Joel Kim Booster on Why Fire Island Reminds Him of “Lord of the Flies”

The stand-up and "Sunnyside" star talks stereotypes, the state of gay comedy, and why the Pines were the perfect setting for his new rom-com.

Joel Kim Booster has always been the kind of guy who fills up every waking moment with work, whether it was hustling for stand-up gigs between day jobs in his early days or writing on critically acclaimed shows like The Other Two and Big Mouth. “I’ve felt perpetually exhausted since I was 22, so it doesn’t feel that much different now,” he says of his current projects, which include filming NBC’s new fall sitcom Sunnyside and writing a romantic comedy for Quibi based on Pride and Prejudice and set on Fire Island.

His character on Sunnyside couldn’t be more different from him. Jun Ho is the epitome of idle wealth—that is until he and his sister Mei Lin (Poppy Liu) join a diverse group of Queens, N.Y. residents studying for their American citizenship exam. But the character (think David Rose with a more expansive color palette) owes a bit to the “hot idiot” persona Booster has developed in his live sets. So that’s where we started our conversation when Booster called up NewNowNext this week.

How did the persona you’ve developed in your stand-up influence your character on Sunnyside?

I think there’s an extravagant detachment from everyday life with my character on Sunnyside and the way I present myself onstage. The life Jun Ho and his sister live on the show, it’s completely normal to them. It’s weird when people react to Jun Ho as if it’s not normal. He’s not doing anything self-consciously to put a spotlight on how weird or wild his life is, and that’s sort of how I’ve chosen to approach my own life—or certainly the select parts of it I choose to talk about onstage.

Joel Kim Booster as Jun Ho
F. Scott Schafer/NBC
Joel Kim Booster as Jun Ho from Sunnyside.

Your comedy is really engaged with queer culture. Do you see it as commentary on gay priorities and values?

My work is only able to exist the way it does because we as a culture have made enough space for a plurality of gay experiences. There are a lot of gay comedians working now, and I think there are a lot of different POVs within that sphere. Not everyone lives their life the way I live my life. I think we have forced our way into the cultural conversation and made enough space for each other. I don’t think about my work through the lens of: Am I speaking for the entire community? Am I representing the entire community? There are gay people who come to my shows and see themselves reflected. And there are definitely gay people who are very loud on the internet who don’t love my work because they are worried about the way it represents the community as a whole.

I feel like there’s been a shift in the kind of gay humor we see in mainstream culture. When you look at Will & Grace it feels like the jokes on that show were kind of exposing gay culture to straight people. Now I feel like we see more of the kind of jokes that gay guys exchange among themselves. Have you noticed a shift in the writers’ rooms you’ve been in?

There is still occasionally an element of explaining the references. But Twitter and social media has made it so that we’re joking within our community—using our language and our references, and speaking to each other as queer people very directly. And it’s become less and less performative. We’re not aware of the straight audience observing it, but everybody can observe it. Straight people are absorbing that, but I don’t think we’re actively performing for straight audiences online, and I think that’s part of why that has shifted.

Performers like you and John Early sometimes behave as what people probably would have called stereotypes 10 or 20 years ago. But it doesn’t feel the same as, say, Jack on Will & Grace.

I think about this too, and I think it’s a little bit hard to parse out why. But there’s an agency to what I do and what John does and what other comedians who are living in that space do where it doesn’t feel like a narrow vision of a whole human life. That was sort of the issue with Jack. It’s not that we don’t know gay men like Jack. Gay men like Jack do exist, and they have those characteristics—and more. It’s more three-dimensional. Yeah, I live my life in a stereotypically gay way, but I think there are shades that complicate that picture too. There’s an ownership and a power dynamic that has shifted in our direction. Again, it’s the lack of apology for it.

You’re also writing a romantic comedy for Quibi set on Fire Island. Anyone who’s been to the gay areas of Fire Island knows it’s a unique community. Why does it make such a great setting for a comedy?

I remember the first time I ever went to the Pines and just being struck by the fact that there wasn’t a straight person in sight. The island is just all gay people, and it’s interesting in a weird Lord of the Flies way, seeing how we act and how our culture comes into focus in a very specific way when we are not performing for straight people, when all the barriers and neuroses about acting a certain way [fall away]. And it’s different for everybody. What that takes away for different people—the inhibitions—it makes us all act a little differently. For some people, they’re very free in a way that they’re not when they’re on the mainland. And for some people it becomes even more toxic. It felt ripe for that comedy of manners that Jane Austen zeroes in on.

Todd Williamson/NBCUniversal

Yeah, and while I agree we shouldn’t apologize for it, I think we can also be conscious of the fact that there is a lot about gay culture that is objectively absurd.

Well, the ridiculous and the absurd I have less of an issue with. The other reason I think Fire Island is a really interesting place to set a loose adaptation of a Jane Austen novel is because her books are all about social class and the way class separates people—usually people who are in love—and how that complicates things. Gay men in particular, I think, have found a way to create artificial social classes within our community—whether that’s with race or body image or actual economic class. I love Fire Island, but when you get us alone, it does sort of become a microcosm of what it is to live as second-class citizens within your own community. It feels like a fantasy land where the rules are different, but it’s still not any better for certain people.

Sunnyside airs Thursdays at 9:30pm ET on NBC.

John Russell is a New York-based entertainment and lifestyle journalist. He has been called “the Courtney Love throwing Chanel compacts at Madonna and Kurt Loder” of his generation.