Sunnyside comes to NBC with a timely premise: Premiering at a time when knob-headed White House ghoul Stephen Miller is attempting to roll back the number of refugees admitted to the United States, just weeks after Trump immigration czar Ken Cuccinelli did some unsolicited punch-up on “The New Colossus,” here’s a sitcom about a tired, poor, huddled mass yearning to breathe free. But the bones of Sunnyside are timeless: It’s the latest, Michael Schur-produced rendition of a treasured sitcom standard, in which a down-on-his-luck protagonist reluctantly falls in with a ragtag ensemble that just might wind up teaching him as much he teaches them. In this case, that protagonist is Kal Penn as Garrett Modi, a former political hot shot who burned out during his time on the New York City Council; at his lowest ebb, he winds up being adopted as the tutor of a group studying for their U.S. citizenship test, whose ranks include Joel Kim Booster, Moses Storm, Diana-Maria Riva, Samba Schutte, and Poppy Liu. Along with fellow Sunnyside creator Matt Murray, Penn sat down with The A.V. Club at this summer’s Television Critics Association press tour, to discuss their show, their country, and their search for “the funniest people possible to play the people we had written, period.”
AVC: What does the idea of America represent to the characters of Sunnyside?
Kal Penn: I think hope and freedom and limitless possibility—the universal definition that we all think of. That’s not new, that goes back to the founding of America. But five years ago, when I was thinking of this concept—it seems almost flippant to say, “Oh, I love comedy and I love America”—but wanting to make a patriotic comedy was important because it’s that feel-good thing that you feel when you would watch Head Of The Class or Fresh Prince. [Those shows weren’t] about being American—but that idea that all things are possible, that aspirational theme is what we’re bringing to the show.
Matt Murray: We obviously identify with Kal’s character on the show, as someone who never really sat and thought about how lucky you are just to be born here. So when you actually see the amount of work and torture that people have to go through just to get through this process that’s incredibly byzantine and almost intentionally difficult, it’s like, “Oh, they must really love it if they have to go through all that just to get this thing that I was given.”
AVC: How do you think the last five years have shifted that idea? What is it like making a comedy about patriotism at a time when a lot of people aren’t feeling particularly patriotic, and maybe even feel like some of the ideals that are being expressed by the show are being exploited by people in power?
KP: I thought about that before [Matt and I] had the chance to sit down. I thought, “Do I want to change my pitch at all?” Because my pitch to myself was “I love making people laugh, I love America—love what it means, love that it’s a unifying, hopeful place.” And I thought, “No. The premise of the show is never meant to be a reaction to anything,” whether it was a reaction to the five years preceding the five years that I had been sitting with the idea or the five years that came after. To me, a strong show comes from strong characters, and the idea of America, or the idea of something hopeful doesn’t change with our short-term politics.
MM: It’s impossible to ignore what’s happening, but at the same time people who are going through this process, that goal looks the same. The politics will change here and there, but the goal’s always the same. That’s how we center ourselves.
AVC: Kal, how does your character, Garrett, see himself?
KP: He’s reassessing that very quickly, the first few episodes especially. He did see himself as untouchable, and thought that he was helping people, although he wasn’t doing anything. He got elected to New York City Council as this rock star, right out of school. I think, for the first year, he had the idea that he would do more work, but realized that the bureaucracy was too difficult—and also there were too many shiny things that were being offered, like Knicks tickets and Madonna’s birthday party. Things that were way too cool for him to pass up until that just became his life. And making persuasive speeches and glad-handing and things that he clearly had a skill for, but were hollow inside, because there was never any follow-up. He was so consumed by that world, until he thought, “Yeah, I can bribe a cop with a million dollars while I’m wasted and puking on his car on the BQE. And that’ll be fine.” And that was his awakening, when he got kicked out of city council. He’s now rediscovering what that means. He has no skill set—that he knows he has—except for being able to help people talk.
AVC: Will there be more flashbacks to Garrett’s time at the top, or are you going to keep that more theoretical and something that informs the character?
MM: They would have to be practical. We’re not doing Scrubs-style flashbacks. There might be footage or something. But no: It’ll be references and people from his past will come back.
AVC: Do you see Garrett running for office again somewhere down the line?
