DETROIT — Kal Penn's break from acting to work for the Obama administration garnered a lot of media attention. But the other half of the Harold & Kumar franchise, John Cho, has a cool White House connection, too.
The Korean-American actor took his father to the recent state dinner for South Korea's president. His dad was seated next to the lectern where President Barack Obama made a toast and even clinked glasses with the leader of the free world.
For Cho, the evening was pretty much the ultimate in making a parent proud. "It would be tough to top that one," he says.
The same could be said for A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas, which opens Friday. The third movie in the stoner-buddy franchise takes on the holiday movie genre and aims for new levels of comedic outrageousness. On a Spinal Tap scale, the R-rated humor sometimes reaches an 11 out of 10.
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This time, the pot-smoking buddies, last seen in 2008's Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay, have grown apart. Harold has a nice corporate office, a nice home in the suburbs and a nice, gorgeous wife; Kumar is unemployed, discouraged and living alone without his girlfriend.
But their estrangement is interrupted when Kumar receives a mysterious package meant for Harold and ventures to his house, where their reunion soon leads to the destruction of a Christmas tree brought by Harold's terrifying father-in-law (Danny Trejo). Will their mission to replace the tree before the morning succeed? And how much trouble can two guys get into in one winter's night in New York City?
Plenty. The comedy — holly jolly on the outside and subversive on the inside — was made in summer 2010 in metro Detroit, with the Motor City doubling for Manhattan and the cast and crew clad for December weather in July.
"You guys have a humid, hot summer," says Cho, speaking from Washington, D.C.
First-time feature director Todd Strauss-Schulson says he kept leaving meetings because he wanted to play in the fake snow. Recalling filming at a house in Bloomfield Township, Mich., that served as Harold's home, he says, "Every time we yelled cut, Danny Trejo would whip his Christmas sweater off." Neighbors were left to wonder what the imposing shirtless man with the tattoos was doing.
Working with a script by Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg, who wrote the other two films, and producer Greg Shapiro, who has overseen all three installments, Strauss-Schulson used himself as something of a laugh meter. "I just wanted to make sure I wouldn't be bored Friday night in a theater watching this," he says.
Besides Cho, Penn and Trejo, the cast features returning favorite Neil Patrick Harris, who's reliably hilarious playing a comic version of himself, and newcomers to the franchise Tom Lennon, who plays Harold's uptight new friend, and Elias Koteas, who appears as an Eastern European mob boss.
Some of the comedy is admittedly "insane," Strauss-Schulson says, but the vignette nature of the movie offers a little something for everyone. There's smart humor, silly humor, singing and dancing with Busby Berkley-style choreography, a Wafflebot robot toy that talks and dispenses waffles and syrup, car crashes, Claymation mayhem, beer pong and more.
And this is probably the first movie to have its 3-D cake and eat it, too, by making fun of the cinematic gimmick while using it in over-the-top, oh-no-they-didn't ways.
Cho sounds philosophical about the raunchier aspects of the comedy. "When you sign up for a Harold & Kumar movie, you've got to prepare for the consequences," he says. "I didn't go in innocent."
But no matter how gross the laughs might get, there's something about Harold and Kumar's likability and their enduring friendship that has made them pop-culture icons for the 40-and-younger crowd.
Cho's career has ranged far beyond Harold & Kumar. He played Sulu in the J.J. Abrams reboot of Star Trek and tackled a juicy role as an FBI agent plagued by premonitions of his own death in ABC's canceled sci-fi drama FlashForward.
Cho says he liked that project for its ambitious effort to tell a story with extraordinary stakes. "I find that to be what attracts me most to a role now — big stakes — and that show certainly had that."
But there will always be a place in his heart — and perhaps his schedule — for his best-known role. Asked about future sequels, Cho says he might be interested one day in playing a Grumpy Old Harold & Kumar, so to speak.
"It's possible. I actually think it might be really funny to make a Harold & Kumar movie when they're 60. Why not? I'm up for it. Ask Kal. I won't do it without him. If he's on board, I'm on board."