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.
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."
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."
JONATHAN COULTON, BYLINE: This is ASK ME ANOTHER, NPR's hour of puzzles, word games and trivia. I'm Jonathan Coulton. Now here's your host, Ophira Eisenberg.
OPHIRA EISENBERG, HOST:
Thank you, Jonathan. It's time to welcome our special guest. You know him from the "Harold & Kumar" film franchise and from shows like "House." He currently stars in the new series, "Sunnyside." Give it up for Kal Penn.
KAL PENN: How's it going? This is so fun.
EISENBERG: Welcome to ASK ME ANOTHER. Listen, I have to ask you - I found out that you threw the first pitch at a Mets game not so long ago.
PENN: Yes, I did. Yeah.
EISENBERG: And how did it go?
PENN: So I hired a baseball coach to teach me how to make it across the plate. And I did.
PENN: But then the downside of this, by the way - like, it was an uneventful pitch. I mean, it made it across the plate, and so then you don't end up on "SportsCenter." But you do these things to promote the show you have coming out, right?
EISENBERG: Of course.
PENN: So we did it in conjunction with "Sunnyside," which takes place in Queens. And my character is a Mets fan. But because I didn't do anything wrong, it didn't show up on "SportsCenter." So then I'm like, oh, maybe I shouldn't have hired the coach.
EISENBERG: You can never win.
PENN: It should've hit the ground, yeah.
EISENBERG: So you were just talking about "Sunnyside." Yes, you have a new show that you write, produce and star in...
EISENBERG: ...Called "Sunnyside." You play Garrett Modi, a disgraced New York City councilman who gets booted from office and then ends up deciding to tutor a group of immigrants who are studying for the exam to become a citizen. So, first of all, why did you decide to set the show in Queens?
PENN: Well, I live in New York. I mean, the selfish reason is I didn't want to get on a plane anymore to go to LA to work. But the bigger reason is, you know, Queens is the most diverse place in America. It's a microcosm of not just the country, but the rest of the world. I loved stories growing up that were universal because the characters were so grounded. And I always think about "Seinfeld." I loved Seinfeld as a kid. Like, every Indian uncle is George Costanza.
PENN: And so the "Seinfeld" writers are so good at grounding these characters. They're so relatable. No matter what your background is, you can watch the show and love it. 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. And so setting it in Queens made sense. We were looking at places like Flushing, which turns out to be a terrible title for a show.
EISENBERG: Flushing. Yeah, it's tough.
PENN: So we went with "Sunnyside."
EISENBERG: "Sunnyside." And you don't have to get on the plane? You guys shoot it in Queens?
PENN: So we shoot in LA.
PENN: Yeah. They called and said, we're picking up your show. When are you getting out here? And I was like, what do you mean? Oh, you guys - when are you guys coming out here? And they said, no, no, no. It's way more affordable to shoot in LA. I said, really? You're gonna replicate Queens in Los Angeles? And they said, are you not interested in doing this? I was like, no. I'll be right there.
EISENBERG: Yep, be right there. So, Kal, your big break comes in 2003 when you meet one of the co-creators of "Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle," Jon Hurwitz.
EISENBERG: You meet him at a pool party. He approaches you and says, whoa, you don't have an accent.
PENN: (Laughter) Yes.
EISENBERG: Did you push him in the pool?
PENN: So Jon and Hayden, who both created the franchise, were there. And yeah, Jon did say, hey, you don't have an Indian accent. And I just thought, like, what a (expletive).
PENN: What a (expletive). I don't even know how to - and I was really standoffish. I said something kind of smart alec-y (ph). And he said, no, no, no, I saw you in "Van Wilder," and I thought that you had an Indian accent. I'm actually surprised that you don't because I wrote this movie called "Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle," and I would love for you to read it. And you'd be perfect to play this character, Kumar.
And he told me about it, he and Hayden. And I said, yeah, I'd love to read it. I read it. They sent it to me - this was before it went out onto the market. And I called them, and I said, this is amazing. Like, this movie is incredible. You're never going to sell it in Hollywood because trust me, like, nobody wants, like, the brown and yellow guys, like, as leads in the movie. They've told me to my face, I'm telling you. And he said in very New Jersey fashion - he was like, no, we're going to sell this to a studio.
EISENBERG: But speaking of representation in film and TV, a couple of years ago on Twitter, you decided to share a bunch of your audition scripts...
PENN: (Laughter) Yeah.
EISENBERG: ...That you would audition for different roles over the years that were wildly stereotypical.
EISENBERG: And some of them were just outright offensive. And you wanted to let everyone know what it was like out there. When were those auditions taking place?
PENN: They probably would have been - what? - from '98 to 2011...
EISENBERG: Oh, wow.
PENN: ...2009, maybe.
EISENBERG: OK, I was going to put them all in the '90s...
PENN: No, no, no.
EISENBERG: ...So that's - yeah, so it's more frightening.
PENN: And by the way, I mean, so - not to - you know, a lot of these types of things still happen.
PENN: It's not - just because they don't happen to me anymore doesn't mean they're not still happening.
EISENBERG: No, exactly. I think we all think it's getting better, but there's a long way to go.
PENN: And it is, for sure.
EISENBERG: Yeah. So in 2009, you left the series "House" to take a job at the White House...
EISENBERG: ...With the Obama administration. And you - your position is the associate director at the White House Office of Public Engagement. First of all, why did you do this?
PENN: (Laughter) Yeah. So 2007, you know, the Democratic primary had an equal number of candidates, a really wide field. I think it was 12 different candidates at the time. 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, who was very politically active and still is, she said, hey, I'm going to an Obama event. Do you want to come with me? I know you've read his book. I said, yeah, I read his book. I said, I'm not interested in getting involved in politics. And she's like, well, I have a plus one, so you should just come.
