Jordan Klepper has a theory on comedy: It's "baby explosions of humanity"

"The Daily Show" alum drops some of his irony and gets hands-on on his new comedy-activism series "Klepper"

Published May 9, 2019 4:00PM (EDT)

Jordan Klepper (Salon Talks)
Jordan Klepper (Salon Talks)

Jordan Klepper cut his comedy teeth at improv institutions like Second City and Upright Citizens Brigade and made a name for himself on "The Daily Show." His first solo TV series, "The Opposition with Jordan Klepper," which debuted in 2017 and ran for one season on Comedy Central, satirized outrageous media personalities like Alex Jones who had inched away from the fringe and toward the mainstream. (Read Sophia A. McClennen's 2018 interview with Klepper about "The Opposition.")

His new Comedy Central series, called simply "Klepper," sees the comedian leaving the comfort of the TV studio in order to get hands on, embedding with activists and other change agents on the front lines of America's push for progress. He's arrested and goes to jail with fellow protesters, dodges alligators in the bayou, meets undocumented and DACA students in Georgia pursuing their educations at great personal risk, and dons red wrestler bikini briefs in order to train with a group of veterans working through their PTSD.

"Klepper" premieres Thursday at 9 p.m. on Comedy Central. Klepper himself sat down for "Salon Talks" to discuss his work, his personal history with comedy, and what he thinks about the Democratic primary field of presidential candidates.

This show covers a lot of issues, from veteran deportation, oil pipeline activism, Native American visibility.

Classic comedy subjects.

Yeah, really funny. Did you come up with all the topics yourself?

I'd like to say yes, but I do have a team of researchers, writers, producers, and we start out with the board of big topics that we want to see how to jump into it. But essentially we take big topics, we needed to find small localized versions of those topics and find characters who were compelling, who could tell that story. And also this show was really looking at these issues but through through the lens of activism and people are taking action. So when we found people we liked we saw if they were things I could be a part of or go to. And so from that we started to whittle down a giant board of topics to the few that we were able to tell full stories on.

How many of the groups of each silo did you have to test?

We want to do something on, say, immigration and that's a big broad topic. And we'd start throwing out what are different stories, trends that are taking place? And then, like you said, you make a bunch of phone calls and there were a lot of stories that we were ready to walk out the door and people fall through, the story breaks in a way that you wouldn't expect. You don't have the access you want or the event they were going to do shifts. And so I would say for every one story we said yes to, I'm sure there were five that were close that we had to say no to or just had to put behind us.

And what if they're not funny?

They're not in on the joke, right?

I think this was a challenging series because I do think finding the humor in these — I dropped a lot of the irony that you would have on, say, "The Daily Show" and went to some darker places.

That's why we wanted things happening where I could be a part of it. Where the joke isn't on veterans who are dealing with PTSD, they shouldn't bear that joke. What it can be is on somebody who's trying to connect with them and be a part of it and help.

So I can be the dummy who literally gets in a wrestling ring and gets body slammed. Or I could go into the pipeline protestors and what you realize, the things that people do for activism are hard. And somebody like me who's a pansy from New York doesn't like sleeping outside. There's a lot of humor to be had in somebody who's trying to do good, but just as a little bit of a wuss.

Well, I think you did a lot of good wearing those red bikini bottoms.

Thank you.

I particularly enjoyed one of the segments that Jordan does on "Klepper" — he goes and finds and follows a wrestling organization called Valhalla — 

The Valhalla Club.

— the Valhalla Club of veterans who deal with their PTSD with professional wrestling — the full makeup and the small outfits. And so, in solidarity—

I donned a character. I played the heel, I became Mr. Red Tape Man. There was one thing that was getting in the way of these veterans achieving some sort of help. It was red tape.

Before we left the confines of New York, they asked, "Well, you might be a character in the ring. Would you like these boxers briefs or would you like the true skivvies?" And I said, "The boxer briefs, just it's more flattering on this stick of a body that I have." And then I arrive and they only sent one and it wasn't those.

I really hope while we're listening to you that we are seeing those bikini bottoms. I don't know, I'll know later. 

