Satire in the age of Alex Jones: Inside Jordan Klepper's war on the war on reality

Salon talks to "The Opposition" host about his "dystopian fringe mouthpiece" character and his post-SOTU live show

By Sophia A. McClennen
Published January 29, 2018 7:00PM (EST)
Jordan Klepper on "The Opposition w/ Jordan Klepper" (Getty/Brad Barket)
Jordan Klepper on "The Opposition w/ Jordan Klepper" (Getty/Brad Barket)

Jordan Klepper launched his new show “The Opposition” on Comedy Central just over four months ago.  In a similar format to “The Colbert Report,” Klepper performs in character. But this time his role model isn’t Bill O’Reilly, as it was for Stephen Colbert; it is fringe far-right personas like Alex Jones.

With less than a year on air, “The Opposition,” which airs Monday through Thursday at 11:30 p.m., is already a critical part of the satire landscape. Klepper’s character offers an essential comedic perspective that had been missing since Colbert transitioned to “The Late Show.” “The Opposition” even made lists of the best late-night moments in 2017 — a noteworthy achievement since it debuted September 25, 2017.

Salon spoke with Klepper about the challenges of embodying an alt-right persona and of launching a satire show in the Donald Trump era, when parody and exaggeration are already a standard part of our political reality. We also talked about what it will be like to do his first live episode after Trump’s State of the Union address on January 30.

The interview was edited for length.

When Stewart and Colbert were the “dynamic duo” of satire on Comedy Central, they basically owned the field. Now we have a wide range of satire choices. What do you think is the special draw of your show?

I think there are a lot of really talented and thoughtful comedians out there who are commenting on the day to day. What we do is show the day to day. We ironically take the side of these things a lot of people are shaking their fist at and play in that logic, heighten that logic, and hopefully people will find the fun in the carnival show that we create. There are plenty of talented people who will point their finger and tell you what is so frustrating about the world. We don’t comment on it; instead we show it in a slightly more ridiculous way.

In-character satire, where you embody a persona, is the hardest form of political satire to master. What made you choose that type of comedy?

Well, for me, I've always had a fun time showing what is ridiculous and absurd. I think in-character satire does exactly that. As somebody who came from the improv world and the sketch world, that's sort of the way in which we worked through many topics and ideas. You would find something, whether it was a political story, a news story, or a cultural story, and you would find what you thought was ridiculous about it and instead of commenting on it, you would show it and heighten the attributes, the peccadillos, or the outlying attitudes. From that, hopefully you can show an audience the little flaws that we all have. That's always been really appealing to me.

That’s the hard part of your particular character though, right? One of the key elements of satirical parody is ironic exaggeration, but your character is modeled on figures that already are ironic exaggerations. Even Alex Jones' attorney suggested he was a performance artist playing a character. So how hard is it to play a performance of a performance?

It's the perfect question of this time. Are we so heightened that you can't heighten how heightened we are right now?  We live in a time when our president tweets about the size of his genitalia in regards to potentially starting a nuclear war. Each day, I'm constantly surprised by how heightened it can become. As far as my character, we look at these people who have outsized personalities. What we try to heighten is not necessarily the personalities themselves, but we focus on their attitudes, their position of utmost certainty. We try to heighten the logic games they use to defend strange takes on the news and to justify the ravings of a mad man who may or may not be in charge of the free world.  We get inside the mindset of that logic and work through its obsession with conspiracy.

But it isn't just the style of your show that is unique in the satire world today; it's the content too. You guys are sort of looking in the dumpster, in places that other comedians aren't.

[Laughs.] Yeah, absolutely! We're satirizing voices that are not only on the right, but are on the far right and also even off the deep-end — the fringe. Some of that fringe has become mainstream and some of it still lives in that fringe, but it's really starting to influence the political conversation and direction of this country. We look to those fringe sources that many other shows don’t cover. For example, when we had the fight between Steve Bannon and Donald Trump, we looked at the mainstream media sources, but we also looked to the blogs. We're looking to the Roger Stones. We're using that for material in a way that other shows rarely touch.

