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.
So you talk about finding comedy — obviously, that’s a big part of the show. And the difference between this and some of the desk stuff or more satirical pieces is pretty big. I feel like you cross over into the lane of journalism. Do you feel that way?
I don’t see myself as a journalist in the sense that obviously we are using journalists to inspire the stories that we go cover. We are not talking to original sources or breaking stories. There are great journalists out there who are covering these stories, bringing it to our attention. They’re the primary sources. Then we approach them with the clear biased perspective of a comedian who goes out into that world.
I’ve talked about this before. We take it very seriously; the stories that we’re telling there. And the research we put into it, the care we put into it to get it right. But I don’t want to misconstrue like we are breaking all of these stories. No, there are hardworking journalists who are. We are going and finding a way to contextualize them and bring myself into it as well. So, I think that’s the challenge that we go out there with and sort of the perspective we walk into it with, as well.
But the second or third person to the scene is still talking to the people involved and telling their story. I’ve had this conversation with people in this space, and there always does seem to be a little bit of apprehension with being labeled as a journalist. Where does that come from? Because, to me, it’s real close.
I think the apprehension comes in the same way that… I watch opinion shows on Fox and MSNBC, and I think the line gets a bit blurry when Sean Hannity is seen in the same light as Chris Wallace on Fox News or Shep Smith. And I think it’s important to understand that these are opinion shows that are editorializing. They don’t take the oath a journalist would take as far as being neutral in that space. So I think it’s important to call that out and be aware of that.
You could argue that that is a somewhat outdated oath in these times and that a lot of people are abandoning that, including on the ground journalists on both sides.
And that is fair. What I will say is, and what I think we definitely push for in this… I had this conversation with one of my writers yesterday. Because what we are doing isn’t what I was doing two years ago. And I think we quickly found… like with The Daily Show, like I said, there’s a clear irony and step back and it felt pretty easy to be like “I’m a comedian who’s going to be a dick, who is going to give you comedic distance and comment on this thing.”
Then we started to do this and this is essentially more like a documentary. We’re spending a bit more time with these people. One of the things we quickly realized is if you’re telling this story, we want to be there when something happens. I want to go out and experience this. I want this to feel experiential so it’s not just me reporting on something that happened. It’s me there while something is happening. Which feels like that comes from more of a documentary perspective as opposed to a comedian reflecting on something. That was our charge as we went out there. Like, let’s find stories that journalists have found that maybe not enough people have paid attention to. Let’s see if we can be a part of those stories in some way so that an audience can see experientially what’s happening. And then comment out there. Where that leaves me… I become somewhat of this odd gray area. Again, I don’t see it as breaking stories, but I do think that I want an audience that understands I am a citizen and a comedian who is walking into a story and becoming a part of that story.
I’ve been reading a lot of Hunter S. Thompson, which, by no means am I having experiences that he had in a lot of ways. But in reading through, it was like, oh, he’s speaking to the experience of news events, being very open in the way which he’s moving through it. And I think that’s what we’re attempting to do here in some way. It’s like, all right, let’s let the experience be a part of what this story is.
It’s definitely a hybrid. You referenced Hunter S. Thompson. In his era that was a breath of fresh air. And I think this is, in a different way… unless you’re doing a boatload of acid that I’m not aware of.
Please don’t tell anybody. Can’t let that get out.
Redacted, redacted. But it is refreshing to see someone on the ground and telling these stories. It’s been interesting to see the spread of that Daily Show family tree and how everyone has kind of gone at the same kind of mission of here’s something I want to shine a light on and I’m going to do it in my way. Each show has been a little bit different. Being wholly on the ground is a little different. When you’re drawing this up, is that a part of the appeal of doing it like this? Is it trying to make sure that you stand apart from what Sam Bee is doing, what John Oliver is doing, what The Daily Show is still doing?
Of course. I mean, I think a big part of this was there are so many good, smart people who are in the studio telling you about what’s happening in the rest of America. But there are fewer people out there in the rest of America. That’s something I feel comfortable doing and it’s something I’m comfortable being a part of. And I think I get it. I’ve heard from people on the right who are sick of people on the left who are in New York bitching about the people in the rest of America and how they see the world. I get that. I totally get that. As somebody who was that, who lives in New York, goes into the studio, talks about the rest of the world. There are really compelling stories out there that don’t get told and there aren’t as many comedians who are out there telling that. And we definitely saw this as something that I not only wanted to do, but a lane that felt more open. The network wanted it, we wanted it as well. The word was authenticity. Strip away this irony. The world of 2019 is sick of people being sarcastic about things that are happening. The world is changing, it’s affecting people. There are children in cages at the border, it’s fucked up.
