Jordan Klepper’s Journey From ‘Distanced Irony’ to ‘Naked Authenticity’

Jordan Klepper on Klepper. Photo: Comedy Central

Jordan Klepper has had quite the evolution on Comedy Central over the past five years. Not long after joining The Daily Show as a correspondent in 2014, Klepper became a late-night favorite for his field pieces getting to know Donald Trump supporters in the lead-up to the 2016 election. His popularity on The Daily Show ultimately led to him hosting his own show at Comedy Central, The Opposition, in which he took his right-wing Daily Show character to Infowars-inspired extremes. And no, Alex Jones himself was decidedly not a fan of the show, having referred to Klepper (or as he called him, “Keppler”) as a “classic psychopath,” “failed actor,” “turd blossom,” and “diarrhea coming out of a wart-infested butt.”

The Opposition’s run on Comedy Central was a short one, but thankfully the turd blossom has returned. Klepper’s new eponymous series, which debuts tonight, sees the comedian shedding his previous characters in order to depict serious issues as authentically as possible, covering everything from veterans using wrestling to cope with PTSD to pipeline protesters in Louisiana to undocumented immigrants fighting for their right to education. (That last topic resulted in Klepper getting his very own mug shot and TMZ article.) Ahead of tonight’s premiere of the eight-part series, we spoke with Klepper about his approach to the new show, balancing comedy with serious topics, and how he learned to amplify issues other people care about without doing something The Opposition’s Jordan Klepper did well: making it all about him.

So, Klepper is a big departure from your last show. What’s it like not being behind a desk and not being in a suit for a change?
It’s dangerous, is what I found out. It turns out I was in a very controlled environment where the air-conditioning was lovely, the lighting angles were correct, the audience was told to laugh and was always good. That’s not the case in Killeen, Texas, as we quickly found out.

But honestly, it’s been great. At the beginnings of it, we were excited to get out into the field and start to develop what a field show was, and it sort of took on a life of its own. We really found ourselves inspired by a lot of the groups that I ended up embedding with — not always points of view that I agree with, but a lot of people who are fighting and trying to see some sort of change. I would say it was refreshing and good for the soul to see people up close, fighting, less connected to the chaos at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, and more connected to getting something done right where they are. So I’ve been fortunate enough to get to see it up close, and I liked that. It was good. It was what I needed.

The new show covers a pretty interesting variety of topics. How did you and your team land on what the topics would be for each episode?
The show kind of evolved as we started going out, booking things, and bringing stuff back, and we started to see the story tell itself. It’s sort of a luxury you have when you’re doing something that feels more like a documentary and less like a Daily Show piece where you go out practically knowing the story you’re going to tell because of preinterviews and because you’re tied to a five-minute [segment]. So with this one, you go out with an assumption of what a story is, but you spend more time, and they tell you what the story is. Initially we kind of thought the show was going to be about tribalism — that was our initial theme for this season. It felt like if I’m coming from a fractured world that is split into two sides, we kind of thought, Let’s start seeing how people define themselves in the tribes that they find themselves in.

So we started picking stories based on big-issue topics and different tribes that people identify with, but after we started going out, we realized that was sort of a false premise, and people were less defining themselves through the groups they were in and more defining themselves by the causes that they cared about and the actions that they took. As we looked at stories, we had big issues we wanted to approach, but it really came down to, like, when we found an issue, we would scour for different stories within that issue. And it had to check a bunch of different boxes — one of which, an issue that we cared about; one of which, an issue that we felt we could comment and bring something to; and also we wanted to be a part of it. We wanted to experience something, and not it just be a retelling. Could I get in the boat? Could I be under the table that’s collapsing? Could I help the congresswoman pack and get to D.C.? It was important for us to be there while something was happening as opposed to just being there when the retelling was. So that kind of started to dictate the types of stories that we invested in.

Was there one story in particular that evolved in a way that surprised you?
For sure. I would say the one that was in the bayou with the pipeline protesters definitely evolved for us. We were doing our research beforehand and communicating with them, and some of the information was sparse because they are secretive, so they were only giving us some info and kind of wanted to vet us by the time that we got down there. Some of the info that we had coming into that was about this wayward state protest, which is they often not only go to the pipeline, but sometimes they put on performances at the pipeline as a way to distract the workers there. So as we went out the door, in a more traditional Daily Show kind of way, we felt like, I bet we go down there; we spend time with them. If we’re looking for a way to wrap this episode up, we’ll do a big bit that’s more of a theatrical performance that’s kind of heightening the performance they’re already doing. They do a thing called Crawfish the Musical, and we’ll go back and we’ll do a big choreographed version for them. That will be a nice way to wrap it up. You know, like that was kind of a Daily Show mentality, and even an Opposition mentality of, You go down there with the assumption of what the story is, and you find a comedic way to end it.

