From White Castle
to Ivory Tower


When students returned from winter break in January, they were joined by a face familiar to many of them as one of the two most famous actors ever to spend an entire movie looking for a fast-food burger.  But Kalpen Modi hadn’t come to Penn to promote the sequel to Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle.  He’d come to teach.   

Fresh from his critically acclaimed role in The Namesake, and shuttling back and forth from the set of Fox’s hour-long drama House, Modi—whose screen name is Kal Penn—spent the spring semester as an adjunct lecturer in Asian-American studies and cinema studies at the University.  His class, “Asian Americans in the Media,” taps sources ranging from sociology journals to Hollywood’s Daily Variety to comedienne Margaret Cho, and drew about 120 undergraduates to start their Mondays with a 9 a.m. lecture.  Modi spoke with the Gazette about what brought him to Penn, and what he wants his students to take away from his class.  Here is an edited version of that conversation.

You find actors that make the move from comedy to drama, but you don’t find many that make the move from comedy to the university.  What motivated you to do this?

I majored in sociology and theater and film at UCLA. And one of my frustrations was that I loved production classes, and loved the theory classes, but there was never an overlap between the two.  You’d read these incredible theorists who were obviously intelligent and insightful, but I always got the feeling that they probably had never set foot in a film studio before, because they lacked the ability to take things beyond critical analysis and acknowledge that there were other issues at play. And then on the flip side, a lot of the production classes completely ignored any of the media theory or issues with imagery or psychology that go into people watching television. So I started researching on my own, as I was working, the bridges between those two, and trying to fill that gap.  Obviously that’s something you can only do in the field—not by taking classes—and I wanted to segue from that into teaching.


What attracted you to Penn?

The big deciding factor was the resources that you have here through the Asian-American Studies program …  All the professors at this point are rather interdisciplinary. They teach in other areas and also teach Asian-American studies. And then obviously the caliber of the students was something I was looking at too—what’s a good place to make sure that folks are thinking critically?  There’s not a huge production focus at Penn. There is a lot of theory. So it just seemed like a good fit.


What are you trying to accomplish with the students in your class?

I’m hoping that they learn how to deconstruct certain images and realize that pretty much everything you see on film or TV or the Internet—whatever sort of medium you’re talking about—that these images overwhelmingly have historical relevance. Whether they’re overt or covert is not really the issue.  The issue is recognizing the historical relevance or significance, probing issues of hegemony, and how folks are represented—and mostly, how that’s all changing.


How is it all changing?

I think that in the last five years, you have examples like Lost or 30 Rock, in which you’re seeing smart writers actually write for plot and write for interesting characters, rather than write just for ethnicity, race, or type.  And by no means is this restricted to performers of color, or women.  I’m talking about overall. 

We talk about this in class sometimes: There’s a huge void of realistic depictions of poor white Southerners in the media. You just never see it. It’s one of the largest ignored groups—as are, obviously, people of color, women, and the LGBT community.  But it seems like the society is beginning to view what it means to be American the way that Canadians have viewed what it means to be Canadian—which is that Canadian nationality has superceded race, gender, ethnicity, et cetera, for quite some time. And I think we’re finally seeing our own identity that way, where being American is not necessarily being defined by ethnicity or race or even immigration history, but it’s being defined by where you live.


To what extent do you think your own career dovetails with some of these issues?

There are definitely some overlaps. But I don’t think my career is unique in any larger way. I think that most actors, no matter what your background, you deal with typecasting. If you’re the guy that looks like you are the quarterback from Iowa State, then those are the only types of roles that you will read for. That’s a frustration. That’s a hurdle that they have to overcome.  Granted, the number of those roles is much greater than something that I would have fit when I first started out.


I would assume that an Asian-American studies program would most naturally attract Asian Americans.  How diverse is your class?

It’s definitely not just a class that caters to Asian Americans. I would have to say that I think the gender and ethnic breakdown of the students is reflective of the Penn community.


You’re teaching a generation of kids that’s arguably more media-saturated than anybody in history. What’s that like?

It’s great.  We spend more time watching TV than we do in the classroom, so obviously these images affect us. I just want them to develop the tools to think critically, no matter what that critical thought means to them.

For example, what are the connections between politics and this thing called new media?  New media being the Internet—namely YouTube and Google Video.  So much media theory is based only on traditional film and television. Consumption patterns of the new media aren’t analyzed as deeply as other things.

And there was a great article recently in, I think, The Wall Street Journal on TiVo. Because so many people have TiVo now, advertisers are worried that commercials aren’t being watched.  And obviously they’re not—that’s the whole point of TiVo. So they’re coming up with new advertising techniques with TV networks where they embed ads in TV shows.  So a character can wear a particular sweater, or a hat, and there’s a pop-up thing right afterwards or during the show: Log on to this website and find out where to buy that hat.  So these are things that are replacing the more traditional ways of going about selling and advertising. And definitely I think young folks are at the forefront of all these changes.


What do your friends in the business think of this gig of yours?

Some of them are confused by it.  Why do you want to go and teach a college class for no money?  You know, that sort of stuff. And then some of them think it’s neat, and have offered to come and share their expertise in guest lectures.

One of my favorite college professors in my freshman year at UCLA was a guy named Steven Spiegel. And he was an adviser to Bill Clinton.  I mean, he would fly once a week from LA to DC, do his advising, and come back back that Wednesday and say, “I’m so sorry I missed Monday’s lecture.  The Clinton administration called and I had to advise them on this Middle East issue.”  And I thought that was the neatest thing … I’m sure he had friends in the administration who thought he was nuts.

I really applaud the Penn administration, and the Asian-American Studies department particularly, for wanting to do something like this.  Because you could easily just say, What’s the point? And the point is that it’s a unique opportunity to learn in a particular type of way that maybe wasn’t presented to people before.—T.P

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