You’d think that an Asian kid adopted and raised by white Evangelical parents, who later detached from him at a crucial age after coming out as gay, would be a wreck.
Not Joel Kim Booster. Booster, who is in the midst of a thriving career in standup comedy, is doing A-OK despite such a fragmented upbringing. In fact, he is spinning his “identity dysphoria” into comedy gold.
“If you have a strong enough point of view or comedic voice, you’re able to just explain to someone that your parents didn’t talk to you for a year and a half. Everything is comedy and it’s just a matter of taking a step back and disassociating for a moment,” Booster says, explaining his process to Elyssa Goodman at Vice.
Born in South Korea, Joel’s adoptive parents raised him outside of Chicago in Plainfield, Illinois. There he was homeschooled and involved in Christian youth groups until senior year of high school when his parents allowed him to attend public school. Then shazam! he entered theatre class, was cast in a school play, and came out to his new classmates—but not to his family. Booster jokes he knew he was gay (at age four) before he knew he was Asian, but the religious pressures caused him to repress and pray to change. His parents discovered 17-year-old Joel’s journal that revealed he was sexually active with men. The family relationship turned quite bad; Joel moved out and his parents did not try to stop him. He couched surfed with friends, finally being taken in by a choir friend’s family for the duration of senior year. That family actually helped him through college! That is what Jesus would do!
It wasn’t until much later, while in college, that Booster resumed contact with his parents. At present, Booster describes their relationship as “great” and “as good as it could be.”
After college, Booster set out to be a writer and actor in Chicago, but focused on comedy after repeatedly getting Asian stereotype role offers. Comedian Beth Stelling encouraged him to branch out into writing his own material. Booster cites Tig Notaro as a profound influence.
“I still remember where I was when I heard Tig Notaro: Live, because it was the first time I had heard material that was so personal.”
Now Booster, with his crisply timed stand-up execution, is reaping the benefits of his own personal stories.
“Once I figured that out and I started to talk about myself more, stand up has really been a therapy in a way of that untangling process,” he says.
That “untangling” produces jokes like one that killed it on Conan: “It was difficult for me growing up in [Plainfield] because I don’t meet a lot of cultural expectations of what an Asian person ‘should be’ in this country: I’m terrible at math, I don’t know karate, my dick is huge.”
In addition to appearing on Conan, Booster had a Comedy Central Stand-Up Presents special air on October 20, and his debut album Model Minority will be released on November 3. In 2016 Booster had sold Birthright, a TV show based on his life story, to Fox, though the series is presently being developed at another network. Furthermore, Booster has been hailed in Esquire, Brooklyn Magazine (he now lives in Brooklyn) and Paper, and his star is continuing to levitate.
“Everybody a little bit wants to be famous. I’ll settle for working and making a living and having health insurance. I guess I want to be—this is said tongue firmly planted in my cheek—but I want to be a fucking legend,” Booster kids. “I don’t want to just have my name said, I want it to be etched in fucking stone.”