06/25/2018 04:53 pm ET Updated Jun 26, 2018

Joel Kim Booster On Finding The Comedy In Hurtful Queer Asian Male Stereotypes

"No matter what you do, you’re pathologized as a gay that’s trying to act masculine or an Asian trying to be masculine."
“I’m not trying to process every trauma onstage anymore,” says comedian Joel Kim Booster.
Yoko Haraoka
“I’m not trying to process every trauma onstage anymore,” says comedian Joel Kim Booster.

Comedian Joel Kim Booster is hilariously conversant in a range of topics ― Jane Austen and basketball, to name a few. But he’s specifically made a name for himself as a gay Korean-American comedian who classifies himself as a “Hot Asian.”

The moniker is a joke, Booster says, but it’s also a call for a new order in how we view Asian men ― specifically within the queer community. The 30-year-old, who grew up in a Chicago suburb and now lives in Los Angeles, says the depiction of Asian men in media took a toll on his self-esteem, ultimately fueling his comedy. 

“As an Asian person in the media, we are never being sent subliminal messages that you are attractive,” he told HuffPost. “I’d look at myself and say, ’Why am I treated like a second-class citizen in the gay community? Seeing people constantly write on dating apps, ‘No Asians.’ The rate of seeing that kind of rejection is so damaging. But now I know I don’t have to lean in to these negative feelings and that they are fully external.”

As an Asian person in the media, we are never being sent subliminal messages that you are attractive. I’d look at myself and say, ‘Why am I treated like a second-class citizen in the gay community?'

Booster’s comedy fully addresses this discrimination against Asian men, who are seen as less desirable than other men on the dating app OkCupid, according to a study from the company. In another study conducted at Columbia University, Asian men had the hardest time securing a second date.

Booster currently has a TV show called “Birthright,” in development at Comedy Central, that highlights a number of these issues. He’s also done a standup special for the network, appeared on “Conan” and recently released a comedy album called “Model Minority.” The title is an indictment of the perception that Asians are categorically industrious high-achievers, he explains. 

The comedian, who was adopted by a white family and grew up in a homogenous area, says he was aware of his sexuality at a young age, and often jokes that he knew he was gay before he knew he was Asian.

“I had intense feelings. I loved the naked male form. One of my earliest memories was telling my brother and sister I liked looking at naked men more than naked girls,” he said. 

By contrast, he simply didn’t think or talk much about being Asian and adopted growing up, he said. “It wasn’t until my grandparents’ 25th anniversary with all my relatives that I realized I was the only one who looked like this,” he explained. “I sort of expected every family to have one Asian child because that was what was normal to me.”

Booster was initially home-schooled in an Evangelical Christian home and jokes that his dad was an “open-mic pastor,” reading to his family from the Bible every day. His parents told him that they read his journal at the beginning of his senior year of high school and confronted him about being gay.

They didn’t take it well, he says, and it was the beginning of what he describes as a “tumultuous” time. He went to an in-patient mental hospital for teens and later lived with a friend’s family.

The comedian says he hasn’t talked with his parents about his sexuality since then. He doesn’t visit home often, and he explains that he feels it’s not worth bringing up until he’s in a serious relationship.

“We have not broached my sexuality ― even in the most oblique terms. We are all on eggshells,” he said.

My parents might not come to my wedding. I don’t need that sort of acceptance from them. It just looks a little different to have a healthy relationship for us.

Booster added that it may sound odd, but he has accepted his relationship with his parents and their need-to-know communication pattern. He says he’s not even sure they’re aware he recently put out a comedy album.

“My parents might not come to my wedding,” he said. “I don’t need that sort of acceptance from them. It just looks a little different to have a healthy relationship for us. I don’t ask for anything I don’t think they can give me.”

His older brother, the biological son of his parents, is also gay. “That sounds like nurture to me!” Booster has joked in his standup. The two haven’t spoken in a few years because they have very different lives and beliefs, he said. “We are as different as two gay men can possibly be.”

Still, Booster says his family is supportive and he grew up feeling loved.

He shared that once he entered public school at the age of 16, he got into basketball and initially tried out for the school team because he enjoyed it  ― but also to bond with his dad. 

“I wanted to do something my dad would be into ― so he watched me sit on a bench and embarrass myself on the court,” he quipped. “Also, you do not grow up in Chicago in the mid-’90s without being a Bulls fan. The players are the hottest ― and also the wokest. It’s not morally repugnant like the NFL.”

As a gay Asian man, Booster says that his interest in basketball was oftentimes met with judgment that he still experiences today. 

“No matter what you do, you’re pathologized as a gay that’s trying to act masculine or an Asian trying to be masculine. It is that connection to masculinity that people raise their eyebrows at.”

