REVIEW: Headliners with Joel Kim Booster & Zainab Johnson – Melbourne International Comedy Festival

I love discovering new comedians at MICF. Admittedly, I wanted to see Headliners because of Joel Kim Booster – his film Fire Island is hilarious and has layers of insight while being very sexy, and his Netflix special Psychosexual is a sharp look at race and gender and sexuality through Joel’s life as an Asian kid adopted by white parents.

Paired with Joel, though, is Zainab Johnson, whose work I was entirely unfamiliar with. But after this sampler of Zainab’s work, I’ll be watching her Amazon special, Hijabs Off, as soon as I can. But, right now, there’s a Comedy Festival on.

Joel is charming and cheeky and gets the audience on side pretty quickly with a joke about Easter. “We’re all Christians here, right?” And then there’s a bit of crowd work about the end of the world, where we discover most of us think Melbourne deserves to be nuked. Why would you want to live in a city that doesn’t have the kind of lifestyle that invites the bomb?

Then Joel entertains us with observations about kinks and love and Joel’s top-three most-hated animals. It’s a bit of a chaotic set, but it’s consistently hilarious. And it’s the perfect warm-up for Zainab’s half of this one-hour show.

I thought Joel hating on koalas might put the local crowd off-side, but then I was really worried when Zainab said she had a gun. Not on her, of course. But she wants people to know upfront that she has one, just so we’re prepared, depending on where the evening takes us.

Zainab’s stories are relatable (dating! real estate agents! the firing range?!) but the twists and turns are very specific to her life – living alone as a black woman in America has a lot of risks we Australians might not consider.

For one thing, none of us are on Raya – the private, membership-based dating-app for the famous, semi-famous and unknown guitarists. But bad dates can be bad dates, no matter which app you meet on. Especially if he’s shorter than you and his hands shake.

And for another, some of us don’t even know what a “pot filler” is! Not even some of the white women in the audience! 

For all the high-concept shows that come along at Comedy Festival time, there’s something to be said for a perfectly-crafted thirty-minutes of stand-up that is fresh, thoughtful, full of ridiculous belly-laughs and the kind of observations that shock and entertain all at once. Zainab Johnson brings that!

Joel and Zainab are a hell of a pair to see together – giving you a lot more laughter bang for your bucks.

- Keith Gow, Theatre First

Headliners is on at the Comedy Festival until April 7.