You might remember standup Joel Kim Booster from his early open-mic gigs at places like Cole’s in Logan Square, where he’d wait hours to do a 90-second bit, rally some chuckles, then move on.
Or, if you worked at Groupon about 10 years ago, you might recall he was as a customer service temp-turned-manager who spent his days at the computer, cracking jokes with coworkers.
Or maybe, just maybe, you saw him on Conan O’Brien’s show in 2016, where he deadpanned his way through hilarious dating stories and family memories.
It’s possible, however, that Booster’s name is entirely new to you. And that’s quite all right. Because things are about to blow up for the 31-year-old comedian. Since moving to New York to pursue comedy and acting in 2013 and then Los Angeles in 2017, he’s just landed a lead role in NBC’s new sitcom “Sunnyside.”
“It feels like I’ve spent the last four years moving a goalpost,” says Booster. “Every new milestone I hit in my career, I thought, … What’s the next thing? A lot of comedy is having little victories that give you the energy and push to keep going.”
A solid few months of filming “Sunnyside” at Universal Studios has given him a big nudge, especially considering the well-known company he’s keeping. “Sunnyside” is co-created by comedy veteran Kal Penn and showrunner Matt Murray, and the inspiring multiracial ensemble cast has become tight-knit as they bring to life the show’s story of pursuing the American dream.
Booster himself is an immigrant, having been born in Korea and adopted by Caucasian American parents. He was raised in west suburban Plainfield in a strict Evangelical Christian household and was homeschooled alongside his brother.
“There were a lot of negative things [involved with that] that I realized in hindsight,” says Booster. “Not meeting other Asian people or growing up around other people of color … that’s hit me as an adult. You become the representative of what’s different when there’s no one else around. And that can weigh on a kid developing into an adolescent.”
After high school, Booster left home, attending Millikin University and then chasing a comedy career in Chicago, while holding office jobs. He says while he’s in occasional contact with his parents “they’re not super aware of what I’m doing now.” Still, he’s come to terms with what he sees as a restrictive, sheltered past.
“My parents did the best they could. It just became instructive for how life would go. The whole you-will-always-be-different thing … I knew I had to be a person willing to take risks.”
Taking risks is exactly what Booster has done onstage. He fully admits to “going blue” — a comedy term referring to risqué and profane material. For Booster, that means his innate ability to play naïve and then jolt audiences out of their comfort zones with explicit, blunt, and pointed conversation. It’s part of his way of “coming from a place of radical transparency.”
Booster’s material could touch on the perils of driving in L.A. It could be about hitting the gym. Or, more often than not, it could be about sex. Booster talks openly and enthusiastically about it and asks audience members direct questions about their own experiences. “I say that we won’t be able to continue until they answer my question,” he says. “It’s a moment of discomfort. But, eventually, they cave.”
Booster is gay and has been out since he left home at 17. As his professional bio states, “He is not interested in being the Asian this or the gay that … he is interested in sharing his stories through comedy.”
The comedian explains, “I try to stay away from being representative as a whole. I talk a lot about what it’s like to be Asian and gay. … It’s running in the background. But my experience is so specific. I want to live freely. And while I don’t want to hide the facts of who I am, I also don’t want people to feel it’s where I start and end.”
Part of Booster’s MO is keeping people guessing, and that all contributes to his magnetism. For example, you can often catch him playing with fashion and using it to evoke different personalities. “There’s a method to the madness,” he says. “A lot of the time, it’s all a character I have in my head. When I put on clothes I ask myself, Who is this person? One day, I might want to be a Venice Beach skateboarder. Another day I might be into looking like a Janet Jackson backup dancer. It’s about telling a story each day.”
Athletic shorts and a T-shirt, though? That’s classic Booster. And it’s the guy you’ll see if you check out his Instagram (@ihatejoelkim), where he has 54K followers with whom he shares stories from the gym, on-set dressing room, and beyond.
Taking a peek into the personal life of this Hollywood up-and-comer is one thing. Seeing his brand-new character come to life every Thursday night, when NBC airs “Sunnyside,” is another. Booster plays Jun Ho, a member of a wealthy Asian family seeking American citizenship. Onscreen, he’s inseparable from his sister, played by Poppy Liu, as they shoot snarky comments at the mentor helping them in their quest.
While the series mines for outright primetime laughs, Booster plans to never let go of the subversive humor that brought him here in the first place.
“I’ve always been a peacemaker … almost to my detriment,” says Booster. “It’s that Midwestern ideal of ‘Let’s make things easy for everyone in the room.’ I had to learn to stir things up. Now I’m living life on the line. It’s good to know what to stand up for.”
The no-frills Logan Square bar has a back room where lots of punch lines have been tossed out over the years. “I did my first open mic
there and, at the time, it was the most famous open mic in Chicago,” says Booster.
2338 N. Milwaukee
The Den Theater
Plays. Standup acts. Live bands. You can catch it all at the Wicker Park event space that also has a lounge where industry folks like to hang. “I was just here in May of this year, headlining a comedy show.”
1331 N. Milwaukee
Lakeview’s well-known comedy club has seen the likes of Whitney Cummings and Dave Chappelle. “This was my home club — I was a regular.”
3175 N. Broadway
Steppenwolf Theatre Garage
“I found myself warming up the crowds before shows, and this was one of the places I’d hit.” The Garage Theatre where Booster performed has closed but Steppenwolf’s new 1700 Theatre has a similar vibe.
1700 N. Halsted
AT THE SHOOT
There was hay. A tractor. And lots of laughs. Our team in L.A. had a blast photographing Joel Kim Booster at Smashbox Studios. One of the sets nodded to the actor’s Midwest roots. “When I mention the Midwest, everyone thinks of corn,” says Booster. The Plainfield-raised star is on the West Coast now and filming NBC’s “Sunnyside,” a new comedy about achieving the American dream, but remembering where you came from.
Photographer: Mandee Johnson
Makeup & grooming: Lili Kaytmaz
Wardrobe: Jennifer Gilbert
On the Cover
Jacket, Sweater Atiziano, Pants Rustic Dime, Shoes Zara