After some time away, Kal Penn is looking to make you laugh again.
The actor, who rose to fame on the back of the “Harold and Kumar” stoner comedies, is on TV with “We Are Men,” a sitcom launching tonight on CBS. The material’s more mature than his spin as Kumar, though not exactly staid; Penn and his three friends, living in a sort of singles’ community after breakups, go out drinking and hitting on women. It’s a long way to go for a former Associate Director in the White House Office of Public Engagement — the job for which Penn quit his steady gig on the medical drama “House.”
Penn’s is an unusual balancing act, and one that seems to be undertaken without excessive forethought; the actor left the White House to film the third “Harold and Kumar” film, then returned. It also would seem to paint all his actions afterwards in a political light: there’s the issue of his tweets in support of New York’s “stop and frisk” policy targeted at black men.
And then there’s the show itself. In title and broad theme, “We Are Men” has a lot in common with the boom in sitcoms launched over the past few years addressing a perceived crisis in American masculinity: these include “Last Man Standing,” “Work It,” and “Man Up!” The touch of “We Are Men,” available to stream before its premiere, is lighter, and Penn says the show bears no particular point-of-view. Salon spoke with Penn about his hopes for the show, his plans for the future, and what he’s learned about social media.
Tell me a little bit about your tweets about New York’s stop and frisk policy. You landed in hot water for these — did they make you more reticent about expressing opinions online?
I think, actually, that it was a very sobering eye-opener in not being quite so flippant in what you think might be a quick conversation. What a stupid mistake on my part, first of all. I obviously was not informed about this, frankly. Everything political that I tweet is something that I know enough about to comfortably have a well-informed position. This is the one example of an issue I didn’t know enough about. Politics, by its very nature, will get people riled up. Thankfully, there were people and advocacy groups I’ve worked with in D.C. about things like racial profiling, and they reached out and said, “Please have a conversation with us.” What they know about me from my years in D.C. was, “You’re not a guy who supports racial profiling, you should know what this is.”
I think the phrase “teachable moment” might be a little overused, but it really was a teachable moment for me. I certainly regretted tweeting that, and it’s not what I feel. Lesson learned: If you’re going to tweet something about politics, particularly after you’ve worked in politics, you need to be better informed about it.
Has the transition back to acting from politics been difficult?
I might have been a little rusty coming back. And the plan coming back, when I took a sabbatical from L.A., was to be in D.C. for a year. After my first year, I realized that government moves a lot slower than the private sector, so a lot of the things I was working on hadn’t been finished yet. I had to leave to shoot the third “Harold and Kumar” film, so I did that, and they hadn’t found a full-time replacement for me at the White House yet. I was only gone, I think, two or three months. So I re-applied for my job, did it for another year, finished up, and the plan was to come back to L.A. But two years with one little acting break in the middle — it was kind of funny to come back, and it’s a different side of your brain that you use for the creative stuff. I feel like I was a little rusty, maybe, when I was doing “How I Met Your Mother” last year. That was the first job I did after I moved back to L.A. I feel less rusty now — working with Tony Shalhoub and Jerry O’Connell any of that rustiness goes out the window. You’ll have — I’ll be sitting there reading the news on my phone, thinking about something else, and then jump into a scene, and I’ll see Jerry go, “Hey, Kal, relax. Relax.” And I remember — different part of your brain. Turn the politics off. Do the scene. Relax.
How do you turn the politics off, then?
I don’t think you do. But it’s like in any profession. You put your energy towards what you’re working on. I’d been helping out with the President’s re-election campaign in my down time, and still help out from time to time, so it’s not really a question of turning it on or turning it off. But it’s nice to have different outlets. I feel lucky to do all of those things.
There have been a lot of shows about masculinity in crisis on network TV over the past couple of seasons; what differentiates yours?
I admittedly don’t watch a whole lot of TV, so I may be ill-equipped to answer this question. I’m more of a “CBS Sunday Morning” addict, although during some of the interviews we’ve done for this show it became very apparent that the two things I should brush up on are my lack of knowledge about sports and things like “Desperate Housewives.” I’ve been slowly learning a little bit about that. The title of the show is very declarative but the themes and subject matter is about four vulnerable guys making mistakes than about anybody reclaiming or asserting their masculinity.
