You Can’t Be Serious

REVIEW: You Can’t Be Serious by Kal Penn

Audiobook narrated by the author.

Kal Penn is an actor and former White House staff member in the Barack Obama administration. I first saw him in the TV show House but knew little about him (except his character was written out of House so he could go work at the White House) so when I heard about his memoir and I had a free audible credit I thought I’d check it out.

I really enjoyed You Can’t Be Serious. It’s narrated by Penn (I always prefer to read memoirs narrated by the author, it just makes it feel more real and accessible) and he is a funny guy so there were many anecdotes that got me smiling or even laughing. Equally, he does a really good job of explaining things. Whether that’s what his job entailed in the White House or how the entertainment industry works and the difference between agents, publicists and managers.

I found it equal parts interesting, disappointing and hopeful hearing about how he broke into acting and the various racist things he encountered from the likes of casting agents along the way. Disappointing and sad because of how used he became to such things but then hopeful and inspiring because of the people he had around him and how other people of colour would give advice when they could and he learnt to do the same. There are instances where a producer thought that Asians don’t watch movies (because of shoddy data) or that white people won’t watch anything that doesn’t have white people in, and while Kal Penn was hearing this in the late 90s and early 2000s, they are unfortunately ideas that are still prevalent today – no matter how many box office success have proved people wrong.

Kal Penn covers a lot of things in his book. His childhood, university years and how he always wanted to be an actor and to do something in public service. How he got into campaigning for Obama in 2007 and then becoming part of his staff was compelling as it was clear to see his passion for what they were doing. I liked that fact that the audiobook actually had the audio from when Penn delivered a speech at the 2012 Democratic National Convention. It’s a great speech but actually hearing the crowd react to it makes you feel like you’re there with them.

What I wasn’t expecting from listening to You Can’t Be Serious was the urge to watch the Harold & Kumar films. Stoner comedies aren’t really my thing, plus I was a young teen when the first film came out, so they had passed me by. That is until listening to Penn talk about Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle. His love and affection for that film and how proud he was of it made me want to watch it (I now have and a review will be coming soon). Listening to him talk about the script and the fact two white guys wrote it specifically with two Asian American leads in mind just amazed him and he never thought it’d get made. But it did and the way he talked about the audition process and being in waiting rooms with people who looked like him rather than being the only Asian was really something.

You Can’t Be Serious is a really entertaining and interesting memoir. Naturally those who are fans of Kal Penn should like it but for people like me who only knew him from one TV show that’s 10 years old, I still found it very enjoyable. It’s both frustrating and inspiring to see the highs and lows of his acting career and he paints such a vivid picture of the people around him, friends, family, co-workers, that it feels like your listening to an old friend telling their story. You Can’t Be Serious is just a lot of fun and I think anyone who’s interested in the entertainment industry and how someone who isn’t white experiences it could get something out of it. There are passages in here I could see being very useful in Film Studies classes on how the industry works – or rather how it shouldn’t and needs to change. 5/5.

Plus, this this the first book I’ve managed to read in like a month so I’m very grateful for it hopefully helping me get out of my reading slump.