Kal Penn on why Democrats are dropping and what constitutes a patriotic comedy
Is there any level of apologizing on this period of cancel tradition? Redemption is lifeless, proper? Cancel tradition thrives on deleting individuals from our present ecosystem of excellent human beings, who’re all preset with the identical guidelines. A lot of these beliefs and requirements work nice on-line, however the web doesn’t mirror actual life. Folks have flaws. They make errors. Generally they make the identical mistake 10 occasions earlier than they be taught their lesson, and that’s okay as a result of we’re human.
Actor Kal Penn’s new undertaking, a sitcom on NBC known as “Sunnyside,” follows a canceled politician and what occurs after his fall from grace. Within the sequence, which Penn co-created with Matt Murray, he performs Garrett Modi, a disgraced metropolis councilman, who Penn refers fondly to as “a huge fool.”
When Penn joined me on “Salon Talks,” we spoke about how he mixed his takeaways from enjoying the goofy Kumar all of us beloved in “Harold & Kumar Go to White Fortress” 15 years in the past, to the stint he spent in Obama’s White Home engaged on the DREAM Act, to making a well timed sitcom a couple of group of immigrants combating to earn their citizenship in Queens, New York.
Penn is proud to name “Sunnyside” tv’s “most numerous present,” each in its give attention to consultant casting on-screen and in its writers’ room, and thru the true points it takes on — from a number of episodes that depict characters in ICE detention facilities, to how a second-generation immigrant wrestles with questions on race and id.
Watch Kal Penn’s “Salon Talks” episode right here, or learn the transcript of our dialog under, to listen to extra about Penn’s political future, his go-to order at White Fortress, and after we can count on a “Harold and Kumar” reunion.
The next transcript has been calmly edited for size and readability.
Your new present “Sunnyside” is hilarious. The place did the idea come from?
The idea got here from desirous to create a comedy that was inclusive and humorous and jogged my memory of exhibits that I watched rising up, besides with individuals who regarded like us. That simply did not exist. I type of thought, a few years in the past I used to be on a sitcom that acquired canceled, and my supervisor and producing accomplice mentioned, “What’s your dream job? What would you wish to create?” I had by no means thought of it that method. All of us have a look at TV and go, “That is not numerous sufficient, or humorous sufficient, or edgy, or that may be higher,” however having the possibility to lastly create one thing that I used to be captivated with was type of the way it all got here collectively in all probability about 5 years in the past. It was on maintain after I was on “Designated Survivor,” after which had the possibility to develop it and promote it final yr.
What have been a few of the exhibits that you just favored rising up?
Do you bear in mind “Excellent Strangers” or “Full Home”? And extra not too long ago, “Seinfeld” and “Associates,” that are each hilarious, however not an actual model of New York. I do not know a New York that’s that homogenous. The content material of the exhibits was actually humorous and the characters have been actually relatable. It was issues like that the place you type of assume like they purposely determined to not embody individuals who appear like actual New Yorkers, or the complete breadth of what it means to be American. That is what made us type of assume, “I wish to inform these tales too.”
For many who have not seen “Sunnyside,” stroll us by way of with a fast overview.
It’s a present a couple of group of immigrants, a gaggle of buddies in Sunnyside, Queens, which is an actual place. They are going by way of the American citizenship course of collectively, led by an fool like me. I play a man named Garrett Modi, a disgraced metropolis councilman.
He’s essentially the most lit metropolis councilman ever. [laughs] He has all of the D-list superstar plugs.
Yeah, my character has carried out nothing. He is been elected for 15 years straight, each two years or no matter it’s, proper out of school. Within the pilot, he throws up on a cop automotive. He will get arrested for principally being drunk whereas strolling on the BQE, will get kicked out of workplace, and realizes he has no different job abilities. His first marketing campaign video was the one time he was truthful about wanting to assist individuals, after which he will get elected and realizes no one pays consideration to native elections, this s**t is very easy. All I’ve to do is present up and do no work.
When you personal like three pairs of khakis, you are good.
Actually, and go get together with a bunch of D-list celebrities, and that is how he had been dwelling his life till he meets these individuals.
