Why Kal Penn Left His Role As Dr. Lawrence Kutner On House

Fans of the show "House" were left stunned in 2009 when Kal Penn's character, Dr. Lawrence Kutner, was abruptly killed off via suicide. What made the character's death extra jarring was that producers decided to leave Dr. Kutner's reasons for taking his own life a mystery. "The lack of reason behind [the suicide] — the lack of answers — was what I responded to," David Shore, an executive producer on "House" told Entertainment Weekly in 2009. The decision was made to write off Dr. Kutner after Penn told producers he wanted to leave the series to take a position at the White House to become a member of the Barack Obama administration.

The opportunity arose for Penn — who used his legal name Kalpen Modi while working in Washington — when he accompanied fellow actor Olivia Wilde to an event leading up to Obama's election. "And there was an opportunity to serve in the White House, and ... you know, what are you gonna say, 'No Mr. President, I have another stoner movie to make?'" the "Harold and Kumar" actor told NPR in 2019 when reflecting on the government job.

Penn was hired to work as the associate director for the Office of Public Liaison, which focused on educating the youth. "Our office doesn't handle policy, but we help bridge the gap between policies," Penn told ABC News in 2011. Although he was excited about the opportunity with the Obama administration, Penn wanted to make sure it was offered for the right reasons.

Kal Penn was a junior level White House staffer

After starring in two "Harold and Kumar" movies, and working on shows such as "House," Kal Penn wanted clarification before he started working at the White House. He asked his boss Valerie Jarrett if he landed the gig solely due to his name recognition. "I can assure you, you're being hired in spite of it," Jarrett quipped, as Penn recalled to NPR years later in a 2022 interview.

There was a disconnect between Penn's life in Hollywood and becoming a White House staffer, as was evidenced when he was filling out paperwork to start the job. One question asked why he had been fired from jobs in the past. "And I wrote, 'Fired for not being funny enough,'" Penn recalled to The New York Times in 2011. Despite the discrepancies in employment history between himself and co-workers, Penn fit in rather seamlessly. "He did a lot of grunt work and did a lot of unglamorous work and basically did the job of a consummate D.C. staffer," Jon Lovett, a speechwriter for the Barack Obama administration told the Times. Indeed, Penn's White House gig was a departure from Hollywood. "I don't know anyone who would say that the White House is particularly glamorous," he told ABC News.

A year after leaving Tinseltown, Penn took a sabbatical from Washington to film "A Very Harold and Kumar Christmas" in 2010, which he was contractually obligated to do. Not long after, however, Penn returned to acting full-time.

Kal Penn interviewed another president

In 2011, Kal Penn went back to acting with two years of working for the Barack Obama administration under his belt. Speaking about his decision to leave Washington, the "How I Met Your Mother" actor said it was not because he had become disenchanted with politics. "In fact, I have left the administration much less cynical than when I started," Penn told Vulture in 2011.

Once he returned to Hollywood, Penn was prolific in his television work. He appeared in shows like "Designated Survivor," "Clarice," "American Horror Story," and a litany of other series. The two dichotomous careers have offered personal balance for Penn. "For me, it's kind of the privilege of having that yin and yang; what I like about D.C. is that it's entirely intellectual, and what I love about LA is that it's almost entirely creative," he told IndieWire in 2011.

Penn was able to bridge his two professional backgrounds in March when he interviewed President Joe Biden on "The Daily Show." The former White House staffer used the opportunity to focus on positive elements of politics. "I wanted to have a conversation with [President Biden] that kind of focused around hope and solutions as opposed to the just the doom and gloom stuff," Penn told The Wrap just before the interview aired.