Literacy 2023: Book 11: You Can’t Be Serious

Kal Penn’s memoir about his experiences as an Indian American actor in Hollywood and as a member of the Obama administration

You Can’t Be Serious by Kal Penn

Kalpen Modi writes about his upbringing as a member of an immigrant Indian family in New Jersey, his path to becoming an actor, his time on the Obama campaign and in the Obama administration, and his career afterwards.

I really dislike memoirs, so I was predisposed to dislike this book. I’ve got an irrationally low tolerance for hearing someone talk about themselves at length, and I feel as if it takes an extraordinarily good storyteller or an extraordinarily interesting life to overcome my impression of narcissism. So instead of the usual “Pros” and “Cons” I’ll just make a list of observations about the book.


  • Frequently goes from being toothless to dismissive without ever coming across as gossipy, and full of bizarrely specific details. All of that made it seem more like Kal Penn fan fiction than a memoir.
  • It was interesting to see Modi describe his community in New Jersey as being diverse and intersectional instead of insular, since I’ve rarely seen immigrant communities depicted in the media and when they are, they’re almost always shown to be some kind of homogenous monolith that strives to keep to itself. Modi writes more about bar and bat mitzvahs than Indian ceremonies.
  • The book was written with a ton of gratitude and respect for his parents for working so hard to give him a stable life where an uncertain career in acting could be possible.
  • Has a much-needed reminder that being recognizable or even famous doesn’t always equate to being rich. He says that Harold & Kumar gave him a ton of notoriety but didn’t provide a runway beyond a half year.
  • Generally, he talks a good bit about financial insecurity and having trouble finding work, but also seems to have a stability that I would’ve been very envious of in my college years and 20s.
  • His description of the Obama campaign and the election was vivid enough to make me nostalgic about that time and the feeling of hopefulness that came with it. His respect for the Obamas and key people in the administration is evident every time he writes about them.
  • Goes into absolutely no detail about being gay, the process of coming out, any discrimination he’s faced because of his sexuality, none of it. Almost all of the book treats it as a total non-issue. The chapter about his fiancé is all about NASCAR, to the point that it feels like he’s deliberately refusing to discuss it. Obviously, people can choose to be private and choose what they want to write about. But this book taught me the names of his middle-school classmates and that he has a tree-nut allergy, but nothing about his experiences that I might actually be able to relate to. It’s especially jarring when he’s talking about Don’t Ask Don’t Tell or marriage equality while seemingly refusing to talk about them as things that might affect him personally.
  • The next-to-last chapter ends the book on a sour note, insisting that the fate of his series Sunnyside was due to systemic racism and a lack of support and promotion from NBC. Obviously, I don’t know the real story, but one thing I do know is that I’ve had a crush on Kal Penn ever since he was on How I Met Your Mother, if not earlier, and the trailer and the pitch still couldn’t get me interested in the series. It seems like working in TV for 20 years would have given plenty of examples of how sometimes stuff just doesn’t work.

As I mentioned, I don’t like memoirs, so it says a lot about the readability of the book that I finished it at all. I saw it at a queer book fair last weekend, and I was surprised to see it on the shelf, since I had no idea that Kal Penn was “dating dudes” as he describes it. It turned out to be a humorous but infuriating account of how people of color are treated in the entertainment industry, and a bit of nostalgia for the days when you could actually feel good and hopeful about a Democratic presidential candidate. I just guess congratulations are in order to Kal Penn for being the one person in America to come out in the early 2000s and have it be a completely uninteresting non-issue.