Bowen Yang and Joel Kim Booster in Fire Island. Courtesy Jeong Park, Searchlight Pictures.

Joel Kim Booster’s comedic talents are so vast and impressive that they were never going to be confined to just one medium. 

After studying theater at Millikin University in Decatur, Illinois, and impressing with a play at the Chicago Fringe Festival right out of school, Booster wrote and acted in storefront theater for several years. Following his strong start in the world of theater, Booster decided to try his hand at stand-up comedy after it was suggested to him by his friend Beth Stelling.

“Chicago is such a great incubator for people who want to write or perform or do stand-up. For me, it was always about finding a platform to tell a story. But I didn’t see a lot of gay comics. I didn’t see a lot of comics that were talking about things I was interested in,” Booster tells the Chicago Reader in a phone interview. 

Booster’s first stand-up performance was as the opener at a variety show fundraiser.“It was a very safe opportunity. The stakes felt low and I happened to do well that night. Then I bombed for two years as I performed all over the place.”

Booster was so eager to replicate the feeling he got from his debut gig that he never gave up. By 2014, he’d moved to New York to pursue his comedy career. In 2016, he performed a set on Conan. Soon he began writing for the acclaimed television shows Billy on The Street, Big Mouth, and The Other Two

This was just the beginning. This summer sees Booster move into another new medium with Fire Island, his debut feature film as a writer, which he also stars in alongside his real-life best friend, Saturday Night Live star Bowen Yang. Heavily inspired by Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, the romantic comedy follows a group of best friends as they enjoy a weeklong vacation on Fire Island, the famous hotspot for queer culture that’s located just off Long Island, New York. 

“The idea came when I went to Fire Island for the first time with Bowen and I brought Pride and Prejudice with me to read. I realized how relevant Jane Austen’s observations about class and how we communicate were. Especially the very subtle ways that gay men suppress each other and separate each other into upper and lower classes. It just became very clear to me.”

Booster actually originally wrote Fire Island for television. His half-hour pilot script was passed on by Comedy Central. It was eventually accepted by Quibi, only for the short-form streaming platform to fold in December 2020, before the pilot could be shot. 

Rather than giving up on the project, Booster pivoted and turned it into a feature film. On June 30, 2021, Searchlight Pictures announced that they’d bought Booster’s script, which he had sought to make as original as possible. 

“It had become boring to me to watch movie after movie where people are dealing with coming out or homophobia,” Booster explains. “It was much more interesting to me to deal with the everyday issues that gay men face. Such as body fascism and class and how we can overcome them.”

Fire Island
R, 105 min.
Streaming on Hulu June 3.

As well as being a rom-com, Fire Island is also a celebration of friendship, insists Booster—in particular, his friendship with Yang, which was a refuge during their rise through the comedy circuit. 

“It’s a story about my friendship with Bowen and the power that comes from knowing someone inside and out,” admits Booster, who says that much of what happens in Fire Island actually happened to them. 

While Fire Island takes place around 900 miles away from Plainfield, Illinois, where he was raised by the “conservative, white, evangelical family”  who adopted him from South Korea, Booster sees it as the natural next step in his work.  

“The first several years of my work were primarily focused on how I was raised and moving beyond that. I had to explain where I was coming from and how being an Asian guy who was gay and adopted affected me as a person. Now that stuff isn’t at the forefront of my stand-up and work. It only tangentially touches on it and it’s mainly focused on my POV. I’m just so happy that I make my living doing all of this.”