Though best known for films like “Van Wilder” and the “Harold & Kumar” series, actor Kal Penn has led a rather eclectic career as of late. He took time off from Hollywood to work for President Barack Obama’s administration, then returned to acting on shows like “Designated Survivor.” Now he’s the host of a new topical documentary series on Amazon Prime.
The show, titled “This Giant Beast That is the Global Economy,” features Adam McKay and Will Ferrell as executive producers and follows Penn along a series of interviews and field pieces meant to explain things like money laundering, rubber and artificial intelligence. The actor has hosted television shows and short documentaries before, but as he recalls to Metro, he almost turned down the chance to do “This Giant Beast.”
Kal Penn talks ‘This Giant Beast That is the Global Economy’
“They reached out to me about a year ago,” says Penn. “They said they were making a show about the global economy and were looking for a host. I told them they probably thought I was a lot smarter than I was in real life. I know nothing about the economy. There’s no way I could host this show. But it turns out that’s exactly what they wanted. They said they were looking for somebody with a natural curiosity that doesn’t necessarily understand how these things work. They told me I was perfect, which made me think, ‘Wait, are you calling me dumb?’”
“This Giant Beast’s” producers weren’t calling Penn dumb, of course, and once he signed on to host the show, he quickly realized just how much work was being put into it behind the scenes. Many of the topics for the series’ eight episodes had already been chosen, and the producers were hard at work researching the finer details and securing interviews with noted experts.
All Penn had to do was lead the charge on camera and interact with the various people of all shapes and sizes who had agreed to participate. And more often than not, he found himself learning a great deal from, and about, them. Like Humberto Aguilar, the former criminal defense lawyer and cocaine money launderer.
“I knew what he was probably going to say,” laughs Penn, “but I did not know he had such a gorgeous mustache. Nor did I know that he was going to smile so much when he fondly recounted stories of laundering money through prostitutes and cocaine in the 1980’s. Like, I thought I knew what he was going to talk about based on what I’d read, and I believed him, but he’s also such a great storyteller. It brought me back to what Miami was probably like in the 1980’s and I wasn’t expecting that at all.”
As entertaining as mustachioed ex-money launderers like Aguilar, extreme survivalists such as Rich Austin and other real-life characters are, however, Penn acknowledges that “This Giant Beast” is yet another instance of “infotainment.” More often than not, the word is used to pejoratively describe film and television programs that educate audiences via entertaining means. But with similarly hybrid reality and documentary programs like “Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj” and “Adam Ruins Everything,” not to mention predecessors like “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report,” Penn’s “This Giant Beast” is in good company.
“This is a show that is not a documentary series and not a reality show,” he says. “It exists in this weird middle space between the two. Some people probably don’t enjoy this kind of storytelling, as they’d rather watch something like ‘CBS Sunday Morning,’ which I’m a big fan of. The kinds of programs that present all the information to you and try to make you feel good. It’s not as sardonic our show might be sometimes. But that’s what I find so exciting and curious about shows like ‘This Giant Beast.’ It’s like a New York Times article with jokes.”
“This Giant Beast That is the Global Economy” is now on Amazon Prime.