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Kal Penn On New Show Meant To Empower Young Voters

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We've been focusing this election year on younger voters. And by that, we mean voters aged 18 to 24. And we've been asking what's on their minds, whether as a group they're motivated to come out to vote this year and whether they could even decide the presidential election. That is also the focus of actor Kal Penn's new TV show. It's called "Kal Penn Approves This Message." It's now available on Freeform and Hulu, and it's all about promoting civic engagement among younger Americans. And host Kal Penn joins us now from Toronto, where he's working on the series among other projects. Kal Penn, thanks so much for joining us.

KAL PENN: Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.

MICHEL MARTIN: So I'm thinking people will remember you from your acting work in "Harold & Kumar" or "House." But you also worked during the Obama administration as associate director of the White House Office of Public Engagement. So there are lots of directions you could have gone in, I mean, in terms of the kinds of groups you wanted to engage with. What sparked this idea for this series? Why did you want to focus on younger voters?

PENN: (Laughter) I think you set it up well with that question, actually. So, you know, I like shows like "The Daily Show," and I like stuff like "CBS Sunday Morning." And I like them for different reasons. And my sensibility is much more "CBS Sunday Morning" in terms of what if we had a show that was funny, it was comedy-forward, you know? You have a monologue at the beginning. You do field pieces like Samantha Bee and "The Daily Show" do.

But instead of the inherent cynicism that I think lies in a lot of shows in the late night space - for good reason, by the way - what if we flipped the script a little bit? And made that a little more "CBS Sunday Morning," right? So you have - you're laughing, but you're not reacting to the 24-hour news cycle. And, instead, you're doing a deep dive on a particular micro issue.

MICHEL MARTIN: What's also kind of funny, though - there's this funny bit at the beginning with Marsai Martin from "Black-ish" fame where she's schools you on the fact that you're not so young yourself anymore. So I'm just going to play a little bit of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "KAL PENN APPROVES THIS MESSAGE")

PENN: Hey. So I have this new show right now where I'm trying to talk about issues but not in a boring way, sort of like in a young, cool conversational way. So, like, basically, this is an advice call. Any advice for me?

MARSAI MARTIN: You need to be younger.

PENN: OK. So just act younger.

MARSAI MARTIN: No, like, be younger, physically, like, younger.

PENN: OK. Sure. What's your second-best advice?

MARSAI MARTIN: I don't know. Make an issue-based show about geopolitics in a positive space that uses your personal experience combined with less polarizing messaging that motivates young viewers to get engaged in the political process and gives them actionable advice on things they can do to create change in their community?

PENN: (Laughter).

MICHEL MARTIN: So - but what about that - I mean, I guess what - I still want to kind of hone in on younger voters. Like, I know why we...

PENN: Yeah.

MICHEL MARTIN: We picked younger voters in part because they're so interesting and because, you know, other people - but people focus on lots of different groups in an election, you know? Microtargeting is kind of the order of the day.

PENN: Right.

MICHEL MARTIN: And I just wondered why you decided to focus on younger voters.

PENN: You know, for us, it was - part of it was - I wanted to make an uplifting nonpartisan show. And I think that one of the ways that you do that is by talking about particular issues. Younger voters are unaffiliated. They have incredible energy right now. If you look at everything that's happening over the last couple of years, young people are - you know, it's almost as if they're just not waiting for older people or people in elected office to do something about it.

We wanted to make sure that I never want to be in a situation where I am debating fact versus opinion, right? That's a great model for a lot of cable news shows. It creates vitriolic and sometimes watchable content if that's your brand. But that's not really what I do. So for us, we wanted to go the opposite route, you know? We have an episode on climate change, for example, in our approach, not particularly interested in conversations with people who reject science, you know? We're starting from a place where this is real. We're going to go with what the majority of scientists say.

And so our approach to the climate change episode is talking to, yes, young progressives who you traditionally think of as being involved in the space. But we're also talking to young evangelical Christians for whom, you know, they may disagree with those young progressives on 99% of other issues. But they're both coming together at the table to find solutions to climate change. And, sometimes, that's happening at a local level. Sometimes, it's happening when they're lobbying members in D.C.

But we rarely talk about that, right? And one of the few places you can talk about it is in the youth vote space because these are young people who have found ways to work together. And we just thought it would be a great opportunity to highlight that, too.

MICHEL MARTIN: Where are you hoping that your show will make a difference? I'm just wondering - what do you think is missing in the way we talk about these issues now? Because a lot of these issues that you - and it's interesting 'cause you started working on this, obviously, well before the current moment. But now, you know, we're in the middle of a global health crisis. We've got these wildfires in the West. We've got, you know, just - it's just a whole array of things that are relevant to, you know, what you're dealing with. So I guess what I'm saying is a lot of these issues already in the headlines. But what do you hope your particular contribution to this will be to the way we talk about these issues?

PENN: I mean, I guess I - my hope with this show is that we encourage people to participate more, No 1. I think the other part of it is, you know, younger audiences are so good at coming up with creative solutions to things and we can't expect that things will be changed if we only continue yelling at each other. So we wanted to provide with our show an opportunity for people to come together and focus on the complex nature of specific issues, you know?

I mentioned climate change and the bipartisan approach that a lot of young people are taking about this. You have other issues like health care, right? Health care is intrinsically now tied into the Supreme Court with the ACA ruling that's coming up. But young people overwhelmingly do believe that government should have some role in offering things like health care and education if we're the richest, most powerful country in the world.

So we're not looking at it from what do you believe or what don't you believe. We're sort of setting the stage that if you agree that the government should have a role, then here's something to consider. If you don't agree, if you think the government should be totally hands-off and the market takes care of everything, then here's something you should consider, also.

So I think by outlining it, by inviting a diverse array of guests, we're hoping to start conversations that kind of return us back to the basics of, hey, what are the solutions that we can come up with together. Just think about that in your own community. Talk about it in your own community. The yelling obviously feels good. We all do the tweet stuff. But what's the step beyond that that's actually going to make a difference?

MICHEL MARTIN: That's actor Kal Penn. His new show is called "Kal Penn Approves This Message." The first episode is out now on Freeform and Hulu. Kal Penn, thanks so much for talking with us.

PENN: Thanks for having me. Appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.