Sunnyside, the new NBC comedy starring Kal Penn, follows Garrett Modi (Penn), the youngest New York City Councilman ever who was living the American Dream but gets lost in his way amidst the power and glamour of politics. When his career ends after being busted for public intoxication, he’s hired by a diverse group of hopefuls who dream of becoming American citizens and believe he can help – giving him a new sense of purpose and a chance for redemption, as long as he remembers where he came from.
During the show’s panel presentation at the summer TCA press tour, Penn talked about how the “patriotic comedy” came together. When asked to pitch his dream project years back, he named the two things he loved: “I love making people laugh, comedy is my first love, and I love America,” he said.
Also, being from the East Coast, “a lot of the NY-centric or fish out of the water stories were always interesting to me,” Penn added.
After teaming with executive producers Matt Murray and Michael Schur, the immigration premise of the show was born.
“We want to tell a bizarre grounded story in a way that audiences can identify and laugh with so we’re hoping this is the half-hour we can tune out the rest of the world and laugh with these hilarious people.”
A way of keeping the immigration story grounded while blending in the comedy, Murray said, “one good thing that we’ve tried to do is our entire writing staff, which the exception of one person, is either an immigrant themselves or a child of an immigrant. We’re getting real stories in the process… We’re trying to tell a bunch of different stories around the subject. It’s not one specific thing to everyone.”
While Penn did spend time in politics, serving under the Obama administration for two years, he insisted that his experience did not have an impact on the show. “I kind of keep those things separately. I loved DC but my first love was always acting and comedy.”
However, a certain political figure was the inspiration behind his character.
“When we talked about the character, we talked a lot about Anthony Weiner. Not the creepy part. Early Weiner,” said Murray.
“We thought about a guy who got infatuated with the spotlight, liked all the trappings of power but didn’t want to get his hands dirty and do the work of being a politician,” Murray continued. The guy who coasts on that for a long time and then has a downfall and realizes he has no skills to do anything else. That was the area we were going for.”
Penn and Murray were joined onstage by Schur and co-stars Joel Kim Booster, Kiran Deol, Poppy Liu, Samba Schutte, Diana Maria Riva, and Moses Storm.
Sunnyside debuts September 26 on NBC.