We went down there, and it was a very different situation than what we thought. It was more tense, you know? It was complicated. There were some really interesting protesters there who felt like they were there for the right reasons; there were some that were there for perhaps more dubious reasons. And the planning for the protest in and of itself was at times right on the mark, and other times felt like it left things open for potential failure. It became a story about a protest action that completely failed, and I think as we came back, we were like, “That is a story.” Like, our instinct in the first month or two of doing these episodes was, We still have to do something big and comedic out there, but as we started to come back and look at the footage and talk about the experiences, it was not about us bringing weird comedy to it. Like, Oh, this is a story about imperfect protest and people who are trying to make a change, and it’s hard and you fail, and sometimes you sink in a bayou. And it’s actually more complicated because when you sink in the bayou, you’re also surrounded by people who work in the oil industry, and they’re not so sure that these people from the outside should be here doing that. There was a gray area, and when we started to put it back together, the best of these episodes are the ones that look completely different than the beat sheets we had when we came on out expecting to tell a different story.

When we talked at the end of The Opposition, you said you weren’t going to play the alt-right asshole anymore. You said, “I want to bring the true asshole that’s inside of me to the real world.”
Yeah, that sounds about right!

So what was it like bringing that asshole out? I do believe that comes through in the show. And I hope you take that as a compliment.
I appreciate that. That’s a very kind thing for you to say. It was great! That asshole doesn’t like camping. That asshole is grumpy. That asshole is a little upset that he’s at yet another La Quinta inn when he could be back in New York. I think what we learned is, we figured out a way to weaponize that asshole and tell his story just a bit. Again, this was a fun learning process, but very quickly it became a series that was about people who are trying to enact change, and the reality is, change is tough. We talk about getting sunk in the bayou, we talk about some of those more uncomfortable things, and I think you want to see me earnestly grumpy or frustrated or a little bit cynical, and I think that is authentically what I am in those situations. It doesn’t mean that I don’t care. It doesn’t mean that I don’t want to be there and be a part of some of those things, or at least applauding some of the actions that are there. But I think through that grumpiness and perhaps that POV, I hope that highlights a little bit of how tough it is for some of these people to be doing the things that they do.

How do you balance comedy when you’re covering such serious topics and getting to know people whose stories are, on the surface at least, really not funny at all?
One hundred percent. We kept talking about, All right, I want it to be authentic. If we’re doing a show right now, I’ve done a show at The Daily Show where you are ironically detached, and you use that as a weapon to tell a story. And then at The Opposition, I’m going to be this blip of a character who’s satirizing by being the bad guy. But what if we strip those tools away? And to be quite honest, it was scary. Like, I know how to wield some of that, but when you go out, just trying to tell something that’s more authentic, it’s much more of a struggle.

But when I went down, one of the first things we filmed was the story about deported veterans. We spent five days traveling the country with Manuel and then going to Tijuana to the bunker where all the deported veterans meet up who can’t get back to see their families. Some have been down there for decades and they can’t go back across [the border] and see their families. You walk into that room, and there’s not a place in that room for some ironic quip about how silly this place is or what have you. And it was … it was an awakening. Like, Oh, my job right here is to listen, not to be a dick in this room. Which is a big challenge when you come back and you’re like, But we’re making a show about these topics for Comedy Central! But I think that was a good challenge for us. I think people want to feel what this experience feels like — they want to see stories of people who are inspiring or at least trying. I think I can be — if I’m being honest — I’m gonna be a guy who’s ill-equipped for some of these stories or actions, and hopefully there’s humor in that. Hopefully an audience can be more compelled by that story and find the humor in authentic foibles as opposed to just dickish hyperbole.

