Kal Penn on Politics and Juggling Multiple Identities: ‘Diversity and Identity are Important, but so is Point of View’

Kal Penn

If you’re a South Asian American who grew up in the early 2000s, chances are your pop culture highlights were marked by Siddhartha Khosla’s infectious tunes for Goldspot and Kal Penn’s “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle” playing on repeat. At the time, it was rare to see a South Asian face in a major Hollywood production, even more so without the stereotypes attached. To then witness Penn carry an entire film with his incredible sense of humour and sharp wit, paving the way for what became an iconic series of stoner comedies, was exciting to say the least.

[Read Related: Book Review: ‘You Can’t be Serious’ by Kal Penn]

Penn, though, has since then come a long way — from having a regular appearance in the popular TV series “House” to serving in the White House. At the height of his career, Penn did the unthinkable and swapped roles to join the Obama Administration as an associate director of public engagement. Later he shared it all in his memoir, “You Can’t Be Serious.” It’s perhaps why he was so believable as Press Secretary Seth Wright in “Designated Survivor;” after all he had first-hand experience of what really goes on behind-the-scenes. But it’s also why Penn makes the perfect candidate for a permanent position at “The Daily Show.” He knows policy, cares about its impact and has the ability to make it ‘make sense’ through both much-needed laughter and insight. Adding to that is just how seamlessly Penn connects with both millennials and Gen-Zs.

View this post on Instagram


A post shared by The Daily Show (@thedailyshow)

On the heels of his new guest stint at “The Daily Show,” Penn spoke to Brown Girl Magazine about diversity in politics, his memoir, his passion towards climate change and more:

In one of your guest segments for “The Daily Show,” you interviewed President Joe Biden. What was it like interviewing the president of the United States and how did you prepare? We loved seeing you give Joe Biden a fist bump in 2012 in aviators.

Thank you! That particular interview was interesting, because I wanted to approach it from the perspective of what might be helpful to a younger audience that isn’t often the target audience of an interview like that.

What we got from was insightful answers on things like climate change, legislation, and historical change in legislation that only happened because of 40 years of youth advocacy on it.

By the same token, I think the downside to doing an interview like that, is that it’s not live. You don’t get to push back on the following day’s news, which happened to be regressive actions the Biden administration was taking for climate change at the time of my interview. But I’m really proud of that interview, because I think we had the chance to sort of do things in a more empowering way. So, whether you love or hate Biden should be irrelevant to that conversation.

My hope was that you get a sense of how you can move the needle with the president on policy.

On the topic of identity, we’ve all grown up watching some of your early movies on the desi American experience including “American Desi,” “Ball and Chain,” and my all-time favorite “Dude, Where’s the Party?” How do you feel these movies really defined the desi American experience in the early 2000s?

Look, at that time, those were really the only things out there and there were several of them back-to-back. That was really nice; the nascent kind of days of a lot of communities, right? The earliest of those films tend to be identity stories in some way, but what a chance to be able to work with other Indian Americans and South Asian creatives at a time when it really wasn’t possible for any of us to get jobs anywhere to be perfectly honest with you. You’d have these little bit parts. Thankfully, playwrights like Shishir Kurup and filmmakers like Giteshand Piyush Pandya, who did “American Desi,” and Benny Mathews who did “Dude Where’s the Party;” they were really early in their game and I credit them a lot with getting a lot of experience. It was just a blast doing those fun, silly movies. 

Let’s talk about your autobiography “You Can’t Be Serious” that gave us a sort of blueprint on how you got into acting and politics. What was the inspiration behind writing your book and what do you hope readers and listeners take away from it?

I should backtrack, I have one manager, I’ve only had one manager for the course of my acting career. I described him in the book and I think this is pretty accurate as like every character from the HBO show “Entourage” in one person. So, he’s just a heart of gold. He’s a lion. He’s a ridiculous human being in the best way possible. And when I left the White House on my last day at the White House, he called me and he’s like, ‘Hey, man, you need to write a book.’ And I was like, I don’t think I need to write a book. Why do I need to write a book?

‘Because do you realize that you’re the only person who’s ever worked as an actor or in entertainment and also worked in politics?’

And I’m like, what? The governor of California was literally Arnold Schwarzenegger. Like that is a decidedly incorrect statement coming out of your mouth. Also, Ronald Reagan was the President. Ben Stein worked for like two presidents. It’s just wrong.

He then said, ‘Okay, okay, I guess you’re right. But really, I think you have a story to tell.’

I didn’t want to write a book because I just didn’t think that the reason that I went to take a sabbatical from acting was to write a book about it. It was because I genuinely believed that was the right thing to do for myself. It wasn’t for another seven or eight years that it seemed like a lot more people were doing the thing that I’ve sort of always tried to do, which is juggle multiple realities, multiple passions, right? Back in the day, it was just study one thing and get really good at it. And that’s it; that’s all you’re allowed to do.

And now there are at least one or two generations below mine. They are raised with this idea that multiple things can be true. I want to have multiple passions. Literally the lowest common denominator of this is who says I can smoke weed on the Thursday night and read The Economist on Friday morning? It’s the idea that you can do all of those things at the same time.

