, the good and the bad. I absorb it all. And I think there were a lot of really lovely reviews of the movie, and people engaged with the movie in really interesting ways that I didn't, you know, necessarily expect. And then, there were also legitimate critiques that came out that I - you know, I'm absorbing and will definitely, you know, affect, I think, the way I approach my next project. And then, there are criticisms that I didn't take to heart and that I sort of felt were a little bit more frivolous or silly.
SANDERS: Like, what? Tell me one of those.
BOOSTER: Well, I think the Bechdel test controversy of 2022 was definitely one of the more bizarre experiences of my life.
SANDERS: I want to set up the Bechdel test for our listeners and then set up the tweet in question. So first, the Bechdel test comes from the cartoonist Alison Bechdel, and it was in one of her cartoons years ago. And to pass the Bechdel test, a work - usually a film - it must feature at least two women, and those women must talk to each other, and their conversation must concern something other than a man. That is a Bechdel test usually for a film.
And the writer Hanna Rosin tweeted after watching "Fire Island," your movie about gay men on Fire Island - she wrote that "Fire Island" was full of lazy portrayals of lesbians through Margaret Cho and that it also failed the Bechdel test. And then the tweet blew up. The Bechdel test became a trending topic. Various news outlets wrote about this. It became a meme. Bechdel herself ended up tweeting about it as well. Hanna apologized at length. First question - why did that one tweet, you think, resonate so deeply with people?
BOOSTER: This is such a blatant misuse of the spirit of the Bechdel test that that is why people were angry. And there were other aspects of it, too. I think calling Margaret's character drab was maybe frustrating for people - I think especially for Margaret, who the character was so much modeled after Margaret as a person that I think Margaret took a lot of offense to the descriptor of drab. And beyond that, there's one aspect of the tweet that really did sort of rankle me more so than - it's easy to laugh off the pass-fail of the Bechtel test in a movie about specifically queer Asian men. You know, I - my priority wasn't - you know, I think the movie isn't misogynist because it features a primarily a (ph) cast of, you know, gay Asian or gay people of color. I think the - that is sort of a misuse of the Bechdel test, to put it lightly. The thing that really - that was minor but really bothered me was the description of Bowen and I as cute Asian boys in the tweet. She said - I believe it was something like, you know - or - well...
SANDERS: How did you feel about that?
BOOSTER: I'm a 34-year-old man, you know (laughter)? I'm like - I don't even like, you know, the guys that I have sex with who are older than me to call me a boy in most cases, let alone a writer from New York magazine calling me a cute Asian boy. It just felt a little infantilizing. And quite honestly, I don't know - I don't know. It felt - it didn't feel good to me. And that was probably the biggest point of contention that I had with the tweet. But again, she apologized, and I fully accept the apology. And I - you know, in my 20s, I really followed Hanna Rosin's writing pretty closely and listened to her podcast. So, you know, it was - that was another strange sort of moment, is having someone you used to really listen to and absorb sort of comment on your work in that specific way. It was really sort of an out-of-body experience.
SANDERS: I now want to comment at this point - in full disclosure, I'm working on a new culture podcast for Vulture and for New York magazine where Hanna Rosin works. And we're colleagues. She is my boss. And she knows that we're talking about this, and she's a grown-up and can handle this chat. But yeah, like you said, we can do two things with that tweet and her work, you know - respect her body of work and also acknowledge, not the best tweet at all. What would the queer Bechdel test be?
BOOSTER: Oh, wow. I guess it would have to be about, you know, two named queer characters talking about something other than trauma. That's (laughter) - I think that's what it would be for me. They're...
BOOSTER: They're not coming out. They're not being - you know, they are not experiencing homophobia. They're not falling in love with a straight person. It's - just two queer people existing - you know, ordering coffee and trying to do their taxes.
GROSS: We're listening to the conversation our guest interviewer Sam Sanders recorded with Joel Kim Booster. Booster wrote and stars in the new film "Fire Island." His new stand-up special is called "Psychosexual." We'll hear more of their conversation after a break. I am Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOMETIMES")
KATIE GAVIN: (Singing) Sometimes, I run. Sometimes, I hide. Sometimes, I'm scared of you. But all I really want is to hold you tight, treat you right, be with you day and night. Baby, all I need is time.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to our interview with comedian, actor and writer Joel Kim Booster. He has a new Netflix comedy special called "Psychosexual," and he wrote and stars in the new gay rom-com "Fire Island," which is streaming on Hulu. He spoke with guest interviewer Sam Sanders. Sam's the former host of the NPR show It's Been A Minute and is currently working on a new weekly podcast for Vulture and New York Magazine.
