Kal Penn wants to unify with his new political comedy series — and wants you to vote
Having worked in the White House during the Obama administration, Kal Penn is better equipped than most to host a political comedy series. But don't expect his new show, Kal Penn Approves This Message, to look like the work of a political strategist or White House staffer. The six-episode series, premiering Tuesday on Freeform, is an explicitly non-partisan show, exploring issues relevant to Millennial and Gen Z voters — including education, health care, and climate change — in an attempt to boost turnout this November.
"The idea is, how can we contextualize this issue in a way that makes you feel empowered when you're gonna go out to vote?" Penn tells EW. "It's more of a celebration and an idea of coming together with the show, tonally."
Ahead of the show's premiere, Penn spoke to EW about his approach to political comedy, finding common ground in our polarized era, and what he learned from his experience in both stoner movies and government.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What made you want to do a show like this, and how did it come together?
KAL PENN: There had been a couple of years where different producers reached out and said, "Hey, we have this idea for a show about politics or about civic engagement, and we're looking for a host. What do you think?" And a lot of those shows were a little vitriolic or polarizing; it's the world that we live in, I understand that, but that's not really what I like to do. So I've always said no, and then my writing partner Romen [Borsellino] and I [said], "If we could pitch our own show, what would that actually look like?" Two shows that I love are Daily Show and CBS Sunday Morning. So if you took the humor of Daily Show, and made it not reactive to the 24-hour news cycle, but instead made it issue-specific like CBS Sunday Morning, then that would be my dream show, because you could be uplifting, you could talk about an issue in a substantive way without having to rely on what happened the week before, and hopefully turn out some people to vote. So we shopped it around, and Freeform seemed like the perfect place for it, because they already have a young audience that this was, ideally, geared towards.
And why was it important for you to target young voters in particular with this show?
I just think that tends to just be the place that I feel comfortable, because I have a very immature sense of humor that a young audience seems to appreciate more. [Laughs] No, that's the joke answer, obviously. But I think we wanted to really have a chance to make a show [for] a demographic that hasn't really been catered to in terms of issue-specific shows. There are plenty of shows about politics, but they do tend to be a little polarizing or a little bit in the bubble — you know, you'll find the shows if you already agree with their political slant. And that doesn't necessarily move the needle on anything, it doesn't necessarily encourage people to register to vote. There wasn't that kind of encouragement to get out the vote that we've seen in this type of a space. There are so many great nonprofits and folks that are doing it, but we just want to create a fun space for young, first-time voters, or young audiences who may have voted before, to feel comfortable.
How did you determine what topics and issues you really wanted to home in on?
That was a tough one, because we only have six episodes. If we are fortunate enough to get more, there are tons of things we want to cover, but the first episode is about, how did we all get the right to vote at 18? I sort of knew going into it — "Oh yeah, the 26th amendment in 1971, I remember something vague about that." But the point of origin of that was after World War II, you had all these veterans coming back, 18, 19 years old. Their friends had died fighting for our freedom. They come home and they realize, America is okay with them dying for us but not okay with us voting. And that started this very big push to get the voting age lowered to 18, which is the age of military service, and it was decades before it actually came to fruition. That was sort of a no-brainer for our first episode. It was like, this seems like the logical thing to talk about, because we should all understand why we have the right to vote at 18, and why that's such a special thing here.
How did your own experience in politics inform your approach to the show?
It's funny, I've thought about that a lot, because the three things that I have had the privilege of doing in my career are being in stoner movies, and serving our country, and teaching college classes. And none of the three, in terms of skill set, is what I'm applying here. But in each of the three, there was the takeaway of what's unifying. What I love about comedy is it can bring people together, right? Your crazy uncle, or your friend from high school who posted the crazy thing on Facebook, you can still sit down and watch a movie with them.
And the thing that I remember from working in government, for example, is these examples of young evangelicals who are very conservative, and really involved in the climate change movement. You don't often hear the stories about how they work with young progressives on climate change; they work together because they have the same end goal. And that's what we wanted to show more than anything else: the idea that there's so much common ground that we have. It's almost like nobody's highlighting that for us, and that's such a shame, because it does exist.
What do you hope the impact of the show will look like in terms of bringing people together in that way?
We hope that it turns folks out to vote, and we hope that it brings some attention to the fact that this is not just a presidential election. There are a lot of other things happening, a lot of local and state races. And you know, on both the left and the right, there have been a lot of people who have been protesting, and being involved in different social justice movements around the country for different causes. What I'd like to explore with some of our guests is, at what point is voting the thing that's gonna solve the challenge, at what point is protesting, and is there a third thing? Like, is talking to your neighbors in a civil way dead? Or is doing more of that also a thing that helps? I have a feeling they're gonna say it's all three. So the ideal takeaway for me is that we all get a better understanding of how civics works, and how we can make a difference.
Kal Penn Approves This Message premieres Tuesday, Sept. 22 at 10:30 p.m. ET on Freeform.