I hate being late. Not to my full-time desk job, because I hate going there, but to important things like interviews. I’ve had a pretty good record of meeting with or calling comedians exactly on time. Until this most recent one.
The publicist for Joel Kim Booster had rescheduled the date and time for this call seven times. Finally, after we settled on an appointment, I missed it by half an hour because I went for a hike as “exercise” in the woods and got lost. When I did get to call him backstage at Bonnaroo, I thought we could commiserate about a mutual hatred for working out, at least in addition to the usual stuff about his being a successful adopted gay Asian comedian, but I was wrong. Instead I got a very detailed explanation of his workout habits and routines, along with stories about some of Booster’s more embarrassing moments.
How is performing at a large festival like Bonnaroo different than a club performance?
It’s definitely less intimate. Generally speaking, a lot of people come out to see me. They’ll come to my show, they want to see me specifically, and that’s the same at a club too, but at music festivals it’s a lot more like proving why they’re taking a break from the main attraction of the festival to come and see this comedy show. Usually you’re meeting a lot of people who have no fucking clue who you are. So there’s a little bit of a barrier there.
As a comedian on the road, is working out important to you?
It’s very important to me. I find one of my two favorite things to do to sort of get a sense of a town is go to a nonchain gym wherever I am. Work out there, and I also usually try to find the closest gay bar. Especially in a small town, like where I am right now in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, these are the gems of gay bars. When you’re in a smaller town, there’s usually like one gay bar in five counties. So there’s a real sense of community that you sort of miss when you’re in a larger city because there’s so many gay bars and so many different subgroups within the gay community. It’s really nice to go to these small towns and find these gay bars where it is like the the hub of activity in a 100-mile radius.
Is there a particular workout regimen that you find is good for you?
I do just a pretty standard push-pull-leg routine. All of my workouts are built around a squat, a bench, or deadlift. And then hitting accessory work after I finish those. I’m asthmatic, so I rarely do cardio. I will sometimes do a yoga class to stay flexible and stuff like that. Sometimes if there are no gyms within a 50-mile radius, I have to use a hotel gym, which is sort of famously not super helpful if you’re doing major lifts. It’s more figuring out how to adjust your workouts for that sort of environment.
Has there ever been a situation when you’re working out, breathing heavily, and someone gives you that “Pfft! Newbie!”?
I rarely get super out of breath. My workouts are not super taxing on my lungs. Sometimes if I’m working with a trainer and I’m doing super high circuit work, I usually will have my inhaler on hand, because that will probably be as close to cardio as I’ll get. If I’m breathing heavier it’s because I’m clearly doing a pretty intense workout, so I don’t get a ton of judgment. I puff on the inhaler sometimes at the gym, and I truly don’t care who sees or thinks it’s weird. … I’ve been stuck under a bench press so many times I’m immune to embarrassment at the gym.
Did you drop the weights on yourself?
No, no. It’s just the last last rep, you can’t get that bar up, so it’s just sort of sitting, chilling on my chest, waiting for someone to notice me and give me a spot so I can get the bar off my chest. It’s not great. Sometimes there aren’t people around and you have to tip it over to dump the weights like a real amateur.
Are you a podcast or a music workout listener?
Weirdly, I am a nothing-listening workout person. I find that I can get through everything quicker and I take shorter breaks if I’m listening to whatever crap the gym is playing.
Being on the road a lot, is it difficult maintaining relationships? Is it better to maintain shorter relationships?
I haven’t been in a relationship in so long, and I think because it’s definitely harder. I’m gone every two weekends. It’s tough, especially when you are based in a major city. Attention spans are short, and there’s a lot of people and options for them. If you’re not there and you’re not putting in the work, they’ll move elsewhere, and I found that happened to me a lot. That’s why I think a lot of my straight comedian friends are dating other comedians, because you have to find somebody who understands the schedule and the lifestyle.
Do you find yourself gearing toward app-based dating?
For sure! I’m on 17 different dating apps. I’m on all the apps. It’s especially useful for when you’re traveling to small towns without a gay bar. I’m a traditional road-dog comedian in that I love to meet guys in the cities I’m in, then leave and never see them ever again. Just disappear into the mess. So that is a familiar trope for our profession.
Do you have an awkward personality when it comes to meeting people? Or has comedy helped you with meeting new people?
I think a lot of people are actually a little disappointed when they meet me after a show. Obviously, I am a very close approximation of who I am on stage, but it is much more blown out. It’s almost a caricature of who I actually am, and it’s only 30 percent of my inner life that’s being told on stage.
I think because my comedy is very personal and I’m very honest about a lot of aspects of my life, people have a sense of familiarity with me. That makes me uncomfortable sometimes because they’re not really getting to know me. They’re getting to know a very curated side of me. I wouldn’t say awkward, but I am a little bit more quiet when I first meet somebody. I am a little bit more introverted than I think people assume, especially in big social situations.
If you were at a party by yourself, would you have the ability to walk up and make conversation with just any person?
I would probably make do. If it’s like an industry thing, then yes, I will do that because I’m a career-obsessed psychopath. But if it’s a social thing, especially with other gay people, the chances are so slim that I will feel comfortable talking to strangers by myself. So probably not.
Crowd work is a big part in my longer headlining sets, and it is usually spent talking to the audience and ripping on what they’re saying. I think people don’t expect that, because I’m so free with talking to people doing crowd work but don’t at a party. There’s such a specific power dynamic when I’m on stage. I have the mic and I’m selecting the people that I want to speak to, and they sort of are forced to talk to me, otherwise I will make things worse for them.
Do you have trouble telling people you are a comedian?
There is the sense, as a comedian, where you’re always sort of having to prove like, No, no, no, I’m not a hobbyist. This is the living that I make. Especially at LA parties, it is constantly a battle that you’re fighting and being like, Oh yeah, I’m a comedian. No, you’re not talking to a waiter.
What influenced you to do standup comedy?
I never had dreams or aspirations to be a comedian when I was growing up. It wasn’t until probably after college even that I thought it was something that I had to offer to the world. I’ve always been funny or people have told me that I’d been funny. I’ve always liked to make people laugh. It’s pretty standard growing up in a town where you’re different, whether that be as an Asian or as a gay student aid. It is because of that defense mechanism to sort of deflect from the fact that you’re different, and to sort of use it in a way that makes people socially comfortable around you. I think most kids who are different develop that, and I think that’s where a lot of my comedic instincts come from.
Did you feel that there wasn’t any representation for you, either as a Korean, a gay man, or as being adopted in media?
Margaret Cho was a huge outlier. And when I say that, I didn’t ever see myself in her career when I was a teenager. I remember seeing All American Girl for the first time. That was a huge moment for me because I’d never seen someone like myself represented on television. And it really does have an effect on you when you’re a little kid. The fact is we haven’t really seen Asian families on TV until Fresh Off the Boat. Which is why I also remember that Cinderella reboot ABC did with Brandy and the Asian prince. Moments like those are some of the clearest memories I have of growing up. Seeing those two pieces of entertainment for the first time was a full paradigm shift for me. Seeing those two things made me want to be in entertainment.
JOEL KIM BOOSTER. THU 6.21–SAT 6.23 AT LAUGH BOSTON, 425 SUMMER ST., BOSTON.