Kal Penn guest-hosting The Daily Show.
Kal Penn interviewing Radhika Jones, editor-in-chief of Vanity Fair magazine.
My Seven Shows: Kal Penn
Actor, author and Obama-administration alum Kal Penn shares his top TV shows.
Jon Stewart advised him at a New York Knicks game to be himself and bring what he wanted to the table. Stephen Colbert told him on his late-night talk show to start digging into the issues and topics that he wanted to cover because he was a naturally curious person.
But as much as Kal Penn appreciated the pearls of wisdom from those Daily Show alums, he still felt daunted — if not awed — by his weeklong stint guest-hosting the iconic Comedy Central show. "You walk into the writers' room and it's like, What do I contribute, or should I just defer to these incredible geniuses at the top of their game who have so many Emmys?" says Penn, who sat behind the desk in March. "But I loved it. The experience was a dream come true." That's because, he adds, he got to put his own spin on the political satire in its post-Stewart, post-Trevor Noah era: "My approach was to bring something a bit aspirational and positive. I wanted to engage an audience and make them feel like they could be part of a solution."
Well, what else do you expect from a seasoned actor, writer, college lecturer and social activist? Consider, after all, that Penn — who first broke out in the 2004 stoner comedy Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle — left his cushy job on the hit medical drama House in 2009 to take a position in the President Obama administration and serve as a junior staffer and liaison to arts communities, young Americans, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. (Penn is the child of Hindu Indian Gujarati immigrant parents.) Two years later, he returned to Hollywood for a role on How I Met Your Mother. He later played a White House press secretary in the drama Designated Survivor and a former New York City councilman on the sitcom Sunnyside. Penn also recently hosted the Bloomberg climate change-themed docuseries, Getting Warmer with Kal Penn.
These days, fans recognize him for his work depending on "where I am in the world," he says. "A lot of the global audiences have seen Designated Survivor because it streams on Netflix. Then I'll be in Singapore and people will make jokes about Harold & Kumar."
When he's at home, Penn enjoys a mix of highbrow TV and guilty pleasures. He's currently bingeing the new season of Succession and proclaims that he's blocked all the spoiler-happy viewers blogging on social media. He also unabashedly loves Family Karma on Bravo. In fact, he almost included the early aughts Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie fish-out-of-water reality series The Simple Life on his My Seven Shows list. Alas, "I replaced it in a moment of insecurity!" he jokes. He reveals his final picks for TelevisionAcademy.com.
Sesame Street (PBS, 1969–present); HBO (2016–2020); Max (2020–)
I learned a ton from it. The idea of imagination and the notion that everything is possible as a little kid is just such a cool thing to identify with and a special message to get. Adults didn't talk to children like they were children, and people learned to be kind to each other in this fictional place. It also just made me laugh because they weren't afraid to be silly. I remember being so floored that Kermit the Frog would be on Sesame Street in the morning and The Muppet Show at night. That is a workhorse!
The Muppet Show (Syndication, 1976–81)
This show continued to grow on me as I got older because of the layers of the writing. There were jokes for the eight-year-olds and jokes for the parents. And you obviously don't know the adult humor until you go back and watch it again! I also liked the show-within-a-show aspect because there was all this possibility and boundless creativity. I mean, you've got chickens doing stuff with a Muppet named Gonzo. And then there's Carol Channing as a guest. It was weird. That made me interested.
CBS News Sunday Morning (CBS, 1979–)
I'm not a big fan of the yelling and screaming, whether it's fiction or nonfiction. And ever since high school, I've watched Sunday Morning. It starts with the mini-news roundup, where everything is presented in an effective way. And the interviews, no matter the political slant, are so in-depth. The reporters are not interested in three sound bites that will be click-bait. They do long-lead journalism that I really respect.
Family Matters (ABC, 1989–98)
It was part of ABC's TGIF lineup, right? So on one hand, it's a little bit of nostalgia because at the time, every eleven-year-old was watching this block of shows on a Friday night. And you knew that an episode of Family Matters was going to be so funny and talked about when you got to school on Monday morning. I don't think I recognized that it was an inclusive Black cast; just that it had the most iconic characters. Steve Urkel was so ridiculous and memorable. I have to tell you: When I got to UCLA as an undergrad, I knew nobody because I went to high school in New Jersey. Now, I'm walking out of class on week two, and there's a guy I recognize. Like, Wait, I know him. So I'm following him for like a block around campus and thinking, What is his name? And then I blurted out, "Steve Urkel!" I was like, Oh my God, that's Jaleel White! I was so mortified that I hid around the corner.
Saath Nibhana Saatthiya (Star Plus, 2010–2017)
It's basically a Bollywood soap opera. Like, twelve people in a nuclear family are living together in a house, and all this drama happens among different members. The big reason why I got into it is because I wanted to learn Hindi. And this show is made for the masses. The level of speaking is ... to say this accurately and politely, not on a New York Times level. The sentence structure is very simple. So, I could follow along without the subtitles. And then I got sucked into these characters and how ridiculous they are. There's a daughter-in-law who tries to convince another character to wash her husband's laptop with soap and water and hang it up to dry. Like, who would believe any of this stuff? It's like a telenovela on crack.
Made in Heaven (Prime Video, 2019)
It's about two Indian wedding planners, and 80 percent of it is in English. Zoya Akhtar, who's a huge writer and director out of Mumbai, cocreated it. What I love about it is that usually you see characters in Indian TV who are stock. But this show totally shifts that paradigm. You may think it's a traditional Bollywood type of show, but there's a real cross-section of people in the cast. And the stories they tackle are really fascinating and watchable and a total slice of life. They did only one season before the pandemic. I hope they do another one.
Ted Lasso (Apple TV+, 2020–)
It's a feel-good show and not really about soccer. But I happen to be a soccer fan, so the fact that it's set in this world is special. I love the idea that Ted [Jason Sudeikis] is hoping for something better. And the conflicts involve everything that he's up against. It's your classic nice guy trying to do the right thing in the world we live in today. That's so needed. I binge a lot of TV — but with Ted Lasso, I usually wait three or four weeks in between episodes because I don't want to use up all that happiness right away. That's how good the show is. I'm so happy for Jason, and I've told him that.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
The interview for this story was completed before the start of the WGA strike on May 2.