I thought, maybe there’s an opportunity to tell my story of doing multiple things at the same time, and kind of juggling different careers and so I wanted to write the book for that reason.

You just mentioned multiple passions, and you have one for the environment as well. How did you enjoy working with National Geographic, Amazon, Bloomberg, and what are some environmental causes you are passionate about? What can we do about climate change?

It’s a couple of things. The day-to-day stuff; the things that we know to do. Can you buy recycled and up-cycled [products]? Can you pay attention to what you’re putting in your body? What you’re purchasing? A lot of that stuff matters. Over time, the price point of these things comes down so for a lot of people who might be reading this, maybe they’re at the socio-economic bracket where they can afford to pay a little bit more for things that are environmentally-friendly. So that hopefully brings the cost of that down over time as technology continues to advance.

I think the biggest thing you can do outside of personal behavior is at work. A lot of people are in leadership positions and they can convince the company or convince the board leadership that it’s okay for the company to spend a bit more to do things that are environmentally-friendly or sustainable.

I had a conversation with one of the presidents of Panasonic Energy North America last year, where he talked about how Panasonic is responsible for 2% of all global CO2 emissions. That is an insanely large amount of CO2 for one company to be a part of and so they had a company-wide policy. They want to bring that down to net zero and they are restructuring their company to do that. Part of that is because they had leadership that found it embarrassing that they’re responsible for 2% of global COS emissions.

The other part of that is that consumers were saying they no longer want to support things that might be detrimental to the climate. So the idea of what we’re buying with that purchasing power is a big deal. And then obviously voting. I think this election is probably going to be a prime example of the lesser of two evils type scenario — you’re probably not going to agree with both. It looks like it’s going to be two very old men running for president. If that remains the case, you know, who do you agree with more?

It’s that pragmatist approach of we’ve got to figure out instead of not voting, or instead of detaching, you have to lean into the process for the things that still can make a difference.


View this post on Instagram


A post shared by Kal Penn (@kalpenn)

Going off of talking about politics and voting, I remember reading in your memoir that your grandparents marched with Gandhi. How do you feel that left an impression on you to get into politics and work for the Obama Administration?

They were certainly inspirational over the course of my life. Here’s what I mean by that: I remember being nine years old, and my grandparents would be staying with us for six months from India. The stories they would tell me at the dinner table were about marching with Gandhi. You’re a kid so all you’re thinking is , ‘here grandma goes again, another Gandhi story! I don’t even know what the deal is with this.’

It wasn’t until later that you realize, like, ‘holy shit! wait a second, you’re talking about getting arrested and beaten and thrown in jail.’ It happened to my grandfather numerous times for marching with Gandhi — being thrown in jail by British colonialists. So, I recognize that the stories that we heard growing up were not about politics, they were about the family value of doing the right thing, or doing something that you believe in at the right time.

I actually never thought that would translate into politics. I just sort of thought of doing the right thing. I think that meant going to work for somebody who works in politics, but it certainly helped inform. I would say, just some of my beliefs.

On politics and beliefs, what was your experience like attending ‘Pyar is Pyar’ event that recognized the landmark bipartisan legislation that President Biden signed into law in December: the Respect for Marriage Act?

Oh, that was a cool event. My buddy Maneesh Goyal, who runs this amazing restaurant called SONA in New York, which I have to say — he’s a friend so I’m obviously biased — but like they have some of the best cocktails in the city, and they’re all desi-Infused, but the food overall is very delicious. So, because he owns this restaurant, he wanted to host an event that celebrated marriage equality. And this was also the year before the Indian Supreme Court ruled against marriage equality, unfortunately.

The event raised $168,000 to support Desi Rainbow Parents & Allies, an international nonprofit that provides peer support and resources to LGBTQ+ South Asians and their families.

To think we can all come together from different faiths and across so many identities to celebrate the fact that love is love, and it should be respected as an institution, and it should not be something that’s used to divide us, was really beautiful.

[Read Related: Pyar is Pyar: A Celebration of Queer Brown Love]

Lastly, what do you hope individuals take away from this interview with Brown Girl Magazine?

Instead of anything that I hope people take away, I just want to give a big shout out and a thank you to Brown Girl readers who, as you said Arun, for decades, many of them have really supported not just my career. I rarely want to speak for for other actors, but I can tell you if you look at some of Mindy’s early work, some of Priyanka’s early work, there are some of us who have been in the game for a while now. I certainly could not have had the career that I’ve had if it weren’t for the support from the community. So, I just kind of give a lot of love for that and I appreciate it.

To celebrate Penn’s second time hosting on The Daily Show in December, Brown Girl Mag’s CEO Trisha Sakhuja-Walia hosted a live on Instagram to chat all about his prep on the night before he interviewed Zoya Akhtar, the multifaceted filmmaker responsible for many hits including “Made in Heaven” on Amazon Prime and “The Archies” on Netflix.

Here’s crossing fingers Penn gets to host TDS not just as a guest host but as a forever host.

By Arun S.

Arun fell in love with music at a young age by way of his middle school music teacher Mr. D. … Read more ›