How to Stand Apart From ‘Daily Show’ Guest-Host Pack? Kal Penn Brought POTUS

Showing off your late-night hosting skills when you have just four days to do so can be daunting. So Kal Penn brought his ‘A’ game.

The actor used his unique connections to the White House — he was an associate director of the White House Office of Public Engagement and Intergovernmental Affairs during the Obama administration — to deliver a hard-to-get booking to Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show.” When Penn recently guest-hosted the program, his first night featured a sit-down with President Joe Biden.

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How did he land POTUS? Penn simply asked — but made clear he planned to ask questions the Commander-in-Chief doesn’t usually get during a media scrum. “I definitely wanted him to join me in setting up what I hope was a hopeful arc over the week,” says Penn, who asked Biden to discuss how young people’s advocacy can spur change on climate, drilling, and human rights. Biden also offered about his views on same-sex marriage and the treatment of transgender children, among other topics.

“The satire space can be the kind of thing that sometimes can leave people feeling a little despondent,” Penn says in an interview. “I’m not saying ‘The Daily Show’ has done this. I don’t feel that way. But that type of comedy in general. I felt like, what can I put together that has the potential to make people laugh but to leave you with a bigger understanding about some of the issues?” Other guests during his week included Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari and Vanity Fair Editor in Chief Radhika Jones.

Penn is one of handful of guest hosts who have appeared at the helm of “Daily Show” since January, the program’s effort to keep on keeping on in the wake of the departure of Trevor Noah last year. There is some expectation in the industry that executives at Comedy Central and parent Paramount Global will use guest stints by Penn and others such as Leslie Jones, Sarah Silverman and Al Franken as screen tests of sorts, potentially considering one of the program’s roster of contributors as a possible successor.

There have been some heady moments over the last several weeks, whether they come in the form of Penn’s Biden interivew; Leslie Jones’ honest enthusiasm; or Sarah Silverman’s emotional interivew with basketball great Kareem Abdul Jabar.

Producers and writers have tried to make each week of shows suit the guest who leads them, says Penn. “They sort of asked us, ‘Do you have any ideas for topics? Do you have any ideas for guests?’” he recounts. “It means they were valuing each guest host who would have their own approach.”

Penn doesn’t say it, but he and the other guests are taking part in an atypical stretch of “Daily Show” history. To be sure, other late night programs have relied on guest hosts. ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel has taken the past two summers off, and the network has relied on fill-ins. When David Letterman took time off for heart surgery and to deal with shingles, CBS found substitutes, including a young Jimmy Fallon. When John Stewart took a sabbatical from “The Daily Show” to work on a movie project, John Oliver filled in for a little while.

The current “Daily Show,” however, is in the midst of an experiment. These guests are, at the heart of things, auditioning for the regular role. “I would absolutely love to host permanently, and I love that all of the guest hosts so far have brought something unique to their week,” says Penn. “No single week is anywhere near what the other weeks are like.”

The situation, he says, puts more weight on the shoulders of the crew and producers. “Sometimes, when you start a new project, everyone is a little on edge,” Penn says. At “Daily Show,” however, “it was collaborative,” says Penn. “I never felt like there was something I couldn’t pitch, and I never felt like I was unsupported.” With “Daily Show” getting ready to let its cast of correspondents take the reins over the next few weeks, viewers may want to keep an eye on whose collaboration works best.

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