Joel Kim Booster, a former Chicago comedian, updates Jane Austen in ‘Fire Island’
Transplanting ‘Pride and Prejudice’ to the LGBTQ beach destination allows actor-writer to explore how ‘people communicate across class lines.’
The idea for “Fire Island,” written by and starring former Chicagoan Joel Kim Booster and debuting June 3 on Hulu, started “as a threat,” Booster says.
A decade or so ago, Booster and Bowen Yang (pre-“Saturday Night Live”) took their first trip to Fire Island—a popular summer tourist destination for the LGBTQ community in New York. Think Door County, but gay.
Booster, a writer and performer whose credits include “Sunnyside,” “Shrill,” “Big Mouth” and his own Comedy Central stand-up half hour, was reading Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” one day on the beach and noted just how much the book tracked with his Fire Island experience.
“Specifically, the ways in which people communicate across class lines,” Booster says. “I said, ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if I wrote a gay version of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ set on Fire Island?’ And everyone booed and threw things at me.”
In 2018, Booster’s agent encouraged him to adapt an essay he wrote for Penguin Random House, titled “ ‘Pride and Prejudice’ on Fire Island,” into a script. What began as a TV pilot for the erstwhile content platform Quibi turned into a feature-length film after being purchased by Searchlight Pictures.
The plot of “Fire Island” begins as not too far-flung a concept for a romantic comedy before diving into Shakespearean terrain. Booster and Yang play fictionalized versions of themselves — best friends embarking, with a small entourage, on their annual Fire Island vacation getaway. The pair attempt to ingratiate themselves with the Fire Island elite for the sake of finding love and making lasting memories. The cast includes other up-and-coming names in comedy (Matt Rogers, Torian Miller) in addition to the longtime comedy luminary Margaret Cho.
Director Andrew Ahn, whose resume includes the independent features “Spa Night” and “Driveways” and an episode of the FX docuseries “Pride,” received the script for “Fire Island” a year into the pandemic, a time he admits was pretty isolating. “Reading something like Joel’s script, that celebrates queer Asian American friendship, was so exciting to me,” he says. “I hadn’t gone out to a club to dance, drink and be stupid with my friends [in so long, at that point], and I loved being able to revel in that within Joel’s script.”
“It was great to work with another queer Asian American creative,” Ahn adds. “And what I love about our collaboration is that, yes, like, we share a lot of things, but we also have very different perspectives on things. I think that’s indicative of how diverse even our intersectional identity is.”
Booster’s script certainly contains a plethora of party scenes, but touches on Fire Island’s power as a haven for the kind of queer-friendly debauchery not often seen on the mainland.
“[There] is a tangible energy [on Fire Island] of everything it meant to gay men a century ago versus what it means to us now,” Booster says. “You don’t realize the weight you carry around with you in the normal world until you’re in a place like Fire Island where it’s suddenly lifted and you’re free to be as gay as you want to be with your friends. Yes, there’s [some] toxicity there, but if you go with the right people, you can overcome that and experience something really transformative.”
Booster’s own transformation was accelerated by Chicago. In addition to hanging out at both Montrose and Hollywood beaches — mini versions of Fire Island, he says — he spent two years grinding shows as a stand-up comic and actor.
He says his favorite show to do in Chicago was Entertaining Julia, a weekly showcase at Town Hall Pub in Boystown. Booster loved the unpredictable nature of the show, which routinely hosted local comics but was home to the occasional celebrity drop-in, including Robin Williams.
“Chicago is an incredible incubator for any sort of risks, especially in the performing arts,” says Booster, whose stand-up special “Psychosexual” premieres June 21 on Netflix. “I was able to do so many different things, wear so many different hats and was afforded the space to perform, write and do comedy and theater — and was never asked to pick a lane.”
It’s the kind of city that can nurture the idea to, say, write a gay rom-com version of “Pride and Prejudice” set on Fire Island — and encourage someone like Booster to make good on his threat.