SANDERS: So I want to ask you about "Psychosexual," Joel, this Netflix comedy special, this hour you just did. You split this special into different parts. What were the parts, and why did you do that?
BOOSTER: So the sections - it's sort of a three-act structure. And the first section is jokes primarily dealing with my identities as both a gay man and as an Asian man and as a gay Asian man specifically. And then, you know, I was sort of wanting to get that all out of the way so that I could move on to a section of jokes specifically that are sort of told from a perspective and about topics that any comedian could tackle, that, on paper, these jokes could be told by a comedian of any identity. And then the third act is sort of the most loaded act in a lot of ways because it's - the third act is made up of topics that I've been told numerous times that I shouldn't talk about as a comedian on stage, which is mostly about sex. And I did it all because I wanted to talk very specifically about the privilege and the burden of representation and what that all means and what it means to be a comedian who is of, you know, marginalized identities and how that affects my work and how that affects my - the perception of my work and, you know, how that plays out, you know, when I'm engaging with the audience.
SANDERS: There was one thing I wondered watching the special, especially the jokes just about dating as a gay man, dating as a gay man of color and the sexual racism that can be found in the community. All those jokes were so resonant. But I also know that according to your Instagram, and correct me on this if I'm wrong, you are not single anymore. First, congrats, and two, has finding a partner changed in any way your philosophy present in those jokes in the special? Like, are there any jokes now that partner Joel probably wouldn't tell anymore?
BOOSTER: I wouldn't tell most of them now in a lot of ways because it's no longer true for my life. You know, I wrote the special before I met my partner. And so there's jokes about, you know, being single that don't resonate anymore, you know, and I sort of have to talk about them in the past tense in a lot of ways. But I mean, there's a couple of things, right? Like, A, my partner and I are non-monogamous, so I am still experiencing sexual racism out in the wild, you know, as we, you know, experience - have experiences apart from one another and together as well. And it's convenient, too, like, the timing of meeting him because now I have a whole new well of material to sort of dip into.
This is the first serious relationship I've ever been in. And there's a lot of growing pains, and there's a lot of, you know, things that I'm learning about myself. And then the other big part of it is my boyfriend is white. And that is both - you know, internally, it's challenging at times to be in any sort of interracial relationship. It's challenging for me specifically because I catch a lot of [expletive] for it, you know? I can't post a picture of my boyfriend...
SANDERS: What kind of [expletive] you catch?
BOOSTER: I can't - people's say I'm a white worshipper, that I - you know, I'm selling out our race, that I - that they used to like me until I had a white boyfriend. Of course you have a white boyfriend. You only ever chase after white guys. You're just another, you know, Asian guy who only wants to sleep with white guys - and all of these assumptions based on the one white person that I, you know, happened to end up with - 'cause it is - like, for me, internally within our relationship, there are things that I am struggling with and dealing with as a person of color dating a white person. And those are things that I'm dealing with on a personal level and tend to have people come from the outside constantly bombarding me with accusations of being a race traitor, basically. And it makes it so much more difficult to have to deal with those, you know, very real personal challenges within our relationship because I have stuff coming from the outside and I have to deal with the stuff that's coming from the inside. And so, you know, it's challenging.
SANDERS: You know, I feel like we've talked so much about your work and this current moment, but I feel like for listeners to get a really full or more full understanding of who you are, Joel Kim Booster, we've got to talk about where you came from and what that's about. And I think first to get into that, what was happening for you before stand-up comedy? You know, stand-up is how you made a name for yourself, but you began wanting to be an actor and a writer. Like, when did young Joel know that he wanted that?
BOOSTER: I think I knew pretty early on. I think as soon as I knew it was a job, it was the only thing I have ever wanted to do, was to tell stories. You know, I was a really sort of - I loved attention as a child, as I do as an adult. And I think, like, I really craved the spotlight from a really young age. And I - a lot of it for me as a child was figuring out the ways in which you could get that kind of attention from storytelling. And so I would write my short stories and make my family sit down and listen to them. And I would, you know, be in as many, you know, community theater productions as possible. And I just, quite frankly, have never really been good at anything else. So it was always sort of the only option for me. And yeah, it's so weird to try and think back on a time when I wasn't interested in doing something along the lines of what I'm doing right now.
SANDERS: Was there a certain moment where you saw a certain thing on TV or in the movie and said, I got to do that?
