Talking with Jordan Klepper About Empathy, His Gun Control Special, and Finding Common Ground

After the London terror attack last weekend, Donald Trump thought a perfectly rational response would be to go on Twitter and ask his 32 million followers a loaded question: “Do you notice we are not having a gun debate right now?” In response, many people demonstrated why the tweet was ignorant and completely out of touch, with politicians like former Arizona Representative Gabrielle Giffords offering up those things Trump really hates – cold, hard, facts – to show that the gun debate in the US is very much alive:

Another figure who has kept the gun control debate at the forefront is Daily Show correspondent Jordan Klepper, who became a fan favorite throughout the presidential election season for his memorable, yet hard to watch segments at Trump rallies during the campaign and beyond. Prior to Trump’s rise, Klepper also found his niche at the show tackling all sides of the gun debate, from his multiple “Good Guy with a Gun” segments to reports on state gun laws where he finds common ground with both sides of the issue, like his 2015 report on Florida’s law prohibiting doctors from discussing gun safety with their patients. Now, Klepper’s skills have been put to use in a new hourlong special, Jordan Klepper Solves Guns, which airs on Comedy Central this weekend. I recently talked with Klepper about why he wanted to make a special focused on guns, how to find common ground in a divided country, and his upcoming 11:30pm late night show.

The last time we spoke I was naive enough to ask you questions about if Trump didn’t win the election. We’ve been through a whole lot since then.

That feels like an entire era ago.

It really does. So, let’s talk about the special. Why did you want to focus on guns, and when did you get started on it?

I started working on this almost a year ago. With The Daily Show I got to do a bunch of pieces around the gun issue and the idea of a “good guy with a gun” stopping a bad guy with a gun, and with that I figured out what it took to get a gun, what it took to be trained by people who are experts at active shooter training, and I got to figure out how people felt about that issue, and that was fascinating. And then I got to do a piece with Jazz Shaw and Mark Rosenberg, who were joining forces from the left and the right to try to get more funding from the government to study gun violence research for the CDC. I got to do a piece about how in Florida doctors weren’t allowed to talk to patients about gun safety because the NRA was blocking it. I kept doing these pieces on guns, and I kept having the same conversation with people over and over again. These are people who just wanted common-sense moves forward, but they weren’t being heard. There wasn’t any progress being made because the big loud voice in the room – cough, the NRA – was controlling the whole dialogue.

So I kept having that conversation at The Daily Show and with people around The Daily Show. And then there was a shooting in my hometown, and I felt like I was having that same conversation with my parents about it, where it felt like it was happening all the time: It was happening on television, we’re seeing these mass shootings – why aren’t we doing anything about it? So we wanted to do a special investigating that. And more so, not just talking to the right, but talking to moderates, because there are a lot more moderates and there’s a lot more common ground on this issue than anybody lets on. That’s what I found with all those pieces for The Daily Show – it was like “Man, most of America agrees on this stuff.” And it’s sort of infuriating, because that’s not the narrative. It’s a much more polarized narrative.

Is it a coincidence you ended up becoming the go-to “gun guy” at The Daily Show, or was that always an issue you were interested in?

It’s a little bit of both. I’ve always had an interest in that issue, and I think also, I’m The Daily Show’s Midwestern correspondent and I grew up in Michigan, and my grandpa was a head NRA member and used to take me out to shoot rifles at hubcaps. So I wasn’t new to guns, but I felt like I understood the New Yorker’s take on the gun issue, but also, I have a lot of family members who have guns, so I know that it means something different to another part of the country. So I thought that was always fascinating, and it drew me towards this issue. And I think the way in which people talk about guns – guns are a microcosm for American politics. It’s not about guns, it’s about how we talk about guns. That’s what we’re focusing on. When we talk about guns, we’re not really talking about guns – we’re talking about family, or tradition, or patriotism, or safety, or terrorism.

You spend a good portion of the special back in your hometown in Michigan. What was that like?

That was a real dream. I love Kalamazoo, and all my family is there. As we were working on this special, we really did want to talk to moderates and not just people on both extremes of this issue, because that’s all they show on TV. But back where I come from, guns mean something a little bit different. There was a tragedy in my hometown, and much like all of these shootings that take place, they’re not just about one thing. So I don’t want to pretend that that tragedy can be boiled down to one gun control issue, but I did think it brought awareness that this is happening all over the country. You see it on TV, and then you see it in your own backyard.

So I wanted to go back home and talk to family members about their relationship with guns. Pete, for example – he’s my cousin, I love Pete, Pete pops up in my Facebook feed, he’s the guy who’s a conservative who goes hunting with his daughters, and he’s something of an outlier on my Facebook feed. I think we all have those, and that’s something we should be investigating and people we should be talking to. So I was like “Let me find out what Pete actually thinks about guns,” because I have a hard time listening, but maybe if I put it on television I’ll pay attention.

