Jordan Klepper doesn’t want to be called a journalist, but with a little prodding, he acknowledges that on his new show, Klepper, he’s occupying a middle space between that job and that of a comedian. No longer eager to sit behind a desk and crack jokes about the serious sh*t going on in the country, the former Daily Show correspondent decided to hit the road and focus on real people and real issues with this show. But if that sounds like the kind of quixotic endeavor to find the flickering soul of “real America” that has consumed many a curious explorer in the media, well, take a closer look.
Klepper’s journey doesn’t run out of gas once it hits the midwest and it isn’t anthropological. Instead, it’s highly experiential and centered around people that are pushing back through protest and creativity. We spoke with Klepper ahead of the premiere of his self-titled show (which premieres tonight on Comedy Central at 10:30 pm ET) about labels, his newfound operating philosophy, escaping New York and the desk, finding a silver lining in these bitter times, and how prison changed him.
Last time we spoke, I remember you were looking forward to talking about other events and not just Trump. Then he won, and then The Opposition happened where you were still locked in that world in a different way. This feels like the show that that version of you was ready to do the day before the election in 2016. How did we get to this point, and what did you learn from The Opposition?
After the Trump election, The Opposition was looking to reflect and comment on the noise machine that helped propel that. I definitely felt that Trump exhaustion going into the election and continue to feel it. I think it was something we always talked about on The Opposition; the elephant in the room that on a nightly show we felt like we had to consistently be referencing [him], or referencing the people and the far right that is controlling that narrative. But it is hard day in and day out and it feels like you are missing some of the other stories that might be just as important. Or [the chance to] reflect on some of these ideas in a more interesting, fresh way. This show came about and it was a great opportunity for us to do what I think we’d all been wanting to do, which was take a step away. Be like, here’s the deal: there are enough people who are commenting on the day to day machinations of Donald Trump. That’s covered. But these things affect so many other people. Can we tell other stories of people who are trying to change something in America? Who are on the front lines doing something about it.
From my point of view, it was really refreshing to actually get out there and see that. I’ve spent the last three years — more than that now — four-plus years, doing things based out of New York. And whenever I can get outside and talk to other people and see what else is happening out there, digesting what’s going on, you know, it’s always a wake-up call. There’s more to life than what you see from New York or what you hear coming out of DC.
With the field pieces on The Daily Show, when you’re at the Trump rallies… it’s just a different kind of anger that I think you’re encountering on this show. I know it’s subjective, but it’s a more productive kind of anger that you’re covering here. Would that be fair to say?
I think that would be fair to say. You know, I had to do a lot of those Trump rallies and what have you. And that was us trying to wrap our head around what was going on and sort of the movements that were happening in this country. I think when you’re doing a show that is going to be a full episode looking at one topic, you have to dig in to see all these people in a three-dimensional life. We wanted to find positivity and I think what was exciting about this was I didn’t agree with everybody that I’m interviewing and working with here. But I think what I started to see across the board and in episodes — whether it’s about students in Georgia or whether it’s about open carry gun guys in Texas — was that you saw people who were inspired to change something and who were taking action because of that.
I think we talk a lot about the actions that people are taking and pushing back and we cover the March for our Lives and we talk about people going out and trying to push back against stuff when they see that happening to their country. On both sides of the aisle. And I think this was a chance for us to get out there and see the people who are actually doing that. And it’s a wake-up call to see how fucking hard it is. I think once you get in that boat and you realize “oh, you live and breathe the idea of environmental action.” I support this from afar, but when I get in this boat, I don’t feel super comfortable or excited about doing it. And I think you realize pretty quickly how hard change is and you have more respect, even if you don’t align with their point of view, you gain that respect for the action that they’re taking. That felt like an evolution of what we were doing before, which was just, let’s talk in soundbites about the things that make you mad. This is a chance for us to go and see the thing that you’re doing about it.
How did the line shift from the start of filming to the end in terms of you putting yourself into these stories and your comfort level there?
There’s a big learning process on all of these. I will say, we went out thinking we were going to do field pieces. We had originally thought maybe these episodes would involve two to three stories. And we’d kind of weave them together with larger pieces. We quickly understood that the luxury of having a full episode is that you can go deeper on some of these pieces and when we found characters that we liked, we were like, let’s tell more of that story. There has to be a reason why a comedian on Comedy Central is going out and telling these stories.
We had to inject and wanted to inject… “what is my point of view moving through?” And if it is watching activism in America, and it’s a guy on the outside who is now coming in, what is that person’s relationship to what’s happening? Walk right into it. That’s where the humor’s going to be. Unlike some of the things that I’d do on The Daily Show before where you have an arch ironic take that allows you to give distance and find comedy in that archness, we stripped that away. Let’s approach these things with more authenticity. When you do that, the butt of the joke has to be yourself. It can’t be people who have been blocked out of culture and their history erased. Where do we find comedy? We find comedy in somebody trying to do the right thing and how hard that is.