What’s it like trying to do your style of show when the content you're mining is from sources as extreme as Infowars, Breitbart, and fake news hoax sites?

We're not creating a show that is a one to one to any particular source, but we are starting to see this trend where Sean Hannity is going more and more fringe, almost just a mouthpiece for Donald Trump. Alex Jones still seems completely in sync with Donald Trump. The internet and social media feeds are also affecting the conversation. What we're trying to parody on the show is a dystopian fringe mouthpiece.

I think those days where it does feel like the show goes a little off the rails, it goes a little wild, it goes too much into conspiracy, it feels too fast, too outrageous, too loud, too certain, too bullshitty, I think that’s when we're playing in the mud that we want to be playing in. If we do this thing right, we are pigs covered in shit rolling around like you wouldn't believe. Hopefully we get the audience in the mud with us.

I don't know if I'm selling this joke correctly. I think I've just said our audience will be covered in shit by the time they watch the show.  Now that I say that out loud, I totally did sell it correctly.

Your point about how Fox News is shifting is important to emphasize because the news media landscape is also in the process of moving into even more extreme ridiculousness.

We were a little bit surprised by this shift. Even as we started the show, we were looking at these fringe sites and how they are affecting things. We saw how they affected Donald Trump and the people I would talk to on the campaign trail who were going to these sources and then watching some Fox shows, the pundit shows, that were embracing the same extreme views. Fox News and Breitbart are trading tactics right now.

The 4chan, Reddit conspiracy theory mindset seems to be governed by what you've referred to as “f**kism.” Describe that mentality and how it fits with your show's mantra, "May you only hear from others, which you've already been telling yourself."

I think as a culture we've done a really good job of surrounding ourselves with people, voices, and devices that reflect the things that we want to believe. We really have created these airtight echo chambers. For us, it was really fun to jump into an extreme echo chamber and create a show that really considers itself always right. But we do that comically. We're hopefully showing the audience how we're knowingly picking the things that make us look smart and don't challenge what we believe.

We're kind of in a dangerous place right now where we get to choose our own reality. Donald Trump, he's been very effective at bringing down institutions that both sides used to be able to agree or turn to. Now there's so much distrust of information that comes from a different point of view that it's only feeding the echo chamber mentality. That's where our show lives. We're reflecting what we feel is only getting more and more entrenched.

One of the most brilliant concepts of your show, in my view, is this idea that it's parodying mental nationalism. You sarcastically described it as trying to “close down the open borders of our minds.” Tell me about the special irony of using satire to parody a closed, paranoid mindset.

Mental nationalism is the idea that we're choosing the things that make us feel good. I'm borrowing this idea that, if we're all about borders, then let’s have fun with that idea since a lot of us are putting up borders to things we don't want to hear. We're poking fun at the irony that the Trump administration is literally about building walls, even walls around worldviews. This is now something that's worn as a badge of pride. “I don't trust the media. I don't trust outside sources. I don't trust intellectuals.” To me, those sorts of mental borders are very scary and frightening. We also think it can be very funny. That’s what we are trying to play with on the show — all of the mental border walls, even those on the left.

Some of the show’s most successful bits are field pieces. For instance, you've done great segments at Trump rallies and especially in Puerto Rico. Do you plan to keep incorporating field pieces on the show and what are the challenges and benefits of doing them in character?

We have citizen journalists who go out into the field. It's really important for the show to interact with real people. That's why I have guests on every night who can shut down some of my bulls**t with their credibility in the real world. Our citizen journalists go out in-character, as do I when I have the time. I try to get out into the field to go to rallies, to do sit down interviews, to go face to face with people. It's really fun to do something like that in-character. You get to play through blind spots and you get to see somebody interacting with a character. I think often because of that, you don't get pat responses. You get somebody who's trying to suss out where you stand and then you get a lot of honesty and interesting moments from it.

