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Social Sciences Dean's Salon: Kal Penn on Life and Diversity in Hollywood

Dec 24, 2021
- Good night. I'm Darnell Hunt, Dean of Social Sciences at UCLA. It is our pleasure to welcome you to our first Dean Salon of the 2021-2022 Kal Penn Academic Year on Life and Diversity in Hollywood. For those of you who follow our work in the

social

sciences

here at UCLA, you know that we produce an annual study of

diversity

in Hollywood known as the Hollywood Diversity Report. Could we get slide one please? We have just published our last television report that we see here a few weeks ago on the twenty-sixth of October. Tonight I am very pleased to chat with actor, entertainer, political operator, and UCLA alumnus Kal Penn, whose incredible career embodies many of the themes we explore in the report.
social sciences dean s salon kal penn on life and diversity in hollywood
He and I will spend about an hour talking before opening things up to the audience for questions. The Q&A button is now active. If you'd like to submit a question for Kal, click the button at the bottom of the screen and we'll start curating questions from the audience around 6pm. Well, now it's a pleasure to welcome Kal. Kal, welcome back to UCLA, if only virtually. - I know thanks Darnell, I appreciate it. And thank you all for having me. I wish I was on the quad behind me right now, but you know, someday soon, I hope. - One day soon, I think we'll be doing these things in person at some point.
social sciences dean s salon kal penn on life and diversity in hollywood

More Interesting Facts About,

social sciences dean s salon kal penn on life and diversity in hollywood...