Pete is perfect for that. And I didn’t get any sense he was excited to be on TV. It seemed more like he was just doing you a favor, like “Sure, I’ll do it.”

[laughs] Pete’s kind of perfect. And honestly, as we were developing the special, he was sort of a stand-in in my head. Pete’s conservative, he lives in Michigan, he goes hunting, and he’s not uber emotional; he’s pretty straightforward. So he almost became a stand-in, so we thought, “Why don’t we just actually talk to Pete?” Because it’s true – he didn’t do this to try to be a big TV star. He’s not putting on any kind of crazy act. He was just like “You wanna talk about guns? Okay.” I got to hang out with him, I pet his horses in the backyard, I went bowling with him that night, and he was just like “Yeah, you can follow me along and I’ll talk to you about stuff, but I’m not gonna put on any false airs.” And that was perfect. That was exactly what we wanted.

This special, like you said, focuses a lot on finding common ground especially with people who lean more moderate. But even if we’re not as divided as TV and the news depict, I think there’s still a sense of “My Team vs. Your Team” on issues like this, where it often feels hopeless trying to get someone to change their mind. How do you chip away at that?

I mean, I think maybe empathy shouldn’t be such a luxury, but perhaps it is in this day and age. It took making a special for me to reach out to Pete and actually talk to him articulately about what he thought about the gun issue, and it went much beyond what I naively assumed about it. When I first reached out to Pete I was like “Pete, we don’t talk much about guns and your relationship with them, but I’m doing this special and I really want to hear what your take on this stuff is.” And he was really thoughtful and shared many of the same points of view that I have about it, and I will say, working on this special for almost a year now, myself and the director and the other folks who worked on it found ourselves moving much more towards the middle. We really started to see the grey area in the gun debate and the things that are unfair to the people on the right, and it definitely opened me up to have a better conversation with people like Pete. And it’s a luxury that I got to go spend time with him.

And when you can cut away the bullshit, which is the propaganda and the symbolism, you can just talk about guns and background checks and two-day waiting periods, and those are things we do agree on, and it doesn’t make you crazy. When I watched the NRA video and they talk about the fear that exists in this world and what we need to do to take back our country, I think those people are crazy, and it scares me. But when I talk to real people about these issues, we share so many points of view. If you can really just talk about those issues and wipe away the symbolism – “It’s actually about family! It’s about loyalty!” – it’s like, no, it’s about fucking somebody got shot with a gun because they shouldn’t have had a gun. Could we maybe extend the amount of time that we get to look up their background? And guess what, most of the gun people I talked to were like “Of course we should!” And I think the people I talked to, considerate gun owners who hunt or want to protect themselves, should have a gun – that’s what the Second Amendment is all about, it’s the country we live in, and that’s fine. But we can all be on the same page thinking “Let’s work to figure out a way to make sure that people who are dangerous don’t get guns.” We should put a little bit of money into figuring out why so many Americans die. There are basic things we do agree on, and I think that gets lost in 140-character posts and people clinging to an ideology as opposed to a rational discourse.

How are things going in terms of your late night show coming in the fall?

Well, we’re in the early stages. We’re putting it all together as we speak. I’m pretty excited to get started on it and talk about it more with you soon.

What’s the experience been like developing it and hiring your staff so far?

Well, it makes me very popular with my family, they’re very excited. I’m going to employ everyone in Kalamazoo. [laughs] No, I will say, in the early stages, it’s such a humbling experience. I was incredibly flattered and humbled by Comedy Central giving me this opportunity. Part of the fun thing is getting to create something from scratch, and I will say, I’ve been lucky to have two great bosses with Trevor and Jon over the last few years who know how to run an efficient, kind office, so I’ve reached out to both of them to figure out how to use that blueprint to put together a place where people want to come and work and take their talents, use them for my own benefit, then leave and give me all the credit. So that’s what I’ve been up to.

A lot of people have compared your style and approach on The Daily Show to Stephen Colbert back when he did The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, and I’ve always been curious: How do you feel about that comparison?

I mean, Stephen has been one of my comedy idols ever since he started on Strangers with Candy and then moved on to The Daily Show. He basically created what a correspondent is on The Daily Show, and I think all of us who have gotten to do that job really look up to what he has done with it. I look at him as someone who figured out something really special with both his role on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, so I just gotta sit back and give him a very slow clap that turns into a loud clap for all that he has done and keeps doing. I kind of just watch from afar, and I’m constantly impressed.

Jordan Klepper Solves Guns airs on Comedy Central Sunday night at 10:00pm.

Talking with Jordan Klepper About Empathy, His Gun […]