So I went to this event with her, really actually liked it. It was nice to see - there were no press there or anything. Was enamored enough by his campaign and the no lobbyist money and all of that at that point in. So I'll do three days in Iowa before the caucuses. So I went in October of 2007, and then he won. And there was an opportunity to serve in the White House and I - you know, what are you going to say? No, Mr. President, I have another stoner movie to make. Like, I...
PENN: That's the abridged version of...
EISENBERG: But wait a second.
EISENBERG: You did have a stoner movie to make.
PENN: I did have a stoner movie. That's true.
EISENBERG: And you left briefly to make the stoner movie.
PENN: Yes. So we had a...
PENN: We did. That's true. That's true. So...
EISENBERG: I mean, by the way, how cool was the HR department at the White House? Like, they're like, go do it. I love it.
PENN: Props to Valerie Jarrett for not having filled my position while I was taking the sabbatical from my sabbatical.
PENN: I was only going to do a year at the White House - I ended up doing just over two years - because after the first year, you kind of realize, oh, government moves very slowly. You know, it's early in an administration, so they want to do things legislatively instead of through executive action. And two of the things that I was very peripherally working on with obviously huge teams were the Affordable Care Act and the DREAM Act and then the repeal of don't ask, don't tell. And I was like, I just - I don't want to leave without those votes even happening. So I said I was going to stay longer. And the company that owns the "Harold & Kumar" franchise said, no, you're not. So the lawyers talked to each other. And they're like, you really need to do - this is a job that you signed a contract to do. I was like, OK, well, what do I say now?
PENN: So I said I was going to have to resign. And they - again, I guess the benefit of bureaucracy was that a movie only takes, like, two months to shoot. And filling government jobs takes way longer.
PENN: So when I finished that, I inquired, and it was still available. So I went back to the job.
EISENBERG: Right. So you do...
EISENBERG: ...Harold & Kumar - "A Very..."
PENN: "3D Christmas." Yes.
EISENBERG: "...3D Christmas."
PENN: Genitals in 3D. Then go back to working for Obama on this (ph).
EISENBERG: High-five. That's amazing.
PENN: America's a beautiful place.
EISENBERG: It is a beautiful place.
EISENBERG: Are you ready for your ASK ME ANOTHER challenge?
EISENBERG: All right. Fantastic. Kal, your lifelong dream actually was to be an astronaut.
PENN: It's true.
EISENBERG: Can you tell me about that?
PENN: So from the time I was probably - what? - in fifth - fourth or fifth grade, I really, really wanted to be an astronaut. And then I realized that you, at the time, had to have perfect vision - and I guess this still holds true - be really good at math and sciencey (ph) things since, you know, they're scientists at the end of the day.
PENN: And I'm terrible at those things. I'm very inquisitive. I like them. All my tattoos are sciencey and astronomy. But I realized I was going to have to settle for things like tattoos and hopefully playing an astronaut one day.
PENN: Since I - you know.
EISENBERG: And this quiz...
EISENBERG: ...Because it is your dream to be an astronaut and you describe yourself as an aspiring vegan. So we've combined those two interests in a game called Plants in Space.
EISENBERG: OK. If you do well enough...
PENN: OK, yeah.
EISENBERG: ...Listener Raymond Williams (ph) from College Park, Md., is going to win an ASK ME ANOTHER Rubik's Cube.
PENN: Oh, all right.
EISENBERG: OK. So these are multiple-choice questions.
EISENBERG: In 2015, for the first time, astronauts were permitted to eat the lettuce grown on the International Space Station. What salad dressing did they choose? Was it, A, ranch; B, none 'cause dressing weighed too much to bring into space or, C, balsamic?
PENN: C, balsamic.
EISENBERG: Yeah, that's right.
PENN: Is it? All right.
PENN: B sounded like the right answer.
EISENBERG: I know. Yeah.
EISENBERG: That's right. What historic gardening first did China's space program accomplish in early 2019? A, they grew the first plant on the moon; B, they grew marigolds in zero gravity or, C, they grew a potato on the International Space Station, then used it to power an LED clock.
PENN: No, it's the marigold, isn't it?
EISENBERG: China landed a craft on the dark side of the moon.
EISENBERG: On board was a biosphere with cotton seeds. The seeds sprouted and survived for almost two weeks.
PENN: That's so cool.
EISENBERG: Yeah, right?
EISENBERG: All right. This is your last clue.
EISENBERG: In 1962, John Glenn was the first American to eat in space. His first meal was vegetarian. What was it? A, applesauce squeezed out of a tube; B, hummus squeezed out of a tube...
EISENBERG: ...Or C, lasagna squeezed out of a tube. 1962, John Glenn.
PENN: I want to say applesauce.
EISENBERG: Yeah, applesauce is correct.
PENN: Thank you, guys.
EISENBERG: So yeah. In 1962, it wasn't known if people could chew and swallow in space.
PENN: Oh, wow.
EISENBERG: In zero gravity.
EISENBERG: They weren't sure. So Glenn proved it was possible (laughter) to chew and swallow but also said the food was not great.
EISENBERG: Starting in the beginning. All right. Congratulations, Kal. You did it. You and Raymond Williams won ASK ME ANOTHER Rubik's Cubes.
(SOUNDBITE OF FOUR TET SONG, "AS SERIOUS AS YOUR LIFE")
PENN: Thank you.
EISENBERG: The latest episodes of "Sunnyside" are on Hulu now, and Kal will be back to play another game later in the show. But right now give it up for Kal Penn.
PENN: Thank you, guys.
EISENBERG: Want our next special guest to play for you? Follow ASK ME ANOTHER on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.