I feel you present a really well timed redemption story as a result of we’re presently dwelling in cancel tradition. When you say the improper factor otherwise you do the improper factor, the suitable factor for society to do is simply throw you away. Was that one of many concepts behind the present?
No, I feel what we have been going for was extra of an aspirational present. I feel there are clearly lots of locations you’ll be able to go if you would like one thing that is a bit of extra dire. Our characters are in dire conditions, however we needed one thing that was aspirational, one thing that was a patriotic comedy, that was not even a reminder, as a lot of a celebration of our communities which are, frankly, getting s**t on each time you activate cable information, or each time you see what’s popping out of the White Home. It is anti-immigrant, it is anti individuals of colour, it is anti-LGBT, and that is not our experiences.
Our experiences are, particularly you reside in a spot like New York, or actually, I imply even in case you’re in a small city within the Midwest, your folks or your loved ones perhaps communicate totally different languages, they appear totally different. We have not been represented on TV in a method that is humorous before everything. That is a giant lesson I discovered from the “Harold and Kumar” films.
We did not set out on function to type of shake up the way in which that comedies work, however there hadn’t been, up till that time, a studio comedy with two Asian-American males because the leads. Our first purpose was to make individuals snicker. I bear in mind when that first film got here out, it did not do properly within the field workplace, and the outdated guard, the form of the Hollywood executives, outdated males, have been like, “Properly see, that is as a result of America is not prepared for 2 Asian-American males opening a film.” No, it turned out the advertising and marketing was bulls**t. The advertising and marketing was the flaw. As quickly as that film got here out on DVD and on HBO, followers went out and acquired it and held watch events. That is why we’re so grateful to the followers of these films.
Folks by no means wish to take credit score for poor advertising and marketing!
That was a giant lesson for us. Irrespective of the place you have been within the nation, we’re so grateful to the “Harold and Kumar” followers. I imply, they don’t seem to be simply in San Francisco, and New York, and Atlanta. They’re in Oklahoma, and Kansas, and locations the place individuals need content material that is humorous before everything. Then, clearly, it has a further which means for communities of colour which may not get to see themselves as typically on onscreen. That was a giant litmus for me in placing “Sunnyside” collectively, is I needed it to be like that. I needed it to have lots of these meanings, the place before everything, you make individuals snicker, however then past that you just’re representing communities that are not represented on a regular basis.
There’s a huge push for illustration in Hollywood, however that doesn’t make progress from the within simple. You embody all people in your present. You’ve got writers of colours, you bought a rainbow employees and crew. All the pieces is gorgeous. Was that tough?
It was not tough. I’ve to say, I’m so pleased with the truth that we’re essentially the most numerous present on digital camera and within the writers’ room. My understanding is, speaking to the journalists who we have spoken to to date, is in historical past of American tv, which I am exceptionally pleased with and humbled by, and it was not onerous, and that is one of many greatest misnomers that you just maintain listening to, “Oh, we do not know how one can discover individuals.” I imply Matt Murray, who’s my co-creator and the showrunner for “Sunnyside,” he forged a large internet.
Our first rule was be humorous before everything. Each single one in all our writing employees are both immigrants or the children of immigrants, or married to an immigrant themselves, so principally from an immigrant household. We’re essentially the most numerous forged. Clearly, in case you have a look at us, you understand that. Then, in case you begin following the content material of the place our characters are going, you understand that. For casting the present, we had some specificity in the way in which the characters have been written, however then we advised Allison Jones, who was our casting director, simply forged a large internet. When you assume anyone is actually humorous, carry them in even when the ethnicity will not be particularly what we wrote it as.
You’ve got, for instance, Diana Maria Riva, who performs Griselda on the present, she’s Dominican in actual life. I feel one of many earlier drafts of the script, she was El Salvadorian, and we clearly modified it to be Dominican. Joel Kim Booster and Poppy Liu are the 2 most clear-cut examples of this, the place we knew that there have been two Asian-American twins who’ve a billionaire dad, and that is really based mostly on an Icelandic household that Matt is aware of. It isn’t even based mostly on an Asian household. Everybody’s very fast to say, “Is that due to ‘Loopy Wealthy Asians’?”No, these characters predate “Loopy Wealthy Asians” by no less than a decade.
