SXSW Comedy has been established as this weird island somewhat apart from the rest of the iconic annual festival and conference. But the Comedy Festival’s space at the nexus of “hidden gem” and consistently sold out (“people going to comedy shows still got that ‘waiting in line’ experience of SXSW”) suited first-timer Joel Kim Booster just fine. We chatted on the eve of his fourth show at the festival about the feel of the shows, the feel of comedy overall in this new climate, what it feels like to sell your ideas to dozens of people, and why it can actually be okay to tell your most risque jokes in the middle of the country.
Aside from overcast weather that started to clear toward the end of our conversation, Booster seemed to really be enjoying his South by Southwest experience. He was featured on live staging of New York staples Night Train and Above Average, as well as an official festival showcase and a special set at the Mashable House. In his estimation, he only bombed once – on the Night Train show, but laughs it off by marking it as his first time to bomb on Facebook Live. At each turn, he appreciated how receptive the audience was to comedy, noting that “by and large, [the audiences] have been great.” He compared the week’s shows to the bars he often finds himself in, where he can be at bars in front of people who had no intention of going to see comedy, then praising South by Southwest for “a festival environment where they’ve specifically come to see a comedy show. It’s not something I get to experience all the time.”
As we talked about the tone and feel of the festival’s shows, we chatted about a single “woo!” he got during a Trump joke he told, admitting that its true purpose is still unknown. “We’re still unsure if [it] was an ironic woo or not. Lot of different layers. It’s South by Southwest, but it’s Austin, but it is still Texas, so it’s like ‘who knows, it’s possible?’” His Trump jokes are self-proclaimed shallow ones, preferring to eschew jokes that get at his true and complicated feelings about Trump’s immigration ban, for “a couple of great Justin Trudeau ass-eating jokes.” He tried to explain the chasm between what he’s interested in, and what he actually wants to write jokes about:
“I am so passionate about politics and I am mad about certain things, and it’s so hard to figure out a balance of that in my comedy, because I don’t find it interesting. It’s never been something I’ve been interested in writing jokes about, so it’s hard to navigate.”
The at-times fraught nature of political discourse in his comedy brought us to a conversation about Moshe Kasher’s forthcoming Comedy Central show Problematic, on which he served as a writer. Debuting this April, Booster is really excited to see how it contributes to some conversations we’re all already having, as well as ones we need to be having. His take on the writers’ room atmosphere gives a hint of how these conversations might go:
“In a lot of ways it really embodies this ‘nobody is right’ ethos of what the left looks like- it’s skewering both sides pretty equally in a really interesting way. There were people that I vehemently disagreed with in that room, and for Moshe to give voice to that sort of argument is really great.”
“Also, Moshe is the perfect arbiter for that because he was able to put someone across the table from me who has very different ideas of what human rights looks like. For us to be able to argue about that, and for him to be able to come in the middle and defuse it all with a joke…no one ever left that room feeling mad or upset or slighted or weird, and I’m still friends with all those people. But he really fostered a sort of collegial, able to disagree and make each other laugh sort of environment.”
Problematic isn’t the only TV writing Booster has done; he also served as a writer for Billy on the Street, and is currently playing the waiting game with his own FOX pilot, Birthright, a process he is both immensely grateful for and very anxious about. Of his script, he’s quick to say that it was “never supposed to be a show that would be shot.” Borne from a spec script he wrote to include in a portfolio, it caught the attention of Fox’s senior vice-president for comedy, Samata Narra, who has been its loudest champion. He’s now at the stage where he’s hoping to relay her excitement to countless other stakeholders, many of whom have no experience in the comedy element of showrunning. Birthright echoes his own life story, that of a gay Asian adoptee growing up in the Midwest- a story that one executive called “a bit much,” to which Booster could only think, “But…I exist!”
For that executive’s assessment of Booster’s persona, he admitted that it has proven beneficial in one venue that other comics treat as a minefield: college campuses. He performs on campuses often, and has grown to understand that he carries an identity that students “aren’t allowed to get mad at.” While his comedy may be at times provocative and include words that other comics get lambasted for, his ability to reclaim some of those uncomfortable slurs puts him in a position that his peers often can’t. So rather than worrying about how his material will go over, he instead laments, “It’s mostly just that I’m a nobody so half the time those poor children don’t know who I am and don’t care to show up for me.” But the lament is brief, as he then quickly acknowledges, “That’s what this period of my career is about. Maybe it’ll never change, and either way I feel very blessed to be paid to do this at all.”
However, it seems likely that the period of “being a nobody” is about to change for Booster in a big way- since our conversation in Austin, he’s appeared on @midnight with Chris Hardwick, and he is among this year’s slate of Comedy Central’s The Half-Hour performers. So to that group of twelve students who saw him in a Chili’s while there was also a hockey game and a political debate going on? Get ready to say you saw something pretty special.