BOOSTER: Yeah. I mean, Margaret Cho was a huge sort of eye-opening experience for me as a child. Watching "All-American Girl," her sitcom on ABC, was really massive for me. It was the first time I had seen an Asian American on screen that wasn't a sidekick, that wasn't doing martial arts, not that there's anything wrong with that, but I - it was, like, something that I just couldn't connect with. And suddenly there was this woman on screen who, you know, had a family that looked like me. And as a transracial adoptee, that was hugely impactful for me as well, was seeing an Asian American family on screen for the first time. And I just remember sitting really, like, inches away from the TV watching that show week after week and really for the first time understanding what was possible for me.
SANDERS: You know, it must have been really interesting for someone like you as a kid to watch it because you were this young Asian American boy, but your family wasn't Asian; your family was white. You were adopted as a child by Midwestern white evangelicals. What was the life that young Joel was living with that family when he was seeing Margaret Cho on screen?
BOOSTER: Listen; I had a really great childhood, but it was - there's a lot of dysphoria that, like - dysmorphia and strangeness that comes from, you know, not looking like your family. And there's a strangeness that comes with that that you cannot necessarily shake and that I don't know that I have ever completely shaken from myself. I just - you know, I grew up in a town of mostly white people, in a family of all white people. And as a byproduct of that, I think there's a lot of work that I've had to do to feel comfortable in any space, quite frankly - white spaces, Asian spaces.
You know, part of the experience I think that I share with a lot of transracial adoptees is this feeling of discomfort no matter where you are and not quite feeling like you belong. You know, I am so lucky that I'm queer as well because I think finding my chosen family and surrounding myself with people, some who look like me and some who don't but who understand me on, you know, that really deep spiritual level, has been really vital to me and my growth as a person.
SANDERS: Our guest is actor, writer, and comic Joel Kim Booster. He's a screenwriter and star of the new film "Fire Island." He also has a new Netflix stand-up special called "Psychosexual." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF KRISTINE BLOND SONG, "LOVE SHY (CLUB ASYLUM REMIX)")
SANDERS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Sam Sanders back with Joel Kim Booster. He's a stand-up comic, actor and writer. He has a new stand-up special called "Psychosexual." And he wrote and stars in the new movie "Fire Island" with his friend Bowen Yang.
You end up at a certain point in high school leaving that home and leaving your family because you're gay, and they find out, and they're not cool with it, right? What happens then?
BOOSTER: Yeah. So it was my senior year of high school. I moved out, couch-hopped, lived in my car a little bit and, eventually, ended up living with a family of a girl that I had one class with that, you know, I barely knew but sort of knew my situation and told me that I could sleep at her house for one night, and that one night turned into the rest of the year. And that family, you know, became my second family, you know?
And sort of ironically enough, her dad was the Methodist pastor in town. And really, you know, because coming from an evangelical background, I was really messed up about, you know - it's hard to untangle yourself from that sort of fundamentalism in religion. And so a huge part of me thought I was going to hell for a large part of my teenage years. You know, I was out, and I was happy being out, but I had this understanding that, like, eventually, I would be going to hell. And her dad, as this very progressive Methodist pastor in town, really let me know that I was OK. And, you know, I don't necessarily - I consider myself fairly agnostic now, but at the time it was so powerful for me to hear, you know, a person with authority in the church say to me, you are OK, and God loves you.
SANDERS: You know, going through that experience, I could see someone like you saying, well, let's not talk about that. I've moved on. I'm free now. But for a good portion of your career, it informed your comedy. And I'm thinking back to the first time you got on "Conan," which was - what? - six years ago this month, I think, June 2016. At the top of that set, you are talking about growing up in the Midwest, adopted and gay and Asian. So why don't we hear the beginning of that first set that you did on "Conan" back in 2016?
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "CONAN")
BOOSTER: My name, it's very strange. It does not match my face. Joel Kim Booster. Why? You know?
BOOSTER: Joel up top there - that seems pretty Jewish, doesn't make any sense at all.
BOOSTER: Kim in the middle - that seems closer.
BOOSTER: And then Booster right there at the end - well, that's just a word.
BOOSTER: That's not a name at all. What's happening there? And the reason I have this very goofy name is, yes, I was adopted by a nice white Midwestern couple in the mid-'80s, like many Korean babies were. Korea in the mid-'80s, if you were around, you probably remember it was the only country that would fly a baby to the U.S. and you didn't have to go and pick it up. So it was very much the GrubHub of babies back then.
BOOSTER: It was delivered by a very grumpy man on a bike.
BOOSTER: Forgot my mom's Pepsi, wouldn't go back for it. It was a disaster. So as you can imagine, it was a little weird growing up in the Midwest with this face and that family. I mean, I literally knew I was gay before I knew I was Asian.