They’re my favourite. “Take the inexperienced Lamborghini!” [laughs]
Half the time they make stuff up. Joel is Korean-American, Poppy is Chinese language-American. Once they auditioned, we knew every of them have been the funniest individuals for the job. One factor that I am unable to stand about Hollywood is once they go, “Oh, properly all people seems to be the identical. Let’s not even make an effort.” Proper?
We thought, we all know that they’ve the identical dad, so why not lean into the truth that they’re from totally different ethnicities or totally different Asian-American subgroups? They’re twins born to the identical dad, of two totally different mothers. The backstory is that they’ve two mothers who gave start on the identical time in the identical billionaire’s hospital. That is how they grew to become as screwed up as they’re. You’ll be able to lean into comedy. You’ll be able to A, forged the most effective individual based mostly on their deserves, after which B, tweak your script a bit of bit to make it even funnier since you’ve carried out that. I do not know why extra individuals do not try this.
One of many issues that could be a actually particular a part of your present is the way in which you are utilizing comedy to speak about severe points, just like the ICE detention facilities and America’s immigration insurance policies. Might you communicate to that?
There are a few alternative ways the place we’re speaking about severe points by way of the lens of comedy [on the show]. There are two characters, particularly, the character of Brady who’s performed by Moses Storm, who’s, by the way in which, a hilarious stand-up comedian, and coming to New York, I feel subsequent week, with Joel for a stand-up present. He performs a man named Brady. Brady realized that he was undocumented later in life. His mother and father by no means advised him. Their backstory is that they overstayed a visa, and he is a DACA recipient. You discover out in Episode 8, I feel, that it is principally a coming-out story for Brady, whether or not he needs to share along with his frat brothers that he is a DACA recipient or not, that he isn’t even undocumented, however an immigrant interval.
There’s a few different characters who undergo that, and one who goes by way of an ICE detention that begins within the pilot and leads by way of the entire run of the primary season. We based mostly Moses’ character on a man I knew who was detained, what, eight years in the past, I imply, underneath the earlier administration by ICE as a result of he was undocumented.
He did not know he would have been a DREAM Act recipient if that had handed. When ICE picked him up, he was dwelling and dealing in Detroit. He was actually an English trainer for inner-city youngsters. That was his job when ICE picked him up, and so the idea of all our characters has some actuality. Whether or not it is the Icelandic billionaires who grew to become these two Asian-American characters, or whether or not it is Moses’ character, based mostly on a man I do know who occurs to be Russian.
We needed that authenticity, as a result of we do not simply need tokenization, we would like actual illustration. Comedy can typically come from a painful place. Generally it will possibly come from conditions. In our case, it is largely situational comedy, however it nonetheless offers with subversive points.
I am going to provide you with an instance, Drazen [Tudor Petrut] is the older man who’s locked up in ICE custody on and off by way of the course of the primary season. I play a huge fool, and I am going as much as him when he is at one in all his hearings. I am like, “Oh, Drazen, how are you man? How’s every thing going? How’s detention?” He goes, “It isn’t so dangerous.” I am the fool who goes, “Actually? That is superior.” He goes, “No, I am in ICE detention. In fact it is dangerous. It is horrible.” It isn’t even about it coming from a spot of ache, it is about making enjoyable of an fool like me, or my character, who would not know that. I feel we get the possibility to discover these points in a method that our viewers is aware of what they’re about.
In contrast to each time you activate cable information otherwise you see one thing unfavorable, we needed this to be virtually reinforcing. There are such a lot of advocates who’re doing unbelievable work. There are such a lot of college students or individuals who simply observe politics on-line or assist one thing with a retweet, and we needed to make a very deeply humorous present for them.
I used to like watching Jon Stewart’s “Every day Present.” Clearly, it is a progressive, pseudo-news comedy, however “The Every day Present” did not make you are feeling good once you turned off the TV, proper? You all the time felt just like the world was ending, and it simply sucks. We needed to supply a giant, principally a giant hug. I need you to really feel such as you’re hanging out with a gaggle of your folks in an aspirational method, in a model of America that we hopefully can return to within the not too distant future.
