“I feel insane,” he starts off. Joel Kim Booster admits it’s weird going from relative obscurity as a “very niche figure in the comedy world” to, suddenly, having a bunch of people gazing up at him in a speedo for 90 minutes in his debut feature film, Fire Island—which he wrote, executive produced and stars in. (It’s a great speedo, it should be noted, with plenty of bulge supremacy courtesy of the “gender-optional” brand R.Swiader.)
He’s on mile twenty-ish of a marathon press cycle that’s seen him volleying from Fire Island to his new Netflix comedy special, Psychosexual and the Apple TV+ Maya Rudolph-led comedy series Loot, the latter two of which premiere just days apart this week. “I quite honestly wish it would spread out a bit more,” he admits. “I think I will know I’ve finally made it when a company wants to release something of mine not in Pride month. That’ll be the watershed moment of my career, mounting something in July.”
Long before Booster was a Pride month staple, he was seeking out the very content he finds himself now making. Booster grew up surrounded by movies, working at the recently-shuttered Family Video in Plainfield, Illinois. It was there that he scoured the new indie gay films on the shelves: Trick, Mambo Italiano, Latter Days and more. “All of those classics,” as he calls them, noting how those movies walked so Fire Island could run.
Part of Booster’s balancing act now is deciding on how much of himself, the person not the performer, to give away. A recent interview that unknowingly spotlit his boyfriend, for instance, gave him and his partner pause. “I’m so used to being able to talk about any corner of my life no matter how salacious and now I have this other person who’s involved in my life and has a very different career than I do. Suddenly I have to be responsible for someone else’s life now too,” he says. Though Booster has made a career out of appearing candid and transparent about every part of his life, he admits that his brand of authenticity, too, can be a performance. He calls this the magic trick of his work: making you feel like you’re seeing all parts of him when, in fact, you’re seeing very little.
GQ: You’ve been lying relatively low on social media. On Las Culturistas you commented “Every single piece of press that I’ve posted about myself in the last month I think I look bad in all of it. But I’ve let go.”
Joel Kim Booster: It’s this resistance to wanting to be perceived. I used to be very curious about what people were saying about me because not a lot of people were talking about me. And now suddenly people have seen the movie and have a lot of opinions about me — both good and bad — and it’s really overwhelming to try and absorb all of that. I used to be just another gay guy on Gay Twitter talking about whoever the main character was on Twitter that day. Now I don’t even feel comfortable tweeting about actresses the same way I did before. It’s a different context now and I can’t be as bitchy and open as I once was and so it’s less fun.
Critics are soft when compared to the claws of Gay Twitter. Have you been privy to the conversations about the film on there?
I think of [Fire Island director] Andrew [Ahn] on set constantly telling me ‘We cannot write this movie for Twitter.’ I think part of the reason why this movie didn’t feel pandery to a lot of people is that we weren’t trying to reverse engineer a movie that Twitter would like. He’d tell me, ‘Stick to the story that you want to write and don’t worry about what the discourse will be.’ I’m overwhelmed by the positive response but I also have a terrible brain and to paraphrase Lady Gaga, “There can be 100 positive tweets about your movie and just one that is negative and that is the one that I will focus on for the rest of my life.” And it happens in person too. Gay men feel very comfortable coming up and telling me if they don’t like the movie. I’m trying to do the work to separate out what I need to take seriously for when I make my next project and what I think is people wanting to hate me as a person.
What’s a memory from filming this movie that you’ll never forget?
It’s the final scene when all of us are dancing on the dock. Margaret [Cho] was wrapped that day and it was close to the very end of shooting and it felt like a real moment of celebratory joy at being on the island, being together. We weren’t acting at that moment. And look, I don’t know what’s going to happen with my career after this. This could be it, this could be my peak, or this could be the beginning, I don’t know. But I do know that it will never feel as good as it does now.
In your speech at the film’s premiere, you briefly spoke with tears in your eyes about falling in love with your boyfriend, which I believe was happening concurrently with the making of this film. How did that experience inform your work on this?
I have been such a rom-com fan for most of my life. I’ve worshiped at the altar of Nora Ephron. I love all of the classic rom-coms. And I was single until I was 33 years old, because I couldn’t ever find something that felt in line with what my ideal of what falling in love should be, because of these movies that fucked my brain up. Coming out of the pandemic, losing my dad and gearing up to go into this movie really shook up my brain in a way that made me vulnerable enough to meet somebody that I could fall in love with.
When I first wrote this movie it was me pulling from tropes and imagining what it was like to fall in love. I spent most of my life imaging what it would be like to fall in love — and this is so fucking cheesy — I never once considered what it would be like to be loved. And that is what really affected the script rewrites for me: having love reciprocated for the first time in my life. It went from me pretending to understand the experience to knowing and trying to infuse the movie with as much of that as possible.
I’m wondering if you can talk about that very poignant scene that takes place in the bathroom between Noah and Howie [played by Bowen Yang] midway through the film? “You want to feel so good so badly that you did all of this,” Howie tells your character, gesturing at your physique. “And now you want me to feel good too because you feel guilty? Stop pretending that you don’t understand how the world works.” What’s the subtext there?
