Gentrification and other losing battles be damned: in 2015, the comedy scene in Brooklyn has been looking pretty good. Most any well-known show you attend these days, be it Night Train or The Macaulay Culkin Show, features a rotating cast of smart, funny comedians that aren’t all dudes, or all straight, or all white. (Or all straight white dudes, god forbid.)
27-year-old Joel Kim Booster is one of those smart, funny comedians. You’ve probably seen him doing stand up at any number of shows around the borough (most notably, Comedy at the Knitting Factory), or co-hosting F*ck That Movie with Anna Drezen, or appearing in the occasional Live On Broadgay by Sam Taggart and Bowen Yang.
When we sat down with the Korean-born, Chicago-bred comic to talk about his career, though, he mentioned something that’s been bothering him: “People don’t call me a comedian. They call me a ‘gay Asian comedian.” As a Korean-born man who dates other men, Booster has spent the better part of his career reckoning with the labels thrust upon him. And as he shares with us in this interview, standing out in the comedy crowd isn’t exactly the freedom he was looking for.
Booster comes from a theater background—he’s actually got a published play—and started out doing shows in Chicago after college. His call to comedy came after a few years of being type-cast at every audition. “I was only getting the ‘Chinese Food Delivery Boy’ gigs,” he says. “Some of the guys I was up against had been doing it for a decade, and were still just getting cast in that role.”
Comedy, in contrast, seemed to Booster like a place where ethnicity was more of an optional jumping-off point in material than a category anyone was stuck with. “People like Mindy [Kaling] and Aziz [Ansari] are the models by which I started doing comedy,” he told us. “They’re each making themselves a hyper-specific brand, and they just get to make shit.”
But when Booster came to New York for a fresh start — doing 2 opens mics every night for a year — he discovered that even in the self-aware climate of stand up comedy, he could still be pigeonholed with racialized, albeit more sensitive, labels. “[‘Gay Asian comedian’] is not exactly misrepresenting what my comedy is. But I do get annoyed.”
As we’ve seen in Ansari’s Master of None — the fine art of “making shit” in comedy all-too-often plays second fiddle to the way people perceive you. And for Joel Kim Booster, that meant acquiescing to being referred to as a “gay Asian comic” or simply as an “alt-comic.” But he took issue with the latter term when we asked him about it, since he felt it dismissed his brand of humor as fringe because of his sexual identity. “Because I’m gay, my stand-up strikes people as radical,” Booster told us. “The sheer fact of my getting up onstage as an ‘othered’ individual makes my act hit a little harder.”
Booster referred to alternative comedy as a “dog whistle term” in the mainstream comedy scene, used to connote an underground scene that industry comics don’t have any interest in knowing about. “People in the mainstream industry will say, ‘Oh, why haven’t I heard of you? Are you an alt-comic?”
Of course, for us — and likely for you, if you’re reading — alternative comedy has only positive connotations here in the borough. Simply put, alt-comics and shows are generally just more interesting than their traditionalist counterparts. Joe Pera, for example, thrives on a slow-burning joke buildup that belies basic comedy formula. The Lucas Brothers take advantage of identical DNA to do alarmingly synchronized shtick. And Jo Firestone is pretty much Brooklyn’s alt-comedy darling, putting up quirky events like Punderdome 3000 and the Inner Beauty Pageant.
“The things I see in Brooklyn, I know I’ll see people trying to emulate in 10 years,” Booster admitted. But he told us he could live without the ‘alt’ compliment, even though shows like F*ck That Movie and Live on Broadgay certainly fall into the category. He described his comedy instead as an effort to level the playing field between all walks of life (and senses of humor). “For me, it’s about humanizing. It’s so specific to talk about getting peed on by a man,” Booster said. “What I try to do is make it seem like that could happen to anybody. And eventually, people will just be like, ‘these freaks are humans, too.'”
For all his proselytizing, Booster conceded to taking a pretty unschooled approach to his standup. “Sometimes I feel like I’m cheating, because I’ll pull things that I’ve just said in conversation. Frankly, I don’t understand why I make people laugh.”
Whether or not you find Joel Kim Booster funny (all his handles are @ihatejoelkim, so we can assume he takes it all with a grain of salt), his comedy is certainly an indication that he’s a real human person with fears, hopes and dreams. Just like any of us trying to make it in the big bad city, right?
When we asked Booster what would constitute ‘making it’ in the biz for him, he didn’t hesitate. “I’m trying to get networks to throw money at this idea I have for a gay ghost, who can’t pass on until he gets a boyfriend. If I can introduce America to a gay ghost, I think I’ll have made it.”
For the latest updates about gay ghosts and more, follow Joel Kim Booster on Twitter @ihatejoelkim. And see for yourself whether he’s worth hating tonight as he takes the stage at Night Train at 8pm.