The way in which that our present administration is dealing with immigration is egregious. I sit round and assume, “What are we going to be saying after we look again on this time interval in historical past 20 years from now?” What do you assume?
I feel it is going to be fairly tousled. I imply, I hope we be taught from issues. I feel it is already type of scary. You see people on the left who’re transferring in the direction of the middle and saying, “Oh, that is the most effective probability to get elected by transferring to the middle.” No, it is not. Actually, that is why Democrats have been dropping is as a result of they’re transferring to the middle, and that is why you are letting the alt-right win by pushing all people to the middle. It is worrisome, however there’s additionally lots of hope that individuals are mobilized, and may change issues fairly rapidly.
Did your stint within the White Home make you wish to do one thing in leisure that is political, like a present on politics, or one thing with a political really feel?
Not likely. I beloved working on the White Home, and it was an honor, clearly, to serve our nation in that capability. I attempt to maintain them separate, my political curiosity and my inventive pursuits. I’ll say for “Sunnyside,” as a result of the characters are based mostly on actual individuals, having had the possibility to work on the DREAM Act underneath the Obama Administration, at the moment it failed by 5 democratic votes. It was Democrats that screwed the President on that.
By way of that course of, I used to be simply engaged on the outreach workforce, however due to that I used to be assembly individuals who have been undocumented, individuals whose households have been impacted by it, and clearly big advocacy organizations. That stuff stays with you. It was, after all, the idea for a few of the characters and a few of their tales and the lives that they reside. Identical to Matt, my co-creator, who didn’t work in politics, he had interactions with people equally who ended up turning into characters within the present. That definitely wasn’t the explanation that I did it, nor was it the explanation that we created the present.
It is type of like every thing influences every thing.
Yeah, your life experiences clearly affect it. I feel we’re, a patriotic comedy, and that comes from someplace. Emotionally and sentimentally, there’s lots of the Michelle and Barack Obama world on this present. That means that we’re not mutually unique. You’ll be able to watch this present as a sensible one who likes d*ck jokes and loves America.
Proper now, you are creating one of the vital numerous exhibits in tv historical past and also you have been a part of essentially the most numerous, progressive White Homes ever. We’re additionally dwelling in a rustic the place our present president is normalizing racism. Was it surprising to you that Trump’s rhetoric really mobilized individuals?
It is humorous, I feel now we have these conversations so typically amongst our fellow communities of colour and buddies who’re individuals of colour. I really feel like relying on the day or relying on the state of affairs, there is no such thing as a finite reply. Some days I take heed to the issues he says and I am like, “Properly, yeah. I imply that is what he campaigned on.” It looks like it is the white people who get shocked by it. Like, “Oh my goodness, I am unable to imagine that he mentioned that.” I bear in mind the primary time I used to be actually stunned. He goes by way of this entire marketing campaign of speaking about immigrants being rapists and murderers, and promising to dial again the rights of LGBT people and girls, and rolling again entry to healthcare and training. Then, he will get elected and he begins doing all of these issues with the identical rhetoric. I am like, “Okay, properly that is what you promised and other people elected you, so that you’re doing what you promised.” I did not assume he would facet with a terrorist at Charlottesville. I did not assume he would say that either side have some benefit.
That did not shock me.
Why did not it shock you?
It did not shock me. Properly, one, as a result of I write for Salon and typically I learn the feedback. So placing the federal government again collectively goes to be loopy. We have not seen something like this since Reconstruction. The nation is actually divided. As an individual of colour, I am certain you have felt the results of this administration. Are you addressing that on the present?
Sure, one factor you will find out about Garrett, my character, is that he is far more of a Nikki Haley or a Bobby Jindal when it comes to his lack of know-how of the complexities of race.
I forgot about Bobby Jindal [laughs].
All of us tried to, however you understand what I imply? Garrett may be very privileged, and he is aware of he is privileged, and he would not have a, that is perhaps the place he differs from a Nikki Hillary or Bobby Jindal, however he would not have a nasty coronary heart, however he would not perceive the complexities of what it means to be an immigrant, regardless that his mother and father have been immigrants.
