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Interview: John Cho

Harold and Kumar’ Star Talks About Pervy Jokes, Crossing Lines, and Slapping Kal Penn’s Butt

Above: Kal Penn and John Cho reunite for "A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas."

John Cho visited the KPBS studios last month and took some time to talk seriously about being funny in "A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas" (opening November 4 throughout San Diego).

"Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle" (2004) was a quintessential pot comedy -- rude, crude, raunchy and yet ultimately sweet-natured as opposed to mean-spirited. It established John Cho's Harold and Kal Penn's Kumar as pop culture icons almost on par with Cheech and Chong. The film was an indie hit finding an adoring audience that embraced its goofy humor and irreverent sense of fun. It was followed by "Harold and Kumar Go to Guantanamo Bay," set one minute after "White Castle" ended and had the boys meeting up with President George Bush.

Now Harold and Kumar have aged a few years. Harold is married and has an intimidating father-in-law. But a higher power works to get the two back together for another comic misadventure and once again they cross paths with NPH.

Harold and Kumar riffing on "The Hangover."

Warner Brothers

Above: Harold and Kumar riffing on "The Hangover."

This latest installment in the pot comedy franchise is not as good as "White Castle" but still provides enough laughs and raunchiness to keep fans happy. The film is not as sweet-natured as the first but the characters still are. New director Todd Strauss-Schulson (whose past credit includes the short "Sorority Pillow Fight," which seems apt) doesn't have the same charm as original director Danny Leiner and writer Jon Hurwitz but he keeps the pace fast and the jokes rolling in. He makes plenty of fun about making the film in 3D (the 3D pot smoke waifing out into the audience is the best) and riffs on other recent comedies like "The Hangover" with visual nods. There are also insider jokes about Cho having played Sulu and Penn having taken off time to work for Obama. And there is also a great claymation sequence.

The film delivers pretty much what you'd expect. Neil Patrick Harris returns as himself, literally resurrected after pissing off Jesus in heaven and calling the son of God a "cock blocker." Danny Trejo joins the family as Harold's intimidating father-in-law who looks twice as scary as usual because he's in a gaudy Christmas sweater. Thomas Lennon (of "Reno 911" fame), though, is pretty much wasted as Harold's new friend.

John Cho stopped by KPBS' studios last week to talk about his role and the film. Watch the video of the interview or read it below.

Harold: You guys all right? Are you alive?

Kumar: Harold?

Harold: Kumar?

Beth Accomando: This is the third time you're playing Harold. So I'm wondering are you finding anything new or different in him?

John Cho: The second movie was set one minute after the first movie and I was glad when I heard that they were advancing the ages of the characters so it was fun with the family dynamic with Harold's married now and they're trying to have a baby and there's a really funny bit in the movie with his in-laws, very frightening in-laws that come and a lot of cultural misunderstanding jokes. I felt that that was some new stuff to play although Harold and Kumar remain the same guys essentially and to me the movies continue to be a romance movie about these two men you know finding one another.

BA: Can you imagine Harold and Kumar in a retirement home at some point?

JC: Yes. I can. Harold and Kumar get diabetes. Harold and Kumar sign up for Meals on Wheels. Harold and Kumar get hip dysplasia...

BA: Is there a line that Harold and Kumar will not cross? Because I mean in this movie there's a baby on crack crawling on the ceiling, is there a point at which there is a line that gets drawn?

JC: How dare you? It's not crack. It's just regular coke.

BA:: Okay, thank you. I'm sorry. I stand corrected.

JC: Thank you. I don't know. We haven't found it. No wait. We crossed it a long time ago. So apparently not but you know strangely enough I always feel like Harold and Kumar are allowed to do what they do in the cinematic universe because they're sweet. And the humor in the movie is strangely sweet. There are lots of pervy jokes, there's nudity in the movie but there's an attitude with which the jokes are told that I think it's in good fun and it doesn't seem raunchy for raunchy sake necessarily, no it is but ah, I'm digging myself into a hole. But I have always felt that they had a good natured attitude about it and that's what allows us to be so pervy.

OMG! They shot Santa! John Cho and Kal Penn in "A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas."

Warner Brothers

Above: OMG! They shot Santa! John Cho and Kal Penn in "A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas."

Kumar: Oh my God this is like that scene from "A Christmas Story." How did this happen?

Harold: Oh is it like the scene from "A Christmas Story"? [screams]

Kumar: I'm sorry dude, walk it off.

BA:: The two of you seem to be kind of cast opposite to what your real personalities are like. And I'm wondering if that was that a deliberate choice on the first film to cast you so that you're playing a little against yourselves?

