Since joining The Daily Show in 2014, UCB, Second City, and iO alum Jordan Klepper has risen to become the show’s standout performer. In recent months he’s consistently delivered some of the best coverage of Donald Trump rallies on late night TV, and the success from his election field pieces have paid off in big ways: His Trump rally report from September is the most widely shared Daily Show with Trevor Noah on Facebook ever, he has two TV projects in development at Comedy Central, and when Noah had to take a sick day last week, Klepper filled in as host for a night and crushed it. (Also: As of today, he’s a Journey parody music video star, too.) I spoke with Klepper earlier this week about what truths he’s learned from Trump supporters over the past year and what we can expect from him after the man finally goes away (or the Trumpocalypse begins).
So tell me about last week! What was it like to host the show? How much notice did you have?
We got notice midday that Trevor had to go home sick, so I think it was around 1:00pm when I got the call that I was gonna go into the big chair. It was quick. They were prepping a show based around Trevor’s perspective on the debate the night before that was kind of focused on Trevor’s past and also a perspective of him coming from Africa and what he thought about it, so we really had to start from scratch late in the day to catch up. So we kind of jumped right into the maelstrom, and it was an absolute blast to get to sit in that chair. I’ve gotten to sit across from it a lot of times, so it was really fun to actually see what it feels like in the hot seat.
Well congrats. It was exciting to see you at the desk.
Well thanks! It was a real blast to do. I’ve been around the show for two and a half, almost three years, and I’ve gotten to see all aspects of the show, but to be able to go through the day from the host’s perspective really gave me a good feel of how the machinery works here. It was a fun experience for someone who’s been around to be reintroduced to how good everybody is at their jobs and their ability to pull the show together on short notice. It left me humbled to get to do that and see everybody pull it off.
How politically engaged were you prior to joining the show?
I’ve always been engaged in politics. In Chicago I did an improv show called Whirled News Tonight, which basically did improv and satire based on that week’s news stories. So right out of the gate I was engaged in politics and how they affect our day-to-day lives. I was up to date on what was happening and was writing comedy about it from the get-go, and as I did Second City and ImprovOlympic, you have to be up to date on the world around you in order to write that comedy and do that comedy. The Daily Show very much bumps up your game as far as awareness goes, so I felt like I was pretty on top of things when I auditioned for the show, and then day 1 working at the show was like “Oh, there’s another level of ‘on top of things’ that I have to reach for.” There’s an “on top of ‘on top of.’” I had no idea that existed.
It’s funny you mention you’ve been there for almost three years now, because so many things have taken over the news since then that it feels like such a blur. How did it feel to go from being the new guy back when Jon Stewart hosted to the guy who’s been there the longest now that Trevor’s hosting?
Yeah, I agree with you. Time has flown, and we’ve done so many shows. When Trevor came onboard, there was definitely a new feel to the show. And that was when Jason [Jones] and Sam [Bee] had moved on and we got all the new wonderful correspondents who came onboard, so that was definitely a shift in perspective, like “Oh, I’ve now been around a long time – me and Jess [Williams] are the two old guards here.” So in my head there was a mini-shift of “Oh, we’re the vets now, so it’s time to haze Ronny Chieng!” And I’ve been doing it ever since.
What was it like being at the show during that transition? Did you approach things differently at all after Trevor took over?
It was a really exciting time around here. My relationship with the show when I came on was that it was a well-oiled machine, and Jon was someone I’d been watching since I began comedy who was a mentor and somebody I’d been looking up to for quite some time. Then when Trevor came in, he was somebody who I had worked with as a peer on the show, and so when he came in he was very aware of the history of the show but also was eager to find what the new spin and the new take would be. So he kind of came in and, in a very casual way, was like “Help me figure out what the show is going to be. I want you and the other correspondents to be pitching and trying new things and taking risks.” It became a really collaborative way of expanding the role of what a correspondent could do and doing things outside of what we had traditionally done in the past. It was a very exciting time to get to try things out, see what people were excited about, play around with field pieces in ways we maybe hadn’t before, and play around with the character. So it became collaborative across the board, not only with correspondents but with writers and producers as well. We were encouraged to grow the show and add our opinions to it to try to figure out what that next version of The Daily Show would be.
The Trump segments you’ve been doing have all been pretty incredible. Can you walk me through the first Trump rally you went to?
I’ve done a bunch of different types of Trump pieces, but the first rally I went to, the producer was Ramin Hedayati, and we actually went inside, and that was the infamous rally where Trump said “pussy.” Although it’s so funny even saying that now, as if that were a shocker. That was an eye-opening experience to get to talk to the people outside and then to go inside and get the feel of it. I will say, at the beginning it was half diehard Trump fans and half looky-loos – people who just wanted to see what this big show was. That was even the take on that first piece: This is the big show in town, and it was like a circus where we wanted to see what it felt like inside. And it really did feel like that – it felt like it was people who were gung-ho Trump people and eccentric in that way mixed with people who just wanted to see what the show was all about. It continued to evolve the more we’d go to rallies and talk to the bystanders.
What stood out in that piece to me is we started interviewing people outside as they started gathering hours before the rally started, and I will say, right off the bat, people were really kind and in good spirits. We were sort of surprised by how low-key people were, and we didn’t hear a lot of the rhetoric that we expected. I talked to a young student who was 18 years old, and he was talking about how this is his first election. He was wearing all Trump gear, and he was kind of coy and soft-spoken and just excited about the political process. Even my producer and I were like “You know, this guy said some things that might buy into some of the more extreme rhetoric that Trump’s said, but this is just a kid who is excited about politics.” And then suddenly a young female protester walks up, and all she’s wearing is a sign that says “Love Not Hate” – that’s it, that’s as far as it goes – and this kid, and all the people around him, immediately start to call her a bitch and the c-word; they just lay into this person who is simply wearing a sign that says “Love Not Hate.” You can feel this group dynamic shift people and make it okay for these deeper-seated balls of rage to come out, and that was the first clue I got that there was something kind of seedier taking place. And unfortunately, that has only bubbled to the surface as Trump has normalized this kind of behavior and rhetoric, where now what happens at rallies is night and day compared to what happened back in February.
