Kal Penn knows 2020 is a dumpster fire. But rather than be horrified by the flames billowing out of so many broken American institutions, Penn sees the possibilities in disaster. Through explaining to me his vision for his current events talk show on Freeform, Kal Penn Approves This Message, (airing its finale one week before the Presidential election) Penn’s personal brand of radical optimism shone through his answers—every question I posed out of political apprehension, Penn gently handed back an answer transfigured into real hopefulness. His show reflects this same self-assured positivity. With each episode focusing on key American issues, Penn blends a cringe-comedy style with a didactic edge to inform younger audiences about governance and policy options before the election. With his calls to action over complacency, Penn’s show has just the right ethos to carry viewers through the election, and hopefully, straight to the polls.
This interview has been lightly edited for space and clarity.
Paste TV: This show is very targeted to Gen Z and first time eligible voters. What made you feel most compelled to convince this particular demographic, that’s already notoriously fickle with their loyalties?
Kal Penn: The origin story of the show is that, in the past, I had gotten approached a few different times to host different versions of like political comedy shows, or political shows in general. And I would look at the pitch decks or take the meetings, and in most cases, they weren’t really what I was looking to do, because the shows were either too vitriolic, or the humor was kind of cynical. And don’t get me wrong, I do love shows like that. But I kind of thought, well, that’s not really what I want to do. So I thought, what if-—my writing partner, Romen Borsellino [and I]—what could we do if we actually came up with our own show? And for us, it should be comedy forward, but it should be done in a way that’s not responding to the 24 hour news cycle and actually focuses on issues and has the takeaway like CBS Sunday Morning—like that’s an old people show! It’s on Sunday mornings. I think I first discovered it when I was, 25, and hungover on a Sunday morning eating leftover noodles—what is this show, this show makes me feel good!
My dream scenario would be to combine the best elements of all those types of shows, but also put it into a format that has a final segment that talks about solutions. And I think the way that fits into Gen Z, younger audiences—that’s a generation of people who have not waited around for other people to do things for them. If you look at the leadership in these communities, on everything from climate change, to social justice, to science, it’s a generation of people that’s doing things, and we thought, maybe the model of a show—that’s my ideal—because it leaves the audience with actionable items.
Paste TV: You’ve had a wide-ranging career. You’re a well-respected actor, a former White House staff member, and a professor at UPenn for media studies. Do you feel that one of those roles made you feel particularly well prepared to run Kal Penn Approves this Message?
Penn: Oh, good question. I usually get the question a little bit differently. I don’t think so. I feel really lucky that I’ve had the chance to do all of that. I mean, I think if anything, the ideal audience for the show is a generation of people who don’t view the world through the lens of things needing to be mutually exclusive. That’s also how I’ve tried to live my life, where I don’t think one thing should ever prevent you from doing anything else. In terms of the show, it’s less about lessons learned through those experiences—we’re a nonpartisan show. But obviously, having worked in government, one of the things I loved about working in government is the opportunity that you have to bring people together, especially if they’re from divergent viewpoints or different policy platforms. That’s something we definitely do in the show, in terms of teaching—that’s literally part of the show—but I think you’ll see when you watch the different episodes that we kind of approach things from a systemic perspective instead of a reactionary one. So again, not to disparage anybody else’s show, but there are plenty shows out there that respond to the 24 hour news cycle. For us, it was more of, “Okay, I remember working in academia, I remember working in government, what were the things that I wish that I had known or that we can maybe learn from?”
