Kal Penn speaks on life, politics, media

In his early years out of college in Los Angeles, Kal Penn and his three roommates spent most nights “eating beans out of a can.” Those three roommates launched a website called thelonelyisland.com and surged to fame through their parody music videos (yes, those roommates were Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone who rose to prominence on “Saturday Night Live”). Penn his own name through acting, but has also explored careers as a White House staffer and guest lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania.

Based on his personal story and that of his former roommates, Penn urged Washington University students to embrace the unpredictability of the Internet generation and forge their own paths in life, even if they may seem unconventional.

In an event sponsored by Ashoka, Penn delivered an hour-long lecture Saturday at the 560 Music Building, followed by a half-hour question-and-answer session.

Penn, whose birth name is Kalpen Modi, earned popular notice through his role as Indian-American stoner Kumar Patel in the 2004 comedy “Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle.” But after adding to his acting profile with two “Harold and Kumar” sequels and a role on the television series “House,” Penn postponed his acting career to become associate director in the White House Office of Public Engagement, a decision labeled crazy by many, including his own father. Penn’s efforts in the White House centered on outreach to the Asian-American, Pacific Islander, young American and arts communities.

The “Harold and Kumar” series broke the mold of mainstream Hollywood entertainment by featuring two Asian-American main characters, and Penn taught a course at Penn in 2008 entitled “Images of Asian-Americans in the Media.”

A recurring theme in his talk was the disparity between the America we see in television and movies, and the reality of American society. Penn believes the trend could be attributable to the conglomeration of media outlets under several major companies, although an opposing theory holds that conglomeration has actually helped add diversity to popular media.

In his time at the White House, Penn saw the same disconnect between the efforts of the Obama administration and the media’s coverage of them. Penn cited a 2009 interview with CNBC in which the main story became not the content of Obama’s responses but a fly he swatted that earned the headline “Obama Ninja.”  

Penn enjoyed his time at the White House, but he left the Obama administration in 2010 to act in the third “Harold and Kumar” installment and the television series “How I Met Your Mother.” Though he does not envision becoming a politician, Penn delivered a speech at this year’s Democratic National Convention.

Many students spoke favorably about the lecture, though some noted it wasn’t what they had necessarily expected.

“I thought it was going to be more comedy,” sophomore Trevor Casson said, “but he also talked about…his history from acting to working in public office. I thought the combination of both was enjoyable.”

With additional reporting by Wei-Yin Ko