Well, first of all I want to congratulate you on your new memoir, "You can't be serious." Can we see slide two? Now I just finished reading the memoirs. It is a fascinating account of his journey from when he was a child of Indian immigrants growing up in New Jersey to Hollywood and the halls of power in Washington. Tell me about the title "You can't be serious." Where does it come from? - Yes, well, first of all thank you. This book was a true labor of love. I have one next to me as we are doing an event that touches on the book.
social sciences dean s salon kal penn on life and diversity in hollywood
And, you know, the title comes from the fact that I've played both a junkie and comedies mostly in my acting career. And then I had the opportunity to also serve our country in the White House. And through each of those steps, particularly as you mentioned, you know, as the child of immigrants, the idea of ​​becoming an actor isn't really the reason my parents moved to the United States. So you know the idea that you must be joking, you can't be serious, you know the double entendre is also when I went to work in Washington after a career primarily in comedy.
social sciences dean s salon kal penn on life and diversity in hollywood
Do you know that someone will take you seriously? So I wanted a title that was both a fun double entendre on both of those things and also kind of a tip of the hat to the very idea that you know the world isn't necessarily made up of mutually exclusive choices. Things are not binary and get complex. - Yes, you know that is very well said. Now you can go down the slide. So how long did this take? I mean you know you cover a long period of time in the book. I mean, and the detail was pretty amazing.
I mean, I was thinking like gosh, if I wrote my own memoirs, would I remember all of that? I mean, how did you discover all those memories? - Thank you. You know, it took me almost four and a half years to put this together. The initial idea for the book was actually almost 10 years ago. The day I was leaving the White House, my manager called me, my interim manager. He is the only manager I have ever had. I describe him in the book, which is actually quite accurate, I describe him as every character on the "Entourage" TV show in one person.
So he's a completely ridiculous person, but also, you know, he's a lion, he has a heart of gold. He called me when I was still living in DC and transitioning back into acting before I moved to Los Angeles. And he told me "you know you should write a book". And I was like, "well, I don't really have a story to tell, 'what's the book going to be about?'" He said, "well, listen, man, nobody's gone from working in entertainment to working in politics." And I was on the phone with him and I just said "literally, the governor's name is Arnold Schwarzenegger." And he said, "Okay, good point." And I just said, "Look, the reason I decided to 'take a year off from acting to work in public service' wasn't to write a book about it. 'So please leave him alone.'" a couple of years, probably another three or four years went by and I realized, you know, I think I had a story to tell and I wanted to tell it to my 20-year-old version, the kid that I was living in Rieber hall, trying to go to auditions. , trying to navigate the entertainment industry as a young man of color.
And I also wanted to write it for the person you know today, in adulthood you can tell is crazy to take that extra class or follow that passion or change That was something I'm very familiar with, and frankly, I think hopefully, coming out of this pandemic, a lot of people are re-examining their jobs, what they're doing with their lives. So the time seemed right to arm arlo. I'm so thankful you said what you did about the memories because fact checking the book took months and months. And it was very important to me, especially because I was sharing some pretty intimate stories about things like race or racism in Hollywood and I wanted to make sure they were put in the right context of how systems can and do change.
It was a lot of phone calls to people I hadn't spoken to in years. And wanting to make sure I don't feed them, hey, this is what I remember from that audition, that happened, right? Instead it was just, hey, do you remember in May of 1999 I saw you in this audition room? What do you remember of that day? So there were a lot of conversations that then went into, you know, fueling some of the intimacy of these stories. - Yes. You know one thing I really appreciate that academics take footnotes very seriously. I love the way you use footnotes in the book.
Can you talk a bit about that? I mean, they're hilarious in many cases in the way you know how to refine certain points in your statement to give the other side of the story. - Thank you. Yes, look like a storyteller with comedy experience, there are always a lot of things you want to say and you have a limited time to say them. So the idea of ​​an aside or the idea that you know the equivalent of doing a monologue and then having something aside for one of the characters or in this case the audience, it was important to me that the book felt like we were having a beer together, it felt like a conversation.
That's why I made the audiobook myself, that's why I put those footnotes in the written version. I felt like it hit the comedy, but also, frankly, I mean some of those stories in regards to the casting career of Hollywood dudes, I wanted to make sure I told the whole story and the whole picture. And a lot of times that meant there was like a paragraph of a footnote and it's not necessarily a quote, but it's all background to the story that led to the meat after it. - Yeah, and we really want to get into some of those examples in a few minutes.
But before you do, your memories are funny but also pretty serious. And I love the descriptive names you have for many of the people you meet on your journey. Captain moneybags, brainchild MaGee, daring producer, Face-y McPainty. What inspired you to think of those names? - So the first draft of this book and all those for people who haven't read yet, all the chapters that Darnell refers to or all the characters are from some of the Hollywood chapters where you know Face-y McPainty was an actor who was in the final round of an audition I did for a movie called "Van Wilder" that I ended up in. from us we would get the role.
So the last audition was the two of us. And I couldn't imagine what other Indian-American artist I was going to audition with. And it was the role of an exchange student from India. I went in to audition and he was a white guy with a brown face. And that was very common in those days. I mean, to be fair, it's not uncommon nowadays. "Aladdin" just did it with his background artists last year. And so rather than you know, the point of the book is not necessarily to call people. I think there's certainly a role for that at certain times, but I almost didn't want to give people that wind in their sails.
And I thought if the point of telling this story is how artists of color make certain choices and sacrifice along the way to continue moving the industry in the right direction, I didn't want to be distracted by their real names. Also, just calling him Face-y McPainty is more fun to me, you know, it takes the bite out of what that guy was doing. And in the book, I really describe it as you know, your problem is not usually with other actors, even though the guy showed up with a brown face. And I was more fascinated than anything at that moment.
And there I was, having graduated from UCLA two years earlier. I'm sitting at that audition and the whole time thinking, did this guy like to paint his face before leaving his apartment? He did it in the car? He came he early and he did it in the bathroom? Did someone tell you to do it? You know, all of those characters and those names have been changed not just to protect the culprits, but to really focus on what I wanted those stories to focus on, which is the way things were, sometimes the way things were. things are, and how we can remove those systems to make things better. - Yes, no, it is very effective.
Particularly when you return to them later in the memories. I mean it really ties the knot really well. - And by the way, Darnell, it's not like any of this is a big secret. Anyone with IMDB and an extra 10 minutes can figure out who I'm talking about. (Darnell chuckles) It's not like I'm trying to cover up any of these stories, you know? - Track your credits, track your credits and see who is associated with the projects, right? Yeah, I didn't do that anyway. Can we get slide three please? So I love the movie, "Mississippi Masala". I remember when it came out and I remember being excited to see it.
And your memoirs provide a moving account of the role film played in your development as an actor. Can you share this with the audience? - Absolutely. "Mississippi Masala" was the first movie I can remember seeing that had people who looked like me who weren't cartoon characters or reductionist stereotypes. So I watched this movie with my parents and my cousin at the theater. I must have been 14, 13 or 14 years old. And it's often hard to explain to friends who have always grown up seeing characters that look like them on screen what it's like not to see them. And this movie showed me, really made me realize what it was.
And you know this movie has South Asian characters in particular, they're incredibly flawed, as they should be, I mean, that's what makes the characters human, right? And they have financial problems, they fall in love, they have sex, they make mistakes. I hadn't seen that. And when I saw this movie it made me say that maybe this is something I can do too. Maybe he can be the kind of storyteller that inspired me when I saw this movie. And Mira and I have been her now a dear friend, but she's been a role model throughout my career as someone I could point to from a very young age and say "wow, she's doing it." her steps.” - You actually made a movie with her, right? - I ended up making a movie with her.
And actually, even before that, I mean I'm looking over your shoulder at Royce Hall and I'm remembering everything. E, I guess it must have been my third year on campus. I saw a flyer that said Mira was speaking and she was speaking in the movie building. And you know I waited in line for hours hoping I could get a nice seat and give her my headshot and resume and ask her a really smart question. By the way, that's not how I ended up in her movie. (Darnell laughs) But even seeing her speak on campus was a really motivating factor in a time when I didn't really feel that much love from the South Asian community or from my peers in the lyrics.
And then it wasn't until years and years later, I mean, the way I tell the story in the book is absolutely true. You know, I'm jumping around a lot here but that experience of auditioning against the brown faced guy in a brown face for a movie called "Van Wilder" you know Ryan Reynolds was the lead in that movie it was fantastic and very uplifting you know despite what it was the character I played. And if he hadn't done that movie, he wouldn't have gotten the chance to do "Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle." There was no shortage of brown and yellow actors to play those two main characters.
