Kal Penn Is Bringing Big Data to the Masses With New Nat Geo Show

The actor (and former politico) talks binge watching and Trivia Crack


Who Kal Penn

Age 37

Claim to fame Host and producer of National Geographic Channel's The Big Picture with Kal Penn (premieres March 30 at 9 p.m.); star of Battle Creek on CBS (Sundays at 10 p.m.); former associate director, White House Office of Public Engagement

Base L.A., N.Y.

Twitter @kalpenn

What's the first information you consume in the morning?

I usually go to CBS News, Vice, BBC or Al Jazeera America on my phone. I've found that those four tend to have the most balanced perspectives.

Who are your favorite people to follow on Twitter?

Jenny Johnson. She's hilarious. She's a writer and comedian, used to be a news producer in Texas. And Jason Mojica at Vice News; he's their head editor. By the way, those are two totally polar opposite suggestions on follows. Like, with Jenny, you'll get dick jokes, and with Jason, you'll get very interesting, cutting-edge news reporting [laughs]. I also like following other actors. Zach Braff is usually pretty entertaining.

What's your favorite app?

It's probably gotta be Twitter. I know that's such a boring app to shout out, but between the news consumption and the general ridiculousness, it's probably the one I use the most. And I hate that I'm addicted to Trivia Crack, but it's called Trivia Crack for a reason. Out of all the categories, the one I'm the worst at is entertainment, which is ridiculous.

What TV shows do you watch?

CBS Sunday Morning, religiously. It's probably my favorite show on TV. I also really like stuff like Brooklyn Nine-Nine and The Mindy Project. House of Cards is a clichéd given, but I love it. And The Daily Show.

What's the last thing you binge-watched?

It was actually the last season of House of Cards. In fact, I have an aversion to when people recommend shows and their pitch is, "It's so good, you won't be able to stop." That makes me not want to watch [laughs]. I experienced this with Lost. I started watching it three seasons in, and I was in my apartment for, like, a week just watching the first three seasons on DVD. Granted, that's probably a better example of a byproduct of being an out-of-work actor than anything else. Now that I'm working, I kind of don't want to start a show that I'm going to love because I'll end up watching another two episodes at midnight instead of sleeping.

What's on your reading list?

I just got David Axelrod's book, Believer. I'm about halfway through it. It's very good. I'm also rereading Maximum City [by Suketu Mehta], which is about the Mumbai underworld.

You're the host and producer of The Big Picture, a new Nat Geo series about big data. How did you become interested in that topic?

I got interested because all of the stuff in the news for the last couple of years about big data has been mostly nefarious. I totally get that's what sells the most news and ad-buy nonsense, but it seemed strange to me that most of these stories were about things like the NSA—not that those are invalid stories, and we should all follow them—yet there was no awareness about how every time each of us clicks "yes" on the iTunes user agreement, we're giving Apple the right to basically everything, or similarly with Instagram or Facebook. Very few of us read those user agreements, and yet there's such little awareness about the true nature of big data and privacy.