It was hard to write and something that I had to process with Bowen first and then write. It speaks to the complication of writing this movie, which is about the politics of desire. When the trailer first came out I saw a comment that read, ‘We’re supposed to believe that Joel Kim Booster feels bullied on Fire Island looking like that?’ And I just wanted to be like, ‘Watch the movie. It’s addressed.’ I couldn’t write a movie about desire and desirability without addressing the fact that yes, my race is a factor in that, and I do feel invisible in a lot of gay spaces and I did give in to some darker impulses and remake myself to [be] more visible and feel more desirable. And this movie is me addressing that. I didn’t want to let myself off easy because it didn’t feel honest to tell this story without addressing the fact that depending on how you view it, I have a good deal of privilege in this community.
A sequel feels challenging in that this premise is all about the last summer. But what about a prequel? Or an extended cinematic universe?
I think I need to give myself some distance from the movie before I can think seriously about it, but of course I’ve thought about every iteration of what it could be. Ultimately for me the biggest draw is wanting to work with those people again. I’ll figure out a way to get every villain back in the movie if we do a sequel. They’ll all be cater waters at Charlie and Howie’s wedding, I don’t care. It’s really tempting to just jump back in, and trust me, I’ve heard every iteration in my DMs with the idea of setting the sequel in Provincetown or Puerto Vallarta or Mykonos. I get it, however I don’t necessarily want to pigeonhole myself as the gay destination screenwriter for the rest of my career. But talk to me again in six months.
This movie was distributed by Searchlight Pictures, which is a subsidiary of Walt Disney Studios. Were you surprised at how much of the gayness stayed in the film? I’ll admit I went in expecting a more watered-down version of the Fire Island I know, but sure enough the ketamine was there, as was the dark room at the underwear party.
When you take a meeting with me about a script that I have written, you have ten years of stand-up that is the prerequisite reading material for what you’re gonna get with me. I have a very bawdy act and have never shied away from talking about sex in my stand-up. I didn’t try to stay ahead of their notes and self-censor. I think a lot of people shoot themselves in the foot by trying to write for the notes. I wrote what felt honest and fought to make sure this didn’t become a movie about teaching straight people about gay culture.
Let’s talk about your new Netflix special. What is a psychosexual?
I think it’s someone that goes to great length to twist themselves into being the ideal sexual being for whomever their targeting at the time. I am psycho and I am sexual. It’s thinking about all of the mental gymnastics that go into sex for me.
You have these recurring bits in this special (and past ones) in which you pick audience members with whom we check in throughout the show. How do you strike that alchemy of preparedness but willingness to be in the moment?
Crowd work is like close-up magic. Part of it is tricking the audience into thinking you’re not in control, when no matter what card the person is dealt there is some mechanism, some framework to make sure I always pick the right card. It comes from years and years of preparing myself for those interactions. The questions that I ask, I know what they are going to say because I’ve done them countless times. Very few times am I surprised. It’s about maintaining the muscle well enough so that in those rare instances when you are surprised you can be there and volley back. It feels like magic, but it’s really a science. That’s how I write, too. I don’t write set-up and punchline in my notebook and say it verbatim. I go up and ask a question of the audience. It’s a dialogue vs. a monologue.
Fire Island is a movie, “it’s pretend,” as Britney Spears would call it, but in Psychosexual you talk at length about your sex life and your drug use and expose aspects of yourself. Is there anything that’s off limits?
Again, talking about the magic trick is making people think they’re seeing the real me. They are seeing a part of me, but a big part of what I’m experiencing now is that people are thinking they’re receiving 100% of me when they’re really just getting 20%. The trick is to have them thinking that that 20% is the 100%. I’m still in control of what I’m presenting to the audience, which is a very specific corner of my life which is about fun and excess and play. None of the other stuff that’s behind the curtain is out there so I still feel very protected. It doesn’t scare me because those are the easy things. Those are not the things that I’m ashamed of or worried about.
You make a joke in the special about dick pics and hole pics in our community, and the frequency and ease with which they are taken and disseminated. But I have to ask: Is there such a thing as a good hole pic?
I’ve never seen one and been like ‘Thank God I received this.’ I don’t want to kink shame anybody for what they like to send or receive, but for me they always come out looking like Rorschach tests.
There’s something brewing between Fire Island and Bros and Heartstopper and Hacks. Zooming out: What do you want to see happen next with regard to queer media?
It used to be these moments in time where you would throw a piece of meat in front of a group of starving dogs and you’d see how they all fought over it and ripped it apart, and then at the end of the day we’re not satisfied by it at all, because we came in starving and you gave us a sliver of meat. Hopefully as we as a community feel more fed and catered to in longer stretches, we no longer will feel the need to rip it apart and fight over every piece of media that is targeted for us. Releasing us from the scarcity politics of queer media is going to be huge not only for audiences but for creators too.
It’s Pride month. I’d be remiss not to end on an earnest note. What are you feeling most proud of at the moment?
This is so boring, but it’s the movie. I’m proud that I got it made. I’m proud that I don’t feel as though I compromised much in the making of it. Of course this movie is going to be released during Pride month, but I’m so glad that it is because for me it is a representation of my pride as a queer person. It’s not watered down. It is completely and wholly what I set out to make without any caveats or reservations.