There are two things that Kal Penn loves: making people laugh and America. This is reflected in his résumé, which includes the successful sitcom How I Met Your Mother, the cult stoner comedy Harold and Kumar franchise (which we will get to later), and his work in the Obama administration as an associate director in the White House Office of Public Engagement. His newest venture, the NBC sitcom Sunnyside, puts a comedic spin on the very relevant topic of immigration and American citizenship — practically a happy marriage of his two favorite things.
Created by Penn and Matt Murray, who also executive produce alongside Michael Schur, Sunnyside speaks volumes when it comes to inclusivity in Hollywood with a diverse cast including Joel Kim Booster, Diana-Maria Riva, Kiran Deol, Poppy Liu, Moses Storm and Samba Schutte. The series features Penn as Garrett Modi, a disgraced New York City councilman who attempts to get back on his feet when a motley crew of immigrants reach out to him to help them become American citizens.
The idea for the show came to Penn about six years ago when he was on the CBS sitcom We Are Men. In the wake of the show’s cancellation, Penn’s manager asked what his dream project was.
“I said, ‘This going to perhaps sound cheesy, but two of the things I love the most are making people laugh and America,’ ” Penn told Deadline. “I like patriotism. There is an underlying theme of patriotism in all of the Harold and Kumar movies for example. I love that feeling because it’s very much my sense of humor, which is sort of aspirational as opposed to cynical.”
He recounts growing up and watching classic sitcoms like Head of the Class, Perfect Strangers and Fresh Prince and how it made him feel good about things. That said, he wanted his dream project to invoke that nostalgic feeling of goodness.
He knew the show would have to include an ensemble — a team, of sorts. He immediately gravitated toward an idea of a guy who is down and out and who somehow ended up teaching a civics class. And thus, the seed of Sunnyside was planted.
He met with Murray and they clicked immediately. The duo pitched the idea to Schur, who collaborated with Murray on Parks and Recreation, Brooklyn Nine-Nine and The Good Place. They wrote the pilot and, well, now it premieres Friday night.
To assemble a diverse Avengers of comedy roster, they solicited the help of casting guru Allison Jones to bring funny people to Sunnyside. Penn was open to all races and genders for the roles and was thoughtful of representation. Penn said that Riva’s character Griselda was first written as El Salvadorian, but since she is Dominican herself, they changed it to a Dominican woman. For Booster and Liu, who play siblings Jun Ho and Mei Lin, respectively, on the show, Penn leaned into subverting how people perceive Asian races as the same.
“Joel and Poppy blew us out of the water in the audition for those two roles,” Penn said. “Joel is Korean American, Poppy is Chinese American. Obviously, we’re not fans of the ‘[All Asians] looks the same’ statement, so we thought, ‘How do we ground this?’ ”
Penn points out that Jun Ho and Mei Lin are twins of a “really weird, elusive, billionaire dad.” He also reveals a little spoiler about the siblings. “This crazy billionaire dad had these two girlfriends who gave birth at exactly the same time, so they are technically twins, they’re just twins from two different moms,” said Penn, “which then actually leans into how diabolical we find out the dad is.”
Although the running storyline about the twins is out of left field, Penn said the show still remains grounded in a way that makes immigrant stories universal — because America is a land of immigrants.
That narrative may be a foundation of the series, but he still brings comedy outside of that. “In episode two, Hakim (Schutte), who is one of the students and is an Ethiopian doctor/cab driver, Garrett is convinced that he’s a hitman, and it makes me very excited,” said Penn. “And so the whole episode is this journey of us following Hakeem to find out if he’s really a hitman or not. That has nothing to do with immigration.”
He adds, “[Sunnyside] is about these bizarre characters in their high jinks. We want you to feel like you’re hanging out with a group of your friendship.”
Without a doubt, Sunnyside brings inclusivity at a time when audiences are craving representation. Penn feels that within the past 10 years we have been seeing a shift in television and streaming. He points out there has been authentic diversity that is “both not forced and more compelling to all audiences.”
“I’m just thinking about things like The Mindy Project and all of the things that she crushes,” Penn said of Mindy Kaling. “But also things like Girls on HBO, it’s generally about a group of privileged white women in Brooklyn, but a show like that wouldn’t have gotten on TV, even on a network like HBO, a decade and a half ago.”
He adds that there is more opportunity for diverse content and creators and that audiences want more savvy content. “They don’t just want something that’s like, ‘oh, this is diversity and we’re checking the box.’ They want compelling characters that are reflective of the world that we live in, and the people that we know,” he remarks. “It’s really amazing that there are opportunities right now to develop comedy in this authentic space that’s also very inclusive.”
The topic of immigration is very relevant and with Penn’s civil service experience, you would think that Sunnyside would be charged with political commentary and humor. The fact that there are children of immigrants and people of color playing these roles, Penn isn’t necessarily looking to make Sunnyside a politically charged comedy.
“I mean no disrespect to any of our current climate at all, but I have been an actor for almost two decades now, and this is a dream come true to be able to create a network comedy that just makes people laugh,” Penn said in regards to the political leaning of the show. “What I love about comedy is that, like music, sports and food, it brings us all together.”
He adds, “I understand that a couple of things in the show may be timely, but it’s a show that we started developing five years ago, before our current climate was what it is, and for me, it’s a successful show only if it’s, first and foremost, funny, and people laugh and feel like they’re hanging out with a group of their friends…we are a topical show, but we’re not addressing things that are polarizing.”
Schur’s Parks and Recreation was set in the world of politics so it made room for cameos from a slew of politicians such as Barbara Boxer, Kirsten Gillibrand, Cory Booker, Orrin Hatch, John McCain, Joe Biden, Madeline Albright and even an appearance from Michelle Obama. Despite Penn’s connection to Obama and Schur’s history of great cameos, we probably won’t be seeing the 44th president pay a visit to Sunnyside — but we can expect some off-the-wall storylines that make way for some unexpected cameos.
“The guest stars that we have are incredible because they’re funny, incredible comedians,” Penn teased. He reveals that in an upcoming episode, we find out that Griselda has a grown son. “He’s a huge musical theater fan and he’s written a musical very similar to Hamilton — but featuring Walter Mondale.” Penn teased that the episode will feature talent from musical theater but never really made it clear if Mondale actually shows up in the episode, but if so, that’s quite a cameo.
For Sunnyside, Penn admits he wants it to succeed in the way the Harold and Kumar franchise has. When the first film came out, Penn said that everyone was questioning if the world was ready for two Asian Americans leading a comedy. At first, the movie didn’t go gangbusters at the box office, but it did well because it was funny. And when it came out on DVD it reached more audiences. “I’ve driven cross country so many times, spent time in Oklahoma, Kansas and Mississippi — and people love that movie because they identify with Harold and Kumar as ridiculous human beings who remind them of friends of theirs,” he said. “That’s what I want to achieve with [Sunnyside], where I think we want the comedy to really resonate.”
Speaking of the stoner comedy, 2019 marks the 15th anniversary of Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle. In a time when it seems like everything with a cult following is getting a reboot or a revival, I would have been remiss if we didn’t inquire about a fourth installment of the franchise.
“I would do 97 more of those movies if they decided to make them,” said Penn almost immediately. “I have had such a great time making them. I would kill to do as many of them as I can. I would do Harold and Kumar 98 when I’m 120 years old, I’d be okay with that.”
Sunnyside premieres tonight on NBC at 9:30 PM.