SANDERS: One, wow, what a statement. But, two, to the level of, I don't know, bravery, self-awareness, to say that on a stage in front of people. What do you really mean when you say that I fully knew I was gay before I knew I was Asian?
BOOSTER: Well, because, you know, I - another sort of layer on top of all of this is that I was home-schooled from the time I was, you know, a child until I was a junior in high school. And so we led a pretty sheltered life. You know, it was really just me and my family as a unit. We didn't really - I didn't really interact with many people outside of my family. And I remember at - you know, being 4 or 5 years old and telling my brother and my sister I like boys, you know? And they thought it was a hilarious joke and didn't really think much of it at the time.
And it wasn't until I was probably 7 or 8 that I, you know, was at a family reunion in Alabama with my mom's side of the family, who are mostly from the South, and it was really at that moment where I was looking at this huge composite photo of our entire family standing together that I realized, oh, my God, like, I am different. I look different than all of these people. I look different from everyone in my family. And that was really when I had sort of an actual sort of real understanding of my racial differences from my family, was at that moment. And this was, you know, years after I knew I liked boys. So it is both of - it's a funny joke, but it is the truth.
SANDERS: You know, hearing you talk about this, hearing your comedy special this week, watching "Fire Island," I kind of see this common thread throughout all of your recent work and most of your work in general. A lot of the work is about relationships, and it's about the relationships that we choose, whether they're romantic ones or those with close friends. And now I feel like with "Fire Island" and with "Psychosexual," you're talking more about the chosen family than about the family that you were given. And I wonder what that means and what it says about your life and that relationship. What does it mean that you're talking less about that stuff now?
BOOSTER: You know, there's - so there's - I'm sort of circling back to my family, you know, in this new hour that I'm working on, in part, you know, because - I think part of the reason I left it behind is I'm in a much better place with my family now. You know, we've really reconciled and come together. And part of that is, you know, we lost my dad to COVID last year. And that really...
SANDERS: I'm sorry to hear that.
BOOSTER: ...Put a lot of things into perspective, I think, for our family of, you know, what's actually important and what - and how little time we actually have to be together. And why waste - you know, I think for my mom, especially, it was, why waste time disapproving of my life and keeping me sort of, because of that disapproval, at arm's length, you know? And so, yeah, we're - I think it's unfortunate that it took such a huge, tragic event to sort of bring us together, but it is, I think, like, ultimately, a silver lining to one of the worst things that's ever happened to me, is that it brought me closer to my mom.
SANDERS: Did she like "Fire Island?" Did she like "Psychosexual?" Does she watch your stuff?
BOOSTER: I don't think she's aware that either of them exist, and that is quite all right with me, I think.
BOOSTER: My mom has always been fairly uncurious about my career, I think, because we don't need any more reason for tension in our relationship. I think that enough of it exists without her hearing me talk about my casual sex life or seeing, you know, orgies in my movie. So she's very proud of me. She knows that I'm able to support myself, that I, you know, have been able to carve out a very successful career in this industry. And that is enough for her, and that's enough for me.
SANDERS: Is there ever a version of your life in which you make a movie about that part of your life - the Korean child adopted by Midwestern, white, evangelical parents, who ends up fleeing home senior year of high school when he is gay? Would that be a movie that you ever write?
BOOSTER: Yeah. You know, it's obviously something that I am - I've thought about a lot. But it's funny, you know, even though so much of that happened when I was a teenager, it doesn't feel like that story has quite completed yet, you know? I feel like I still don't have enough distance from it to understand what story I would be telling. You know, I could tell an autobiographical story of just the simple facts of what happened - you know? - but I don't know, in sort of a macro sense, like, what is that - what am I trying to say? And until I know that, I don't - it doesn't feel like I know how the story ends yet. And maybe I might never understand that. But until I have the distance from it to know how the story ends and how it sort of closes the loop, I don't think I'm ready to tell that story in a fictionalized way.
SANDERS: Joel, I've asked you all the questions I have for you, and I just want to thank you for your time and say that I'm so excited for your big year. Thank you for all you do.
BOOSTER: Thank you so much, Sam. Thank you. I really, really appreciate that. I do.
GROSS: Joel Kim Booster's new Netflix comedy special is called "Psychosexual." He wrote and stars in the new film "Fire Island," which is streaming on Hulu, and co-stars in the new Apple TV+ series "Loot." He spoke with guest interviewer Sam Sanders. Sam's new weekly culture podcast for Vulture and New York Magazine debuts next month. After we take a short break, Maureen Corrigan will review a new novel by Ottessa Moshfegh set in the Middle Ages. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF BILL FRISELL'S "BEAUTIFUL BOY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.