Lizzie O'Leary: In recent years, Comedian Joel Kim Booster has been one of the most exciting figures in the stand-up comedy scene. He's performed sets on late-night shows, including The Late Late Show with James Corden, and on Conan.
Joel Kim Booster: The reason I have this very goofy name is yes, I was adopted by a nice white Midwestern couple in the mid-'80s like many Korean babies were. Korea in the mid-'80s, if you were around, you probably remember it was the only country that would fly a baby to the US and you didn't have to go and pick it up. It was very much the Grubhub of babies back then. I was delivered by a very grumpy man on a bike, forgot my mom's Pepsi, wouldn't go back for it. It was a disaster.
Lizzie O'Leary: During the pandemic, Joel's been able to stay busy writing for shows including Netflix's Big Mouth, and co-hosting the podcast, Urgent Care. Now, after more than a year without indoor comedy sets, he's scheduled to perform for a crowd again later this month in LA.
Joel Kim Booster: I feel really, really excited to get back on that horse. I'm a little nervous, I feel a little guilty as well. There's this guilt creeping in where I feel bad for the people who are paying real money to watch me get good at this again because I have no idea. It's been so long since I've done an hour of stand-up comedy sustained. It'll be really interesting to see how it goes.
Lizzie O'Leary: When I talked to Joel over Zoom this week, he told me he's feeling a little rusty but also hopeful about getting back to the style of comedy he really loves.
Joel Kim Booster: I've done a few outdoor shows that have been more shorter sets, like 10, 15 minutes, that sort of thing. It is akin to riding a bike, the muscle memory is there, I remember most of my jokes. There is just a little bit of awkwardness I think that everybody in the world is feeling at parties in terms of interacting with other people, tenfold interacting with a group of people in an audience.
There is just a little bit of a barrier there that I'm trying to get over, but I'm mostly just really excited because this is what I do. I'm a pretty old-school stand-up comedian in that I didn't spend a lot of time online making content over the pandemic. Stand-up is what I do, so I've really, really, really missed it. I'm going to milk it and enjoy it for every moment that I can.
Lizzie O'Leary: You told Vulture that stand-up was the only thing you're really good at. We can dispute that, but I guess what is it about stand-up that is so different? Do you feed off of the energy of a live audience, or just Zoom doesn't work for it?
Joel Kim Booster: It's definitely that. It's definitely the interplay with the audience is a huge part of it for me. That's how I write as well. I'm not a comedian who sits down and writes. I haven't been writing a ton of jokes about the pandemic mostly because I need the interplay with the audience. It's a conversation for me. When I write new jokes, I start with a premise and then go out and work it out live on stage in front of an audience. Without that audience to work it out, it's really hard for me to land on what the joke even is because it's conversation for me.
I think for me, stand-up is the ultimate meritocracy in the arts. There is a lot of nonsense that goes on, I think in writing and enacting, a lot of politics at play. Not always the best person gets the part, and not always the best writer gets the best spot in the room. There's a lot of stuff that goes into it. Whereas with stand-up, if you're there laughing in the moment, you know that you're doing well. There's no replicable feeling like that anywhere else in the arts, at least that I've experienced.
Lizzie O'Leary: I talked to Melissa Villaseñor. She was saying that she doesn't actually want to try out pandemic-related material, are you moving away from the pandemic in what you're doing? Are you bringing into it? How does that work?
Joel Kim Booster: I have one little baby pandemic joke that I've been doing. It feels necessary to address the elephant in the room, at least up top, but from then on, I'm moving away from it and framing everything as though the world is normal again because I think that's what people are craving. I don't think people want to be in the headspace of talking about the weirdness of wearing masks. I think people want to look forward and they want to look back. They want to talk about dating again. They just want to talk about bad sex and dating and everything in between.
Lizzie O'Leary: Do you feel responsibility for that? I don't know, it feels kind of heavy.
Joel Kim Booster: What do you mean responsibility?
Lizzie O'Leary: To make people happy right now.