Booster noted that he’s also bonded with his mom over a love of Jane Austen, inspiring one of his tattoos. She said he recently reread Pride and Prejudice and said his mom introduced him to Austen’s prose at a young age. 

Pride and Prejudice feels so relevant to gay social mores. Whenever I see that reflected in a Victorian novel, that’s so funny to me,” he said. 

The comedian shared that he went through a breakup at the beginning of the year ― he was dumped in Central Park. He said he’s learned a lot when it comes to melding his personal life with his work and that he’s not treating comedy like therapy anymore. 

“I’m not trying to process every trauma onstage anymore,” he said. “I’m very happy to be single. There’s not a single day in my 20s where I wasn’t deeply unhappy I was single. It’s nice to not have it on the forefront of my brain.” 

Plus, he jokingly blames New York. 

“Living in New York is its own personal trauma. It’s like childbirth because your brain makes you forget how painful it was so you’ll do it again.” 

No matter what you do, you’re pathologized as a gay that’s trying to act masculine or an Asian trying to be masculine. It is that connection to masculinity that people raise their eyebrows at.

Looking back on his jokes, Booster says they’ve helped him grow.

One of his best-known bits is about being fetishized and entering a guy’s apartment only to see a rice hat and a Thai cooking book. He explains that the joke is made up of a couple different experiences from different nights, and shows that he’s “sexually gullible.”

Would he have stayed the night with someone like that now that he knows himself more?

“It depends on how hot the guy is!” Booster joked. “I will say I have had sex with so many people I am not attracted to in any way because that’s what I thought I deserved. That is something I moved on from.”

He regrets giving credit to dubious stereotypes about Asian men, he said.

“There was this weird attitude I get from some guys on apps where they act like I should be happy I’m getting attention because they know I’m not the conventional ideal of gay male beauty,” he said. “It’s doubly frustrating because I bought into that. I’m not a commodity and not a prize.”

He is not trying to change people’s minds, he said, but is hopeful perceptions can change.

“People like what they like. No number of think pieces will make a guy who his not attracted to me be attracted to me,” he said. “But I do think representation matters. I want young gay boys to be attracted to Asian men. There needs to be more diversity in gay porn! My tastes were definitely shaped by what I saw.”

Booster said he actually had more dating success in high school and in college ― it was using apps later in life and seeing dating profiles stipulating “No Asians” that harmed his self-esteem.

“If I could, I would scream at that boy not to download Grindr,” he said, before quickly adding, “I mean, I’ll never get rid of Grindr!” 

But he acknowledged that if he had it to do over again, he would have waited until he’d learned more about himself and come into his own before getting on the dating app.

There needs to be more diversity in gay porn! My tastes were definitely shaped by what I saw.

Booster says that as he’s developed as a comedian, the comedy scene and expectations surrounding it have changed. Fewer comics are skewering the annoying minutiae of daily life, as comedians like Jerry Seinfeld once did, and there’s more of an expectation to base an act on identity or politics, he said.

But Booster says he’s already done that too, and now he’s trying to figure out what’s next. 

“I’m in an interesting new phase of figuring out what my voice is and trying not to rely on identity stuff,” he said.

He said he’s glad his introductory material was so focused on his background ― and noted that being Asian, adopted and gay are always going to be the backdrop to his comedy. His next work, however, will explore a divorced-from-reality scenario of gay men owning the sky and straight people owning the land, he said.

Under the Trump administration, there is a lot of expectation and pressure to joke about the issues or to steer clear of certain jokes altogether, Booster said. The new form of comedy he is exploring is decidedly detached from reality ― but not because he doesn’t care about what’s happening in the world, he added. 

My thoughts about racism are so serious, and I don’t go to a funny place anymore when I read the news. I don’t feel like finding humor in migrant children being separated from their parents.

“I am less interested in solving problems with my comedy now,” he said. “My reaction to the news has been to write even more absurd jokes. My thoughts about racism are so serious, and I don’t go to a funny place anymore when I read the news. I don’t feel like finding humor in migrant children being separated from their parents. I am absorbing so much of what’s going on in the world and I’m not processing it in real time on social media anymore.” 

Booster also pointed to something else he’s noticed over his career ― a shift in how Asians are perceived. The movement is pretty homespun, he said, with Asians themselves creating opportunities and earning Hollywood’s respect. He recently produced and performed in a show in San Francisco with a number of comedians, including Awkwafina and Ronny Chieng, and producers were surprised at how high the turnout was, he recalled.

“Asian-Americans show up in droves. We are so thirsty to see ourselves represented. And thirsty to support one another. It’s a community that really puts its money where its mouth is.” 

“Asian-Americans show up in droves. We are so thirsty to see ourselves represented.
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