JC: I don't believe that was deliberate but it's really funny to me, it was funny when we discovered it on set. I mean I was like, "This guy is square. This Kal Penn guy is square as hell." And it's funny to switch personalities on action, I mean we would just become the opposite of each other on action, it was funny. Kal is intolerant of excessive goofiness on set.

BA: So how does that play out?

JC: You gotta let people work the way they work but I think he got mad at me once during the first one because I did have this habit of slapping his ass right before action, really hard. And I could see how it would get annoying. I found it amusing.

BA: We talked about crossing lines and stuff. One of the things you guys do in the film is you do bring up a lot of racial stereotypes...

Kumar: Hi I'm Kumar.

Girl: Sorry I don't date black guys.

JC:If you have a Korean and Indian guy as your leads you must address race at some point in the movie, you must because the audience is noting it really and the other thing is comedy at its best treads in taboo waters a little bit and it has to have a transgressive quality to it and race is the biggest taboo in America, I mean people are very reluctant to talk about race and yet when you do jokes about race that work the people are very happy to release tension and laugh about it. But it has been interesting and I'll make an observation, during the first tour for the first film, we were talking about race all the time with journalists. It was almost like a process, now looking back the first movie was more concerned with race but we talked about it so much I felt that it was in a way a way of justifying our presence in a motion picture. Like we had to talk it through, like it was a therapy session over the course of all these talks with all these journalists. It's interesting to note that during this third one it comes up occasionally but not very much. And I don't know if it's the fact that people are more accustomed to seeing us so that the movie isn't as concerned with it or maybe the country has changed but it's interesting that there's less talk of it.

BA:: John Cleese once said that some people just need to be offended. Do you think comedy has a role to do that?

JC:I need my comedy to offend. That's my personal views. And our audience seems to like it. So I would tend to agree with Mr. Cleese. Well let me put it this way, I would never dare disagree with John Cleese. That's stupid. That's just stupid.

Neil Patrick Harris as NPH in "A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas."

Warner Brothers

Above: Neil Patrick Harris as NPH in "A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas."

BA: And one last thing, let me ask you about NPH?

Jesus: Neil Patrick Harris. Welcome to heaven, I'm Jesus.

Neil Patrick Harris: Jesus?

Jesus: Christ. I practically run this place.

Neil Patrick Harris: Oh for reals?

Jesus: I mean my dad owns it but I'm kinda number one...

Neil Patrick Harris: Oh you're one of those.

BA: You resurrected him from the dead essentially.

JC: Yes, no he resurrected himself. He's pretty much a supernatural being. He's like a literal deus ex machina. He's our second act magic trick. And he's back and he's fantastic. And we were able to do a song and dance number with him in this movie which I really. really enjoyed. I didn't think that we'd get to do that, explore that skill set with him in our movies.

Beth Accomando: BA:

JC: Thank you. That was fun.

Comments

Avatar for user 'Missionaccomplished'

Missionaccomplished | November 5, 2011 at 12:12 p.m. ― 3 years ago

Wow. A surpirse low for Cinema Junkie.

Lisa Kudrow is funny. Tony Kornheiser is funny. Chris Rock is funny. Carl Kassel is funny. Mexican comedian/actor Eugenio Derbez is funny.

Jim Carey is not funny. Adam Sandler is not funny. Jerry Stiller is not funny. Dennis Miller is not funny. The Farelly brothers are not funny. Margaret Cho is not funny. Zak Penn is not funny. John Cho is not funny.

I notice you don't really comment on the GUANTANAMO movie which leads me to believe that like myself, you found it an offensive, sexist and atrocious movie which isn't even remotely funny as a "guilty pleasure." (I will not dignify it by calling it a film.) Yet you are still in complete contradiction when you promote "women in film' or "women in horror film" and then make a compromising volte-face and support Cho and his brand of offensive, sexist commercial trash. Their level of humor, judging from the trailer of the new movie as well as Guantanamo, is on the level of the kid who threw feces at the walls of the staff restroom where I work! The PORKY'S movies are almost Shakesperean when compared to H & K. What is it Beth? Because he's a minority performer or Asian-American performer you feel obligated to promote him? Or maybe you just think he's cute? Cho is not bad as a dramatic actor (which is more than I can say about Penn), but that doesn't make him funny in comedy or as a screenwriter.

Honestly I would be embarrassed to take a date to this movie.

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Avatar for user 'Beth Accomando'

Beth Accomando, KPBS Staff | November 6, 2011 at 11:01 p.m. ― 3 years ago

Like so many you too are under the misconception that opinions are facts that can be right or wrong.

