Kal Penn and Jamaal Bowman Discuss Politics and Entertainment

by Gillian Puma, Senior Writer

While celebrities have made political statements through award shows and music, there isn’t as much discussion about the celebrities who do work in politics and show their political beliefs through their artwork. The Government and Politics Club held an event on Feb. 12th featuring actor and political figure, Kal Penn. Penn presented an episode of his NBC comedy Sunnyside, which centers around a fictional former New York Councilman (Penn) helping immigrants of various backgrounds. Presenting beside him was local congressman Jamaal Bowman, whom Penn will be endorsing in the upcoming 2020 election season.

Penn is recognizable for his work in a variety of films and television shows such as the Harold and Kumar series, “Designated Survivor,” “How I Met Your Mother,” and “House” to name a few. However outside of his role as Seth Wright in “Designated Survivor,” Penn is also a political figure in real life as well. Penn has had a variety of positions in the Obama Administration during Obama’s presidency. During this time, the actor balanced his acting career and political duties.

Screen Shot 2020-02-19 at 12.46.23 PM
Actor Kal Penn and Congressman Jamaal Bowman discuss the importance of representation in
media and modern politics.

Jamaal Bowman is a middle school principal, teacher, and public school advocate for 20 years. He is currently running for the Democratic nomination for congress in New York’s 16th Congressional district. This includes the areas of Riverdale and Westchester County. Bowman’s campaign expresses interest in improving education as well as creating a New Deal for education and housing in underprivileged areas of New York.

“We were able to get them to visit the school because of Luke Hayes and Dr. Groarke,” said President of the Government and Politics club, Giullanna Delucca. Hayes is the brother of MSNBC reporter Chris Hayes, who visited Manhattan College’s campus for a lecture series held in Nov. 2017. Groarke was also credited for making that lecture series possible as well.

“Thanks everybody. It’s nice to be here,” Penn said as he introduced himself. When Penn introduced his comedy, he said “The undercurrent behind all of it is a group of immigrants who are studying for the citizenship process.”

When describing his character in the show, Penn said he was “The dumbest one of them all, I play an American born disgraced former city council member who is kicked out of office for being drunk and trying to bribe a cop.”

The episode presented showed how Penn’s character helps a student overcome his insecurities of being on DACA, and how he should be open about it to his fraternity brothers. A side plot to the same episode showed a Dominican woman in the class struggling to relax for one day because she’s always working. The episode presented a serious issue in a satirical manner, while not relying on racial stereotypes that are commonly seen in comedies.

Following the presentation of the episode was a question-and-answer from the audience. Before the questions began, Penn credited the people who helped make the sitcom possible.

“Now that you’ve seen it, this is a show I co-created with Matt Murray. Matt worked on The Good Place for a while and Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Mike Schur who created The Good Place is one of our executive producers so we have a really funny group of people,” he said. He also said that they had the most diverse writing crew and cast which is something they took pride in.

Bowman gave his input on the episode as well, saying “I thought it was hilarious. I noticed the diversity and I think it’s accessible to people who may not think of immigration or immigration issues in this context.”

“All of the characters are loosely based on people that Matt and I knew,” Penn said. “The undocumented kid who this story was about is loosely based on a guy I knew living in Detroit. When I worked on the third Harold and Kumar movie that was shot in Detroit, there was a kid who I befriended who didn’t know he was undocumented until he went to go get his driver’s license at 16.”

While the episode humorously showed how the young boy was struggling to admit he was on DACA, the person Penn based this character on didn’t have the same acceptance that was shown in the comedy.

“He went home and told his parents, where they admitted they overstayed a Visa. He started living in fear and shortly after I met him, he and his mom were taken away by I.C.E custody and they were taken away for a long time,” he said. The character on DACA was also white, to which Penn said he portrayed him as a white man from Moldova because the media doesn’t show how white people are affected by I.C.E as well.

An audience member then turned the conversation onto Bowman, asking why he wanted to run for congress.

Bowman said “I was tired of children being harmed by a system that didn’t center their realities on a consistent basis.”

Bowman explained his experience as a principal and teacher, saying the hardships some of the students have struggled with due to their communities being neglected. “The Bronx is the epicenter of urban decay in America in many ways. So for me, I got to the point where I said you know what? We’ve done a lot of good work for education. We’ve done a lot of good work in the community,” he said.

He then shared how he opened his own public school in the Bronx with a medical center attachment to it. Bowman also shared his concerns for wealth being the main concern for the goal of politics.

“As I look at our politics from afar, we continue to center wealth as the end goal. We continue to center accomplishment in material items as the end goal. We continue to raise the budget of the military. We continue to vote in favor of war,” he said. “For me, it’s all about how do we center humanity, equality, and justice for all and how do we shift that narrative.”

A member of the audience turned the conversation back to Penn, saying “What made you and your co-creator make this idea for the show?”

Penn replied, “About 5 years ago, I was on a very short lived comedy and when that ended my producing partner and manager asked what my dream job was in television. I said my dream job would be to create a television show.” Penn also shared his love for comedy. “I love the sentiment of shows that are aspirational. For example, as much as I loved watching Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show, it makes you feel bad before you go to bed and turn off the T.V because it makes fun of everything that’s wrong. Of course that’s needed and he was a genius at that, but I gravitate towards bringing people together,” he said. Thus, the idea of creating a sitcom about a serious issue was created.

Another audience member asked Penn, “How do you balance both paths for passions in your life?”

Penn replied, “I read Obama’s books leading up to 2007. I had the chance to go to an event of his in L.A. I was very impressed by this event there was no press there and the conversation with him seemed very authentic.” Penn signed up to volunteer in Iowa for the Iowa caucuses shortly after attending the event. He agreed to stay for 3 days and stayed for 2 and a half months. During those months, Penn heard other people’s stories and how they were struggling to make a living.

“I was one of thousands of people who volunteered for him. As his campaign continued to build and grow and he won, there was an opportunity to serve,” he continued. “I said alright what’s my answer for ‘No I won’t work at the White House’ what I have another movie to make? That can wait.” He took a break from acting for 2 and a half years during his time in the White House.

The discussion concluded with an audience member asking how Penn and and got in contact with the school and Bowman. “I’m a fan of justice Democrats and I wanted to get more involved. There were a number of nonprofits and advocates that reached out to us when Sunnyside was being made. We did 3 screenings with the Council of Foreign Relations,” he said. Someone told Penn about Manhattan College hosting a local politics community event, in which Penn eagerly agreed to get involved.

When the lecture concluded, students and faculty were given permission to take pictures with Penn and Bowman.

I thought it was very interesting overall,” said Jaime Avilla, a senior studying communications with a minor in political science. “It’s very different to have someone that is famous, has worked on so many different comedies and other projects teaming up with someone small who’s trying to get elected.”