I was one of the few who had a studio credit on his resume because he had done "Van Wilder." So you go from doing "Van Wilder" to doing the Harold and Kumar movies, this "The Namesake" movie that Mira Nair directed, really the biggest reason I had the opportunity to do aPeople he'd met didn't care that he was down 30 points in the polls, didn't necessarily think he was going to win the Iowa caucuses or even become president-elect. At that point he wasn't even really a viable candidate. They were just, you know, I think he and Ron Paul were the only two that weren't taking money from federal lobbyists, campaign time and obviously 2021 hindsight, a lot of people look at that and say, is that considered progressive?
But there were many things that were considered quite progressive for the time that inspired me. And so I kept offering myself. And then that ended up becoming a job in administration. And to your original question, Darnell, yes, I thought he was crazy, but I also thought, you know, I was inspired by my grandparents who marched with Gandhi and the Indian independence movement. Just to be clear to any Republican friends joining in, I'm not trying to compare Gandhi to Barack Obama. What I'm saying is the family values ​​we had where you know you have to do the right thing, make sacrifices when you can, basically just the mid-eighties version of checking your privilege.
So I thought if I get a chance to serve our country in this particular way, maybe I should jump in and see if I can do it. "Yeah. So after volunteering, of course, he wins the election, he's president-elect, and he applies for a position in the White House." Can you tell us about that? - Yes, should I tell the story? Because there are also a lot of college students, right? Or... (Darnell laughs) - Well, I mean it's a cautionary tale, so yeah, I think it's a good story to tell. - I am going to tell this story because I would have liked to know many of these things.
They don't tell you that in college. I love UCLA, but they don't tell you this kind of stuff. Then the campaign ends, right and it had already been about a year, a little over a year since I joined. And you know that Obama becomes the president-elect. And an email goes out from the campaign staff saying "if you've worked on the campaign" and would like to be considered for a job "in incoming administration upload your resume to change dot gov" which is a website they had set up to collect resumes So I did that, I put my resume up on change dot gov and I was like, okay, so if I'm qualified for something, someone will call me because they know I worked on the campaign and they know the other thousands of people worked in the campaign.
So whatever algorithm they're using is going to be good enough. And the only person I told was my manager, my manager in Hollywood, the one who's like all the characters on Entourage. So , of course, no one calls me. And a couple of months go by. And right around the opening, I get a call saying you know we'd like you to be a part of the inaugural concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. They had invited a group of actors and musicians to set up the concert. So the pe Because of that, you had to take your parents and a couple of close friends backstage to the green room to meet the first incoming family after the concert.
So, the president-elect comes in and he meets my parents and Dan, my manager, he's very nice and I've seen him a lot, obviously, I've gotten to know him and his staff through the campaign. And then Mrs. Obama shows up and greets my parents. And then she, in passing, she says to me, "well, I hope, I hope we stay involved." And I said "yeah, I definitely plan on it." You know, to think that she has to say this to everyone she's shaking hands with. And my manager, who was standing next to me, says, "well, you know he applied for a job, right?" And I was like "oh, no, no, no, no, no, no, don't say that this is not the place where you say that." And she said "well what do you mean?" And he said "yes, he applied for a job" and no one called him back.
And now I am deeply ashamed. Like you can't walk into my world of public service and do this. This could work in Hollywood, right? Do not do that. - Hollywood and Washington collide, huh? - Yes, exactly. I just didn't know what the deal was. And Mrs. Obama looks at me and says, "Did you apply for a White House job? Who did you apply for?" And that's when the words I applied to change dot gov came out of my mouth and I realized what That sounded good. And Mrs. Obama looked at me like I just dropped a piece of pizza on the floor and I ate it in front of her following the five-second rule.
And she called the president-elect. And she said "come here." And I was like oh no no, okay. He walks over and she's like, "Kal, tell him what you just told me. I was like oh my gosh. So I have to say it again. I was like "well sir, you know I just applied for a job "in the White House". And he's like "who did you apply with instead dot gov." I figured if I'm qualified for something someone will let me know." And he kind of made a joke like, you know, why didn't you call me or why didn't you contact someone?
And I tell the story in much more detail in that chapter because obviously yes, it's funny and self-deprecating now that he was a two-term president. We all know the Obamas, we know their personality. We know Mrs. Obama has a very low Threshold for bullshit So you know all that stuff, but at the time, the biggest thing for me was, you know, if you join a campaign in my case, but the same would apply to a company and its relative infancy, you know, and if it grows astronomically, if it achieves a certain success where you were part of the journey, part of the team that you want to keep working for that person, that boss, or that company, it's almost disrespectful if You don't let anybody know, do you?
And I didn't know because, As an actor, you have agents and managers who either make those initial calls and then their job is to go to the audition or the equivalent of an interview. And that's when you crush it, that's when you do your thing. So I was totally naive going into this, not realizing that it could be received as disrespectful, certainly incredibly naive that all I did was upload a resume to a website. Obviously you're supposed to access your networks and go to your, this was before LinkedIn, but you know, look at, you know, LinkedIn and make some phone calls, even if it says don't make phone calls.
I didn't know anything about that. So I jokingly say that Michelle Obama talked me into getting that job. But she also just happened to be looking for a staff member to fill three specific slots in the public engagement office. They were looking for someone to work on outreach related to youth, outreach to Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, and then outreach to the arts community. And it turned out that I worked on those three both in the academy when I was teaching and on the campaign trail, and in my artistic work in the private sector. So it just so happened that it ended up working out pretty well, but that's the ridiculous foot-in-my-mouth story that I actually got the job. - Amazing story.
Could we have slide four please? So what was it like to stand on the podium at the 2012 Democratic National Convention and deliver a featured speech? - It was very surreal. I worked the 2008, 2009, 2009, 2009 pardon convention on the floor as a floor as a whip as a favor to Paul, who was my old boss in Iowa, he was Obama's state director in Iowa. So, we went to 2012 when David Plouffe and Jim Messina pulled me aside at an event we were doing and said you knew we'd like you to speak at the DNC. And did I think like on stage or like at a rally outside?
They said "not on stage." say. You know, I wanted to talk about benchmarks to progress, I wanted to talk about why change is so slow, why it's not like a light switch. The things that I had worked on, you know, I worked on that, he was obviously a very small part of the big teams that worked on the Affordable Care Act or the repeal of the Don't Ask Don't Tell or the Dream Act which, by the way, failed by five Democratic votes. the stories I wanted to tell because I had been privileged to know many people whose lives were affected by policy proposals or rule changes I no longer know how to write a speech for an audience because the two years and m While he was in the White House, the bureaucratic rules kicked in and the communications team was really paranoid that anyone in a public engagement would speak like a real person.
So they'd send us talking points and say, "You can't deviate from these talking points, 'otherwise you could be the news.' I deviated from comments on conference calls or at conferences. So the hard part for me was that I know I do it organically, like I'm speaking off the cuff, there's a lot of improvisation. I couldn't do that in my job at the White House. So when it came time to write what was kind of pseudopolitical speech as I , I was paranoid that I didn't have it anymore. So I sent drafts of the script to Jon and Hayden, the guys who worked on the Harold and Kumar franchise, all their friends who have worked in both politics and entertainment.
And I was happy with the way it came together at the end. But I didn't expect the opportunity to write a speech like that - Well, I love the way the speech starts (Kal laughs) - Thanks for the joke about the crazy rasa and weather Yeah. The weird thing that I knew I could do that a lot of other people couldn't do was make a direct mockery of what the Republicans were doing because they were, this was in the early stages, it wasn't really the early stages that this was part of the nonsense of who was born in the United States.
And all the veiled and rather unveiled racism and Islamophobia and xenophobia that was packed into what we were hearing. It also came after the NCR. And initially I approached thinking, you know, I tried to be respectful. So I'm happy to talk about the differences, the policy differences between the Republican platform and what we had accomplished in the administration. But it seemed like that wasn't what his convention was about, his convention was, you know, there were actors who spoke at his convention and I let you know I'm kidding about how the two things Republicans love are guns and "Duck Dynasty" and that shouldn't be offensive because they're true, they love guns, they love "Duck Dynasty".
The "Duck Dynasty" guy spoke at the convention. So, it was being able to be a little bit lighter about it, not take it too seriously, not be too valuable about identity politics that otherwise I think if I were a senator, or if I were an elected official, I could a little be dragged to. I was able to stay above that frame a bit, which I enjoyed. So you're talking about the opening of the speech where you know I made one of those jokes. - Yes, I have to ask you. I'm just curious, given your time in Washington and everything you've experienced in Hollywood, what thoughts went through your mind when you saw Kamala Harris take the stage for the first time as Vice President? elect?
When he gave the speech, do you know after the victory was recognized? - Yeah, look, it was remarkable, and I think it was remarkable to me and a lot of other people in ways that blend with some of my politics and are divorced from some of my politics. You know the idea that there is a woman who is the vice president who is also biracial, you know and she happens to be black and Indian and whose family history is not that different from mine and how my parents came to America. She's remarkable and she can, she made me pause for a moment and think like my

