Five years ago, through the randomness of searching for an affordable apartment in New York City, I landed in a patch of western Queens known as Sunnyside.
I fell hard for the neighborhood’s Old World charms. Sturdy prewar brick apartment buildings with 10-foot ceilings and parquet floors. Bodegas and bars on every corner. Restaurants and specialty markets to die for. A homey community feel with plenty of kids and dogs running around and old-timers holding court on the plazas under the elevated 7 train stations along Queens Boulevard.
The single best thing about living here is the array of ethnicities and cultures that are packed into roughly 10 square blocks. An area that was once largely Irish and Italian now is home to immigrants from South Asia to South America and most points in between. There’s an undeniable energy that comes from being surrounded by so many languages, faiths and cultural traditions.
So I felt a surge of adopted hometown pride last year after learning that actor Kal Penn and “Parks and Recreation” and “The Good Place” showrunner Mike Schur were developing a comedy series for NBC set among a group of recent immigrants in my very own Sunnyside. Happily, the result captures the vibrancy of its namesake neighborhood with the same reverence for diversity that living here inspires. “Sunnyside,” which premiered Sept. 26, is unabashedly feel-good about the immigrant experience.
“Queens in general seemed to be the perfect location to set a show because it’s rich with comedies and stories that haven’t been told in a this-is-all-America way,” says Penn, 42, who was born and raised in New Jersey, the son of Indian immigrants.
Best known for the stoner “Harold & Kumar” movies and his role as a doctor on Fox’s “House,” Penn is the executive producer, co-creator and star of “Sunnyside.” He plays Garrett Modi, a disgraced former New York City Council wunderkind who is drummed out of office by drunken scandal and ineptitude. He’s forced to move back home with his sister in Sunnyside, where he winds up being hired by a local group of immigrants to help them navigate the path to becoming U.S. citizens.
Thanks to the magic of television, “Sunnyside” shoots on the Universal lot in Los Angeles. Penn himself now lives in Manhattan. On an overcast morning in early September, we met under the neon-rimmed Sunnyside arch off Queens Boulevard for a stroll (he was gracious about taking a selfie with a giddy man) and a stop at a local dining institution — Alpha Donuts — for a few cups of coffee and a chocolate-frosted doughnut. (Note to location managers: No set dressing needed at Alpha Donuts for an authentic 1970s look.)
“The backdrop of [‘Sunnyside’] is the characters going through the citizenship process and him helping them,” Penn says. “Of course, they end up teaching him much more over the course of the series.”
“Sunnyside” arrives at a time when the subject of immigration has become a bitterly divisive political issue under President Donald Trump. The show tries to offer a nonpartisan statement about what immigrants bring to the U.S. “We’re not trying to make a political show,” Penn says. “If we were, I would have tried to sell to a streamer or someplace edgy.”
In fact, Penn had been working on the concept for “Sunnyside” for about five years, well before Trump began to stir up anti-immigrant sentiment. He famously took a break from acting from 2009 to 2011 to work in the Obama administration in the White House’s Office of Public Liaison, handling public outreach on various administration priorities.
After he returned to acting, Penn had the disappointment of being in the short-lived CBS sitcom “We Are Men” in 2013. He began to hone the idea for “Sunnyside” as an effort to offer a contemporary take on the kind of good-hearted ’80s and ’90s TV comedies — such as “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” “Diff’rent Strokes” and “The Facts of Life” — that he enjoyed growing up as a kid in Edison, N.J.
“The two things I love most are comedy and America,” Penn says. He notes that politics were not as polarized five years ago as they are today but that “the issue of immigration is as old as our country. It would be unfortunate if we assign today’s polarizing climate to understanding everything about the subject.”
As a child, Penn made regular trips with his family to the Jackson Heights area of Queens because it had numerous Indian grocery stores and a Hindu temple. When he thought about settings he had in mind for the concept, Sunnyside prevailed in part because the name exudes the kind of positivity he aims to put on the screen and because of its natural diversity. And it makes for a better TV show title than “Flushing.”
Penn co-created “Sunnyside” with Matt Murray, a veteran of “Saturday Night Live” and “The Good Place.” Every member of the show’s writing staff is an immigrant or a child of immigrants, a development that was unintentional. “We looked for people who had the comedy chops and the crazy personal experiences that can flavor our characters,” Penn says.
The core cast includes Joel Kim Booster and Poppy Liu (who play crazy-rich siblings Jun Ho and Mei Lin), Diana Maria Riva (Griselda, a Dominican with an endless number of jobs), Samba Schutte (Hakim, a cardiothoracic surgeon from Ethiopia who drives a cab) and Moses Storm (Brady, a Moldovan who finds out he came to the U.S. as a 2-year-old without documentation).
The needle to thread with “Sunnyside” is to make the show funny without being too earnest, and to find humor in the specific cultural experiences in ways that illuminate commonality rather than emphasizing differences. Penn points to an upcoming bit that revolves around home remedies for a cold favored by immigrant parents. Two siblings on the writing staff noted that their mother would make them wear socks stuffed with potatoes, onions and vinegar.
“Queens … is rich with comedies and stories that haven’t been told in a this-is-all-America way.”
“On some shows, you would make the joke about the ‘othering’ represented by that remedy,” Penn says. “In our case, the joke is about the human experience. The joke is that we all have the equivalent of the socks with onions.”
As Penn speaks, we’re interrupted briefly by an older woman trying to push her cart past us to get to an empty stool at the end of the counter. It’s a snug fit. “You have to be Hercules to get around in here,” she chirps. Penn admits that he’s distracted from our conversation by the abundance of people-watching and note-taking opportunities in the tiny diner, where there’s always a cook in the corner pushing a few sizzling pounds of potatoes, peppers and onions around a large flat-top grill.
“Sunnyside” marks Penn’s first created-by TV credit, which has been one of his goals ever since he was a UCLA student scouring Backstage magazine every week for audition prospects. In Penn’s teenage years, his life changed when he saw the 1991 movie “Mississippi Masala,” directed by Mira Nair. The fact that the film told the story of an immigrant Indian family’s adjustment to the U.S. and came from an Indian director was an awakening for him.
“That was the first time I saw people who looked like my family who were not cartoon characters badly voiced,” he recalls. Years later, he came full circle when he starred in Nair’s 2006 film “The Namesake.”
Now, Penn hopes “Sunnyside” will be the vehicle that can inspire others in a similar way. “If you had the chance to go back and tell your 14-year-old self that you would have the opportunity to do a show and it’s on the same network in the same time slot as the shows you used to watch as a kid — it’s just mind-blowing,” he says.
As Kal Penn chases his version of the American dream, one thing’s for certain: The gang at Alpha Donuts is rooting for him.