For example, two of our guests back-to-back in the education episode and the Supreme Court episode: Education episode, Secretary Clinton joined us as our guest; the Supreme Court episode, Professor Jonathan Adler, who’s part of the Federalist Society joined us. The Federalist Society is the organization that advises President Trump on his Supreme Court picks. In each of these cases, I don’t want to regurgitate [things about politics] with Secretary Clinton and I don’t want to regurgitate conservative Federalist [Society] policy, when it comes to the Supreme Court. What I’d rather do with each of these guests is take advantage of the institutional knowledge that they have. So whether you agree with Secretary Clinton’s politics or not, to me, is irrelevant, because I want to ask her questions about over a lifetime of public service. What are the trends in progress? And what has accounted for that? And how have young voters at different points in history contributed to or gotten in the way of progress? In terms of the judicial nominations piece, [Adler’s] a conservative scholar, I want to know, if you’re a young person—whether you’re on the left or the right—how do you plug into something like Senate confirmation hearings on a Supreme Court pick? What matters? How does that go through the process?
Those are things that I just didn’t know and I wish I had known—and I shouldn’t have had to work in government or be a college professor to learn them! And so we wanted to offer that same thing to our audience where it’s like, “Okay, you’ve all seen the interview with Secretary Clinton talking about politics,” or “you’ve all seen, the Trump guy talking about something vitriolic.” I don’t want to talk about something vitriolic, I want to tap into the opportunity that we have to understand the systems of government that we live in a little bit better.
Paste TV: Within your show, you make a concerted effort to show all sides, pulling from both sides of the aisle and ideological alignments. Do you ever worry that the show falls into the trap of both side-ism? Or are you more comfortable with building coalitions with whatever types of people you can find?
Penn: Yeah, that’s a great question. I’m glad you asked it, it was important to me that we never pit stacked against opinion. And I think unfortunately, you know, too many shows fall into this category of thinking that, in order to be nonpartisan, you have to pit facts against opinion. And in our case, being nonpartisan doesn’t mean you don’t have a point of view, it means that instead, we are focusing solely on fact. So our episode that’s out now on climate change, we’ve got your standard bearer—one of our guests is, as you might expect, somebody from a young progressive organization. But [with one of] our other two guests, we spend a little bit more time actually with a guy named Chris Yura, who’s a CEO of a recycled clothing company based in West Virginia. And that conversation is much more about climate justice and job creation through climate change, opportunities to combat climate change. And then our third guest—I think that they have a whole segment—are young, evangelical, conservative Christians, who you rarely hear about when it comes to conversations about climate change, but they’re really active in the climate change movement. And they’re partnering with people who you never hear of them partnering with, again, because too many shows focus only on the negative.
So for us, that episode, I think, in plenty of other places, or maybe on other networks, might be about why somebody doesn’t believe in climate science. But I’m not really interested in giving a platform to something that’s an opinion. And I don’t think it serves our audience. I think we all understand that climate change is real. And we understand that science is real. So we’re starting from that point. And even in that point, we can include voices that are conservative and voices from the business community and voices from the progressive community without getting into without delving into opinion—and part of the reason that was so important to me is that’s just how I operate.
I don’t want to give a platform to things that aren’t real. As much as they might make great TV and have people yell and scream at each other. That’s not really what I do. I think it’s really unfortunate when you think that your audience is dumb. And I think, unfortunately, a lot of networks think that their audience is dumb and they really try to reach and dumb things down. We didn’t want to do that either. Like, we’re thankful to have an audience that is curious, wants to learn things, doesn’t need things sanitized for them, and is willing to deal with episodes that are based on facts. So I think that’s the response to the question about both sides-ism is we’re not interested in the fact versus opinion conversation.
Paste TV: A couple of times on the show when you’re breaking down complex topics on civics or governance, such as the Electoral College or the courts, you have to make a statement more or less “this is really complicated to explain for the time that we have”? Do you wish you had a longer episode run time to really dig into these concepts?
Penn: Oh, yeah. I mean, every episode, I think, could be its own six hour special. I felt like it was important to acknowledge that in the interest of time, and each episode only being about 21 minutes, that we’ve got to truncate certain things. Also, because, I think, we’re not the be-all-and-end-all, we’re more of a starting point resource. But the whole point of the show is that, if you’re curious about something, we want to offer some resources for you to learn more about it. And it was important to not walk away from the show thinking, “Okay, now I’m an expert on this issue.” It’s a conversation starter more than anything else. So, I do think there could be very detailed, very complicated conversations that we could have had, had we had more time for them.
