I still vividly remember walking out of the theater after watching Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle. I was with a group of friends of various ages, and those of us too scared for the horror movie next door decided to watch two stoners on their quest for hamburgers. I left the theater 88 minutes later with residual pains in my stomach from laughing so hard—and a stark realization that I had just watched the funniest movie I’d see in a long time. I couldn’t remember ever hearing an audience howl like that.
But what I didn’t realize for a long time afterward was just how novel the movie was and what a breakthrough it was in Hollywood. The writers reportedly wrote the two leading roles specifically for Asian American actors—literally unheard of at that time, especially with a movie that wasn’t set in Asia or didn’t include some type of martial arts sequence.
When first movie came out, John Cho, who plays Harold, was unsure of how the Asian American community would react. “We weren’t traditional cinematic heroes,” he says of the characters. “We were stoners, an odd couple. That’s not what the ideal Asian American characters would have been if you polled people at a film festival. But over the years, it feels like the community has really warmed to what we are doing.”
Fast forward seven years. The Harold and Kumar franchise has become a smash hit, two stoners are household names and they’ve paved the way for minority actors and comedians to play leading roles in projects that are not ethnicity-focused, no longer always relegated to the bit parts of sidekicks, immigrants or exotic objects.
Kal Penn, the man behind Kumar, agrees that the movie was a step forward for the industry. “I remain honored to have the chance to play this character,” he says. “But it’s not about me. It’s about the risk that Warner Brothers took [in casting two Asian American leads], and I hope there are more movies that continue to be made like that.”
There’s certainly a reason why audiences can’t get enough of the franchise. In college, my Indian roommate and I discovered our mutual love for the movie when she hung the poster above her bed our freshman year. We immediately decided that we were a female version of the duo, one brown and yellow face, taking on the four-year adventure of college. Perhaps, somewhat subconsciously, it was the thrill of seeing faces like ours on the big screen, as rebels of a sort, proving that we could be ambitious like Harold but also fun-loving like Kumar at the same time. We dressed as Harold and Kumar one Halloween, watched the second movie together, looked up the lyrics to the Pi song and reveled in the way we saw ourselves represented in them, despite the fact that neither of us ever seriously dreamed of becoming surgeons or bankers, smoked weed or ate at White Castle.
This week, the third movie of the series comes out. Cho and Penn, the unlikely A-list pioneers of Asian Americans in Hollywood, are back in their most famous roles despite the four-year hiatus they spent filming other projects and advising the President of the United States (Penn was previously an associate director working in outreach for the Asian American Pacific Islander and arts communities for the White House). This time around, they are almost thirty. Harold and Maria have married, and the bond between Harold and Kumar has faded, as friendships are wont to do. A series of unfortunate events (isn’t it always?) brings them back together, in an effort to please Harold’s father-in-law, on a Christmas adventure that includes a Ukranian mob boss, a robot that makes waffles and, of course, Neil Patrick Harris.
Above all, the movie is a celebration of friendship—director Todd Strauss-Schulson calls it a “bromantic comedy.” According to Cho, the biggest challenge of the movies is making sure that Harold and Kumar are believable as friends. “I think most people have a straighter side and a wilder side,” he says. “That’s why the Harold and Kumar movies work to a certain extent. That’s why the Odd Couple format, which is what we’re copying, works so well. Everyone has both in them.”
Perhaps the biggest advance the movies have made is in making a pair of stoner rebels (regardless of their ethnicity) unlikely role models for a true friendship. I can’t count the number of times I’ve met best friends of South and East Asian descent—like my roommate and I—who believe, from the bottom of their hearts, that they are Harold and Kumar.
Header credit: Warner Bros. Pictures