life

story of doing things I never thought would be even remotely possible, I certainly never thought I'd live to see a moment like that, you know?
And I was reminded of that again last week, the vice president posted a photo of the Naval Observatory lit up in his house for Diwali. And that was another kind of moment where I didn't necessarily think I'd ever see an Indian-American vice president decorate his house for Diwali, that's great. (Kal laughs) You know it means it's not just for the hey, let's check the box, come on everyone, you know, let's say yes, we made it or something. Because that's not what it's about for me. What it's about is never having seen anything like that growing up, never having done it, knowing that it was part of my American experience, but not part of the conventional American experience. - What's interesting, the parallels between the speech you made about, you know, the girl watching and seeing her as a role model there as a vice president, it's similar to the points you were making about young Indians watching you, your nephews , For example. , your cousins.
I mean, I think there are some interesting parallels in terms of what it means to be seen, you know, in spaces where you don't normally see people who look like you. - You know and I said that because I remember seeing or not seeing people. you know there is alla generation, two or three generations before me, Asian-American and South Asian actors who had been working steadily, but for whom there were limited opportunities. Many of them are really strong stage actors. Many of them have done film and television in roles that you would probably notice if you saw them. you know and then of course some household names like Sarita Choudhury from "Mississippi Masala" or Ajay Naidu who is perhaps best known for "Office Space." There are a lot of actors from that generation above me who I've really looked up to in the same way.
So, that's probably what made me think of my younger cousins ​​when I was growing up: the idea that I knew how it felt or I didn't know how it felt. - Sure. So one of the facts that we highlight in our Hollywood

diversity

report series is just how dramatically diverse the American population is becoming. And how diverse audiences are demanding diverse TV and movie content. So can we see slide five please? So the last Hollywood diversity report we put out a few weeks ago was based on the 2019-2020 TV season. You can see here on this graph that people of color made up about 42.7 percent of the US population in 2020.
And indeed, as you can see somewhere around 2044, the lines will cross. and the nation will be a majority minority. But despite the progress we've seen in recent years in terms of the onscreen presence of people of color, progress behind the camera has been much slower. For example, while people of color have made some progress, over the years creators show that they are still significantly lacking in terms of their share of all these important positions. Can we get slide six please? Here you're looking at show creators by race from the 2011, '12 season to 2019, '20 and you see there's progress you know from a low of four point five percent or so when we first started seeing this time on the

hollywood

diversity series to what you saw in 2019, '20.
But again we are very far from that 42 point seven percent of the population, which is represented by the gray line. Can we see slide seven? We see a similar positive trend on cable, but again the trend line for people of color lags the population share line of 42 point seven percent in 2019-20 on cable. And then last but not least slide eight. And here it is for digital. I think we first started looking at digital in 2013-14, but you can see again that the trend is generally up, but there's still a big gap. We're not really closing that gap.
And it has been moving very slowly. So not only is he an accomplished actor, but he also created a TV sitcom "Sunnyside" that aired for a few episodes on NBC in 2019. Slide nine, please. So, can you tell us about this experience? What was it like creating a show like "Sunnyside" and what happened to that show once it started airing on NBC? - Of course, yes, you know that I had in the first drafts of the book that I did not include, I had not written about "Sunnyside". And at some point in the process I realized that that chapter probably sums up one of the arcs of the narrative that I was telling.
So my writing partner Matt Murray, who comes from the world of "The Good Place" and sort of a Mike Schur universe, he and I co-created the show called "Sunnyside" about a city council member in Sunnyside Queens, which is one of the most diverse corners of the country. And it was his kind of disgraced council member who was putting his

