The Insider

Kal Penn

Kalpen Modi—better-known as the TV and film actor Kal Penn—is on campus this semester to teach the class, “Asian Americans in the Media.” Modi, pictured here in Zellerbach Theatre, is using critical readings, trade publications, several iconic films and personal stories in his class. Photo credit: Candace diCarlo

When Kalpen Modi was a freshman at UCLA, he took a class with a true insider—an advisor to then-President Clinton.

“He would leave from California and fly to D.C. once a week for meetings he would have at the White House,” says Modi. “It was a 500-person lecture and no matter what our political leanings were ... we were all really excited every day because we knew that the professor was working full-time outside of the classroom in the field.”

Modi’s students likely feel the same way.

Modi—an actor who performs under the name Kal Penn, and whose credits include the television series “House” and “24” and films “The Namesake” and “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle”—is teaching a spring semester class here at Penn titled, “Asian Americans in the Media.” Run through the Asian American Studies Program, Modi’s students get a heavy dose of theory, with critical readings and journal articles, balanced by selections from the trade publications Daily Variety and The Hollywood Reporter. They also screen numerous films, including “The Namesake,” “Harold and Kumar,” “Flower Drum Song,” and “The Wedding Banquet.” Guest speakers include actress and comedian Margaret Cho and director-screenwriter-Wharton grad Jon Hurwitz.

“I think so many of the great film classes—especially theory ones—are so insightful, but don’t take into account some of the production-based focal points of what it’s like to make a film, set foot in a film studio, have meetings with executives and producers,” says Modi. “And the flip side—some of the production-based classes don’t take into account any of the theory or any of the effects, beyond the marketplace, of what certain images mean to certain folks. So what I wanted to make sure students had was a balance between the two. I’m obviously more qualified to discuss the latter—what it’s like behind closed doors, what these meetings are like.”

The possibility of having a class taught by someone with a distinct insider perspective appealed to Grace Kao, associate professor of sociology and director of the Asian American Studies Program.

“It’s not as if any professor can go into a classroom and talk about this entire industry,” says Kao. “As social scientists, we talk about macro patterns in the U.S. ... but we talk about it in a general, sometimes more abstract form. It’s so wonderful to have someone like Kal who can talk about it from his own experiences but also engages the students.”

The idea for this decidedly unconventional class goes back to October of 2006, when Modi was the keynote speaker at Asian Pacific American Heritage Week. A couple of weeks after the event, Modi reached out to Kao, and the two then hit upon the idea for the class. Modi, though primarily an actor on the big and small screens, is no stranger to lecturing to students. For the past two years, he’s traveled to colleges and universities nationwide to speak on topics ranging from media conglomeration and Asian American issues to race and gender. He’s also pursuing a graduate certificate at Stanford in international security that he hopes to complete next year.

While it’s clear the class is not devoted solely to anecdotes from a Hollywood insider, Modi hopes that his experiences can complement some of the coursework. Industry experiences that he doesn’t give a second thought can cause his class of 120 to gasp in shock. “You realize, ‘Well, that may be normal to insiders, but that really is something that folks don’t know about,’” says Modi. “It’s not an understanding that you’ll get just by reading theorists or just by reading about the business of filmmaking, but I think these are the stories that kind of inform the relationship between the two.”

In designing the class, Modi and Kao were careful to ensure that his famous face wouldn’t be a distraction for the students.

Class participants are required to check in at 8:45 a.m. for the 9 a.m. class and must be prepared for anywhere between 1 and 10 pop quizzes throughout the semester. Students also take a midterm and write a 15-page research paper. “These are all things designed, obviously, so the students taking it are able to learn,” says Modi, who adds that some students outside his class have had trouble distinguishing him from some of the hard-partying characters he’s played on screen. “I feel bad that folks can’t separate fact from fiction sometimes. To an extent, it’s certainly understandable, but you would expect at a school like this, folks can make the distinction. ... Luckily, I would say, all of the students in the class are great and the questions asked are insightful and it shows a real mastery of the readings.”

Modi, who is balancing his teaching schedule with a TV show and the upcoming promotion for “Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay,” says scripts filled with stereotypical characters still cross his desk—but now, so do other, less limiting roles.

“TV has evolved. Shows like ‘Gray’s Anatomy’ and ‘Lost’ and ‘30 Rock’ have pretty diverse casts. It’s no longer the very homogeneous cast of ‘Friends’ where they live in New York City and for some reason they refuse to depict someone who’s not rich and white. Hopefully that’s being phased out,” he says. “Folks are just bored of those stories. The more interesting stories are the ones that allow audiences to experience what really happens in America.”

Originally published Feb. 21, 2008

Originally published on February 21, 2008