Saturday, March 6, 2021

Comedic Actor Kal Penn Talks Diversity and Importance of ‘Sunnyside’

Kal Penn (getty)
Kal Penn (Getty)

*The situation comedy, or sitcom as it is commonly known, is one of the most popular forms of entertainment in American media.  As the title alludes, a sitcom places a number of diverse personalities in a setting and relies on the comedic friction between the characters to elicit laughter from the audience.  

With “Sunnyside,” co-written by and starring comic actor Kal Penn, the NBC comedy takes place in Sunnyside, Queens, perhaps the most ethnically diverse locale on Earth, and centers on disgraced New York City councilman Garrett Moi.  He’s an American of Pakistani parentage who fell on hard times after being caught offering a bribe to the NYPD after being caught driving drunk. 

Recently, was invited down to 30 Rock to speak with Penn about his series, why it’s funny and why you should watch. Check it out. 

The lead character’s name, Garrett Moi, is as about as Anglo-sounding a name a person of Asian descent can be given.  

When his parents first moved to America, they started watching American television.  They particularly LOVED ‘Diff’rent Strokes’.  It was amazing to them. The realized ‘Oh, Mrs. Garret is on ‘Facts of Life’ and ‘Diff’rent Strokes? She is so hardworking!’ So, they named their son Garrett and their daughter Mallory.  

Garrett was a politician but gets kicked out of the city council because he tried to bribe a cop so that he wouldn’t get arrested for public intoxication.  So, now he’s trying to rebuild his life. 

 Kal Penn on why this show is named “Sunnyside”: 

Well, what’s the name of the show? The show is set in Queens, but Flushing is a horrible name for a show. Sunnyside, Queens is the most diverse place in America. It looks like America; it looks like the rest of the world. We thought it would be a great place to set a comedy. So, we set it there. 


If we do it well, it’ll be like ‘Head of the Class’ meets ‘Seinfeld.’ “Wherever you live, you want to tune in. 

Though diverse personalities and viewpoints are meant to drive the comedy, most sitcom diversity is superficial and surface-based. However, Penn explained why ‘Sunnyside’ goes much deeper than that. 

Here he explains some of the diversity that powers the show. 

“(One character) is a Somali cab driver who’s also a doctor who has to get certification in America. That’s his backdrop, but he plays him with such a bizarre sweetness and a capitalistic mindset. He’s like ‘You need to pay me for my work. I’m a New Yorker.’ That stuff is so funny to me. It’s for the same reason you watch George Costanza.  

George Constanza is so weird. He’s fun to watch because he’s so likable, and even when he’s not likable, you’re rooting for him.  

Across the board, no matter what you’re writing, if your characters are grounded in who they are, and if you ground them in their world, plotlines emerge as to why they like people or dislike people other people in their world begin to emerge. All the things that make them who they emerge. 

Oftentimes, American descends of immigrants are connected to the land of their forefathers by DNA only and have very little connection to their homelands. However, Kal told reporters that he believes he plays very well in India.  

I see bootlegged DVDs of my standup in the market in India so I’m like, ‘Ok, I guess that means we’ve made it.’ If they’re bootlegging my stuff, I guess that means they like me.  

In an age of increased xenophobia, much of which folks say is coming from the White House, one would think the politicization of the comedic content would be a no-brainer for a brown descendent of South Asian parentage. But Kal believes otherwise. 

Our show is not a very patriotic show. We don’t really mess with anybody. I don’t like comedy where you make fun of people and tear people down. We don’t want to do that. We’re here to lift people up. 

Our characters are the type that you’ll fall in love with them, no matter where you live in America.   Doesn’t matter who you are, what language you speak. 

“Sunnyside” airs on NBC. Check local listings for times.  

Ricardo A. Hazell began his career in journalism in 1996 as a Research Intern for the prestigious Editor & Publisher Co. His byline has appeared in The Root, Washington Post, Black Enterprise and he helped define culture within the African Diaspora as Senior Cultural Contributor at The Shadow League. Currently working on the semi-autobiographical novel "Remorse".



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