Seriously? OMG! WTF? » Sunnyside’s writers and cast are immigrants or 1st generation immigrants
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[ # ] Sunnyside’s writers and cast are immigrants or 1st generation immigrants
October 3rd, 2019 under Kal Penn

Last week, Sunnyside, a comedy about five immigrants trying to get ready for their citizenship test, debuted on NBC. This week the laughter continues at 9p with a problem many immigrants face.

If you want to become an American citizen, you want to have a lawyer help you with the paperwork and such. Ethiopian Hakim (Samba Schutte) finds a lawyer who agrees to help him. However, he tells Hakim to meet him in an alley at midnight to get the money. Garrett (Kal Penn) and Dominican Griselda (Diana Maria Riva) are suspicious of him, so they do their own investigating on him. Turns out, they are right. He is defrauding him. How will they get Hakim’s money back?

Meanwhile, Moldavian Brady (Moses Storm) agrees to help the extremely wealthy Mei Lin (Poopy Lui) and her brother Jun Ho (Joel Kim Booster), we do not know where they are from because their father has done some bad stuff, with their bags and they throw money and gifts at him. He loves it, but his guilty conscience takes over. Will he just be their friend to be their friend or will he keep accepting their gifts that are worth more than everything he owns. Did I mention they are filthy rich?

The plot of the story is about five people preparing to take their citizenship test and the man who is going to help them pass it. However, at the end of the day it is about seven people who become like family. Even though, Garrett and his sister Mallory (Kiran Deol) are really a family. Now, they have five more siblings.

Since this is a show about immigrants, Kal Penn, and Matt Murray wanted to make sure that storylines are authentic. That is why most of the writers and actors are newer to America than most of the viewing audience. Recently, the people from Sunnyside talked about that very thing at the NBC Summer Press tour day at the TCAs.

How Kal Penn came up with the idea for the show.
Sure. So, about five years ago, my manager and producing partner, Dan Spilo, and I were talking, and he said, “You know, you need to start pitching more things.” And he goes, “What’s your dream project?” I was, like, “That’s a thing I can pitch?” I didn’t know that was a thing I could do. He said, “Yeah. What would it look like?” I said, “Well” I mean, the two things I love are I love making people laugh. Comedy is my first love, and I love America. And I remember some of the shows I watched as a kid were “Head of the Class” and, obviously, “Fresh Prince” and “Seinfeld” and “Friends.” I grew up in New Jersey, right outside of New York City, in one of the suburbs, and so a lot of the New York-centric or fish out of water stories were always interesting to me. So he said, “Okay. Let’s make a patriotic comedy.” And I kind of tossed around different iterations of it, about how to be teaching a citizenship class or a civics class or something. Then I had the chance to sit down with Mike and Matt about a year and a half ago, and it kind of jelled into the form that you are seeing now.

The writers’ room is full of immigrants.
Well, one good thing that we’ve tried to do is our entire writing staff, with the exception of one person, is either an immigrant themselves or a child of an immigrant. So we are just getting real stories of the process. I mean, it’s an infuriating process. It can be very frustrating. It can be very difficult, but we are trying to tell, sort of, a bunch of different stories around the subject. It’s not one specific thing to everyone. So we are just trying to tell real stories about people who have gone through it, and, yeah, there is comedy to be mined.

Samba Schutte on how his life was different in Ethopia.
I grew up in Ethiopia, and a lot of people think, “Ethiopia. I’m so sorry.” But we had a great life there. A lot of people don’t know, in Ethiopia, it’s normal for you to have help around the house: a driver, a maid, someone who cooks. So when I moved to America and everyone found out I came from Ethiopia, they were, like, “Oh, my God, it must be so hard for you to get used to life in America.” I was, like, “Yeah. Here I got to do everything myself.. Who’s gonna do the dishes?” Yeah, so I love that they kept it authentic that Hakim is a surgeon back home, had a great life back home, but here he has to work as a cab driver, which is the reality of a bunch of immigrants.

Poppu Liu on growing up with immigrant parents.
I don’t think when we first moved here. No, I think it was just a lot of hustle. And I think a lot of my upbringing was watching how hard my parents had to work. And yeah, they were engineers and had master’s degrees in, like, the top universities in China, came to the States, worked at McDonald’s. My mom took night classes. I remember going to bed, and my mom would tuck me in and then leave to go to night class, then wake up and work at a hotel, then work at McDonald’s. That was my upbringing. And my dad had to get a second Ph.D. because his wasn’t recognized here. I think, within our family unit, we probably tried to have as much humor and love with each other as possible, but it was kind of in spite of everything, not necessarily because of the situation.

Poppy Liu on watching her parents that the US Citizenship test.
So I immigrated here when I was 2 with my family. I was born in Xi’an, China. And interestingly, I witnessed my parents taking this test, the citizenship test, when I was, like, 12 or 13. It was an interesting dynamic because, by then, my English was far better than theirs was. But they had to be the ones taking the test because I was a minor. So, yeah, that story is very real and fresh for me.

Kal Penn on his dad moving to America with barely any money.
That’s very insightful. I think they were both. My dad moved to America in the early ’70s with $12 in his pocket and grad school admission to an engineering master’s program. And I asked him recently when I was writing a piece about their story I called and I said, “I just want to make sure I’m not exaggerating. You moved to America with $12 in your pocket?” And I outlined all these stories I remember him telling me. And he sort of smirked, and he goes, “You’re being a little dramatic. When I moved here, I had $8.” I was, like, “OK, fine.”

How Kal Penn came up for the name of his character and his sister’s character.
Okay. So towards the end. So when you play different characters I remember playing a character like Dr. Kutner, for example, on “House,” and a lot of very well meaning folks in the Asian American community would say, “Why does his name have to be Lawrence Kutner? Can’t his name be Samir?” or something or other. Then you play a character named Samir, and they are, like, “How come his name can’t be Lawrence?” And it’s, like, okay. I get it. It’s kind of a no win conversation but totally valid points on all sides. So when we were coming up with the names for Garrett and his sister Mallory, I thought, I want this to be grounded in something. So Modi is my real last name. I thought that was a cool little hat tip to my parents, who did not agree, by the way. They were, like, “Won’t people be confused?” I was, like, “No. It’s a TV show, Mom.” The backstory is his parents named him Garrett because, when they moved to America, they fell in love with American television and they loved “The Facts of Life” and Mrs. Garrett was the hardest-working person that they saw on TV. So they were, “We love ‘The Facts of Life’ and Mrs. Garrett.” Then Mrs. Garrett shows up on “Different Strokes,” and their minds were blown, like, “Wait. She has two jobs? She is super hard-working. We have to name our firstborn son after Mrs. Garrett.” And then Mallory, obviously you know Michael J. Fox, an old “Family Ties” throwback. But, yeah, I wanted to not just come up with random names but have the names be kind of meaningful and significant to the kinds of stories that we are telling.


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