MM: That is built in. I think he’s a character who’s learning to actually help people and do the hard work of making slow, incremental change. At some point, yes, maybe he will get the opportunity to get back in there, and he’ll have to decide, “Will I be tempted to go back to my old ways? Or is this an opportunity to actually do it right this time?”
KP: I remember one of the early conversations that we had about whether that happens, or the route that it takes, that I’m really fascinated by in real life: There’s no shortage of politicians on either side of the aisle who are very good at talking and don’t actually do anything. Like, “Wow, I’m amazed that you didn’t answer that question but still managed to talk for three and a half minutes.” Is Garrett more impactful as an elected official? Or is he more impactful not as an elected official—working at a non-profit, working with a group of people. I think it’s a question a lot of people ask themselves in real life, and often make the wrong choice when they decide whether or not to run for office. I’m always intrigued by that, so I think there will always be a flavor of that when he makes that decision ultimately.
AVC: What were you looking for in the cast? Allison Jones was your casting director, as she has been for a lot of Michael Schur-related projects. How did she figure into the conversation and help you connect with the right people?
MM: She’s a legend. There’s a reason she is the best, and when she chose to do this project, it was the greatest honor.
KP: We couldn’t believe it. We were texting each other like crazy like, “Dude, I think we got Allison Jones.” “No we didn’t.” “Really, she’s willing to do it?” “Is she doing it herself, or does she have a big company?” “No, dude, she’s doing it herself.”
MM: She does the legwork, man. It’s incredible. That process was incredibly fun and easy. We saw so many people who were so good, and then each one of these actors, there’s just something that as soon as they started talking, it was like, “Yep. It’s a no-brainer.” They were all our first choices.
AVC: Did what you were looking for change at all based on who auditioned?
KP: We were looking for the funniest people possible to play the people we had written, period. Obviously, there’s some specificity to the way they were written in earlier drafts. We were very open—for example, Joel [Kim Booster] and Poppy [Liu], the idea amalgamated a little bit when we had folks from two different ethnicities who happened to be playing Asian immigrants. This idea that “everybody looks the same” is messed up, and Hollywood has a history of doing that, and we obviously don’t want to do that. And we also want to ground our characters. Luckily we’re making a super-bizzaro world, in terms of how [Booster’s and Liu’s characters, Jun Ho and Mei Lin] got to America, and their crazy-rich parents: The dad lives in international waters. We don’t quite know what his ethnicity is yet. They probably have different moms. They may have been engineered in lab? We don’t know for sure. Things like that gave us a lot more openness and opportunity to bring incredibly talented actors and comedians to the table.
The people reading for Jun Ho, a lot of folks walked in with very cool jackets and slim jeans—sort of the frat-boy version of this character. And then Joel walks in with capri pants and a very tight shirt, and crushes this character in ways that we hadn’t imagined.
MM: It wasn’t written that way, certainly.
KP: And he walked out of the room, and I think Allison Jones was like, “If I may? You don’t let somebody like that walk away.” The way it was scripted, great—I love the pilot. But then you look at how [each member of the cast] brought something to the table.
MM: Same with Samba [Schutte], too. That part was originally written as, like, a Somali guy, but Samba’s from Ethiopia, so you go back and tweak it to that actor. We didn’t want anybody playing anything that they’re not. We didn’t want anyone to have an accent that’s not their natural accent. We want to make those things as real and true as we can.
KP: The fact that five of the seven of them are stand-up comics speaks volumes about their quick thinking and how they ground their improv.
AVC: The show’s dealing with a lot of serious, grounded stuff, but it also has some wacky angles to it: The stuff with Jun Ho and Mei Lin’s dad, but also all of the jobs that Diana-Maria Riva’s character holds down. How are you balancing that? How do the different sides of the show influence one another?
MM: I come from a world of heightened reality: Parks And Recreation, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Community, The Good Place. Jason Mendoza in The Good Place has an insane backstory in Jacksonville. Things like that always make me laugh. So yeah: Their dad is a weird, shadowy billionaire—you can have a lot of fun with that. The jobs thing: It’s a tool we have in our back pocket. It’s not going to be used as frequently as it was in the pilot. But she can always go like, “Oh, I used to work there.” [Riva’s character, Griselda] has a good second episode. We learn a little bit more about her personal interests away from her jobs.