As we get closer to the 2020 presidential election, various networks are launching voting campaigns to make sure viewers are registered and prepared to vote on or before Nov. 3. For Freeform, the non-partisan initiative is cheekily titled, "Kick 2020 in the Ballots," and is centered on the new series Kal Penn Approves This Message. The six-episode talk show will focus on specific topics and is aiming to inform and empower young voters as they head out to the polls.
Calling the show a hybrid of The Daily Show and CBS Sunday Morning, Designated Survivor star and former Obama-staffer Kal Penn is using the opportunity to inform young voters and show that while the youth vote is not a monolith, there actually are issues on which opposing sides of the political spectrum can agree. From the 26th Amendment, which lowered the voting age to from 21 to 18, to Supreme Court Justice appointments to climate change, Penn will interview experts and community leaders in respective fields about what is next for those movements and what it takes to make actual change.
TV Guide spoke with Penn ahead of the premiere of the series to talk about how he wishes to accomplish these hefty goals with just weeks until Election Day, and what the show might look like in a post-Nov. 3 world.
This has been coming together very quickly. What made now the right time to do this series?
Kal Penn: In the past, I've had people reach out and say, "Hey, here's an idea for a political show. We're looking for a host." In a lot of those cases, I looked at the pitch decks and they were either a little too vitriolic for me, or a little too polarizing and that's not really what I do. So then my writing partner Robin and I kind of sat down and said, "Well, what if we could like do one of our own? What would that look like?" Two shows that I absolutely love are The Daily Show and CBS Sunday Morning. What if you combine the two? If you combine the two, then you still have an opening monologue, but instead of reacting to the 24-hour news cycle, you could do what they do on CBS Sunday Morning, which is talking about a particular issue. [My show is] only 22 minutes and it airs on Freeform and Hulu, so you don't have that much time, but you focus on one particular issue for each episode. It's aspirational. You end the episode and the hope is that the viewer feels like they were involved in something and can take the next steps if they feel passionate about it, including going to go vote.
With those two shows in mind, you're doing this for Freeform which has a dedicated Gen-Z audience. How are you talking specifically to that audience? Should we expect TikTok montages?
Penn: It's funny you mention the TikTok montages because one of the things we were most adamant about when we pitched the show was — I am not a fan of pandering and that's like across the board. Every time you get some email about something, especially election related, it's like, "Hey Kal, Candidate X cares about Indian-Americans too!" And I'm like, "Okay, that's nice and it's important, but I also care about 80 issues that have nothing to do with being Brown. Don't pander to me just because you think that that's the right way to do it." It's a similar thing with with young voters. I think that there's so many people asking questions like, "What's the right TikTok? And what's the right tweet?" That's a marketing question, but the bigger question is, what's the right policy? What's the right thing that young people care about that you should be addressing? So for us, it was about addressing those things. It's about respecting our audience. I think we're respecting the fact that a younger audience will tune in to a show where we're not talking down to them. We're treating them with the respect that we think they deserve.
So how did you choose the topics for these episodes?
Penn: We looked at what young voters or young audiences both together are talking about. First episode, no brainer, you're talking about the youth vote. So we're talking about the 26th Amendment, which is the thing that lowered the voting age from 21 to 18. I didn't know much more about it at the time. Then we started looking into it and you realize that the voting age got lowered because after World War II, you had all these veterans coming back. They were 18 years old, 19 years old, 20 years old, and they couldn't vote, even though they went and fought to liberate countries from the Nazis and fought for our freedom. So that started this long movement of lowering the voting age from 21 to 18, the age at which you can participate in military service. But it took decades. It took until 1971, for the 26th amendment to get passed. So one of the big lessons there is we live in a world where it feels so good to tweet something nasty at somebody, especially somebody you disagree with, but that's not how the three branches of government work. The three branches of government work so slowly on purpose, because we're in a democracy, we're not in a dictatorship. So outlining why that exists and then talking about like, what's the takeaway? If I want something to change, what can I actually do about it?
What does that look like, exactly?
Penn: Our field piece for the first episode is done by Moses Storm. He went to San Francisco because he found this group of young people that got a ballot measure on the ballot for November, that if it passes, will lower the voting age further from 18 to 16. That's an example of we're not taking a stance on whether you should or shouldn't vote at 16. The people of San Francisco will decide that. But for us, it was a great example of what do people do if they're not happy with the status quo? What can they do outside of going on cable news shows and yelling at each other on Twitter? There's got to be something else, and there is something else.
Another example I'll give you is there's an episode on climate change. We're ideally going to feature young progressives, who you traditionally think of when you think of climate change, but also young Evangelical Christian conservatives. They are really involved in the climate change movement. They approach it from the angle of faith, whereas other folks might approach it from an angle of science. But it doesn't matter because they're both working on solutions together. Those solutions are climate change legislation, local and city ordinances that might impact pollution, and taking care of the planet. So it's an opportunity for us to really look at an issue with fresh eyes in a way that illustrates how much time am I wasting, yelling and screaming about what isn't the way I want things? How instead, can I partner with people who I might disagree with on 90 other issues — but on the one issue that we can come together on, how do we do that? There are people doing that. Let's remember that that's the thing we can do.
Speaking of partisanship, it's a well-known fact that you were part of the Obama Administration. Are you taking any extra steps to emphasize that this is a non-partisan show when people are very aware of your political leanings?
Penn: Some of it just comes out very organically, because our guests are typically not politicians. There might be a couple of random contradictions to that, but if we do have politicians on, I don't really want to ask them about politics. I'd like to ask them about things like youth organizing. In their previous elections, did they win or lose because young people turned out? Was that turnout what they expected or was it lower? Was it more than that? Do they wish they had changed their policies early on, to encourage young people to vote? That kind of stuff. The examples that we're choosing are issue-based. I don't think we're ever talking about a particular candidate running for anything. The only time we even touch on the presidential election directly is the episode we have on judicial nominations, because whoever becomes the next president will nominate a lot of judges and those judges will decide some cases that will impact people's views. So we should just be aware on how the system works.
Do you see a future for this show beyond the 2020 election?
Penn: It has a couple of different iterations. I am a huge Chappelle fan and The Chappelle Show fan. I really liked, as problematic as it was for multiple reasons, I did like the old Tracey Ullman Show or In Living Color — basically sketch shows where you can can play multiple characters. Basically whatever Lily Singh is about to do for NBC — I can't wait to see it because she's playing all the characters — it's like there's a version of that for our sketches that I would love to do if we get like a 20-episode pickup. I think there's a lot of room to play around with the field pieces in that sense. There's no shortage of issues that we can tackle. So I think you'd see that instead of this leading up to an election, it just becomes how can we get more involved in our own communities and in civic engagement?
Kal Penn Approves This Message airs Tuesdays beginning Sept. 22 at 10:30/9:30c on Freeform, with episodes available on Hulu the following day.