life

back together. And one of the ways he did that was by teaching newcomers how to prepare for the citizenship test. So that was the backdrop for what was otherwise just a sitcom, a fun story about relatable characters.
And you know we enjoy putting it together. Mike Schur was one of our EPs. We sold it to NBC and Universal and they were incredibly supportive from the start. I mean, it seemed like they really understood the creative team, they really understood what we were trying to achieve there, which was, you know, wanting to make audiences laugh, wanting it to go to a network so that it would be below the digital divide. You know, so that households wherever they were in the country could enjoy this highly diverse comedy without having to pay a subscription. And they got that.
They knew that you know that we wanted the characters to be grounded. So when we hire our casting directors and we try to find our cast. We let them know, you know, please think outside the box. And if we find an amazing actor, we'll write the character's ethnicity or background around comedy because comedy has to come first. So all of that was really, we felt really promising. And I think the most important thing was that the network really said that we understand that comedy needs to find its audience. You need a long track. You know you need nine or 10 episodes at least on the air before you can figure out exactly what a show is doing, what the numbers are.
So we all feel really good about it. The weird thing was, I didn't feel like we were seeing a lot of ads for our show. And there were four shows that were on the Thursday night comedy block when we were cast on the series. You know there were two newcomers, ours being "Sunnyside." And a show called "Perfect Harmony" starring the very funny Bradley Whitford. It's also a very funny show, but a lot less diverse just because of the nature of the plot. And going into our season we realized a couple of things. One, you know, we were the most diverse show in the history of network television in terms of the cast, which was amazing and a great feeling.
Matt, especially, had worked very hard to make sure our writers' room was also the most diverse writers' room to date in the history of network television. And the way he did it was similar to how we released it. Comedy first, everything else second. But you know, to your point Darnell about how people generally get jobs in the entertainment industry, or to be fair, any kind of isolated industry, it was up to us to tell the agents and tell the managers, "don't just send us the same five people "that you send because they make you more money.
Who are your new voices? Who are your emerging voices? "Where can we find writers who haven't really been contacted before?" So, our entire boardroom writers was/were all immigrants or early immigrant family members. There was a large overlapping LGBT contingent on top of all of that. between the cast and writing staff. (Kal coughs) Excuse me. All of which is to say, when we launched we felt like we were in a great place we felt very supported by the network even though we didn't feel like we were seeing ads but i gotta tell you and to anyone here who is creative actors s or crazy, writers or crazy.
Like the side of us that makes us creative also drives us completely crazy. So I chalked it up to you being a crazy program. creator. There are commercials out there, there are billboards out there. Just because you're not seeing them doesn't mean they don't exist. And our first episode went on the air and it was the lowest-rated episode of a network television show in the history of network television. So we were not only the most diverse, we were also the first ranked wo. And that was really hard to take, but the network called right away and said "please don't worry." If you remember, we told you that comedy really requires "a long runway." People will find out about the show." not be the case.
So by the airing of the third episode, they had already made the decision that they would take it off the air. And the chapter where I talked about this is for those of you who are nerds of the deadlines or that they really want to know about the kind of business of how all of that comes together, that's in there in a lot more detail. But it essentially ended with, you know, us on a conference call Matt and I with some of the executives at NBC. And there's one executive in particular who kept telling us, 'you know, we're not canceling the show, we're moving it from linear to digital.' And we said, 'what does that mean?
Is it going to end up on Peacock?' Are you on a streaming service? "Are you going to stream on Hulu? Is it staying on Hulu?" And they kept saying "we don't know, but we're just letting you know, we're not canceling it." And a dog whistle blew, it blew a little bit, you know they weren't, they were saying something without saying it. And finally, I said, "I don't understand, are we being moved to NBC dot com? Because that's what it sounds like." I mean the same nonsense that they said before, right? Which, of course, is not unique.
This happens on the networks, it's a business they're running, but they kept saying the same thing: "We've got your back, sitcoms have a long run, they really need to find their audience." And I just said, "I just need to know." What resources? "Because we haven't seen "you're putting any resources" behind our particular show." And that's when they lost it. and they said, you know, "we can cancel your show right now. We can take it off the air, "we can take it digital." He knows a lot about whooping and yelling, not unlike Fox News or MSNBC on that phone call.
And I've worked enough in politics and Hollywood to know when to I would like to take a step back and realize that the person who was yelling at me is incapable of having a professional conversation. So I left it like that. And it was a bummer, but a couple of days later we realized what they were probably referring to. So ad age, which is the ad industry publications, like all ad industry reporters, put out an article disaggregating the data between "Sunnyside" and "Perfect Harmony," the other new show that aired that same night. And they found that NBC had spent approximately thirty-three hundred percent more on "Perfect Harmony" than on "Sunnyside" in terms of ad spend and ad placement.
So it wasn't just paranoia that made us think we weren't seeing ads that were up to par. In reality, they were investing thirty-three hundred percent less in our program. But the biggest thing for us was that the networks use the Nielsen ratings to measure the success or failure of shows. And so you can't simultaneously use the same hit benchmark and Nielsen rating if you're investing disproportionately based on whether a show is a show of color or whether it's a predominantly white show. Because by doing so you are setting up the show for people of color to fail.
And that's pretty much one of the definitions of systemic racism. So the reason I chose to tell that story in the book in much more detail than I just did here is not just because I have a chip on my shoulder, although to be fair this was like two years ago obviously part of that. it is still very raw. but the reason is that the networks are in this archaic mode of how they do business. They're still ad-driven, and there's still a huge chasm between development executives who may have the best intentions in attracting talent of color.
And then business execution that excludes that talent of color and doesn't support it, not just at the level, but at any level and sets it up to fail. And they are competing against a streaming platform or streaming marketplaces that are not ad driven, but subscription driven. And for those of us naively thinking, let's pick a show that will live below the digital divide, most American consumers don't get their media that way anymore. I mean, think about when was the last time you stopped by to watch live TV that wasn't a sporting event or an awards show, right?
It just doesn't happen anymore. So for me it was a great learning experience in my own naivety in the kinds of stories I wanted to tell. But the silver lining to that was that the industry is changing very quickly. I love it so much, I want to keep making shows like the one you just showed on the poster. And I think there is a real way to do it. So that was the deep dive that wrapped up the book exactly what happened. I'm actually curious, I mean we can talk offline depending on how much time we have, but I'm so curious, you know the data points you put out about the majority, the minority, and how the industry and showrunners change.
We talk about this a lot because majority minority still means majority is white right. It still means the majority group, if you're taking a singular group. - Plurality group you mean. - Sorry, the plurality group yes. - Well well. - So I'm curious how that ends up affecting diversity even after itLet's get past that point of 2040 or 2050 where- - Sure. Well, I mean, you know, I think a lot of what we're seeing nationally right now on the political stage is related to that changing demographic and people trying to hold on to certain types of privilege. Certainly in Hollywood I think the example and the reason I love the "Sunnyside" example so much is that I think it illustrates pretty well the way the industry is trying to continue to do business the way it's always been even though the market is changing. .
