Actor Kal Penn explains why Democrats keep losing

Actor Kal Penn explains why Democrats keep losing
White House Office of Public Engagement

Is there any point of apologizing in this era of cancel culture? Redemption is dead, right? Cancel culture thrives on deleting people from our current ecosystem of perfect human beings, who are all preset with the same rules. These types of beliefs and standards work great online, but the internet doesn’t mirror real life. People have flaws. They make mistakes. Sometimes they make the same mistake 10 times before they learn their lesson, and that’s okay because we are human.

Actor Kal Penn’s new project, a sitcom on NBC called “Sunnyside,” follows a canceled politician and what happens after his fall from grace. In the series, which Penn co-created with Matt Murray, he plays Garrett Modi, a disgraced city councilman, who Penn refers fondly to as “a gigantic idiot.”

When Penn joined me on “Salon Talks,” we spoke about how he combined his takeaways from playing the goofy Kumar we all loved in “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle” 15 years ago, to the stint he spent in Obama's White House working on the DREAM Act, to creating a timely sitcom about a group of immigrants fighting to earn their citizenship in Queens, New York.

Penn is proud to call “Sunnyside” television's “most diverse show,” both in its focus on representative casting on-screen and in its writers' room, and through the real issues it takes on — from multiple episodes that depict characters in ICE detention centers, to how a second-generation immigrant wrestles with questions about race and identity.

Watch Kal Penn's “Salon Talks” episode here, or read the transcript of our conversation below, to hear more about Penn's political future, his go-to order at White Castle, and when we can expect a "Harold and Kumar" reunion.

The following transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Your new show “Sunnyside” is hilarious. Where did the concept come from?

The concept came from wanting to create a comedy that was inclusive and funny and reminded me of shows that I watched growing up, except with people who looked like us. That just didn't exist. I kind of thought, a couple of years ago I was on a sitcom that got canceled, and my manager and producing partner said, "What's your dream job? What would you want to create?" I had never thought about it that way. We all look at TV and go, "That's not diverse enough, or funny enough, or edgy, or that can be better,” but having the chance to finally create something that I was passionate about was kind of how it all came together probably about five years ago. It was on hold when I was on "Designated Survivor," and then had the chance to develop it and sell it last year.

What were some of the shows that you liked growing up?

Do you remember “Perfect Strangers” or “Full House”? And more recently, “Seinfeld” and “Friends,” which are both hilarious, but not a real version of New York. I don't know a New York that is that homogenous. The content of the shows was really funny and the characters were really relatable. It was things like that where you kind of think like they purposely decided not to include people who look like real New Yorkers, or the full breadth of what it means to be American. That's what made us kind of think, "I want to tell those stories too."

For those who haven't seen “Sunnyside,” walk us through with a quick overview.

It’s a show about a group of immigrants, a group of friends in Sunnyside, Queens, which is a real place. They're going through the American citizenship process together, led by an idiot like me. I play a guy named Garrett Modi, a disgraced city councilman.

He’s the most lit city councilman ever. [laughs] He has all the D-list celebrity plugs.

Yeah, my character has done nothing. He's been elected for 15 years straight, every two years or whatever it is, right out of college. In the pilot, he throws up on a cop car. He gets arrested for basically being drunk while walking on the BQE, gets kicked out of office, and realizes he has no other job skills. His first campaign video was the only time he was truthful about wanting to help people, and then he gets elected and realizes nobody pays attention to local elections, this s**t is really easy. All I have to do is show up and do no work.

If you own like three pairs of khakis, you're good.

Literally, and go party with a bunch of D-list celebrities, and that's how he had been living his life until he meets these people.

I think you show a very timely redemption story because we're currently living in cancel culture. If you say the wrong thing or you do the wrong thing, the right thing for society to do is just throw you away. Was that one of the ideas behind the show?

No, I think what we were going for was more of an aspirational show. I think there are obviously a lot of places you can go if you want something that's a little more dire. Our characters are in dire situations, but we wanted something that was aspirational, something that was a patriotic comedy, that was not even a reminder, as much of a celebration of our communities that are, frankly, getting s**t on every time you turn on cable news, or every time you see what's coming out of the White House. It's anti-immigrant, it's anti people of color, it's anti-LGBT, and that's not our experiences.

Our experiences are, especially you live in a place like New York, or really, I mean even if you're in a small town in the Midwest, your friends or your family maybe speak different languages, they look different. We haven't been represented on TV in a way that's funny first and foremost. That's a big lesson I learned from the "Harold and Kumar" movies.

