Jordan Klepper Talks about Weaponizing His Privilege on His New Comedy Central ShowPhoto courtesy of Comedy Central Comedy Features Jordan Klepper
Comedy Central keeps looking to Jordan Klepper to save them.
Well, maybe not save them. There’s an infinite number of South Park episodes to re-run, and who doesn’t love revisiting We’re The Millers? But when it comes to original, vital content, Comedy Central keeps giving Klepper prime opportunities. The Chicago improv comic became a Daily Show correspondent under Jon Stewart in 2014, and stayed with the show under Trevor Noah into 2017. The network encouraged him to develop an hour long special, slightly more serious in nature, called Jordan Klepper Solves Guns. This lead into The Opposition with Jordan Klepper, wherein the Klepper character leaned-in to an Alex Jones conspiracy activist character, with citizen journalists as correspondents. Creating a nightly news show with a hyper-specific tone and focus proved to be difficult, and the show was cancelled in summer 2018.
But immediately upon cancellation, Comedy Central had already announced the pick-up of a new Klepper show. See what I’m talking about? The moment one Klepper project at CC ends, they’re ready to announce a new one. As much as I’ve enjoyed Klepper’s previous work, I’m much more excited for— and concerned about— the new one.
On May 9, Comedy Central premieres a new weekly show with Jordan Klepper. It’s called Klepper. I know it may be difficult to remember, but you may want to write this down. Because it’s incredibly good and it has no discernable business being on Comedy Central. It’s an intensely assembled, aggressive sequence of field pieces and interviews, structured around weekly themes of a nature that would be difficult or too complicated for serious journalists to tackle. Klepper hosts as himself, without a trace of his former character-based heightening, and the result is an often-affecting yet comedically engaging dragging of our national darkness into the cleansing light.
It’s a different approach to the kind of bummer comedy journalism you’d expect from a Last Week Tonight or an Adam Ruins Everything. But perhaps more importantly, it’s finally the perfect Jordan Klepper vehicle.
Paste recently talked to Jordan Klepper ahead of the release of his new show. Here’s what he had to say.
Paste: To get started, let’s talk about The Opposition: did you feel that the show got to serve its purpose with the time it was given? Do you feel good about the run?
Jordan Klepper: I was really proud of The Opposition. It was definitely a challenge to keep filtering everything through that perspective, day in and day out. Sometimes we wish we had a more nimble ship where we could go right at an idea, as opposed to figuring it out backwards. But I loved doing that, I would’ve loved to continue doing it and reacting to the chaos that’s sort of been happening around us. With that being said, I think we’re shifting, and shifting quickly. The world of Alex Jones as we see in the news today…those guys are going farther and farther out of our consciousness, if you will. In a nutshell, I do stand by and feel really proud of 100 plus episodes that we did. I was bummed when it ended for sure, it was mixed with other strange feelings of excitement at getting to do something opposite.
Paste: With Alex Jones being banned from Facebook recently… after he was banned, he was on Facebook live-streaming about his ban from Facebook, which was one of the most surreal things I’ve ever seen in my life.
Klepper: [Laughter] That’s pretty amazing.
Paste: Yeah, I wish that The Opposition was still on obviously, but also I’m like, as we’re deplatforming these assholes, maybe it doesn’t need to be there in that same way. Did making a show through that perspective ever put in you in the same place as people having to cover Trump seriously all day? Was it sad to think of jokes from that angle?
Klepper: Oh, for sure. We also were talking about how watching that for hours and watching any kind of people who are angry all day brings you down, you know? It gave us something to push back against, but with the Trump bubble and the far-right bubble, it’s exhausting. Whenever you can get outside of it, it’s refreshing. Anybody who runs a show like that is consistently day in and day out responding to that, and trying to craft stuff out of it. You quickly look for any kind of escape just to not be inundated by the negativity all the time.