And I think you pointed to streaming, streaming is changing everything. And it's created opportunities for shows we'd never see on broadcast because, again, they don't care so much about ratings as they care about subscriptions. So. One of the things that I find revealing about this case, in addition to what you found in the ad age article about the differences in marketing dollars being spent on your program compared to the other program, is actually the relatively minor differences in The qualifications. (Darnell laughs) One of the things that we know for sure about broadcast TV is that the ratings have gone down quite a bit in recent years because of the proliferation of channels and shows and binge watching and streaming and that sort of thing.
So I mean these fine distinctions, you know how to determine something survives or not, it's quite revealing. So, of course, the program they replaced yours with didn't work much better, did it? - It did not. You know, our show had a I think we debuted at a point four, which is not good for anyone who knows ratings, not good. "Perfect Harmony" I think it debuted at a point five. We had dropped to a point three, they had dropped to a point four. So one of the things I do talk about is if you invested thirty-three hundred percent less in a program that has people of color and that program only has a rating of zero point one lower than the program you invested thirty-three hundred percent Plus, isn't that lower-rated show more successful?
Because with almost no resources, didn't he outperform? And obviously the argument could be made in a number of different ways. But that was the biggest thing for us on the cast and the executive or creative executive team was amazing, they're really trying to make something disappear that could have a second life somewhere with the right resources. And that of course puts you in doubt that you know the network is doing this just so they can show faces like, oh we tried that and it didn't work. - Well well. - Or is it much more innocent than that where there are just different departments that are just looking for archaic old ways of doing business at your point, Darnell?
Our show was replaced in the time slot by "Will & Grace" which of course is an all white show that is really a relic of the 1990s. And no disrespect to that cast which is obviously a lot of fun. But Joel Kim Booster, who was one of our cast members, sent out a series of really funny tweets. For anyone interested in the office politics of what the networks do and don't want their actors to say, I think you'll enjoy the lighter part of that chapter, which is all of Joel's tweets that he kindly gave us permission to use. in the book. .
But one of the things he said was that he was really upset when they found out we were going to be taken off the air and "Will & Grace" would replace us. By the way, that decision was made on Columbus Day. (Darnell laughs) He talks about being a comedian, so I talked about that in his tweets, but the big takeaway from that was that "Will & Grace" at its lowest point was basically down to a point four, which was our initial rating for "Sunnyside". And unsurprisingly, "Will & Grace" was not taken off the air by NBC. So there were just a number of things I could point to to say that this is how archaic networks are still when they have streaming platforms that have come along.
And also to be fair, you know, some of the frustrations for content creators of color. - Yeah, and the other thing is also that you know that our studies show and have consistently shown over the years that all other things being equal, TV shows that have casts that are most like America are the best in terms of of your grades. And that's been a pretty consistent finding. So yeah, I mean a lot of the problems we continue to face in Hollywood are based on choices that are rooted in practices that just don't align with today's realities.
Well, it's past six o'clock and I could go on forever. I still have questions that I'd love to ask you, but I want to give our audience a chance to get involved in this. So we have a question here from the audience. He says you were the RA in our dorms at UCLA. My South Asian roommate and I had a poster of Apu from "The Simpsons" in our bedrooms. And I remember you trying to explain to us why the character was so problematic. What role do you think long-running shows like "The Simpsons" have in updating the characters and moving the diversity conversation forward? - It's such an interesting question.
And I know, you know, even within the South Asian community, people have different Apu views. You know, my view of Apu was framed by kids in high school, you know, when I was bullied, it was accompanied with quotes from "The Simpsons" or with quotes from "Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom." So, from a younger age, I was aware of the fact that the images we were seeing impact the things that bullies do, for example. Would I have been intimidated if those shows weren't on the air? Obviously. I'm not suggesting that's why I was intimidated. But it adds a certain layer that makes you think that's how people get these ideas in their head about what they're looking at.
There's been such an interesting conversation about Apu that I found it a bit disappointing and reductionist, though I'm not surprised if you look at who makes those shows. But I would have liked to see him stay on "The Simpsons" with a little more nuance. You know the problem has always been, I actually write about this in one of the footnotes, Darnell, you've mentioned all the footnotes, there's a long footnote on "The Simpsons" and it explains how you know the plot of good , it's just a cartoon, of course it's just a cartoon. But you know that we know that the yellow characters must be white and we know that the Apu character must be Indian.
And so if you're looking at the normalization of those characters, which ones are flawed, which ones are totally wiped out, which ones are reductionists. I don't think a guy running a convenience store on his own is inherently a stereotype. There are many people who run such stores. It's just that you're not seeing the full breadth of a particular type of community. You know that children have accents for some reason... - It's the reduction, it's the reduction, yes. - Right, and rephrasing those conversations, you know I'm not a big fan of let's just delete this and pretend it never happened.
That is obviously on a case by case basis. But a show like that, the writing, you know, they're very talented writers. They're all Harvard guys, I'm sure they could have found a solution if they really wanted to. But sometimes it's easier from the perspective of not doing it, but it's interesting. But anyway, I'm really curious if you still have that Apu poster on your wall. (Kal chuckles) (Darnell chuckles) - So we have another question here. We talked about this a bit earlier as we were preparing for tonight's event. How did you get Cardi B to officiate your wedding? - Man. (Darnell chuckles) So she hasn't done it yet, this whole thing has just been a joke on Twitter.
But she was on a flight that I was on, at six in the morning from New York to Los Angeles for part of this part of promoting this book. And I realized that she was on the plane. I'm like Cardi B was on our flight. And I fell asleep, I didn't want to disturb her. I fell asleep and dreamed that she was officiating the wedding, myself, my fiancé Josh, was doing it on the plane. And part of the dream was that the three of us were holding hands leaving LAX. I thought it was so ridiculous that I tweeted it.
I didn't tag her in the tweet because I thought she would be a bit tacky. But she saw the tweet somehow and she responded to us and said that she would be happy to officiate the wedding. So I'd like to talk to her about it. I feel like I feel like the biggest danger here, it's not a danger, I'm actually looking forward to it, probably what I'm most looking forward to is Cardi explaining her lyrics to the aunts and uncles that come to the wedding. (Darnell laughs) I think it would be for the best... - By the way, I love your explanation of the role of uncles and aunts in Indian culture. - Oh yeah. - I love that in a book, that's great. - Thank you.
He wanted to be fair about it. You know that when you are a child born in the United States and you grow up, you can feel a lot of pressure. And then from a parent's perspective, especially the generation where my parents are from that post-'65 era that moved to America to fill the labor shortage from their perspective, 10 aunts and uncles who give you advice is like, what an amazing opportunity you have to feel supported unless you're not doing what you're being given advice. So try to be fair about it in the book. - So we have another question here.
How did you decide to become a sociology major and how did you decide where to go after graduation? Well, some of it was kind of like, you know, you came to LA with the idea of ​​wanting to get into acting and stuff. But where did the sociology part come in? - So, the sociology part was that I really wanted to do a double major in theater, film and television school, and in something outside of school, in this case sociology. Because I felt like a lot of the

