Joel Kim Booster on saucy rom-com ‘Fire Island,’ friendship with Bowen Yang and learning to say no

The “Fire Island” writer and star spoke about his new movie, stand-up and ruling the world

When you think of the literary works of Jane Austen, you may not always think about oiled-up and glistening gay men dry-humping at an underwear party on an island off the coast of New York State. But for comedian Joel Kim Booster, the connection became clear while he was reading Pride and Prejudice during a trip to the infamous gay party spot of Fire Island. 

“[Austen] couldn’t have known it at the time, but while writing about five middle-class sisters during the Regency period, she was also writing about my experience as a gay man in the 21st century,” Booster wrote in an essay published by Penguin Random House. 

“I couldn’t help but map Lizzy’s experiences navigating the limiting social conventions of her time on to the similarly tortured social conventions of gay male spaces.” 

That connection served as the inspiration for Fire Island, a new film written by and starring Booster and directed by Andrew Ahn (Spa Night, Driveways) streaming on Hulu (U.S.) and Disney+ (internationally including Canada, the U.K. and Australia) June 3. Set on Fire Island, the infamous vacation destination off New York’s Long Island, Fire Island superimposes the archetypal Pride and Prejudice story on to the interpersonal dynamics—including racism, classism, body fascism and attitudes about casual sex—of queer men today.

Booster takes on the Elizabeth Bennet role as Noah, a buff brunch waiter who doesn’t quite know if he wants a relationship or not. Saturday Night Live standout Bowen Yang is Jane analogue Howie and Yang’s Las Culturistas co-host Matt Rogers plays Luke, the Lydia of the queer chosen family. The cast also features Conrad Ricamora, James Scully and Margaret Cho. 

The wide release of the film shows off how much Booster’s star has risen in the cultural sphere. The 34-year-old got his start performing stand-up as an opener for theatre productions in Chicago, before making the trek to New York in 2014. A half-hour Comedy Central special in 2017 and appearances on shows like Sunnyside and Shrill have given way to an hour-long Netflix set to debut in June of this year and, of course, Fire Island

Everything’s coming up Joel Kim. We sat down with Booster to talk about the film, his upcoming stand-up performance May 25 at Just For Laughs Vancouver and his aspirations to just “rule everything.”

Based on the trailer and everything coming out about Fire Island, it seems like you had a blast on set. Can you speak to what it was like to shoot this movie?

 

It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make a movie with some of my best friends. If a fraction of the joy and the fun that we had making this movie translates to the final product, then we’re gonna have a smash hit, because we had so much fun. We shot on the island, and during the last nine days of the shoot, we stayed in a house together. So often when you’re shooting in Los Angeles or New York, you punch in, you punch out, you go home, the shoot day is done. But over those nine days, it was just so fun to all traipse back to our house together and figure out what movie we were watching that night and what we were getting for dinner. It really was summer camp. And I don’t know if I’ll ever have another experience quite as pleasant as that.

Fire Island went through quite a developmental journey: from an essay to a series on the now-defunct Quibi before getting picked up as a feature film. What are some of the biggest takeaways you had from the development process?

I think one of the biggest lessons that I learned, as a creator, especially working with a major studio, was how to pick your battles and when to choose your noes. Making movies and television is an extremely collaborative process; you have to know how to take a note. For me, so many of the notes that I got from my producers were so good, and so helpful and shaped the narrative of this movie in such powerful ways. 

But there are a handful of times when you really have to know when to say no. If you’re an artist, and you’re just saying, “no, no, no, no, no” to everything that is slightly off your vision, then you’re never gonna get anything made, and it’s probably going to be worse for it. But I do think that there is a skill in learning when to stick to your guns and say, “No, this part is actually really important. And this joke is necessary. And here’s why.” If you’ve done a good job of choosing those moments, then the people you’re working with are much more amenable to sort of accepting that no.

Fire Island is loosely based on Pride and Prejudice. What other classic works of literature should get a queer adaptation?

I was just thinking about this the other day, but I think I want the next one to be Little Women. It’s a lateral move away from Pride and Prejudice. But I was watching Greta [Gerwig]’s version of it the other day on TV and I was like, “Yeah, this needs to be the next one.” I have to figure out how to kill off Beth in the gay version in a way that isn’t super tragic, but I’ll figure it out.

Who would be your dream person, living or dead, to party with on the real Fire Island and why?

Living, Lil Nas X, for sure. I think he would be king of the island. It seems like it would be endless fun. And I don’t know if he’s ever been there before, but I would love to be the one to sherpa him through his first Fire Island experience. And then, dead, Oscar Wilde, because … what a bitch. I think he would have some really fun quips about the people surrounding him. And I also think he would really have a ton of fun. I mean, the man would have so much sex and and he deserves it.

Fire Island really seems like a family affair for a lot of your peers and friends. Can you tell us a bit more about your friendship with co-star Bowen Yang?

I don’t even know where to start with Bowen. We met in the early days of our careers in New York. We were both really struggling, and I just I’ve never met somebody who I can communicate with in so few words—like, I just like how so much of our communication happens in, like, looks across the bar at each other. No one better understands what it is like to live as like a gay Asian man in this industry. 

I think 10 or 12 years ago, the conventional wisdom would be for us to be super-competitive. I think this happened, in queer comedy, just over the last 10 years in general, where we stopped pulling the ladder up behind us and started supporting each other. And that’s true of me and Bowen. It makes so much more sense than trying to be competitive. Like, who else would I talk to about this shit? It’s really nice to have him as a friend and an ally and a confidant.