I enjoy the Harold and Kumar films, and I think they are funny. Yes the comedy aims low but it also likes to deflate authority and that's always fun. It's not a contradiction to like pot comedies like this and champion women in film and horror. These are two views I have no problem holding simultaneously. I enjoy a broad range of films, each for very different reasons. You have your opinions (which I do not always agree with) and I have mine, the difference is I don't pass judgement on your opinions. I think Harold and Kumar are funny because they make me laugh not because they are minority actors or I feel obligated to promote them. Do you like Lisa Kudrow just because she's cute or Chris Rock because you feel like you need to like an African American comic to prove you're cool? Do you not like Jerry Stiller because you're anti-Semitic? Then why do you assume that just because I have a different opinion than you that it must be for some reason other than the obvious and most basic one -- that we simply have different taste.

Harold and Kumar is by no means great comedy, but the movies are fun and I find pot humor to be fundamentally sweet-natured and appealing.

And by the way, Cho is not a screenwriter, and you really shouldn't judge films by their trailers.

Thanks for the comments.

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Avatar for user 'Missionaccomplished'

Missionaccomplished | November 7, 2011 at 12:40 p.m. ― 3 years ago

Amnesty International USA was highly critical of the film's satirical depiction of the Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp, commenting on their website that "Guantanamo is no joke." The organization's membership was encouraged to hand out fliers and fact sheets at theatrical screenings to bring attention to the alleged human rights abuses that have occurred at the camp. -- IMBD

Out to deflate authority? You're giving them too much credit, they're out to get l__d. On screen as well as off. (I've seen it in my expereince working with theater.) And I am not "judging" it for being a post-Cheech & Chong pot comedy. I am criticizing it for objectifiying women and then going "ha ha" and the congruity of embracing this junk while promoting women as filmmakers. It's kinda like me, a vegetarian saying a enjoy the animal slaughter of MONDO CANE or THE VALLEY (Obscured by Cloudy Thinking).

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Avatar for user 'Beth Accomando'

Beth Accomando, KPBS Staff | November 7, 2011 at 7:57 p.m. ― 3 years ago

Mel Brooks was told that Hitler was not funny yet The Producers was hilarious. Alexander Payne made a comedy with abortion at the center in Citizen Ruth. A lot of things may not be funny in real life but that can be used for comic effect, and there's a place for low comedy as well as sophisticated humor. Each has its place.

And you are passing judgment on the film. Although I can't quite follow your argument: " I am criticizing it for objectifiying women and then going "ha ha" and the congruity of embracing this junk while promoting women as filmmakers." Are you criticizing the film or me? I can enjoy films that make fun of women and yes sometimes even objectifying them, and still champion women filmmakers. These are not mutually exclusive because they exist in totally different contexts. If I follow your line of reasoning about being a vegetarian then only serial killers would enjoy murder in films. I'm not a cannibal but I sure loved a mockumentary horror film about a man that slaughtered humans to eat.

Once again I remind you that we are talking about opinions and the problem is that you cannot accept that my opinion is different from yours. I enjoy Harold and Kumar's irreverence and you find it offensive.

And one last thing, to accuse the actors of getting high on and off screen is a cheap shot. If you saw Kal Penn at Comic-Con you'd realize that he's unlikely to do that. You do know that he took a break from Hollywood to work for the White House's Office of Public Engagement?

Sometimes comedy is meant to offend and if people like you aren't offended than it has failed. So your outrage is exactly the reason I like the film.

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Avatar for user 'The0ne'

The0ne | November 9, 2011 at 12:57 p.m. ― 3 years ago

I love comedy! It's my number one genre :) Having said that I know and can appreciate that people don't always understand comedy the same way. Harold and Kumar is one of those types of comedies. I can certainly appreciate Mission's comments, to a lesser extent, but she has to understand that she probably isn't getting "it." It's really that simple.

A person who loves comedy or a comedian will find many things funny compare to a normal person who just likes comedy. It really is just a matter of whether or not you "get it" or not. For example, I love Married with Children and Futurama. I laugh tons. My three 20+ nephews don't understand most of what is being played onscreen, hence they don't laugh as much. They simply just don't get it to be able to laugh.

Cho is funny and a pretty good actor. Here's a clip for Mission to laugh at :) Oh, and as Beth have already stated, claiming you "know" what it is like on/off screen and accusing people you really don't know besides info on the net is low and ignorant. If your life sucked that much it's just too bad but don't go around thinking everyone else is the same. That's ridiculous and again IGNORANT.

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