We didn't set out on purpose to kind of shake up the way that comedies work, but there hadn't been, up until that point, a studio comedy with two Asian-American men as the leads. Our first goal was to make people laugh. I remember when that first movie came out, it didn't do well in the box office, and the old guard, the sort of the Hollywood executives, old men, were like, "Well see, that's because America isn't ready for two Asian-American men opening a movie." No, it turned out the marketing was bulls**t. The marketing was the flaw. As soon as that movie came out on DVD and on HBO, fans went out and got it and held watch parties. This is why we're so thankful to the fans of those movies.

People never want to take credit for poor marketing!

That was a big lesson for us. No matter where you were in the country, we're so thankful to the "Harold and Kumar" fans. I mean, they're not just in San Francisco, and New York, and Atlanta. They're in Oklahoma, and Kansas, and places where people want content that's funny first and foremost. Then, obviously, it has an additional meaning for communities of color that might not get to see themselves as often on onscreen. That was a big litmus for me in putting “Sunnyside” together, is I wanted it to be like that. I wanted it to have a lot of those meanings, where first and foremost, you make people laugh, but then beyond that you're representing communities that aren't represented all the time.

There is a big push for representation in Hollywood, but that doesn’t make progress from the inside easy. You include everybody on your show. You have writers of colors, you got a rainbow staff and crew. Everything is beautiful. Was that difficult?

It was not difficult. I have to say, I am so proud of the fact that we are the most diverse show on camera and in the writers’ room. My understanding is, talking to the journalists who we've spoken to so far, is in history of American television, which I'm exceptionally proud of and humbled by, and it was not hard, and that's one of the biggest misnomers that you keep hearing, "Oh, we don't know how to find people." I mean Matt Murray, who's my co-creator and the showrunner for “Sunnyside,” he cast a wide net.

Our first rule was be funny first and foremost. Every single one of our writing staff are either immigrants or the kids of immigrants, or married to an immigrant themselves, so basically from an immigrant family. We're the most diverse cast. Obviously, if you look at us, you know that. Then, if you start following the content of where our characters are going, you know that. For casting the show, we had some specificity in the way the characters were written, but then we told Allison Jones, who was our casting director, just cast a wide net. If you think somebody is really funny, bring them in even if the ethnicity is not specifically what we wrote it as.

You have, for example, Diana Maria Riva, who plays Griselda on the show, she's Dominican in real life. I think one of the earlier drafts of the script, she was El Salvadorian, and we obviously changed it to be Dominican. Joel Kim Booster and Poppy Liu are the two most clear-cut examples of this, where we knew that there were two Asian-American twins who have a billionaire dad, and that's actually based on an Icelandic family that Matt knows. It's not even based on an Asian family. Everyone's very quick to say, "Is that because of 'Crazy Rich Asians'?"No, those characters predate "Crazy Rich Asians" by at least a decade.

They're my favorite. "Take the green Lamborghini!” [laughs]

Half the time they make stuff up. Joel is Korean-American, Poppy is Chinese-American. When they auditioned, we knew each of them were the funniest people for the job. One thing that I can't stand about Hollywood is when they go, "Oh, well everybody looks the same. Let's not even make an effort." Right?

We thought, we know that they have the same dad, so why not lean into the fact that they're from different ethnicities or different Asian-American subgroups? They're twins born to the same dad, of two different moms. The backstory is that they have two moms who gave birth at the same time in the same billionaire's hospital. That's how they became as screwed up as they are. You can lean into comedy. You can A, cast the best person based on their merits, and then B, tweak your script a little bit to make it even funnier because you've done that. I don't know why more people don't do that.

One of the things that is a really special part of your show is the way you're using comedy to talk about serious issues, like the ICE detention centers and America’s immigration policies. Could you speak to that?

There are a couple of different ways where we're talking about serious issues through the lens of comedy [on the show]. There are two characters, in particular, the character of Brady who is played by Moses Storm, who is, by the way, a hilarious stand-up comic, and coming to New York, I think next week, with Joel for a stand-up show. He plays a guy named Brady. Brady realized that he was undocumented later in life. His parents never told him. Their backstory is that they overstayed a visa, and he's a DACA recipient. You find out in Episode 8, I think, that it's basically a coming-out story for Brady, whether he wants to share with his frat brothers that he's a DACA recipient or not, that he's not even undocumented, but an immigrant period.

There's a couple of other characters who go through that, and one who goes through an ICE detention that starts in the pilot and leads through the whole run of the first season. We based Moses' character on a guy I knew who was detained, what, eight years ago, I mean, under the previous administration by ICE because he was undocumented.