I don't hope that. I don't think that's helping draw eyes towards the show. I think, come for the thoughtful take on important issues and please stay through the terribly pale legs.

Well, it was bold of you to do that and also to do their workouts with them.

I did, yes. By that I mean I was beat up by them. I attempted to do push ups with them, to stretch with them. I'm not the most active or limber person, so it's what I do for America's veterans.

And in there, you have the guy saying, "What can I do?" Not buy you a beer, buy you a coffee, go get out there and see what they experienced.

Yeah. Yeah. Interact.

All kidding aside — which of the many issues that you've covered resonated the most with you?

I do really get something from all of them. And I think, as a whole, watching people in this country take action, even if you don't agree with their point of view, they care about changing the landscape they live in. I spent time with some undocumented students in Georgia and DACA students who want to but cannot go to public colleges because of the restrictions on immigrants in Georgia. And so I spent a couple of weekends going to classes. They go to classes in undisclosed locations because there are hate groups that are trying to flush them out. You really quickly understand there's these students who just purely want to learn, they want to get a good job, they want to give back to their community. They want to become nurses, they want to be bilingual nurses so their parents and people they know are safe when they go to emergency rooms. And you have a government that doesn't want to give them access to higher education.

And seeing that up close, you can't not be moved by it. And so that was an episode where I found myself protesting alongside other people and actually going into jail because of it. I think I'm somebody who is progressive. I'm somebody who wants to be a part of doing what I would see as the right thing. But I'm often somebody who does that from afar, and I think what was refreshing for myself on this series was I was up close to it. And when you are up that close and have the ability to be a part of it, you jump at that. Or when I say jump, I say you tepidly walk into that water.

You did give, if I'm remembering correctly, $800 of your own money to the the undocumented immigrant school. And you had a very fun little tête-à-tête with Bill and Hillary Clinton in a tweet promo that I quite enjoyed.

I got the President and the former Secretary of State to do a tweet promo, so they are slumming it. I think if you could just give money to them, for God's sakes. Desperation.

Well, they're on tour now. They're doing a schmooze tour.

I hosted one of those tours in D.C. a week ago and they did a video with me where I was like, let's help me decide what organizations to give money to. They sat down with me, they helped me pick a few organizations and one of the GoFundMe pages was asking for Hillary Clinton to read the Audio Book of the Mueller Report, and we printed it out and she was game. She picked it up. She read it. It was a cathartic experience for her.

I saw that retweet.

I got tweeted at by Hillary Clinton, so no big deal.

Very nice.

But what are you doing at home?


What are you doing?

He's doing nothing. So that's a good segue into politics.

Yeah, well done.

Look how well we're doing here. We said before we went live that between the two of us we have the executive function of a snail today, but I think we're doing OK.

So far we're doing really well. Some might argue the fact that we're calling it out right now is a step in the wrong direction, but I wouldn't.

But I would say that's the honestly that's coming out.

Honesty is very good. So 2020, who are you eyeing?

Who am I eying?

Yeah, because here's so many.

I'm going blurry eyeing everybody. I haven't picked my horse in that race, but I think there's some really interesting people. Pete Buttigieg I think is refreshingly smart and bland and you didn't know. Sometimes you want chicken and white rice just because our tummy's been a little bit upset over the last week and you're just like, "Give me something plain and simple that I know is going to take care of me for the next four years." And that could be the Buttigieg. He's a smart guy.

I think Booker's inspiring. I think Warren is as actually as planned. She's six months ahead of everybody else. I think the debate needs to happen right now about what this country needs. It's too early for people to jump on board and say, "This is what it is. This is going to win it. Let's get on board."

You look at Trump four years ago and I think at that point Jeb Bush was the one everybody assumed would be the only way the Republicans could win: Go with somebody like Jeb Bush. And that was so far away from what the electorate actually wanted.

There's a battle of ideas right now, and I think that's a good fight for a while.

It is, but there's not that much time. We think all of this stuff gets compounded in it.

It's coming up-ish. But I would say there's still debates that need to happen. I think everybody wants to write the definitive article that say it's going to be Joe Biden, it's going to be Bernie Sanders. I think there needs to be some conversations first.

I like the white rice and chicken analogy.

I say that lovingly.