There is a Thanksgiving episode that touches on that quite a bit — why he and his sister, however particularly him, why he would not see himself because the son of immigrants the identical method that people do. I fall into an Asian-American class the place post-1965, people who appear like my mother and father, or in case you have been East Asian-American, lots of people have been allowed to return to America as a result of there was a scarcity of docs and engineers. My expertise rising up is outstandingly totally different than anyone who was both the great-great grandchild of slaves, or somebody who got here as a refugee, or who was undocumented and their mother and father got here seeking a greater life. You’ll be able to’t quantify an immigration expertise as only one factor.
That is an ideal level.
We needed to the touch on that too, as a result of I feel particularly the far proper, and even the suitable, and even writers’ rooms in Hollywood who’re supposedly left, they’re very reductionist concerning the experiences of our communities.
It’s a long-winded solution to reply your query, Garrett goes by way of a few of that on his personal the place he realizes how improper he is been, and his eyes are opened as much as the issues that his buddies should take care of that he by no means needed to take care of; his privilege principally.
His personal self-discovery is wonderful. Do you get free hamburgers for all times, and do individuals speak to you about hamburgers daily?
Folks speak to me about hamburgers daily. Even out of context. My favourite meals is tacos. You have been speaking concerning the Salon feedback, the feedback on my Twitter if I tweet about tacos are, “You promote out. What about White Fortress burgers?” I am like, I am not allowed to love tacos?
He is made it, he is too good for White Fortress!
However no, they don’t seem to be free. I attempt to be largely vegetarian or vegan, or no less than be a bit of more healthy. White Fortress now has these Unattainable sliders. Each time I am working with a sufficiently big crew that I do know that secretly they’re both about to supply me weed or discuss hamburgers, I am going to attempt to seize a case of the Unattainable sliders and be like, “Right here, let’s all take the image that you just wish to take!” Look, in case your greatest job hazard is that anyone is providing you weed on the road, or they wish to discuss hamburgers, I am not mad about that.
Any speak of a reunion for “Harold and Kumar”?
A variety of speak of it. We’re hoping to do a fourth sooner or later. We’re all engaged on totally different initiatives proper now. So long as we will get in the identical room and provide you with an thought.
Kal Penn for Congress?
I do not assume so. I do not assume so. I feel I am loving Garrett Modi’s political wrestle on “Sunnyside,” and I am additionally loving, particularly within the local weather that we reside in now, I really like making individuals snicker. That is all the time been my old flame.
And in addition, we by no means had individuals who regarded like us on display screen in dynamic well-formed roles. Poppy and Joel, who play the 2 twins that you just have been speaking about, simply did an interview with Satisfaction.com and talked concerning the distinction between tokenization and illustration. We have now little interest in tokenization, however now we have an enormous curiosity in illustration, particularly now. We wish to be that humorous, big, patriotic cog for our personal communities that permits you to tune out the remainder of the world and snicker and know that it is our individuals, you understand? I am hoping we get to do extra of that, and assist people who find themselves working for Congress. I do not assume it is going to be me.
Certainly, you have made your marks on Hollywood and Washington, and try to be part of change in each industries. What would you like individuals to recollect you by?
I do not know, man. One factor I really like, and that is going to sound perhaps very hokey, however I actually imply it, is without doubt one of the stunning issues about our nation is that issues will not be mutually unique. Regardless of how loopy and insane and tyrannical the present administration is, we nonetheless reside in a rustic the place you will have a voice, whether or not that is politically or expressing your self as an artist, or loving who you need, or going to that you just wish to go to. Clearly, we do not all have the identical means to do it, however the concept that two issues will not be mutually unique on this nation is a rarity of our democracy and our nation.
I feel that is so stunning and I really feel very grateful that I’ve had the possibility to work for the primary black president of america and co-create essentially the most numerous present within the historical past of tv. That isn’t one thing I take calmly. I do not wish to sound preachy about it, however it makes me very fulfilled that now we have audiences which have watched our stuff and which are supporting us by way of artwork, and thru artwork that is subversive, and thru artwork that is hopefully considerate and means one thing to individuals. That is method too lengthy to placed on a tombstone, however it’s one thing that I am very pleased with and grateful.
“Sunnyside” is offered to stream on NBC.com, the NBC app and Hulu.