One of the most obvious examples is my own character, I play a man who’s been married to this beautiful woman, and I’m the one who cheats and I feel horrible about it. And I have a nine-year-old daughter who I care about very much. And it’s been interesting to explore that in a show about four guys. It’s not necessarily the kind of road you think you might head down. We’re basically — our senses of humor don’t evolve much after age 12. Fart jokes are still funny. I don’t know why. There’s something about that that explores a more universal side to the humor. I’ve been worried about how female fans are going to respond to the humor, but we’ve been on-demand for a couple weeks now and the biggest feedback we got is “I’ve never seen a show about how dysfunctional guys are behind the scenes; this is hilarious.” All-in-all, I don’t know that I’m equipped to answer the masculinity question, but I also don’t know if our show explores it in as on-the-nose kind of a way.
Is there a point-of-view, political or otherwise, here?
I think the biggest vantage point is ultimately it’s a show about friendships and relationships. I use relationships broadly — it can be between a father and a daughter, between friends, folks that are dating. You can get away, as “How I Met Your Mother” does, with jokes that are highbrow or lowbrow or raunchy, literary references that you know not everyone is going to get. But each episode ends with a lot of heart, which I think is nice.
Going back to something you mentioned earlier: Do you feel out of place on the interview circuit or on red carpets?
I tend to be kind of reserved in those venues. Folks that I hang out with in real life are college buddies, family members, or my D.C. friends; I’m not the guy who goes to clubs. I think four weeks into living in D.C., either Politico or the Washington Post gossip column asked “How come no Kal Penn sightings? Where’s he drinking?” I was at work!
A lot of that stuff isn’t organic for me. On Sundays, like I say, I’m sitting there watching “Sunday Morning,” then I’m talking to college friends or grabbing lunch with them. There was a void in my TV knowledge, though. In D.C., you check Politico every morning; in the entertainment community, Deadline is sort of the inside-baseball website on which deals were getting done and who’s signing who, and I’d lapsed on that. The more fun stuff that people like watching is not a chore by any means. I’m from New Jersey, so watching “The Real Housewives of New Jersey” is like seeing my friends’ parents.
A lot of your work has been amiably sophomoric — but a lot of it, even outside the political sphere, hasn’t. Have you seen any blowback from the “Harold and Kumar” movies when going out for other roles?
I love both. I feel incredibly, selfishly fortunate that I’ve had the chance to do both. It’s really refreshing to go between making, frankly, sophomoric jokes on Twitter, or Vine, or movies or whatever, and unapologetically reading Foreign Affairs or The Economist or going to a lecture with friends. I love that I have the luxury of doing both.
In terms of blowback — if there was blowback and I didn’t get a part because someone thought I was too stonerish or too serious, I probably will never know that. Some of the more interesting roles I’ve had the chance to play are actually because of that. I had a really fun four-episode run on “24,” and that was in large part because of the first “Harold and Kumar.” I think it was Howard Gordon, who produced “24,” who’d seen the first “Harold and Kumar” movie and thought, “Why not let this guy audition for the part of this kid who takes a family hostage?” Talking to him at the audition, he said, “Wouldn’t it be interesting to play against type this way?”
Is there a long-term plan for the future — particularly if, as you’re surely hoping, this show goes a long time and occupies a lot of your time?
I don’t think there is one. Politically, I’ve always been a registered independent. I never had a plan to go work for the president. In 2007, we were down 30 points in the polls in Iowa, I went out there for what was supposed to be a weekend and ended up staying basically through the end of the general election. You never want to rule that out. But my first job was acting. I taught a college class a few years ago, I’d love to do that again. But it’s sort of silly, how blessed I feel. And there’s no plan, really, no idea that five years from now I’ll be doing this or that. And the fortunate thing about TV is that if we have a chance to go nine years, every year you’ve got a two-and-a-half to three-month hiatus. I’d love to do all of the above again, though I don’t have any plans to run for elected office or anything like that.