My stomach's actually upset today.

I say that lovingly, only that I think there's something refreshing in somebody who's like, "I'm just going to explain to you what I think is the best way through." And you're like, "Oh my God. It's not about glitz. It's actually just about function."

Well, hopefully the Democrats learn something from last time. I don't know what it is yet. So far it's not looking good, but if we can just tighten it up a little.

I think there's time though. I think the Democratic Party needs to make a decision at some point as to whether they're the party that is looking back to try to put together the Democratic Party they thought existed in the past or whether they're pushing forward and realizing there's a new Democratic Party. I think that should be a discussion. I think it's the crowning of the old friendly, or it's the idea of we're throwing it all away that muddies an actual discussion. But I do think what won't happen in 2020 is you're not going to have people who are on the fence, who don't like Donald Trump but are so-so with the Democratic candidate and then don't go out to vote because it could never happen again.

It can happen. And I think if you're at all afraid of another four years of what you've seen up until this point, I'd like to think there's a little bit of unity or at least that person gets out and votes. And that could be 1% or 2%. And in American elections that's all you need.

 I hope that you're right.

Yeah, I don't know what I'm talking about.

You talked about actually feeling a real resonance with the undocumented students and actually protesting with them and being arrested. What was that experience like?

The actual experience of protesting is empowering. I think wherever you can give voice to those who don't have it, you should take it. The experience of getting arrested is less than that. It's not super fun. You don't fit in the cars. There's a lot of bureaucracy once you get into that jail. There's some coughing and some squatting. There's some bonding with the other people who are in jail and then you get let out. And I was greeted by the wonderful students of Freedom University who brought me Thai food and hugs.

So for me, I was very lucky. There's a lot of people who don't have that kind of privilege, who get to go into jail then come out 12 hours later and be greeted with Thai food. I was very proud of the fact that I could ... myself and the other faith leaders and teachers there, stood up and tried to draw a little bit attention to the cause.

Now, not all of these embeds though end that well — and all of them are tense in some way. Not so much the veteran's story and some of the others, but the Native Americans and folks in the bayou protesting the pipeline, that was something personal to me as well — Native American visibility, or invisibility as it were. I am of Native American descent and I had many relatives go out to South Dakota for the DAPL pipeline protests. And so when a situation is not amicable, when it is not all fun and games, how has humor, for you, enabled you to improve it or get through?

I'd say oftentimes humor can be used as a way to connect people to find some common ground. I think it's a context in some ways as well. To piggyback off of what you said, we did an episode on Native American visibility and I think we read a report, a woman named Crystal Echo Hawk, that talked a lot about media bias. And there's no representation of modern Native American images in most media.

We read that as people who are in the media and like, "Oh, that's on us." And so we're like, "Can we approach this topic? Can we try to right a wrong in some small way with the little opportunity that we have?" We are a comedy show as well. How do we approach something like that from a comedic lens?

I think what I did at that point was, it's inherently comedic that part of this issue is the stories of Native Americans have often been told by white privileged guys in positions of power. And as a white privilege guy who's going out attempting to tell that story, there's inherent irony there. But let's walk into that and find that comedy, be able to talk about it. Let me be the punching bag for that idea. And also for somebody who is maybe trying to do what I'd like to see as the right thing but doesn't necessarily have the right steps to do it. I think that comedy hopefully can humanize something that otherwise can feel dry on paper.

There is an old adage — somebody famous said it, or it might've been my dad — that a fart is funny in any language. True?

Yeah. I think, because a fart is unexpected.

Humor is the great equalizer.

It's the great equalizer. We all like to watch something unexpected. Anything that comes out of your butt is going to be somewhat funny.

But is humor also the great equalizer?

I think it is. At the very least, is humor is baby explosions of humanity. How about that? Did your dad say that or is that me?

Sorry, you lost me at baby explosions of humanity.

Maybe baby explosions, I should have said. Mini explosions —

All right, our executive function is slipping. 

I was onto something profound. It was. I was like, it's a glimpse into our own humanity. It's an exaltation of our humanness. It's a baby explosion.

Right what we're doing here, it's not that good, but in Upright Citizens and Second City, this is how you learned to think on your feet.