He didn't know he would have been a DREAM Act recipient if that had passed. When ICE picked him up, he was living and working in Detroit. He was literally an English teacher for inner-city kids. That was his job when ICE picked him up, and so the basis of all our characters has some reality. Whether it's the Icelandic billionaires who became these two Asian-American characters, or whether it's Moses' character, based on a guy I know who happens to be Russian.

We wanted that authenticity, because we don't just want tokenization, we want real representation. Comedy can sometimes come from a painful place. Sometimes it can come from situations. In our case, it's mostly situational comedy, but it still deals with subversive issues.

I'll give you an example, Drazen [Tudor Petrut] is the older guy who is locked up in ICE custody off and on through the course of the first season. I play a gigantic idiot, and I go up to him when he's at one of his hearings. I'm like, "Oh, Drazen, how are you man? How's everything going? How's detention?" He goes, "It's not so bad." I'm the idiot who goes, "Really? That's awesome." He goes, "No, I'm in ICE detention. Of course it's bad. It's terrible." It's not even about it coming from a place of pain, it's about making fun of an idiot like me, or my character, who doesn't know that. I think we get the chance to explore these issues in a way that our audience knows what they're about.

Unlike every time you turn on cable news or you see something negative, we wanted this to be almost reinforcing. There are so many advocates who are doing incredible work. There are so many students or people who just follow politics online or support something with a retweet, and we wanted to make a really deeply funny show for them.

I used to love watching Jon Stewart's "Daily Show." Obviously, it's a progressive, pseudo-news comedy, but "The Daily Show" didn't make you feel good when you turned off the TV, right? You always felt like the world was ending, and it just sucks. We wanted to offer a big, basically a big hug. I want you to feel like you're hanging out with a group of your friends in an aspirational way, in a version of America that we hopefully can return to in the not too distant future.

The way that our current administration is handling immigration is egregious. I sit around and think, "What are we going to be saying when we look back on this time period in history 20 years from now?" What do you think?

I think it's going to be pretty messed up. I mean, I hope we learn from things. I think it's already kind of scary. You see folks on the left who are moving towards the center and saying, "Oh, this is the best chance to get elected by moving to the center." No, it's not. Literally, that's why Democrats have been losing is because they're moving to the center, and that's why you're letting the alt-right win by pushing everybody to the center. It's worrisome, but there's also a lot of hope that people are mobilized, and can change things pretty quickly.

Did your stint in the White House make you want to do something in entertainment that's political, like a show on politics, or something with a political feel?

Not really. I loved working at the White House, and it was an honor, obviously, to serve our country in that capacity. I try to keep them separate, my political interest and my artistic interests. I will say for “Sunnyside,” because the characters are based on real people, having had the chance to work on the DREAM Act under the Obama Administration, at that time it failed by five democratic votes. It was Democrats that screwed the President on that.

Through that process, I was just working on the outreach team, but because of that I was meeting people who were undocumented, people whose families were impacted by it, and obviously huge advocacy organizations. That stuff stays with you. It was, of course, the basis for some of the characters and some of their stories and the lives that they live. Just like Matt, my co-creator, who did not work in politics, he had interactions with folks similarly who ended up becoming characters in the show. That certainly wasn't the reason that I did it, nor was it the reason that we created the show.

It's kind of like everything influences everything.

Yeah, your life experiences obviously influence it. I think we are, a patriotic comedy, and that comes from someplace. Emotionally and sentimentally, there's a lot of the Michelle and Barack Obama world in this show. Meaning that we're not mutually exclusive. You can watch this show as a smart person who likes d*ck jokes and loves America.

Right now, you're creating one of the most diverse shows in television history and you were part of the most diverse, progressive White Houses ever. We're also living in a country where our current president is normalizing racism. Was it shocking to you that Trump's rhetoric actually mobilized people?

It's funny, I think we have these conversations so often amongst our fellow communities of color and friends who are people of color. I feel like depending on the day or depending on the situation, there is no finite answer. Some days I listen to the things he says and I'm like, "Well, yeah. I mean that's what he campaigned on." It seems like it's the white folks who get shocked by it. Like, "Oh my goodness, I can't believe that he said that." I remember the first time I was really surprised. He goes through this whole campaign of talking about immigrants being rapists and murderers, and promising to dial back the rights of LGBT folks and women, and rolling back access to healthcare and education. Then, he gets elected and he starts doing all of those things with the same rhetoric. I'm like, "Okay, well this is what you promised and people elected you, so you're doing what you promised." I didn't think he would side with a terrorist at Charlottesville. I didn't think he would say that both sides have some merit.

That didn't shock me.

Why didn't it shock you?

