Even a guy as (professionally) funny as stand-up comic Joel Kim Booster (Search Party, Comedy Central’s Unsend) knows the danger of having an off night in front of an unforgiving crowd.
“The audience can smell the blood in the water,” he says. “They can sense immediately if you do not think you're funny. And they don't want that.”
Even though he says he’s “never functionally had stage fright,” Booster says there’s only been one year where he truly felt confident doing stand-up. Even still, he knows he has to bring it, presenting as self-assured (even if he’s not feeling that way) for sets that often include highly personal anecdotes from his sex life or growing up gay with evangelical Christian adoptive parents.
Here, he talks about finding that confidence, how humor helped protect him growing up, what it was like to have his nudes posted all over the internet, and why, of all the places he performs, cruise ships are the most nerve-wracking.
What's the worst you've ever bombed?
The worst I've ever bombed was right after I started headlining clubs, probably late summer of 2016. I did this comedy club in Phoenix a couple of weeks before the election and it was a full nightmare. I think I did eight shows that week. It was a lot of older, conservative, white people, who just weren't really interested in any of the things that I had to say.
The guy who went before me—this was really close to the election—his closer involved getting the audience to chant “Lock her up!” And I'm not an especially overtly political comedian, but I think people can glean from the context of my jokes which way I was leaning.
That was also the week—and this actually ended up being the best show that I had that week— that a woman yelled out in the middle of the set that if I'd have been breastfed, I wouldn't have been gay. I ended up talking to her for like 20 minutes before they kicked her out, and it was the most the audience liked me all week—just roasting this lady in the crowd for a while.
How did you respond to that woman?
I just sort of interrogated her a little bit. “What is the science behind that viewpoint?” She was just a drunk, Arizona, sunburnt lady. She had nothing to back it up with. I was still learning to do crowd work at that point. But a lot of it is just asking questions and letting people bury themselves. And she definitely did that.
How has comedy affected your confidence when you’re not on stage?
I'm not sure that it has.
Ultimately, there's a little bit of reverse engineering that goes into it. So much of it is about pretending to be confident—or at least presenting yourself as confident—because even if your shtick is that you have low self-esteem, the audience can smell the blood in the water if you're not confident. Especially when I was in the early days, going up at open mics where nobody gave a shit about what you were talking about, you really have to bring that energy on stage with you.
And then, slowly over time, I became more confident just by virtue of that. I probably thrive better with lower expectations. I find myself less confident if it is my show, where my people are. The stakes are higher in that situation than being in Branson, Missouri, and going up to a packed crowd of people who have never heard of me before. It's a little bit more fun to watch people figure me out live.
As you get a higher profile, how does that affect your confidence? It feels like it sets a new standard that you then have to keep either meeting or exceeding.
It's a tale as old as time, at least for comedians: you get on TV, you stop doing stand-up, and then you become bad at stand-up, and it's the thing that got you there in the first place. That’s my greatest fear. That's been my fear this last year of touring, for sure. Suddenly I'm drawing crowds because of other stuff that's not related to stand-up. And I don't want to be that guy where they're like, "Oh he used to be good, but if he's clearly not going up a lot anymore."
So I find that I'm almost less confident. I feel like there was one year where I was really confident as a stand-up. There was a period in 2019 where if you saw me live, I was thinking almost the entire time, “I'm bad at this.” I would say only in the last couple of months have I found the happy medium of feeling really confident in the hour that I have now.
When did you know you were funny?
It's hard to gauge because I remember making my family laugh. I could fucking house food and then burp, and, when you're young, people think that's cute. Then you get your group of boyfriends when you're in junior high and you watch Monty Python or Austin Powers and you just repeat lines to each other, and that makes people laugh. I don't know when it was that I started, of my own personality, making people laugh.
The other thing is, as a gay kid, especially in high school and junior high, and as somebody who found it very difficult to hide the fact that they were gay, or at least culturally reads as gay, to most people, you can't hide. So you have two options: turn it down to zero and completely disappear in social situations, or sort of lean into it and just be funny. That confuses people a little bit more. People are not focused so much on the differences. They're like, "Oh, he's the funny guy."
I think that is where this very damaging stereotype that all gay men are funny comes from. We all found that defense mechanism. Those are the choices: you either pass straight and are fine and get to come out whenever the fuck you want—or you got to completely blend in with the background or stand out as a comedian, and that's what I did in high school a lot. I found it very easy to redirect attention from myself if I was being funny or being mean, which is a lot of comedy in high school, just redirecting focus on somebody else being fucking weird.
You’ve said that you came out of the closet, drank and smoked weed for the first time in the same month. What the hell was that month like?
I grew up very religious, very sheltered, and in a very controlled environment. I think you figure out what freedom is and then you just want all of it immediately. I was a powder keg. I just exploded that last year. I've always been a person who's pretty in control. I was still getting good grades, but I was partying in the same way that all the other honor society kids were on the weekends.
How religious are you now?
I would say agnostic at best. It's hard to grow up deep, evangelical Christian. You learn to connect everything back to your religion and God. That's how you find order. I definitely don't believe in God traditionally in the way that I grew up believing in God. But it is hard to completely deprogram yourself from looking at the world that way.
I actually was just saying this the other day: Astrology has been around for a long, long time, but it definitely does feel like it's having a moment in the last five years or so. I think that's because my generation is the least religious generation of Americans in a long time. [Astrology] is a way to find order and meaning. We're just looking for that in a way that doesn't feel oppressive.
How was that process of moving from a heavy Christian upbringing to agnosticism?