Paste TV: Out of the episode topics you were able to cover, what was your reasoning for picking those topics? If you had more time, what other areas would have wanted to frame for your audience?
Penn: Oh, great question. Some of the topics, we were curious how we were going to get into it—if you notice each topic is never an explainer. It’s more of a micro topic. For example, the conversation on healthcare, the micro topic was this idea of universal coverage or Medicare for All, as a runner, as opposed to a larger conversation about philosophical differences between political parties. Take climate change. One of the versions of this episode was about national security, climate change, and migration, and how climate change impacts businesses and groups of people—but you could do a whole separate episode on human rights and climate change. In our season finale, we have two activists, one who is a DACA recipient, Ricardo Aca, and a Parkland gun violence advocate. Both of those could have been standalone episodes.
If we get a Season 2, we should have something on gun violence and something on DACA and the DREAM Act. We should also have a standalone on immigration. I think there’s no shortage of really important and engaging topics. For a show that doesn’t respond to a weekly news cycle, we still only shoot about a week out from the air date. It made it a little tricky, because we had to pick the lowest hanging fruit: What are people working on actively right now that we can also get a guest on and put together quickly? So if we got a second season, I’d love to be able to have a couple of months of lead time to really curate another six episodes.
Paste TV: The political firestorm of 2020 has been a turning point for many people to become politically active. Can you identify the political or social event that triggered your civic awareness or activism?
Penn: I fell into that category when we were growing up, politics was never really a cornerstone of dinner table conversation, but public service was. I remember my grandparents telling stories about what it was like when they marched with Gandhi. My parents are immigrants; I remember talking about things that they experienced when they first moved to America—some of which were your standard immigration story, and other things, that were your hopeful, what-it’s-like-to-move-to-America kind of stuff. That sentiment that I grew up with impacted [me] more than anything else.
We tried to give a shout out to 2020 and how dire it is; I view it on the flip side through the lens of opportunity. And we tried to do that in subtle and not so subtle ways, with the set on our show. All of the things that are behind the pinball machine or behind the desk, are generally designed to celebrate the best in America, or at least celebrate conversations that can result in the best—and parts of that are forgotten history. There’s a lot on Native Americans and Native Hawaiians. There’s a photo of King Kamehameha: the shout out there is that Native Hawaiians still don’t have federal recognition in the way that Native Americans and Alaskan Natives do. I don’t know how many people will pick up on that just from watching episodes, but we definitely have a few tweets of people asking, “Hey, was this on purpose?” And yes, it was on purpose.
There’s also a ton of space and sports stuff. I’m a huge astronomy nerd, and all my tattoos are space related. For decades, we’ve voted for science that results in exploration—and space exploration helps us understand our origins and where we come from—which has led to tons of innovation to make life better for people here on planet Earth. And that all came because people chose to go to the ballot box and vote for people who are going to use our tax dollars to fund science. Sports [show] the best in who we can be and, and who we root for. If you took a screenshot of the set behind me, there are all of these little things that are a hat tip to what’s been possible—and what will hopefully be possible in the future when we participate and when we stay active. I grew up constantly hearing stories about what is possible through struggle—which it’s not to say that they weren’t incredibly painful stories to hear—but we wanted to make sure that we offer that uplifting reminder of what’s possible when we actually get involved.
The season finale of Kal Penn Approves This Message airs Tuesday, October 27th on Freeform. You can catch up with previous episodeson Hulu.
Katherine Smith is an editorial intern and writer at Paste Magazine, and recent graduate of the University of Virginia. For a deeper dive into her current obsessions and hot takes follow her at @kat_marie_tea
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