Your interview with Mark Burns was another great segment too. How do you keep your cool during interviews like that one? Because it’s clear you’re not, like, aggressively trying to pull crazy answers out of him. It was all on him.
Yep, I think that was definitely the case. Pastor Mark Burns is very up-front about what he believes – what he believes about Donald Trump and what he believes about Hillary Clinton – and so that’s the kind of interview where I just kind of sit and let him talk to his point of view. I will retort in my own ways, but I think he and most of the people we interview for our field pieces – we’re not catching them saying something they wouldn’t normally say. These are the things that they believe. We want them to be comfortable to say it, and I sit there and I listen to it, and when things feel a little outrageous that’s where perhaps I chime in here or there. And Burns got his fair share of that for sure.
What have you learned from talking with so many Trump supporters?
I mean, again, there’s been an evolution of Trump supporters at rallies, just from the things that I’ve seen. The freeness and the frequency with which people espouse more far-right and even conspiracy theory-based ideas is, of itself, up tenfold; it’s not just me just putting a microphone in front of their face, and you would be surprised how much stuff comes out. The second part of it is asking people to explain where they’re getting some of their information, and if they believe that, what else? I think I may be blessed or cursed with a somewhat trustworthy face, and I think people are eager to talk. When I go to these Trump rallies, I want to know what they think. I want, if they do believe Hillary Clinton is bad, to give me more reasons to understand that point of view.
There’s not trickery out there. I know people are often shocked with what ends up on the tape, but that’s commonplace at these rallies. There was maybe more prying to get people to say that, you know, Barack Obama is a secret Muslim six months ago, and that was something that the people at these rallies were holding in or didn’t believe. Now, most of the people I talk to will lead with that, and I just let the cameras roll to see where they wanna go to next. And this rhetoric is just so charged. We’ve been pitching ways that we could go to these rallies again, and one of the things on the table is to connect a microphone to a stand and just stand there and listen. I think the rhetoric will come out in full force.
It’s one thing to laugh at the Trump supporters in your segments, but it’s another thing when you have friends or family members who support him. If someone were to ask you for advice on that, what would you say?
I mean, sadly, I do think on both sides, people are ready to vote. I think people know who they want to support and they’ve been thinking that for quite some time now. I know people on the right, in talking to these Trump supporters and asking them “What could Donald Trump do to lose your vote?” – boy, there’s almost nothing. And if you push, it’s because they think Hillary Clinton is a murderer. Quite literally, many of the people don’t just think that she’s bad or crooked; a lot of people think to the point of “She’s responsible for deaths of human beings.” So you’re like “Well, there’s a good chance you’re gonna vote for Trump no matter what comes out.” And on the left I know people who are so convinced that Donald Trump is evil and racist and misogynist and all those things, and there’s very little that could come out about Hillary Clinton to make them change. I do think we’re living in a hyper-partisan time, and minds are made up.
That said, I get farther in talking to the Trump supporters in my family or those who are close to me and empathizing with where some of that frustration comes from. It’s too easy to label Trump supporters or people you don’t like as racists or misogynists. I think there’s a lot of good people out there who are angry and frustrated with whatever they’ve been dealt in life, and for some reason they feel the government has not come through on the promises they were given. And I can empathize with that – I understand that frustration. I see people who are upset about whatever cards they were dealt, but for some reason they’ve latched onto Donald Trump because they think of him as a disruptor or things of that nature. If you are trying to connect with these people in your family and can’t understand why they would support a guy as extreme as Donald Trump, I do think you have to understand it might not be the underlying racism or misogyny that they’re responding to, it might just be overall frustration, and I think we can all empathize with frustration.
I think that’s the starting point. The ending point is probably a turkey being thrown at someone’s head on Thanksgiving. But at least you can start with a little bit of empathy about frustration – I think we can all agree there.
Let’s say that Trump doesn’t win the election. What do you think the fallout from this will be? He mobilized a lot of those frustrated people you’re talking about, and I don’t see them just disappearing on November 9th.
If he loses, I think he may step out of the public eye, although I wouldn’t bet on it. What will stay is the rhetoric. I think he normalized an attitude toward minorities and women that I thought we had perhaps moved beyond. The upside of that is we see all of America’s warts pretty clearly right now, and so we can’t really push it under the rug. We gotta deal with that, and I think that could be good for us as a country, because we are divided. What scares me a little bit is I am seeing the way in which people attack one another and the kind of language that they use and the things that are in their heart – I think Trump has deposited that on American society. He took a big old crap, and he might leave, but that thing’s still gonna stink. So we gotta figure out a way to clean that up and realize “Hey, I think we’re better than this. Let’s try to pull together to get better than this.”
Can you share any updates about the show you’re developing?
Everything’s very top secret, but yes, I got a show and a special that are in development right now. I’m currently working on the comedy special. I can’t go into too many details right now, but we’re putting together a lovely team and we’re in the process of getting that thing going. So that’s been a lot of fun to work on, but right now my main focus is getting through this election and putting all my time and energy into the…end of the world, if you will? So after the election, there’s gonna be a little more time to focus on those outside projects, which I’m super excited about.
So you’ll have the first post-apocalyptic TV show.
[laughs] Yeah! You know what? I think we’ll all be ready for it.