It was a really huge paradigm shift for me. I think at the time I was like, "Yeah, this is great." It felt freeing in a lot of ways. But it definitely was a mind fuck in a lot of others. It took me a long time to reconcile what happened. I was out in high school when I was 16 for a year before I came out to my parents—or my parents found out I was gay rather, because I didn't really come out to them. But I fully—for that year—thought I was going to hell. It took a long time to deprogram that part of my brain.
My best friend in high school—and to this day—Sarah, her dad was the Methodist pastor in our town, a very progressive guy. Her parents basically were the ones who were like, "Hey, by the way, Hell doesn't exist. There's no theological basis for Hell in the Bible. It's totally made up. That's not how God works."
It's interesting to see the split in the way that my parents' church and their denomination has gone full tilt Trump. It's like there's no responsibility there for the world or for other humans. Whereas Sarah, the work she does in her community in Seattle, it's about faith in God and whatnot, but it's a lot about driving or organizing people to go to ICE protests, and making sure that they can provide for the homeless community. That feels more in line with what Christianity writ large should be doing, from my perspective. I don't believe in God. She believes in God. But I'm totally down for that version of Christianity. How could you not be?
You said you didn't come out to your parents. How did they find out?
They read my journal. They just took a peek after I'd been out for a year, and read all about the drinking and smoking and sex and all the other stuff that I was getting into, that I was hiding from them. I bought a car without them knowing and parked it down the street. There were so many secrets that they just suddenly became aware of at once.
So then from there you ended up leaving home?
I moved out at 17 and that's actually how I met Sarah and her family. We weren't really friends, we were acquaintances. Everyone at school knew that I was out of my parents' house. And she was like, "Hey, do you want to come and stay at my place?" She was saying it to be nice. I don't think she actually thought I would take her up on it. But I did and I stayed.
Her parents were sort of mad at her for inviting me because her dad's a paraplegic and she had two younger brothers. It was a big situation to just drop a whole other teenager into. But they talked to me that night and were like, "Hey, come back for dinner tomorrow." Then I ended up staying with them for the rest of my senior year. They co-signed on my student loans when I went to college. It was the best thing that could've happened to me. I just got a year to be a normal teenager.
What did you think you would be at that point?
I always wanted to be an actor. For a brief stint in early high school or middle school, I thought I'd be a youth pastor, because I thought that would be a sensible middle ground between my faith and being an actor. Then once I was in high school and out, being a youth pastor was definitely not in the cards anymore. It definitely turned back to being an actor. I think I thought I'd be a theater actor for a while. I never in a million years thought I'd be on TV in any capacity. I didn't think that's how I'd make my money.
Did you come to the stage naturally?
Yeah. I have never functionally had stage fright. I can't remember a time I've ever been super nervous to perform.
When was the last time you can remember being super nervous?
I performed on a lot of cruise ships, specifically gay cruise ships. I still get really nervous doing those shows. I just did one in January and I got nervous every single time I before I would go on stage. It is a trade off. It's a free vacation but, as a stand-up, it is a full nightmare.
The thing that seems wild is that if you bomb on a cruise ship... now you're stuck on a cruise ship!
The stakes are so high. Half the audience is drunk because they've been drinking all day. There's this weird component where if you see someone hot you want to impress them because you want to have sex later. And then the biggest hurdle is that 90% of the audience has never seen comedy before. It’s the least literate audience you'll ever perform for. They've never heard of you.
It's a great time to be a standup right now because you can do really complicated and really interesting shit on the road. Most people who are going to comedy clubs are comedy nerds and they know their shit. They're not going to laugh at some low hanging fruit, basic ass joke because they've heard it. It’s sort of the reverse on the cruises. Sometimes they just want to hear good old fashioned accent joke—making fun of somebody's accent.
You brought up sex, so… I'm curious how dating has maybe altered or changed your confidence. We are the generation of dating apps.
I've definitely cut down on my app usage in the last year and a half or so. I don't get on it so much I've realized in the last year and a half that I test better in the room than I do over an app, I definitely think that I can hook up with a hotter people if I am out there in real life versus the kind of people that I get responses from on the apps just based on my pictures alone.
The apps for me are weird. I wouldn't consider myself a famous person by any means. But I do think when you narrow it down to just gay people, there aren't a ton of touring gay comedians. If you're looking for one of those, you might be more inclined to know who I am. Sometimes people will lead with that: "Hey, I really like your work." And then I'm like, "Oh thank you." And then they try to continue it and it's like, "Oh, I don't really want to have sex with you, and I don't want to have to feel I have to now." Or they'll send you 15 messages in a row that you don't respond to and then they're like, "Well, I used to be a fan, but apparently you suck." It's like, "Well, that feels like entrapment now."
And then, the last time I did use the apps was over Christmas because I was bored. And then all of my nudes got posted all over the internet. So now I'm not allowed. I can't do it anymore.
What was that like?
I'm not mad but I'm a man so it's a different thing. All the reviews are good, so I can't be that mad about it. I think they're all down now. I think my lawyers took care of it. But it was so funny because I told my manager immediately and he was like, “Branding-wise, it's not going to hurt your career at all.” It's sort of in line with what people would expect, I guess. But I had no idea how often I was getting catfished on Grindr. I've scaled back considerably.
How confident were you that you were going to make it in comedy?
Failure didn't feel like an option, I guess. I was so miserable that it had to work. I just never thought about it as a possibility that it wouldn't happen because I knew I couldn't do what I was doing during the day. I was so miserable that it just had to work. But it wasn't confidence like, "Oh, I know that I'm so good that this will make it." It was just, "I know I can't do this, and there's nothing else I'm good at, so I'm just going to keep plugging away and if it happens this year or if it happens in 10 years, it has to happen. Otherwise I'm fucked."
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Originally Appeared on GQ