I’m excited for people to see this different side of Bowen. He is doing some incredible work in the movie. I love the iceberg [from Saturday Night Live] as much as everybody else in the world who’s seen the iceberg, and all of his other wonderful characters on that show. But Bowen is so much more than that. And I’m really excited for people to see that, and I am honoured that I get to be the one to give him the platform to prove that.

In Fire Island, you also have this older queer icon in Margaret Cho. What was it like working with her and this crowd of gays?

Start to finish, it was incredible. It was a dream come true. It was so surreal. I mean, it’s Margaret Cho! When she had her show All-American Girl, it was the first time I can remember seeing myself on television when I was growing up, and it had a huge impact on me. And then, of course, her stand-up—when I discovered that later—was also hugely impactful. 

I think every gay guy on set had an individual moment with Margaret where they would pull her aside and be like, “I just need you to know how much you mean to me.” And I think there was like a gauntlet of sincere conversations that she had to deal with over the course of shooting.

She was so gracious and humble the entire time. Like, she could have slapped me in the face and spit in my mouth any time I tried to give her a note, but instead she really wanted to serve the movie. There was just no ego there at all, even though there could have been, and should have been, quite honestly. She was just such a joy to work with. And it was so it was just like a full circle moment for me and my life and my career.

You also recently announced an upcoming hour-long Netflix special and are touring to festivals like Just For Laughs Vancouver on May 25. What can people expect from your stand-up, especially folks who have been fans of yours for a long time in other mediums, but maybe haven’t seen a full hour of stand-up from you?

It’s really a step forward for me as a comedian. I haven’t released a special in many years since my Comedy Central half-hour, and I think it’s really a step forward for me. The Comedy Central special was an introduction to who I am as a person in terms of my identity, and my background and all of those things. With this special, I felt really free to sort of move the conversation a little bit forward and do jokes that don’t exclusively have to do with being gay and being adopted. 

I have a lot of love for those jokes, but so much of my first special was about explaining who I am. And now I think I have the benefit of people understanding where I’m coming from. For me, it was really about answering the question, like, “why this special, why these jokes, why now?” And I hope that the special sort of justifies its own existence once you watch it. I think that so often comedy specials can just be the film version of the live show. That’s great. That’s interesting. But for me, I always wanted it to be more, and I wanted it to feel specific to the medium that it was being consumed in, which is, in this case, you know, Netflix and streaming. 

Between Fire Island and the special and touring, this feels like the summer of Joel Kim Booster. What comes next for you?

Yeah, man, I just want to keep making shit. For me, the people that I’ve always admired are the people who are multi-hyphenate, who have their hands in a lot of different buckets—like Issa Rae, Michaela Coel, Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Lena Dunham—all of these people who created and starred in and produced, particularly, their own stories. I just want to continue to be able to do that. I hope that this movie and all the other work that’s coming out surrounding it buys me a little bit of credit in this industry and adds a little bit of trust to let me continue to make stories from my point of view. I just want to rule everything—that’s what I want. I want to take over, and that is my hope for the coming years. But I want to say, too, that I’ve been here before: I’ve had successes in the past and I’ve had people telling me it’s going to be my year, and this industry is unpredictable. So I’m grateful that I was able to get here, and at the end of the day, I really just hope people like the movie.

What advice do you have for young—especially young, queer Asian creators—who want to do that, who want to make the thing and tell their stories and do all of that right now?

Start from your own experience and point of view and what you want to make. I think so many of the mistakes I made when I was starting out in this industry was trying to filter my point of view through a lens that I thought would get it sold. I was like, “Oh, I can’t make this. It’s too gay. It’s too Asian.” If you’re constantly thinking about what the end is for the broader audience, then it’ll never be singular. It’ll never be unique to you, and it’ll never actually showcase your voice. And that’s what I had to learn really early on. I think the industry and also sometimes creators don’t give people and audiences enough credit for understanding stories that may not be about them. So many people asked me, “I’ve never been to Fire Island—how am I going to relate to this story?” And it’s like, well, babe, I’ve never been to Mordor either, and I fucking love The Lord of the Rings. People figure out a way to find the universal in your stories. And so you need to trust that and just tell your story.

Fire Island releases on streaming services, so most people will be watching it at home. What’s the perfect setting for watching Fire Island? How do you suggest folks build their viewing parties?

Curate the audience to be that group of friends that you go on vacations with, the ones you go on your group trips with. The ones that, you know, will call you on your shit. The ones that are there for you 24/7 and will always be there like—your ride-or-dies. Watching it with those people, and specifically if you’re gay or queer, watching it with your queer family, I think is so powerful and so fun. I’ve screened it a couple of times now. And the big takeaway for a lot of people who have seen it, is about making people really happy to be queer, to be gay. So often we see media that is supposedly for us is about tragedy. And I just want people to walk away from this movie feeling a little bit of joy.

Interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Senior editor Mel Woods is an English-speaking Vancouver-based writer and audio producer and a former associate editor with HuffPost Canada. A proud prairie queer and ranch dressing expert, their work has also appeared in Vice, Slate, the Tyee, the CBC, the Globe and Mail and the Walrus.

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Culture, TV & Film, Profile, Celebrity, Comedy

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