Paste: Colbert at least got to be spoofing Republicans and Centrists; your character had to inhabit the space of hate and insanity. That must’ve taken a toll.
Klepper: It does take a toll. Also, you start to see the effectiveness of it. It was really fun to satirize the way that people play the victim. It’s a fun comedic game to watch Tucker Carlson and be like, “What if I could play the victim that Tucker Carlson thinks that he is?” That as a privileged white man, he was the most hated person in America? That is, to me, really fun to play around with. I think what became really dark and frustrating was when you see these voices implementing policy changes from the highest positions in the land. That felt dark, it didn’t just feel fringe by the end.
Paste: So in talking about the genesis of the new show, I suppose that this starts with Jordan Klepper Solves Guns?
Klepper: You know, a little bit. That experience was eye-opening for me, one: to helm a project like that, and two: how to break out from a more traditional Daily Show kind of setup. Even the moment in the Solves Guns episode when I went with the militia, I essentially spent the day with them and did something that was experiential as opposed to just commenting on a story that was already there. We got so much out of that. I can be there while something is happening. It’s like, as we start to build this new show, let’s look for places where I can be placed and be part of an event as it’s going on. Solves Guns was definitely a stepping stone to what this show came to be.
Paste: So your new show: the first few episodes involved you dealing with veterans with PTSD, a secret underground university for nondocumented people, and the native American experience. At what point was Comedy Central like, “This is really funny and we want to green light this”??
Klepper: [Laughter] The network was surprisingly supportive. We wanted to deal with important issues and deal with things we cared about, and things that weren’t getting enough life in the mainstream media. Going out and telling these stories, there was a part of us like, “Shit, are we coming through enough on the comedy part of Comedy Central? There isn’t as much room for dick jokes.” I did make it a point to get some in, but—
Paste: I mean, isn’t your new version of a dick joke just calling out the awful extremists you wind up talking to and saying, “You’re a dick”?
Klepper: [Laughter] Yes. The network continued to push; they’re like, “We have an opportunity here to push beyond the types of pieces that we’ve seen before.” We at one point had a spine of the show that was more traditional. I was out in the field and we’d cut back to me on my couch, commenting on the experiences that I had. Distant and a little bit more traditional comic style. It’s when we tried to take it out of the experiential field, and the network was like, “No, we want to live in this field, let us live with these people. Let this thing be sad at moments. Let these people shine, and we’ll find comedy moments out of that.”
Paste: I’m having a hard time imagining what the show was like, cutting back to you on a couch. It seems like a much different version.
Klepper: We were figuring this out as we were doing it. We wanted this to feel authentic. Like, we’re not going to have the comedic tool of distance to irony. I’m going to be as much me as I can be out there. I’m going to look to find humor, but I’m not going to pretend to be an idiot who doesn’t understand. That gives you less leverage in your bag, so as we were bringing stuff back, we were like, “Do we need to get back to the classic rhythm of joke telling in these classic field pieces?” It felt familiar and I think that became a problem for us. It is more interesting when you go to a place, something happens, and you’re earnestly talking about what happened when shit went down. Let it be that, as opposed to just commentary. Let it be experienced.
Paste: Do you find it at all disconcerting that some of the best journalism on TV is coming from Comedy Central?
Klepper: [laughter] I guess I would push back on that position. I think the best journalism is coming from respected places where people are going out, finding interesting stories, and Comedy Central perhaps is hacking the paywall to get those stories from those esteemed journalists and using those stories in a little bit more of a comedic way.
Paste: Did you also—like many folks of our age and interest in comedy—did you grow up watching The Daily Show?
Klepper: 100 percent. When I got the job at The Daily Show, it was like a dream come true. I remember the early eras with Carrell, Colbert, Ed Helms, Sam Bee, and just growing up getting my news from Jon Stewart and seeing him as a venerated statesman of political comedy. To work with him was such a dream opportunity, not only to be on the show, but to watch the day in and day out of how you run a show like that and the integrity that he brought to that position. Not everybody is that fortunate to get mentors that clear-headed, so I really did luck out on that one.
