Kal Penn: Aspiring Vegan Actor Kal Penn talks about creating the TV comedy Sunnyside and the importance of representation on screen. Then he plays a game about plants in space.
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Kal Penn: Aspiring Vegan

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Kal Penn: Aspiring Vegan

Kal Penn: Aspiring Vegan

Kal Penn: Aspiring Vegan

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/790151940/790160249" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Kal Penn appears on Ask Me Another at the Bell House in Brooklyn, New York. Mike Katzif/NPR hide caption

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Mike Katzif/NPR

Kal Penn appears on Ask Me Another at the Bell House in Brooklyn, New York.

Mike Katzif/NPR

Kal Penn was on the show House, he worked in the White House, and, most recently, he stopped by the Bell House in Brooklyn, New York, to appear on NPR's Ask Me Another. Penn's unusual resume includes both starring in the Harold & Kumar stoner-comedy franchise, and working for President Barack Obama. In 2007, he became an Associate Director at the White House Office of Public Engagement. In a conversation with host Ophira Eisenberg, Penn explained that he was contractually obligated to briefly leave his public service gig to film A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas.

Kal Penn appears on Ask Me Another at the Bell House in Brooklyn, New York. Mike Katzif/NPR hide caption

toggle caption
Mike Katzif/NPR

Kal Penn appears on Ask Me Another at the Bell House in Brooklyn, New York.

Mike Katzif/NPR

Most recently, Penn combined his love of acting and politics as co-creator and star of the NBC and Hulu series Sunnyside. In the comedy, he plays Queens city councilman Garret Modi, a disgraced politician who decides to help immigrants study for the citizenship test.

Penn's Ask Me Another game combines his childhood dream of being an astronaut with his current status as a self-described "aspiring vegan," as Eisenberg challenges him to a game called "Plants in Space."


Interview Highlights

On getting his big break with the Harold and Kumar franchise:

In 2003, Penn met Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg, the co-creators of Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, at a pool party, and was offered a chance to read for the part.

"They sent it to me — this was before it went out onto the market. And I called them and said 'This is is amazing. This movie is incredible. You're never gonna sell it in Hollywood, because, trust me, nobody wants the brown and yellow guys as leads in the movie. They've told me to my face — I'm telling you.' And he said in very New Jersey fashion, like, 'No, we're gonna sell this to a studio.'"

After its release in 2004, the movie went on to be well-received by both critics and fans, and resulted in two sequels.

On how he ended up working in the Obama administration:

"So 2007... the Democratic primary had an equal number of candidates, a really wide field... And all the screenwriters went on strike in 2007, as well. So, we couldn't shoot episodes of House beyond a certain point. And Olivia Wilde... said, 'Hey, I'm going to an Obama event, do you want to come with me? I know you read his book.' I said, 'Yeah, I read his book, but I'm not interested in getting involved in politics."

"So I went to this event with her, really actually liked it...[and] was enamored enough by his campaign. So I'll do three days in Iowa before the caucuses... And then he won! And there was an opportunity to serve in the White House, and... you know, what are you gonna say, 'No Mr. President, I have another stoner movie to make?'"

On why his show Sunnyside was set in Queens:

"Queens is the most diverse place in America. It's a microcosm of not just the rest of the country but the rest of the world. I loved stories growing up that were universal because they were so grounded. And I always think about Seinfeld; I loved Seinfeld as a kid. Like every Indian uncle is George Costanza... The Seinfeld writers were so good at grounding these characters — they're so relatable no matter what your background is... And I thought, I would love, in 2019, to do that in a neighborhood or in a community that's more reflective of who we are today."

Heard on Kal Penn And Dan Soder: The Tournament Of Champions.