This fall TV season, NBC has put one of New York City’s quieter corners in the spotlight. Kal Penn’s new sitcom, Sunnyside, which he co-created, takes its name from the Queens neighborhood in which it’s set. It follows disgraced former city council member Garrett Modi (Penn) as he tries to help a group of immigrants become American citizens. The subject matter is an ideal fit for Penn, whose experience includes starring roles in the Harold & Kumar films and a stint as associate director in the White House Office of Public Engagement under President Obama. He recently spoke with nycgo.com about the series and the place that helped inspire it.
How much of Sunnyside, the neighborhood, has made its way into the show?
Kal Penn: A couple of our writers have lived there in the past. One of our cast members is from Queens. We’ve spent quite a bit of time developing the show and falling in love with Sunnyside in real life. And we’ve come out to shoot exterior scenes: stuff coming off the subway, walking around the neighborhood and things like that. I love that it’s a super-diverse, vibrant part of Queens that feels like a small town.
What did you eat in Sunnyside that you loved?
KP: There are a couple of kebab shops that are really good. I’m blanking on names right now, and I think they sort of compete with each other. But they were really good. And then there was Alpha Donuts, right there on the main stretch. After a spicy meal, the doughnut spot was pretty great. And, yes, I do know that there’s a White Castle there.
You made the first White Castle reference!
KP: [Laughs] I figured you were gonna bring it up at some point.
In the run-up to the premiere of Sunnyside, you got to throw out the first pitch at a Mets game. How did you prepare?
KP: I used to go to the old Shea Stadium as a kid with Cub Scouts. You go as a kid and watch someone throw out the first pitch and think, Oh, that’s awesome—who gets to do that? That must be amazing. They called and asked, “Do you want to throw out the first pitch?” I was like, “That would be incredible.” Then I realized that, as a kid who got picked last in gym class, it was going to be a little daunting. So I very proudly hired a pitching coach and practiced. It was a blast, man. I went with some family and friends and made it over the plate. It was a little high, a little outside, but that’s OK.
You did great. You’re not going to end up on the highlight reel with 50 Cent.
KP: It’s funny—all the guys on the Sunnyside crew were giving me a hard time. They were like, “Look, man, the benefit of screwing it up is you end up on SportsCenter. Nobody’s going to put you on SportsCenter if you make it across the plate. If you end up on SportsCenter, that’s free publicity for Sunnyside.” I was like, “You’re making a very strong case, but I still need to get it across the plate.”
The character Hakim is a surgeon turned taxi driver. Have you had memorable interactions with taxi drivers over the years that may have partly informed that character?
KP: You talk to cab drivers, immigrants or born in the states, and you learn a ton. I’m sort of a big nerd, so I remember a lot of conversations about NPR [laughs]. A lot of cab drivers listen to NPR. They’ll be up on the news way more than I know what’s going on. But Hakim was also based on—Matt Murray, our co-creator, met a guy from Italy who I believe had been a surgeon, just like Hakim, but he was a car salesman in America.
You’ve said you wanted to make a comedy because it brings people together. Do you have any memories of that happening here in NYC?
KP: Yes, definitely. You’re opening it right up to give a plug—half of our cast members are stand-up comics, so they do shows pretty often throughout the City. I just had a chance to see Joel Kim Booster in Chelsea at Gotham Comedy Club. He and Moses Storm are playing New York City the first week of November.
And I’ve been to a lot of shows at the UCB. They consistently have fun sketch comedy that truly brings people together. They have theme nights and a lot of improv that’s based on audience participation.
Before your character finds a higher calling, he gives a rather shameless tour of New York City. What are your experiences with tours in NYC?
KP: I luckily have not had any shady tours of New York City.
You’ve avoided the Alec Baldwin situation?
KP: [Laughs] Exactly. I read about that, and I was like, Oh, come on. I’ve done the self-guided thing where you just pick a neighborhood and explore it. There are a bunch of apps now that tell you random, weird historical facts about different places in the City. I love taking the subway, even with all of its challenges. I do remember as a little kid, whenever we had people visit, they always used to love taking the Circle Line tour. I have vivid memories of accompanying aunts and uncles on that thing.
Sunnyside streams weekly on the NBC app and Hulu.