You would embrace this.

You would keep moving forward and you wouldn't judge.

So how did improv help you?

It allows me to get through weird moments, and know that there's another weird moment coming up.

Did improv help you adapt to some of the situations that you've encountered in your embedding here?

100%, I think I've been doing improv and teaching improv and a part of the improv world for decades, and the basic tenant of improv is accepting and building and listening, and especially when you're out in the field, you need to do all of those things. You're consistently listening to the story that's being told and you're looking for opportunities to comment, to build off of the idea or to find some humor in it. It always helps me out in the field.

Also, it's a mindset that teaches you not to be precious, which I think can be really dangerous in any kind of creative situation. There's times to be precious and there's times to edit, but there's also times that you should just be generative and not get too hung up on the one last thing you did. And so that has always helped me in the world of comedy.

There is kind of an interesting parallel here that I never thought about between being a good journalist, which you are in your "Klepper" capacity in a way, as well as a comedian. And also being somebody who's doing improv, learning to think on your feet, learning to ask different questions, learning to zag, if you will, if the conversation goes differently than you expected.

Yeah, I would say the best journalists, the listening part is the big part of it all, right? And I think with improvisation and in journalism, a curiosity. You have to be curious about what that next thing is and open enough to find it.

Do you remember when you first realized you were funny? Or was there a moment in time when you said, this is what I want to do?

For me it was a little bit of an evolution, but I found improv in college just because I thought I watched "Whose Line is it Anyway?" with my mom because it aired after "General Hospital" and we would do that. We'd watch it in high school. I loved it. My freshman year in college I went and there was an improv group and I was like, "I love that. I should try that. I should meet people." I like performing, kind of. I did mock trial.

I liked the energy from that in high school and I think I started doing it improv shows and I remember my first laugh in an audience making you feel like a million bucks. I didn't necessarily think that was what my life goals were going to be. But I knew there was something special there and it led me to be more and more curious about, "Oh, I like performing. I like improv. I like comedy. I like theater. Let me study this. Let me do more of it."

And the more I did it, by the time I graduated, I was like, "Oh, if I'm looking at what I want to do, this is the one thing I'm passionate about." The other things I thought I might do, I was a math major, I was thinking about the law. I was thinking about a bunch of things, but I was like, "I'm not passionate about any of those things. I want to keep doing the thing that I'm doing." And so it almost became an inevitability because it was the curiosity that I was following and I never became that much more interested in things like tort reform.

So here you are out on the road, sometimes in the bayou. Frankly, of all of the things I saw, even the arrests, for me, the most terrifying would be sinking in the bayou where there are alligators, me personally. Did you get leeches?

I didn't get any leeches.

Jeez, I'm already having nightmares.

It was the worst. I used to do a show behind the desk in an air conditioned studio. The studio is so nice. No, I was in the middle of the bayou and our boat sank and you are swimming . . . 20 minutes earlier they had been pointing out alligators and we're swimming trying to get all of our gear before it sinks —

You could stand, because what happened to the camera?

Because the cameras were in cases and so they were floating.

And our camera guy was incredible.

So basically we were 10 feet away, we hit a tree, I fall out of the water and the boat goes under as it hits the side. Our camera guy grabs his camera, throws it onto the shore.

Climbs on up, picks it back up and hits record. It was amazing. Honestly it was an incredible move.

He gets us all coming on up and half of the cameras that already went under, we were just like, "Maybe we got some of this footage as well."

That guy, I hope you hire him again.

He's very talented.

Of all the issues that you covered, has one occurred to you since you guys wrapped that you'd like to do next?

Prison reform.

I spent some time in jail and, all joking aside, when you're in general population you start meeting a lot of people who are stuck in a loop where they can't pay bail, they lose their jobs, they're still in jail, they're getting moved from jail to jail. I'd read about that before. It wasn't until I was experiencing that and sitting next to somebody who was like, "I can't catch a break." Then I'm like, "Oh, I need to read about it again." And so I do think if we jump back in and do more episodes, that's a place we're going to start.

By Alli Joseph

Alli Joseph is a writer/producer and family historian; a Native New Yorker, she is a member of the Shinnecock Indian Nation.

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