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Listen: Kal Penn on Balancing Silly and Serious in Amazon’s Global-Economy Doc Series

Welcome to “TV Take,” Variety’s television podcast. In this week’s episode, Variety’s executive editor of TV, Daniel Holloway, talks with Kal Penn, the host of the documentary series “This Giant Beast That is the Global Economy,” which is currently available to stream on Amazon.

The series sees Penn travel around the world, meeting key players behind some of the most damaging and absurd movements in today’s economy.

Among the eclectic selection of people Penn sits down to interview are a money launderer for a cocaine cartel, the head of a gigantic rubber company, and a group of barnacle fishermen off the coast of Northern Spain. Penn says hosting a show with such scale required him to tread a fine balance between bringing his own “giant man-child” sense of humor, while also respecting the significance of the stories being told.

“These are deeply serious issues with serious people who are either the perpetrators of, or the victims of greed,” Penn says. “I think sometimes in telling those stories or reading articles that are very serious, you kind of lose the humanity of it, you lose the human nature of these are people who make dinner just like you, the normalcy of it. When we forget there’s so much normalcy behind it, we don’t feel like we’re empowered to do anything about it.”

The series hails from executive producer Adam McKay, who has plenty of experience dealing with complex, murky topics like the global economy on screen.

Penn says one of the most interesting aspects of making the show was incorporating both his and McKay’s differing worldviews.

“At the end you’ve got the silliness that I bring to it, plus the more scripted beats, and then the stuff that was more cynical, to paint what we hope is a little more of a balanced picture that takes you out of what would otherwise just be an article or a book or a piece on network TV,” Penn explains.

When he was approached by producers to host the show, the former “House” and “Harold and Kumar” actor admitted that he knew very little about the subject matter. However, he believes his lack of knowledge in fact made him well suited for the job, as he could break down and explain the tricky issues the show deals in layman’s terms.

“The bottom line is, I don’t know about any of this stuff. I didn’t understand how cryptocurrency worked until at least halfway through this four-month shoot, and you’re meeting with experts who are talking to you like you’re an idiot for not understanding it.” Penn says. “I might be an idiot, but my job is to get this explanation out so the audience can understand it.”

Rather than a debate on the merits and flaws of capitalism, Penn says the series seeks to explain who is “pulling the strings” behind the global economy, “how those strings were created,” and how the “average person has the opportunity to push back.”

“I like storytelling in all forms. My first love is obviously d–k jokes and broad comedy, but there’s a time to be serious and there’s a time to have fun, and whenever there’s an opportunity to tell a story while doing both, it’s something that I’m interested in trying out,” Penn concludes.

Later in the show, critics Daniel D’Addario and Caroline Framke preview HBO’s “The Case Against Adnan Syed” and Hulu’s “Shrill.” Finally, senior TV awards editor Mike Schneider talks about his cover story on the growing cost of Emmy campaigns.

Kal Penn photographed exclusively for the Variety TV Take Podcast
Dan Doperalski for Variety

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