social

classes that I was taking were really feeding my interests and making me stronger as an actor, you know, making my mind a little bit more diverse in the things that I knew.
And I don't know who's running it now, but the undergraduate theater TV and film guidance counselor wasn't very strong and didn't really make you meet with her that often. So I decided I was going to take enough classes to double major, even though you weren't allowed a double major if you majored in theater. So I thought okay, once I have all those credits, I'll just fill out the petition and then meet with her. And they are supposed to check what you are doing right. So, I guess it was my fourth year. I went to her with this request and said: "I would like you to sign my double career." And she said "oh, you're not allowed to do a double major" in drama, film and television school." And I said "yeah, I know, but I did it." "So I just need you to sign the paperwork" And she says "well I can't sign it 'cause you don't have permission to." I'm like, oh my gosh, this is a bureaucratic conversation from UCLA.
I am explaining to you that I already did everything. what you have to do is sign the piece of paper. Well, I'm not allowed to sign the piece of paper because you're not allowed to. I'm like I already did it! So it was that over and over again. again. And finally I said, okay, I know she's not going to sign this paper. Sociology allows you to declare a concentration on whatever you want. So I went into sociology with a concentration in theater, film, and television. But apparently you can tell people whatever you want about what you majored in.
So technically I majored in sociology, but I'm not ashamed to tell people that technically it might as well have been a double major in the sociology of theater, film, and television. , mystery solved. So, more than ever, there's another question here, more than ever there are movies and programming being imported from other countries. Is there a danger that Hollywood sees foreign imports as a shortcut to diversity? - That's such an interesting question. I do not think. I mean, Darnell, tell me, I mean, how do you do it? I guess it depends on how you tabulate the data and if you like your stream, especially if you're looking at Amazon and-- - Yeah, well, we just look at corn from American projects.
I mean the US and Canada, I mean those markets overlap a bit. We do not look at the foreign language. If a business is a US-based business, but the location is somewhere else in the world, we count that as well. I mean what we're really trying to do is get a sense of the degree to which the US population is reflected in the workforce, in the images that are going around. Therefore, we would not count a foreign language film that was created elsewhere in our diversity data. But I think this question asks if the industry itself would shirk its responsibility to produce diverse programming instead of something that can be produced elsewhere and try to market it here in the United States as well.
We haven't seen the sides of that, but I'm curious to see if it's something you've thought about. - No, I haven't seen that either. I mean, I think it's pretty transparent when there's a showforeign. I mean, watch it, you know, watch the number one show on Netflix right now. I mean there's no secret where he's from or nobody's trying to cover-- - And look, we wouldn't have counted that in our data even though "Squid Games" is a phenomenon, a global phenomenon, but we didn't. - - - Exactly. And so I haven't experienced that. - So another question.
Former co-star John Cho was able to partake in the world of "Star Trek." What can we do to help you land in the "Star Wars" universe? - Oh man. (Darnell laughs) I love being in the "Star Wars" universe. I don't know, I don't know how that happens. I mean, you know, what was her awesome? I was delighted to see that the hashtag launched John Cho, was it John Cho? I participated because he is like a brother to me. By the way, for the fans of Harold and Kumar, you can learn how and why John is such a talented fart (Darnell laughs) in one chapter.
But he is a smart guy. We are both avid readers. It's one of the reasons we knew of or had heard of Trimble Harry's novels and his writing that led to "The Namesake." I'm not trying to dodge that question at all. I don't know. I would love to be not just in the "Star Wars" universe, but you know, I had a very small part, it ended up being cut, but I added a small part in "Superman Returns," for example, which was an Explosion because I'm a huge fan. from comic book movies. Any of that big budget escapism stuff.
Super down so if you all have ideas on how to get involved please let me know. - Maybe we can start a Kal Penn campaign for "Star Wars" or something. - Come on, I'm not going to say no. (Darnell laughs) - Alright, here's a question I would have asked if I'd had more time, but I'm glad someone in the audience brought this up. As an Indian from an immigrant culture, were you expected to be a doctor, lawyer, or engineer? How did you get your parents to accept the path you chose? Or if they didn't, when was the change where they felt you did? - Yes, thanks for that question.
Yes. See what you know my parents and their friends came here around 1965 to fill a labor shortage. There were not enough American-born doctors, engineers, and many other professions. So my father was able to come to the United States to get a graduate degree in engineering. My mom has a master's degree in chemistry. Am. A joke. I'm a disappointment as an actor who can't do math and is interested in science but is bad. I think for them and it really wasn't just, you know, my parents, there was a little bit of unspoken support while I was trying to pursue acting.
And I try to be as aware of that as possible because they certainly supported me at different times. But the community as a whole did not support me at all. And it wasn't just my parents' generation that I found not supportive of me at a particular age, but even at UCLA I remember during orientation signing up for the Indian Student Union mailing list outside of Kirkoff at or at Bruinwalk. Yes at a table. And the woman who was like a second or third year said "where are you from?" What are you majoring in?" And I said, "I'm from New Jersey. "I am a student of theater and cinema." And she laughed and said "no, no, seriously, what are you majoring in?" And, to be fair, I was the only brown student majoring in drama, right? "I'm very excited about it." And her or her laughter became like this stone cold, what I call like the look of a minor aunt.
And I went down to the next person behind me and said "hey, where are you from? What do you major in?" And they never added me to that email list. And there were brown children in my bedroom at Rieber's on my floor. Who would go out of their way to say things like "why aren't you a south campus student? You're a sellout." You know things I just couldn't place why my classmates felt that way? Why were they assigning certain traits? to a major or a profession? And, you know, I'm sure if there's any psychology major here who can help me dissect what that was all about.
But one of the things that I think is still really important and has hopefully changed so much is that before there was almost no support within the community. And I think that was one of the big reasons why the change was relatively slow. You know we weren't encouraging other Asian Americans or South Asians to become writers or executives or casting directors or directors. That has thankfully changed a lot. And you see the fruits of those changes that there are so many Mindy Kaling and Hasan Minhaj and people out there who are really making or the thing.
But there wasn't an aha moment to answer the other part of that question from my parents, I don't think. I mean, until "House," I still remember getting emails from my parents saying to at least get a real estate license. What will your support be? He went from at least going to law school to at least getting a real estate license. And then, okay, you actually have a job every day that you go to in a studio where you play a doctor. Well. Well then. - Well. Here is another question. Has your connection to cannabis through Kumar stifled your career in any way?