As we came back and started to build these things, there was a point where it was like, I wonder if we need to add more classic, like, one-liner-y things? Or, you know, maybe one of these shows that go into the world will add a device where now we’re back on a stand-up stage commenting on it or some place from afar looking back and adding commentary. Because if you are telling real stories about people who are suffering, it’s hard to find those jokes in that space — and there might not be room for those jokes in that space. We filmed some stuff and we tried it. It injected quips, but it took away from story. So our bet on this was, Let’s stick to really telling these peoples’ stories, live in the field entirely, and hopefully find some of the human humor throughout it. But it was a consistent conversation. It’s one we continue to have, even in the edit, of ways in which to frame this where you can hopefully see the humor and the fun in these stories, but not give away some of these characters we want you to live with.

It also feels like a natural progression from when you were on The Daily Show. Which makes me wonder: You became pretty well-known for your Daily Show segments where you went out talking to Trump supporters at rallies leading up to the election. Those segments were pretty huge at the time, especially for the kinds of quotes you got some of the Trump supporters to say on camera. Can you even do that kind of comedy nowadays? It feels like that scene is definitely not new or fresh anymore.
Well, right? We talked a lot about this. Like, yeah, the Trump rallies of a couple years ago, the surprise at somebody saying something like that, that doesn’t exist. There was a discussion: Oh, there’s “gotcha” comedy that is out there of like, Can you believe we said this to this person or this person said that one dumb thing? Definitely in doing some of those Trump videos, I know at the time what was shocking was revealing some of the things that were happening at these rallies. But it felt like it was progressives also cheering on seeing this stupidity that they secretly hoped or thought existed out in this world.

Let’s fast-forward a few years later. Having done a bunch of that, you know, I think quite honestly we were tired of it, and it didn’t feel like it was refreshing or new. It felt like it was this adrenaline rush of hyperbole at times that was maybe not as compelling anymore. So what felt like our challenge was, I know I’ve been going out there, and I’ve been the guy who can be pretty abrupt in small situations. Can I take that? Can we kind of read the room for what 2019 looks like? I think people want less of that and they want a little more reality there. So it’s been a weird four years. Like you said, we’ve got to check in all the way throughout it, but it’s sort of this strange evolution from, you know, distanced irony all the way down to naked authenticity.

Which, you know, in this fucking climate? Who knew?

[Laughs.] Exactly.
Who knew it would just strip all down?

So, the last thing I wanted to bring up is your arrest, which I’m sure you’ve been asked about a lot. Had you been arrested before?
That was my first time.

Yeah, it was a very unique experience. In doing this show, we were following a lot of movements and people who were taking action, and we were careful not to, like, make this the “activists’ show,” where I’m going to go there and I’m going to be the person who’s fighting on your side. I want to be up close and see what you’re doing, but it’s your story. I’ll be the person who’s next to it. It’s more important to show the people who are there in the trenches.

But this kind of organically came up. I was really inspired by these students [and] the story that they told. Their desire to have an education was so pure compared to my experience in high school just assuming that I could have some of the pathways to college that these students did not have. They also had such a clear plan of the way in which they use the history of the civil -rights movement and of activism to gain attention. And I will say, even up until that moment, I had fears of like, Is this the right thing to do? I want to say I amplified these students’ voices. I think that does feel right. In fact, throughout this series, people would continue to tell me … the phrase “weaponize your privilege” was thrown about quite a bit.

But there was a message from on high — even that moment where I’m worried about if this is the right or wrong thing to do, it turns out one of the pastors who also got arrested with me, whom I spent 12 hours in jail with, was a pastor who served as my grandmother’s pastor a decade earlier in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

Oh wow.
And I had actually been brought in to meet him by my grandmother because she wanted me to meet this pious man whom she looked up to, who she thought was such a good man of faith. Flash-forward ten years later, he’s bounced around to a couple different churches across the country, and he’s there in jail doing the exact same thing. So I feel like I got a little bit of a … I got a thumbs-up from my grandma ten years early about taking an action like that and not feeling guilty for perhaps stepping on the other side of the law.

Photo: Comedy Central

And of course the mug shot’s a really good promo picture for the show. Let’s be honest.
You know, this is where Comedy Central is just so goddamned cheap. They’re like, “First of all, you know, get ‘em arrested, they get attention, and now, boy, if we could just use this free photo and not have to do another photo shoot. We don’t have to pay for makeup or wardrobe or anything. We’ll just throw it on a subway ad!” Let me tell ya.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Jordan Klepper’s Comedy Central Evolution