Paste: Do you consider that you’re part of this lineage now, in that for a certain group of people you are being that clear-headed voice of news, a person they trust?
Klepper: Well, as humbling as that is to think, if people trust me just because I’m on television, then I’m a little bit worried, but I also—
Paste: You also have very good hair. That should count for something.
Klepper: [Laughter] Yeah, it’s like, “He has good hair, he’s been able to keep that hair for a long time, I’m drawn to him.” Getting a chance to work at Comedy Central to work at The Daily Show—I’m very aware that people do come to that show and take a lot away from that show, some of their political opinions informed by some of the things they hear there. I’m 100 percent aware of it. As we go out to craft a show, we know we need to get these stories right. Research is a big part of all of this; we want to be very clear with what our intentions are walking out to do these stories. But we also want to get it right, so when you’re part of a lineage like that, you know that there’s this thing called integrity that you live up to. I’ve been trying to find ways to dodge that for years, but I can’t seem to shake it.
Paste: I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to threaten you with responsibility.
Klepper: [Laughter] Yeah, Jesus man. I want to get high and tell dick jokes. Now I have to think about people actually getting information from me. It’s almost too much, for God’s sake.
Paste: So what were some of your important moments, or big memories of making this new show?
Klepper: I mean, this show was wild to make.
Paste: How long were you in production?
Klepper: I think a little around eight months or so, there was a big learning curve. At first we had done multiple stories per episode, so it was a show that kept evolving based on the stories we were getting when we went out there. A big thing we quickly learned was with The Daily Show, you go out and you get the stories based on research and interviewing people, and you spend the day with them and come back and you tell that story. In a documentary sense, you walk out the door with an assumption of the story you want to tell, but then you let those people tell that story and that informs the story you tell. So that was something we had to get used to, and it would often throw me in weird, strange places. When I look back on this, I look back on getting body-slammed by sweaty veterans, nearly breaking my foot and icing my foot in a La Quinta Inn after a long day of shooting, I think of getting arrested for the first time, which was an eye-opening moment for me. I’ve talked about it before but—not to get too saccharine, but it was a little bit of a life-changer for me. I’m a comedian but I’m also a person who continues to age and hopefully gets a little bit wiser. This show gave me an opportunity to work with people who work really hard to try to get stuff done. I see myself as a progressive, a guy who tries to be on the right side of things, and seeing those students down there in Atlanta and hearing their stories, and continuing to hear stories from other people like in the Native American episode who point-blank looked at me and said, “Dude, you need to weaponize your privilege. You can make jokes all you want but you’re the guy with a tv camera and a tv show. Be aware of what that means.” Being down there with those students and being faced with the opportunity to do something about it, I think that was a moment for me. To realize that and to try to take some action, no matter how small. As cold-hearted as I try to be, I think a little bit of America left somewhat of a thumbprint on my soul. I’m eagerly trying to wash it out now that I’m back in New York.
Paste: It sounds like between not being able to craft a story before you go out and the aggression of the world and age pushing back against you, has your comedy had to change a lot this year?
Klepper: It has. Like I said, I think the tools have shifted. I’ve had three weird jobs in the last three years, all using different types of comedic tools to address a weird time in our country’s history. I think I’m more comfortable in just being myself out there. The label of satirist can oddly burden someone to walk into a space and feel like you have to point the finger, call out a bad guy, and/or scorch the earth. For this show, it was nice to be able walk out and just be a person who is somewhat comfortable in being comedic and also empathetic and just a person who is curious. Again, that’s a tough sell to a comedy network. They were on board. They were like, “Go out there. Talk to those people. We can make it funny. Can you connect those things and tell those stories?” So yeah, that was a learning process but it was cathartic for me, and I hope the audience can respond to that, as well.