Or did it have any influence on him? I don't think it affected him one way or the other. I mean, I think most people know that you know that a movie is a movie. And anyway, and even my, I mean, I don't know if this was a reference to my political career, but even working on the Obama campaign and working in the White House, everybody knows, you know, those are movies. , they're you're fun. I intend to do many more of them if I get the chance. And I think you know that people know when there's a time to be serious and a time to be funny.
But the only time it overlapped was when you know when you work in the government you have to go through a background check and you have to tell the FBI if you've ever smoked weed or if there's ever anything to do with weed or drugs in your life. So I thought, I mean, I made two movies about marijuana. And the guys are like in front of me at the table, they're trying to stifle a laugh, like, you know? Like, oh, okay, I'm just out there in case it affects whether I get my security clearance. They are as if not Good, good, that's good to know.
Thanks guys. - Yeah. Here's a close and closely related question actually. What was the most difficult part of the transition to a political career? Specifically, did people have a hard time distinguishing between who you were as a political staffer and your role as an actor in movies like Harold and Kumar? - No, fortunately not. I mean, I think part of it is due to the nature of the campaign that I worked on and when I joined. You know I joined coming out of the summer when Obama was trailing 30 points in the polls against Clinton and John Edwards.
So when you're working at that level that you're actually working with, you know the candidate very well, you know the senior advisors, you're doing real work on the ground. And if the campaign works well, you will get more and more responsibilities as the concentric circles increase. And then, working in the White House and working as Obama's liaison to young Americans meant that I was meeting with young people on his behalf every day. And despite all the nonsense that the news will try to cover college-age or college students, the reality is that if you're between the ages of 18 and 26 and you have an opportunity to meet with someone who represents the White House, regardless no matter what the administration. or what your beliefs are, you'll probably want to talk about what the real issues are, no matter who you're meeting with.
And that was the experience. So many of you know I didn't do a lot of press at my job, I wasn't part of the communications team. Every time it came up, it was like "People" magazine did a lewd article about whether Kal Penn gets asked about weed all the time. Fair question if that's what you're wondering. But the reality is, I wish they had instead written an article about how amazing young organizers are and how they're pushing for the Dream Act or how they're pushing for, you know, a doubling of the Pell Grant or significant reform of the financial help.
Because those were my meetings that I had every day. So. Was there, like, one in a hundred times when people would have a question about a movie? Yes of course. But for the most part, no, he was just never a part of it. - Excellent. And this is probably appropriate for our last question as we wrap up. What advice and lessons learned would you give a freshman at UCLA today with goals to follow in her footsteps? - Oh man. I thought of this recently because someone also asked me about the book. And I didn't necessarily think it was, I mean I wrote this book as I said, the version of me in my 20s and for the person who is told that the things they want to do in life are crazy.
But he was not prepared to answer this. So glad I remembered this one. It was while I was at UCLA, I think it was a combination of a UCLA event and something the Screen Actors Guild was putting together. But there was a moderate conversation like this with an actor who, if I remember correctly, was the only black actor on network television at the time. And I don't remember what show I was on. But one of the questions at the hearing was how do you deal with rejection? And how do you deal with knowing that you won't get certain parts because of your skin color when your teammates will be able to shine?
Y. I'm going to paraphrase her badly since it's been so many years, but essentially she said that she tries to go in and be as prepared as possible. She said that she was classically trained. You know she was trained in Shakespeare. I think she got her MFA from maybe Yale or something. An elite drama school that she got into. She said that I know that when she auditions for a role, the casting director, the producers, the executives, they all know my resume. They know I have all these things under my belt. So, at the end of the day, if you want to pick, you know Karen from Iowa, who doesn't have any of those credits and she has nothing on her resume because she auditioned great and they feel like she's a safer choice. , I know that they know that I have been overlooked because of the color of my skin.
I know that they know that I was more qualified than her. And I know that to get in there I have to be a thousand percent more qualified than the person I'm up against, that's the reality. The reason that was so important to me was that throughout the story I told you about my friend Jenna and her manager saying that a guy like him would never work in Hollywood. He carried so much anger and went to auditions so angry all the time. And I'd go into auditions thinking that you know there are so many "Sabrina the Teenage Witch" examples that if I ever got one for a guy named Dave from the valley, I'd automatically think there's no way I'm going to get this part.
And he was so angry that he would even go to the audition. Why am I bothering? There was so much anger she was carrying hearing this woman speak just to openly admit it, she knew she had to work a thousand times harder, she needed the credits on her resume, she had the training on her resume, and she was going to put that energy into showing that people were wrong was something I didn't even think I had that option. I didn't think I had that agency. And hearing that from her made me feel so much more grounded and made me channel my energy into those things that were so much more useful at the time. - Yes, that is a wonderful anecdote.
I really appreciate that in the memories too. Well, we're right at 6:30. - And I would like to say that I see that I had missed this, there are like 62 questions that we have not reached. (Darnell chuckles) Tonight I put up a Q&A on my Instagram. I'm happy to get to a few of these in the next 24 hours if you all want to drop them off in the Q&A section. I'm happy to try. . - Very good, we'll see if we can send them to your Instagram account so you can answer the questions. Anyway, Kal, I really want to thank you for sharing with us tonight your experiences in Hollywood, in Washington.
You know I personally learned a lot from your memoirs and a lot of that for me, you know it resonates very closely with what I study so I really appreciate it on that level. And I'm sure our students also got a lot out of this in terms of their experiences at UCLA and how they were able to turn that into an amazing career, again both in Washington, Hollywood and beyond. So thanks again. And hopefully he knows that he won't be a stranger to UCLA and that we'll see him in person at some point, once we're past the pandemic. - Yes, I hope to see you in person.
I want to give a big shout out to the entire Bruin community, especially so many of you who have already given me so much love on the book. A lot of people actually asked for any of the educators or people who are doing book clubs, drop me a note. I'd love to make one of these if you know how to assign a chapter in your class or if it's helpful in whatever you're doing. You know, part ofthe reason I'm excited to share my story is that I wish there was a book like this when I was at UCLA.
So thanks for this amazing conversation Darnell. I continue to be in awe of and very grateful for the work that you and the entire team do both on the diversity report and on all the other things that you are researching and publishing. It helps those of us who are artists and you know it's irreplaceable so thank you. - Thanks, I appreciate it Kal. Well, thanks to the audience as well for joining us tonight. Take care and see you at the next Dean Salon.

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