Last time Joel Kim Booster was in Melbourne, it was 2018 and he had a ton of Korean food. “Don’t ask me any of the restaurants I ate at,” he says. “I would just walk home from a show and stop in at whatever. It was just sort of throwing a rock and going with different comics, wherever. You can’t go wrong.”

Today, we’re dining at Andrew McConnell’s Gimlet. Booster is early for our date and waits hidden away in a plush red velvet booth across from the bar, sitting patiently with a Diet Coke. Booster orders starters for both of us: Gimlet Gildas with smoked tuna and pickled mussels and the gnocco fritto (“It’s like a pizza bite”).

He’s just flown in from Los Angeles – “I’m running on a lot of caffeine, and a little bit of Adderall” – and is in town for Melbourne International Comedy Festival, where he’s performing on a double bill with fellow Los Angeles comedian Zainab Johnson every night until Sunday April 7.

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Booster is a fan of both the festival and the more British-leaning comedy style found in Australia. Yet he also says the pervasion of American pop culture in Australia means many of his references don’t need to be adjusted for local crowds. The exception? “You guys have a lot of different words for drugs.”

While he’s long been a favourite among comedy nerds, Booster has recently become more of a mainstream figure. Since his last Melbourne visit, he has written and co-starred in the Emmy-nominated romantic comedy Fire Island, a take on Pride and Prejudice that also starred Saturday Night Live’s Bowen Yang and comedy legend Margaret Cho. He also appears in the Maya Rudolph-led show Loot, is the third co-host on the Chrissy Tiegen and David Chang food and interview show Chrissy and Dave Dine Out, and is working with Searchlight on the feature script Again, Again, Again which he wrote and is set to produce.

Suffice to say, Booster could leave stand-up behind if he wanted to. But there’s something about getting up on stage and telling jokes that draws him in. “It’s really hard to quit, it’s like an addiction,” he says.

There’s also a freedom and satisfaction Booster finds only on stage. “It’s the one creative pursuit where at this point in my career I’m not getting network notes, I’m not getting production notes. The collaboration is me and the audience, and it’s very freeing to just be able to write whatever the hell I want and present it however the hell I want.”

Booster also admits to experiencing an element of imposter syndrome with his newfound place in the wider entertainment world. Stand-up, though, is his natural home, providing the comfort of “a true meritocracy”, where the crowd will let you know if you’re doing a good job or not.

“If I’m going out to an audience on a random Tuesday night and a lot of them don’t know who the fuck I am and I still make them laugh, it’s very satisfying.”

His 30-minute festival set takes a slightly different direction to previous work, such as 2021 Netflix special Psychosexual. “It’s less autobiographical and much more observational,” he explains. Jokes range from why koalas are the third-worst animals (horses take out number one) to piss-kink night at notorious Berlin club Berghain. The humour moves away from the excavation of his personal life and social identities.

“The nice part about this part of my career is I’ve talked about being Asian; everybody knows what it was like for me growing up with a white family, they’ve seen the clips, they’ve seen everything and they know me.”

Photography: Julia Sansone

As our mains arrive – roast corn-fed chicken with vadouvan, almond and curry leaves; a pasta special with prawns and tomato; the Cavendish House salad and a tower of stacked charred bullhorn peppers, white zucchini, mint and basil – the conversation turns more serious.

The impetus to address his social identities through his work was born, in part, out of a need to “address the elephant in the room”.

“I got very used to being the only gay guy,” he adds, “[or] the only Asian person on the bill.” But the culture moves forward, and Booster, who has been performing stand-up for 14 years, says he’s seen a significant change in the past seven or so years.

“A lot of people who I think felt shut out from stand-up comedy, thinking it wasn’t for them or didn’t want to go to the comedy club because they wouldn’t want to always be the butt of the joke, now feel like they have options,” he says.

Booster cites John Early and Kate Berlant, an influential, once-alternative duo who are now relatively mainstream, as having a significant influence on the scene. “Everybody when they start out is ripping off somebody. I was ripping off John Mulaney when I started. By and large, it’s great that John and Kate and other comics have given people a different model to rip off.”

Photography: Julia Sansone

His own comedy community, which includes Matteo Lane, Julio Torres, Sam Taggart, Matt Rogers and Yang, has also created a new model for people who once felt excluded from comedy.

“Before I started, the conventional wisdom if you were a marginalised person doing stand-up – whether that be a woman or a racial minority or gay, what have you – was there was room for one of us on the line-up. And I think in order to survive, a lot of people in that position said, ‘I have gotten in the room and now I’m closing the door behind me, pulling the ladder up. If there’s only room for one of us, it’s going to be me’.

“It’s rare that I see an all-white all-male line-up anymore. And then when I do, I’m always like, that’s alt-right.”

As our plates are now empty, the table is cleared and Booster heads off to a tech rehearsal. Later that night he’ll perform his first festival gig this year and, if history is anything to go by, get some Korean food after the show.