So that is a hard world to walk into with the comedic premise that you’re going to document the world around you. We learned that in some inspiring and in some really hard ways. One of the first episodes we filmed was about the deported veterans. And I think that actually was the first episode we filmed. I go down to Tijuana to the bunker where there are veterans who fought for America that have been kicked out of America and can’t come back. So they’ll be gone for two decades. The families are across the way and they’re in a small room in a bunker. That’s their only community. And I walked in there and there’s no space for jokes. That was a wake-up call where I was like oh, I don’t think I would have been in this room with the other shows that I was on because it wouldn’t want to get up and dirty with this story. They’d want to talk to somebody else who has this story and make a rye comment on it. I’m not disrespecting that perspective, but it felt like it was important to get in that room and show some of these stories. And it’s my charge to find a way to contextualize it so people can digest it in a way that is potentially humorous and also eye-opening to some. But you realize in that room, it’s like, this year is asking me not to be a dick in this room. It’s asking me to empathize and listen.
So when you find yourself in an episode where you know you’re going to go to prison, what do you learn about yourself in that moment? For me, I care about this stuff. I’m passionate about it. But I don’t think I’d go to that extent. So were you someone who thought you’d go to that extent before that?
We’re on the same page.
That’s what I assumed.
I don’t want to get too saccharine about it, but that moment was an earnestly big moment for me. Almost twofold, I will say in doing this show, we also want to be careful. We don’t want me to be an activist who goes there. “I’m part of your cause as well, yeehaw.” I think that can be dangerous and insincere and unsustainable. I’m going to come up and see what you do, I’m going to ride along and I’m going to watch you do this. I might not agree with it, but I can see what you care about. It’s your story, I’m along for the ride. Sort of our MO for the season.
I will say I consistently was challenged with the idea of weaponizing my privilege. In the episode about Native American visibility, he was damn blunt about it. He was like, “hey, thank you so much for being here. This is great. You know you have privilege, you are a white guy with a camera and you need to do something with that. You understand, right?” I can joke about that, and he can also cut me down and be like no, you need to do that. That was the refrain I kept hearing. There is a moment where it’s like, well, you know, I’m here with these students who don’t have a voice and like you said, I care. I think about myself as a passionate person. I think of myself as standing up for people who aren’t stood up for. But I’ve never been to prison. I’ve gone to some marches, I donate, but yeah. I think I’m sheepish when it comes to those things.
But I think in that moment, that moment comes about and in that room and I decide, you know what? I am going to stand up here. These students are incredible and all they want is an education and they don’t have a voice and I’m surrounded literally by teachers and by faith leaders in that community. In a town where, not to get sappy, but I spent the weekend listening to them read from the speeches of Martin Luther King on going to the Ebeneezer Baptist Church. I’m hearing the stories of what civil rights meant in that town and how it was utilized to enact change. You can’t help but be influenced by it. So at that moment, I was like I have an ability to shine a little bit of light, let’s do this. But there’s, of course, a little guy in the back of my head that’s like “I don’t know, you’ve always been told getting arrested is wrong.” And that guy went away when one of the pastors who I spent the day in jail with…I spent a day in jail with one of these pastors who was my grandmother’s pastor a decade earlier in Kalamazoo, Michigan. I had randomly been brought in to meet him with my girlfriend at the time — now my wife. My grandma always wanted me to meet the new pastors and wanted to introduce me to the church. And I met this man, Pastor Matt, and he was wonderful and kind. She talked about how great he was. And I met him and I probably rolled my eyes. 10 years later, Pastor Matt hops around the country. A progressive pastor who finds himself in Atlanta, then finds himself literally in the same jail cell as me. And that little guy in the back of my head who was like “I don’t know, is this right or wrong?” I could look at this pastor who my grandmother was like “this is who you should be,” and he’s in jail too. So I was like, “oh yeah fuck that little guy in the back of my head.” Get your ass in jail. Pastor Matt’s in jail, you can fucking go to jail.
What is the most satisfying part of this?
I would say the most satisfying part is seeing people who care. I do have the luxury of getting to meet a lot of really interesting folks who are putting their money where their mouth is and whenever you see that you are moved. To know that there are people who are still fighting, who are finding beacons of hope. Even a situation like the students at Freedom University. That’s a board of regents… that’s a small number of people who are on the board of regents where I believe it’s a 50% vote. If a handful of them: change their minds and things can change for the better for students down there. So that, to me, doesn’t seem like a giant global thing that’s ever going to change because of partisanship, but, oh I think you need to move five people’s opinions. And I think it could happen. I hope it does.
[Ed. Note: Klepper did get a little political when he teamed with Hillary Clinton on a video where she read sections from the Mueller Report, but it was in an effort to raise funds for the Freedom University students.]
I think the frustration comes on the flip side of that where you see there are big problems in Washington and it doesn’t look like there’s any way anyone’s going to be able to find any progress there. I think that’s just more reason to get out into the world. There are so many other people, honestly on all sides of your partisan bend who are actually doing something. Getting out there and doing something. I think it’s a good reminder: We’re divided, but we’re also fighters. And usually against each other, but hell, at least we’re all fighters.
‘Klepper’ premieres Thursday on Comedy Central at 10:30 pm ET