It didn't shock me. Well, one, because I write for Salon and sometimes I read the comments. So putting the government back together is going to be crazy. We haven't seen anything like this since Reconstruction. The country is literally divided. As a person of color, I'm sure you've felt the effects of this administration. Are you addressing that on the show?

Yes, one thing you'll learn about Garrett, my character, is that he's way more of a Nikki Haley or a Bobby Jindal in terms of his lack of understanding of the complexities of race.

I forgot about Bobby Jindal [laughs].

We all tried to, but you know what I mean? Garrett is very privileged, and he knows he's privileged, and he doesn't have a, this is maybe where he differs from a Nikki Hillary or Bobby Jindal, but he doesn't have a bad heart, but he doesn't understand the complexities of what it means to be an immigrant, even though his parents were immigrants.

There's a Thanksgiving episode that touches on that a lot — why he and his sister, but especially him, why he doesn't see himself as the son of immigrants the same way that other folks do. I fall into an Asian-American category where post-1965, folks who look like my parents, or if you were East Asian-American, a lot of people were allowed to come to America because there was a shortage of doctors and engineers. My experience growing up is phenomenally different than somebody who was either the great-great grandchild of slaves, or someone who came as a refugee, or who was undocumented and their parents came in search of a better life. You can't quantify an immigration experience as just one thing.

That's a great point.

We wanted to touch on that too, because I think especially the far right, or even the right, or even writers’ rooms in Hollywood who are supposedly left, they're very reductionist about the experiences of our communities.

It’s a long-winded way to answer your question, Garrett goes through some of that on his own where he realizes how wrong he's been, and his eyes are opened up to the things that his friends have to deal with that he never had to deal with; his privilege basically.

His own self-discovery is amazing. Do you get free hamburgers for life, and do people talk to you about hamburgers every day?

People talk to me about hamburgers every day. Even out of context. My favorite food is tacos. You were talking about the Salon comments, the comments on my Twitter if I tweet about tacos are, "You sell out. What about White Castle burgers?" I'm like, I'm not allowed to like tacos?

He's made it, he's too good for White Castle!

But no, they're not free. I try to be mostly vegetarian or vegan, or at least be a little healthier. White Castle now has these Impossible sliders. Every time I'm working with a big enough crew that I know that secretly they’re either about to offer me weed or talk about hamburgers, I'll try to grab a case of the Impossible sliders and be like, "Here, let's all take the picture that you want to take!" Look, if your biggest job hazard is that somebody is offering you weed on the street, or they want to talk about hamburgers, I'm not mad about that.

Any talk of a reunion for "Harold and Kumar"?

A lot of talk of it. We're hoping to do a fourth at some point. We're all working on different projects right now. As long as we can get in the same room and come up with an idea.

Kal Penn for Congress?

I don't think so. I don't think so. I think I'm loving Garrett Modi's political struggle on “Sunnyside,” and I'm also loving, especially in the climate that we live in now, I love making people laugh. That's always been my first love.

And also, we never had people who looked like us on screen in dynamic well-formed roles. Poppy and Joel, who play the two twins that you were talking about, just did an interview with and talked about the difference between tokenization and representation. We have no interest in tokenization, but we have a huge interest in representation, especially now. We want to be that funny, huge, patriotic cog for our own communities that lets you tune out the rest of the world and laugh and know that it's our people, you know? I'm hoping we get to do more of that, and help people who are running for Congress. I don't think it's going to be me.

Without a doubt, you've made your marks on Hollywood and Washington, and strive to be a part of change in both industries. What do you want people to remember you by?

I don't know, man. One thing I love, and this is going to sound maybe very hokey, but I really mean it, is one of the beautiful things about our country is that things are not mutually exclusive. Despite how crazy and insane and tyrannical the current administration is, we still live in a country where you have a voice, whether that's politically or expressing yourself as an artist, or loving who you want, or going to that you want to go to. Obviously, we don't all have the same means to do it, but the idea that two things are not mutually exclusive in this country is a rarity of our democracy and our country.

I think that's so beautiful and I feel very thankful that I've had the chance to work for the first black president of the United States and co-create the most diverse show in the history of television. That is not something I take lightly. I don't want to sound preachy about it, but it makes me very fulfilled that we have audiences that have watched our stuff and that are supporting us through art, and through art that's subversive, and through art that's hopefully thoughtful and means something to people. That's way too long to put on a tombstone, but it's something that I'm very proud of and thankful.

"Sunnyside" is available to stream on, the NBC app and Hulu.

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a professor at the University of Baltimore and founder of the BMORE Writers Project. Watkins is the author of the New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America” and "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir." His latest book, "We Speak For Ourselves: A Word From Forgotten Black America," is out now.

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