As you get more visible, this gets harder to pull off though. Have you had people recognize you out in the field and still play along?

I think they see it as a challenge. People are like, "Oh, you're that guy. Regardless, I want to be on TV, I want to get my point across. Let's go. Let's talk." A lot of times at rallies I'm just seen as a person who is walking around with a camera crew. I'd be in a worse position if I were seen as a comedian. To them I'm part of the MSM. They think I'm fake news. And the truth is, I am fake news! They're not completely wrong.

Malcolm Gladwell did a podcast where he worried about what he called the satire paradox, where the funnier the satire is, the less likely, in his view, it'll have any sort of impact. He also worried that satire exacerbates social divisions. What's your take on that line of critique?

I think comedy is such an effective tool in commenting on shared experiences. When the show’s team comes together in the morning we explore what we're passionate about and where we see bullshit. From that, we put it through the filter of the show. If you watch “The Opposition,” hopefully you see the critical edge. I think if you're watching this and you connect with the show, then you're also making those similar connections that we're making. I hope at the very least it provides a moment of joy. But more than that, it's a moment of connection. When audiences respond to comedians, or any kind of performer, we’re building a connection.

At a time where we're all ingesting crazy news all day, I think finding that connection is reaffirming. It shows you that you're not alone. It's really easy to sit there looking at your phone alone, but if you see somebody else share your view you think, "Oh, they think that's bullshit too? Oh, cool. I feel empowered. I'm not just screaming into a void." I think that is powerful. What you do with it is up to you. We're not trying to be instructional with what to do about it, but hopefully it shows you that some of those points of view are validated.

The show is now in its fourth month. Do you feel like it's starting to hit its stride? Have you seen any significant adjustments in the way it's working since its premiere?

We're figuring out the machine of putting up a daily show and how to comment quickly and efficiently on the stories of the day. Early on we were doing longer pieces in the first act, more traditional essays. What we started to find was that everybody is ravenous for the 20 stories of the day. So to be able to comment on more range we're starting to put together little pockets of stories where we can talk about three different stories as opposed to one for the first act. That also lets us be malleable for a story that breaks later in the day so we can get it out quickly.

On your first show, you launched a really funny website. Are you going to be continuing to work beyond the borders of the show and play with hashtags, websites, etc.?

Definitely. Our digital component is something we're really excited about. That's helping us find the voice of the show and the ways in which we can connect. We're constantly putting out content. We have this idea that this is the televised late night version of the show, that there are also Opposition Radio shows that go on all day. Our digital presence puts out snippets and little pieces here and there from fake radio shows, creating content and poking fun at conspiracies. We're looking to continue to kind of merge those two sides of the show because it mirrors what is happening in fringe media. We want to play both in the TV realm and also the internet.

You and Trevor Noah are planning to air live after the State of the Union on Tuesday evening. How would you describe the synergy between the two shows, and what are your plans for your very first live show?

The one plan I have — I'm going to do it sober. I really am. If I'm going to do it live, I'm not going to be able to do it ten more times, so I'm going to go dry for this one.

We're keeping the content under wraps. We have a fun surprise for the live show. I'm excited about it.

I love Trevor. Trevor and I got to work together for about a year and a half over at “The Daily Show” and right from the get go, I think we hit it off. He's the kind of guy who is a great boss but also really great friend.

Sometimes we do little pieces back and forth between the shows and anything that connects is really fun, but our show sees itself as the opposition to “The Daily Show.” The character Jordan Klepper, loves Trevor Noah, has been friends with Trevor Noah for years, thinks he's a great guy, but thinks he's totally wrong in almost everything and that his show is full of fake news.

Sorry Trevor. You're my friend, but you don't see the light.

Sophia A. McClennen

Sophia A. McClennen is Professor of International Affairs and Comparative Literature at the Pennsylvania State University. She writes on the intersections between culture, politics, and society. Her latest book, co-authored with Remy M. Maisel, is, Is Satire Saving Our Nation? Mockery and American Politics.

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