Kal Penn On His Respect For Young Voters, And Wanting ‘Harold And Kumar’ To Go To Space

Kal Penn has done his time in both Hollywood (House and the Harold and Kumar trilogy) and Washington, D.C. (as part of the Obama administration), which has led to plenty of jokes about him moving from White Castle to the White House, and he’s about to combine his talents for the greater good. On National Voter Registration Day, Freeform will launch Kal Penn Approves This Message, a six-part topical series that’s geared toward younger voters (the Gen Z and Millennial crowds) and the issues that matter most to them. Each episode will drop on a Tuesday and will be available the following day on Hulu in all of its unscripted, spirited, and non-partisan glory.

Penn plans to explore wide-ranging topics, from voter empowerment to healthcare, judges, education, and the environment. He’ll do so through comedic field-pieces and interviews, and he was cool enough to speak with us about how much he admires the passion of young voters and how they give him hope for the future. I also couldn’t resist challenging him to beat Tom Cruise into space after I learned about his suggestion for a fourth Harold and Kumar installment, and Penn fielded that issue with grace.

Obviously, we’ve got pandemic complications with this year’s election. Do you think that will hinder the vote or motivate people?

Well, one of the things that I’ve noticed is that I can’t really remember a time when we had this much awareness about the process of voting. The pandemic has resulted in a lot of discussion — about mail and early voting that exists in so many places, absentee ballots, and obviously voting the day-of. We can get younger people to be poll workers, since older people traditionally do it, and they may be less likely to do it because of their heightened risk of COVID. So if there was ever a silver lining, of our awareness on the different ways to vote and how, it’s now. That’s my take on our crazy world.

As a general rule during a regular year, though, why do you feel that so few people vote in the U.S.?

Well, that’s something that we’re hoping to tackle with our show. I don’t know, it is certainly something. I forget the stat, we have it in one of our documents, in an earlier episode. The U.S. is 120 out of all the countries? It’s something very surprising. I will say that one of the things that we found very promising is the uptick in the number of young voters. 2018 had some of the biggest youth-vote numbers in decades.

Yeah, they are really not sitting back and simply letting things happen.

And the reason that I think that’s so interesting is because all the data says that if you voted once, you’re more likely to vote again in the future. But it’s also that the voting block, the youth-vote as a block, is not the same humans, year-to-year. So, if you’re looking at the African-American vote, the Italian-American vote, South-Asian vote and all that, you look at that from a four-year period to a four-year period. And with the exception of expanding to new votes within that demographic, those are the same humans when you see when they’re voting or not. The thing with young voters is that they’re not young forever. You age into and out of the demographic very quickly, so you’re comparing totally different sets of people. So, it’s a more open question than otherwise, and one that, hopefully, with all the awareness of the election this time, I hope people turn out.

I’m close to a few college students, who are very concerned with how things are going. And while every generation tends to think that they’ve got the biggest mess to clean up, it’s fair to say that Gen Z can claim that title. Do you have any advice for them on how to stay positive?

Well, I think that it seems like they’re doing a great job without our advice to begin with.

[Laughs] Fair enough.

They’re being so involved and so engaged and being so innovative in so many of the things that they are doing and saying. And they’re forcing everyone to take notice. If there’s anything, I would just say that one of the things I understand their frustration on is the slow speed at which things happen. We now live in a world where you can get a news story 30 seconds after it happens, and there are literally apps that will tell you what happened around the corner, or Twitter, which is somewhat of an echo chamber. That’s not how our democracy works because we have three branches of government that are designed to move very slowly on purpose, and that can be incredibly frustrating. The positive side to that, obviously, is that we’re not a dictatorship, so we have three branches of government that move very slowly. But that’s something I’ve talked about with younger folks who are concerned, not just with the slow pace of things like that but with the lack of awareness around technology, like with the Zuckerberg hearings in Congress. It’s embarrassing how many people just don’t know how the internet works and what company runs what. So, I think that’s something that they can be very helpful with because they’re the ones who are going to be entering public policy and the workforce and running for office themselves, and that gives me a lot of hope.

You’re going to be addressing education in one episode. Do you plan to talk about student debt? That’s on just about every age group’s mind.

We don’t discuss student debt that explicitly, and I’ll tell you why. When we were putting that episode together, we looked at how a lot of shows have already done really fantastic episodes on student debt. And we couldn’t really find anybody who had done an episode on college and trade school in a specific context. And that context was, well, it’s always bothered me that there’s a fabricated beef between college and trade school advocates. It’s like, “Oh, you only get to go to university if you’re an elitist. And this person only went to trade school because they couldn’t go to college.” Could we just stop with all that, please? Who does that argument serve, this fabricated argument?

It’s super strange that people dwell on this.

Like this reminds me of Cardi B versus Nicki Minaj. Is this even a beef? Can’t I like both of them? Why are you saying that I’m not allowed to like both of them. So that got us thinking about “what is the actual issue here?” One is automation, and whether when you go to trade school or college, the risk of jobs and careers being automated is serious. Other countries like China and Brazil are investigating these things and investing in potential solutions. Are we? And if we’re not, shouldn’t we be focusing on that instead of creating this fake beef between each other about who went to college and who went to trade school, and what does that mean? So our episode looks at that and how it impacts the global economy and especially in our own economy when people who are 18 turn 40, and when they have kids, what happens to their jobs? That’s how we look at education, and it’s a pretty good example of our non-partisan take on these types of issues.

Do you still have hopes for a 4th Harold and Kumar movie in your back pocket?

Helllll yes!

Where would you like to see the guys go next?

Oh man, look, all my tattoos are astronomy-related, so I kinda like the idea of going to the space station.

You should try to beat Tom Cruise and Vin Diesel to space. I want to see it happen.

Oh no, Tom Cruise will beat us! It’s a little tricky with scheduling because they guys who created the franchise are created the Cobra Kai show, and John Cho is in New Zealand to do a movie, and I’m about to start Clarice, the Silence Of The Lambs remake, so I am hoping soon. We keep constantly talking about it, but we just have to find the right time.

Freeform’s ‘Kal Penn Approves This Message’ will premiere on Tuesday, September 22, at 10:30pm EST.