Joel Kim Booster: Yes. It's a two-way street. I'm doing this because it makes me really happy. I'm going back out on stage because it makes me really happy, and I know that in part, those people are coming out because they want to be really, really happy. I don't know, it's like a mutual agreement between the two of us that we're going to have a good time while I'm on stage. As long as that agreement holds up, I think that we both get what we want out of it.
Lizzie O'Leary: I'm not going to ask you to plagiarize your act, but I wonder if there are bits you're particularly excited about trying out.
Joel Kim Booster: There's a lot of bits that-- I'm a really interactive comedian. I really love to interact with the audience and do a lot of crowd work. That's the kind of stuff that I'm really excited to get back into trying and interrogating relationships is a really big part of my set, finding couples and figuring out the intricacies of their relationship and what makes them tick and work and not work, and things like that. I have a lot of jokes that hinge on those interactions. I'm really, really excited to figure out how to do that in a socially distant way now.
Lizzie O'Leary: Yes. Is your audience going to be masked? Would you be able to read them in that way?
Joel Kim Booster: Yes, the audiences that I've been performing for even outside have been masked. It is a little bit more of a challenge. There's definitely more to navigate there, but I think body language goes a long way, and eye contact, and things like that. I can get through. I can figure it out with the mask on.
Lizzie O'Leary: How do you practice?
Joel Kim Booster: How do I practice?
Lizzie O'Leary: Yes.
Joel Kim Booster: Normally, I practice by doing shows in the back of the bar on the east side of LA on the weeknights. That's normally how I practice. I have no practice. I have no outlet for practice at this point. Zoom shows don't cut it. Zoom shows are a completely different muscle. It's a completely different skill set than real stand-up comedy. I'm going in after a year, it's like running a marathon after not running for a year and some change. It'll be a real interesting challenge to see how I pick it through this hour. Right now, I've just been watching old tapes of myself. That's the intermediary for me.
Lizzie O'Leary: You're a big Tweeter too.
Joel Kim Booster: I am a big Tweeter. I'm not as prolific as I was before the pandemic though, because I just have less to say right now because my life feels so much smaller. As the world opens up, and as I have more experience out in the world, I think I'll have more to say.
Lizzie O'Leary: Are there specific things that will make you feel safe in a club, do you think, going in, or when you're performing, do you just put everything else out of your mind?
Joel Kim Booster: Yes, I'm not really thinking about personal safety while I'm performing, I guess. There's something, I don't know, you just jump, and while you're up there, it is this zone of confidence that you just have to have in order to make it through the set. I know that things will be clean, the mic will be clean, sanitized, everyone will be in masks, except for me, I'll be socially distant, et cetera, et cetera. I'm not super nervous about it, but I am mostly just excited to get back indoors and see how it feels.
Lizzie O'Leary: LA has this very special comedy community and places that are legendary where comics of all different stripes come and work their stuff out. I wonder what that has been like for you to see some of these venues closed for so long.
Joel Kim Booster: It's been really tough. It's been really, really hard to see places the Virgil go dark. For me, that's one of my favorite places to perform in LA. It feels like a loss of a home almost, a creative home. We all feel I think a little unmoored. I just did a show in the back of a pickup truck in a backyard. It's not exactly the same. It doesn't have the same history. It doesn't have the same vibe as the home clubs that we're all used to performing at. We all feel a little unmoored right now, I think.
Lizzie O'Leary: Have you sketched out a plan for the coming months? Do you think you're going to go on tour, or are you starting gradually?
Joel Kim Booster: Starting gradually. I have a few show dates. I know in June, I'll be in Arlington, Virginia. I'm going to be in New York for most of the summer. I'm doing a residency in New York where I'll be doing an hour every week or so in New York, which will be really exciting. For now, it's just figuring out where places are open and where I can get the reps in.
Lizzie O'Leary: Joel Kim Booster is a comedian who's written for shows including Big Mouth and The Other Two. He's also got a podcast called Urgent Care. Joel, thank you very much.
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