“I think there are explosions in almost every episode. Some of the explosions mean that the contestants won, and some of them mean that they failed miserably,” says Kal Penn, host of Discovery’s competitive reality show for engineers, The Big Brain Theory: Pure Genius (Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET). He admits he cowers on-camera for every blast. “And the reason being that I’m the only person on that set who is an actor — so this face,” he says, laughing. “I was always like, ‘Man, even if I get a little scar, that could really make a difference in whether somebody lets me audition for something.’ Meanwhile, these engineers are like, ‘I’ve got all these scars.’ They get burned, they get hurt. At least two of them had to hospitalized. This one guy, I think he had to be hospitalized because of the flu. He was instructing his team by hiding underneath a table. He was so sick that he couldn’t stand up, but he didn’t want to give up. When do you ever see somebody with that kind of commitment?”
Penn is a smart guy, but he’s learned from the show, which also features guest judges for challenges, including NASCAR driver Carl Edwards in the June 12 episode and Buzz Aldrin in the June 19 season finale. “Two things,” he says. “How much teamwork is required to get stuff done in the lives of engineers, and since the whole point was finding America’s next great innovator, how much the arts and creative thinking actually go into something like innovation. You can be an amazing engineer and really good at math, but you’re not gonna be an innovator unless you possess certain art skills or have a music background or something that makes your brain operate in that other kind of way. The contestants who did the best were the ones who were the most well-rounded.”
We gave Penn a simple challenge: The EW Pop Culture Personality Test.
Most prized possession from the Harold & Kumar movies?
A little Waffle Bot. I have a hard time separating fact from fiction with some of our fictional characters in the Harold & Kumar movies. [Costar] Jon Cho berates me for this constantly. In the first movie, it was the raccoon that crawls in to the car. Between takes, I would talk to the raccoon as though it were real, and the puppeteer was talking back through the raccoon. To this day, I have a hard time remembering that that raccoon is a puppet. I mean, I’m not an idiot. I know it’s not a real raccoon, but your brain can do funny things. In the third movie, it was the Waffle Bot. The guys were kind enough to amuse me by talking as Waffle Bot the entire time between takes. I loved it. “What’s up, Waffle Bot?” “Hel-lo, Kal.”