Kal Penn talks ‘Big Brain Theory,’ POTUS and why we need girl nerds

I had a chance to talk to Kal Penn at the premiere of his new show, “Big Brain Theory: Pure Genius,” and found that the “Harold & Kumar” franchise and “House” star as well as former Associate Director in the White House Office of Public Engagement (say that ten times fast) has some, as you might expect, big ideas. The show (which airs Wed. at 10:00 p.m.) challenges 10 real-life rocket scientists, engineers and brainiacs to solve tricky problems and, on occasion, blow up stuff, all while living together. Here’s what Penn had to say about doing battle with stupidity, why girls are underrepresented on the show, and why STEM classes count.  

You refer to this show as doing battle with stupidity. 

When I heard about the show, I thought, I love science, I’m not very good at it — 
No, don’t say that!
It’s true, it’s true! I’m not a math guy, but I was always very interested in it, and I think one of the reasons why I like science is because of the movies and because of TV, right? Because you look at all these awesome outer space movies or movies about NASA.
Scifi doesn’t always have much actual science in it, though.
Correct, but I think as a kid that’s what made me more interested in science. Even watching a movie like “Space Camp,” which is a totally obscure reference, that made me want to be an astronaut until I found out I’d have to be good at math, and then I thought, I’ll just be an actor instead. I did two years at the White House, finished that, started working at “How I Met Your Mother” and did a couple of more frivolous movies when I came back to acting…
Although, on “How I Met Your Mother,” you were playing a shrink, so that’s smart.
A little bit. Not that he was the smartest shrink. But still fun. Very troubled shrink. And then [I did] the third “Harold & Kumar,” and then this came about and I thought this would be a really fun side project, because one of the things I got to work on at the White House is a lot of the President’s investments in science and young people. I was the youth liaison for about two years. So looking at what are the ways we can encourage more young people to enter STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and math — and how that contributes to our economic growth, manufacturing growth, innovation, and beating countries like India and Brazil.
It seems that the news is always telling us how badly we’re doing. 
We’re actually starting to do a lot better. And [these contestants] are a testament to how great we’re doing and how much better we can continue to do. 
This must be the brainiest cast on reality TV. There’s a mechanical engineer and a rocket scientist.
[One guy] builds rockets, and there’s a guy who’s an engineer on a nuclear submarine. These guys are awesome. When we started shooting the series, I was still doing two movies, one in New York and one here, so flying back and forth, on a Wednesday I would be here with a bunch of science guys. So it was a really nice thing to have the chance to work on while I was working on the other stuff, and I would love if we would be able to do many more seasons of this, because it was such a fun contrast and I think for a lot of young kids we’ve showed the show to, their response has been really good.
Someone referred to this as the first “American Idol” for scientists. Why has it taken this long to create a competition reality show like this one?
I can’t speak for other shows, but I know in the case of our show, they’re all smart but also incredibly good on camera. They look great. Some of the engineers are a little more socially awkward, others are more gregarious, but they each have a particular angle coming in. Alison [Wong], who’s one of our contestants, has a design background, so she’s got a lot more of an arts angle coming into things. Joel, who has a very funny ridiculous walk, has been a welding engineer on nuclear submarines. Goofy guy in real life with an incredible brain. When you put together the right cast, it creates a really compelling situation.
It’s also flying in the face of “nerd” cliches. 
Totally. And I think that’s also been changing the last couple of generations. Folks who are entering the sciences are not like your stereotypical whatever has been in your head ideas/
Being an actor, you don’t often rub shoulders with scientists. 
The place we are right now is in Burbank, and it’s run by a great guy, Mark Fuller, who’s absolutely an engineer and scientist, and some of these contestants are from Southern California. Dan [Moyers] works, I think, in Pasadena in aerospace. I think for what we do, often times you don’t come into contact with these folks, but they are out there. I think in a sense you’re right, we’re in a little bit of a bubble in L.A. It’s good to see how the rest of the country is thankfully celebrating the sciences. It’s nice. 
What else do we need to do?
It’s sort of a dual approach. There’s the government approach, which is what can you do in terms of your educational standards, making sure you’re teaching up and then investing the right kind of money. So the three or four billion that the President invested in STEM programs are specifically designed, they’re not just about the next five years, what are you going to in college, what are you going to do after, what if you’re in kindergarten, what if you’re in elementary school over the next 10 15 20 years as you create increible companies and bring manufacturing jobs back to the United States. It’s about long term economic growth also, and then it’s certainly not just the government fixing all these problems. Private sector is being asked to step in a lot. You have a lot of private sector partners here who’ve done incredible work in STEM fields. And part of that is the media too of what can we do to make science cool. Sesame Street does an incredible job since we were kids, but we wanted to take that one step further, everyone loves the discovery channel, whether you’re watching something about sharks or you have an interest in us blowing stuff up every week, the hope was you watch something get blown up, we have some great guest judges, Carl Edwards is a NASCAR driver, astronauts, guys from the Mars Rover, so if you’re flipping channels the thought was, hopefully the private sector commitment to helping make the sciences cool make each other artistic innovation come into the sciences, so I think that’s the two or three pronged approach to it.
Clearly, blowing up stuff has to be a selling point. 
It’s totally fun! Absolutely fun! I don’t think you could have a show like this if it wasn’t fun. We are not a reality show where people are yelling and screaming at each other because of who dated who, right. 
But there is yelling and screaming.
Oh, I’m getting to that! And there’s nothing wrong with those shows. They’re amusing to watch. But in our case, people are yelling and screaming at one another because one person’s opinion on the best approach to solving a crazy problem is more compelling than someone else’s and they just had a beef about it. Watching that was so interesting to me, because at th end of the day, it’s fun. We’re shooting missiles into a bunker these contestants are in, and they’ve got to diffuse the missile. That’s fun. It’s awesome. It’s like paintball times 100.  You see them all work through the process and they still do yell and scream at one another.
And, of course, live together.
Great. They’re actually sequestered for however long they’re here. No cell phones, no access to th Internet, I think 10 or 11 weeks. I know it’s tough on their brains, and their brains are what they have to use every day, 12 hours a day, 7 days a week for 11 weeks has got to be insane.
There are only two girls out of the 10 contestants, though. What’s up with that? 
That’s a problem, right? And this is something we’re hoping to solve in the second season. This is a bit of a catch 22, one of the things we wanted to do was inspire young women to enter STEM fields, and at the same time the pool of young women who applied to be on the show was disproportionately low, and it’s something we’re hoping to do a better job at. There are a lot of organizations like girls who code and discovery channel partners we’ve reached out to. We were at the White House science fair yesterday talking about the show, and the hope is absolutely, I would love, if we get the luxury of getting a second season, if we have five men and five women and help to continue to inspire young women.