Paste: One of the most affecting scenes for me was in the episode about the secret underground university for non-documented people. There was a scene there wherein you watched Trump announce the national security push-through for the border wall with them. Was that live?
Klepper: That was 100 percent live. I was with the students and it had just been announced an hour or so earlier that he was going to hold a press conference. It popped up on my phone, and I turned to the professor and was like, “This is happening. Would you guys normally weigh in on this?” Some students are very aware and on top of it because it affects their families, and some students try to keep it blocked out because it’s just too much. So we were like, “Is it possible if we can just watch this? Are students at all interested to get their reactions on how they would feel about that?” It was really powerful to be in that group. It’s so easy to watch Donald Trump at home on CNN or Fox or MSNBC, pick your poison. To hear him talking, his barbs…they hurt. They cut. They’re pointed directly at students like this and their loved ones. Little flippant things alluding to people coming over the border being drug dealers, comments like them being rapists, it seems slick when it comes from the president at times. I’m with students who are young, but they are savvy and they understand everything that he’s trying to communicate. It hurts and it cuts.
Paste: I had to go back like “Wait, is this happening live?” It’s just such a beautifully shot sequence. It’s also insane that you guys happened to be there at the time for it. That’s crazy.
Klepper: Honestly, it was. I give credit to our camera crew, we have some amazing cinematographers who are really adept. As that popped up, we were like, “Yeah, let’s set it up. We’re going to stream it on our computer here, and set it up to capture everybody’s reaction.” And that’s what you see.
Paste: I’ve got to end here by asking you to walk me through every single step of getting Hillary Clinton to read the Mueller Report. What was this experience? How did you get here? How? Howww?
Klepper: [Laughter] It was a really unique experience; I was doing an event where I was asked to moderate a conversation with the Clintons a weekend ago. Part of that was talk of potentially doing a video, so I pitched that idea, which was essentially based on a tweet that Hillary sent that week trying to raise funds for historically black churches that had burned down. It was a success story that week. A lot of people held it up as the internet can do some good, people can come together to take action. So we pitched to former president Clinton and Secretary of State Clinton this idea, “I want to spend a thousand dollars spreading some good, can we do a few things and have you guys weigh in on them?” They said yes, and from there I basically go up to meet the president and Madam Secretary, pull out a computer with a bunch of tabs that I wanted their advice on, and they jumped right in. They gave me as honest advice as you could get. I would talk about the ACLU and I’d talk about ghosts that are stuck on an island, and they’d approach them with an equal amount of gravitas to each situation. The Mueller Report comes up as something that could be read for an audiobook, but I didn’t expect Hillary Clinton to jump in to do that. She didn’t hesitate; she made it clear that she thought it’s be good, she’d be interested and she’d be curious. So we printed it out, we had it there, and she jumped right in. I think she even said afterwards that it was “cathartic.” You could sense that in that moment. I, for one, would listen to a full Mueller Report read by Secretary Clinton. So I hope that does happen.
Paste: Is it cool to be a journalist who also gets to do all of the things that journalists would never be able to do?
Klepper: Well, I would hesitate from calling myself a journalist. Only because I’m not giving my original sources, and they work ten times harder than I do. I will say that, as a comedian who dabbles in this world, it’s a pretty unique experience to sit down with a former president and a should-be president, and talk about ghosts and then hear one of them read a recitation of a report that exonerates some of the ideas she had years before. That’s a strange room to be in, but not what I expected myself to be in ten years ago when I was teaching improv class. I blame the Secret Service for that, to be honest. That’s a failure to properly vet the people who get closest to the people who are in charge.
Klepper premieres on May 9 on Comedy Central.
Brock Wilbur is a writer and comedian from Los Angeles who lives with his wife Vivian Kane and their cat, Cat. He is the co-author (with Nathan Rabin) of the forthcoming book Postal for the Boss Fight Books series.