LOS ANGELES, Sept. 26 (UPI) -- Kal Penn co-created the new NBC comedy Sunnyside, in which he plays a disgraced former city councilman who tutors a group of immigrants for their citizenship test. But he says the topic of immigration does not make the show, which premieres Thursday, political.
"The idea of this was 5 years old, and really the topic of immigration goes back to our country's founding, even before our country's founding," Penn told reporters of the Television Critics Association in August. "Obviously, it is topical, but the show's inception and its creation and how it has come together has never been a reaction to anything."
In 2018, Penn connected with executive producers Mike Schur and Matt Murray to hone the premise.
"The two things I love are I love making people laugh and I love America," Penn said. "I kind of tossed around different iterations of it, about how [I would] be teaching a citizenship class or a civics class. Then I had the chance to sit down with Mike and Matt about a year and a half ago, and it kind of gelled into the form that you are seeing now."
Penn plays Garrett Modi, who won the New York City Council seat from Sunnyside, Queens, right out of college. His administration ended in disgrace with a public drunkenness incident caught on video. Now tutoring is the only job he can get. Immigration may be in the news, but Penn just sees a group of funny characters.
"We just want to make everybody laugh," Penn said. "Comedy can be a vehicle for bringing people together, and I think that's so special. It's what I think a lot of us hold dear about making audiences laugh. Of course, we all have our own beliefs as do our audience, but I think if we do it right, we'll be a show that everybody can enjoy."
Those funny characters include wealthy socialites Jun Ho (Joel Kim Booster) and Mei Lin (Poppy Liu), working mom Griselda (Diana Maria Rivera), Brady (Moses Storm) -- who just found out he wasn't born in the United States -- and Hakim (Samba Schutte) whose story nobody really knows.
Critics and audiences might read more politically into Sunnyside because Penn has had a career in politics. He took a sabbatical from acting to serve as associate director in the White House's Office of Public Engagement for two years beginning in 2009. However, he says he's only wearing his comedy hat on Sunnyside.
"I enjoyed that two-year sabbatical from acting, and I'm very honored to have done it," Penn said. "It didn't really have an impact on the show at all. I kind of keep those things separate. I loved D.C., but my first love is always acting and comedy."
Even if Sunnyside is not trying to influence immigration policy, the writers still have to get the process right. Penn said the realities of the long immigration procedure give Sunnyside many seasons' worth of stories.
"We certainly looked into how long does this process take," Penn said. "It can take a really long time. There are hurdles to jump through. There are tests. There's a lot of bureaucracy that makes our experience at the DMV seem innocuous, so I think there's a lot of flavor there based on the reality."
Not every episode of Sunnyside will be about the citizenship test. Penn said the second episode centers on comic misunderstandings between the characters.
"The second episode is about Hakim, Samba's character and Diana and I thinking that he's a hit man," Penn said. "So we do go off the rails purposely in a lot of ways that are just way more universal than where the characters came from."
Sunnyside boasts a diverse cast, increasing representation for many groups on television. Penn and Kiran Deol, who plays Garrett's sister, are Indian. Booster is Korean. Liu is Chinese-American, according to her official bio. Rivera is Latinx and Schutte discussed his Ethiopian background with the TCA. But Penn was only concerned with the one commonality.
"Our rule No. 1 was our characters needed to be funny and insightful," Penn said.
Liu proved she met Penn's criteria in her audition.
"Poppy brought out this makeup and was applying makeup through the entire audition," Penn said. "It was the weirdest, most hilarious bizarre thing. You don't really care where the character comes from, what her backstory is. You are morbidly fascinated with this woman putting on makeup through a very high-stakes scene."
Sunnyside is a comedy first, but it might also inform audiences how they can influence local politics. Garrett missed his chance to use his position to improve his community. Now he's trying again as a citizen.
"Politics is always local, right?" Penn said. "The nice thing about those things is you can go to a city council meeting and it's a lot more accessible. You can go to make an appointment with somebody. A lot of the letters that people write, no matter what the issue is, [with] the more signatures they have, the more powerful they are."
Sunnyside premieres at 9:30 p.m. EDT Thursday on NBC.