‘Maybe I Do Have a Story to Tell’: Kal Penn on His Memoir

In what way is the book you wrote different from the book you set out to write?

I was sure that I wanted to share two stories: one about my parents and their upbringing; and the story of how Josh and I met. He showed up with an 18-pack of Coors and turned my TV from “SpongeBob” to NASCAR. I thought, “This guy’s leaving here in 40 minutes with 16 beers.” So the fact that we’re together 11 years later is funny because so many people have stories of dates that went awry but now they’re married and have kids.

In the book’s outline, there was no ending. I always struggled with that. I thought there was going to have to be some kind of a positive wrap-up, a story of triumph after years of typecasting and racism. And then “Sunnyside” happened. I sold this show after I had already started writing the book. There’s a chapter I write about how it’s truly my dream show: a big network [NBC], a diverse, patriotic comedy that would hopefully bring people together and make them laugh.

And then it slowly unraveled. With everything else in the book, I have the perspective of time. This was still raw. I ended up putting it as the last real chapter because it’s a perfect example of how much has changed and how much has yet to change.

We often think of goals as: Everything has now been fixed, so end of story. In reality, everything is a constant mess of back and forth.

What creative person who isn’t a writer has influenced you and your work?

I always say Mira Nair, and I would have said this years ago, before this book was ever on the table. Her second film, “Mississippi Masala,” came out when I was in eighth grade. It was the first time I’d seen South Asian characters onscreen that weren’t stereotypes or cartoon characters.

They were deeply flawed, deeply interesting humans. They make love, they have financial problems. And that happened around the time “The Wiz” happened, so she was one of the people who inspired me to pursue a career in the arts.

So when I got a chance to work with her on “The Namesake,” it meant a lot to me. And “The Namesake,” the novel — Jhumpa Lahiri’s writing was introduced to me by John Cho, from “Harold & Kumar.” All of those influences intersecting are very meaningful to me.

Persuade someone to read “You Can’t Be Serious” in 50 words or fewer.

If you want to feel like you’re having a beer with somebody who smoked weed with a fake president and served a real one, whose grandparents marched with Gandhi and whose parents certainly didn’t move to America for him to slide off a naked woman’s back in his first film.