Jordan Klepper on Guns, Trump, The Right Vs. Left and Lessons Learned from Jon Stewart
White people trust Jordan Klepper, the lanky, blonde and affably midwestern Daily Show correspondent best known for going into the field to ostensibly prove that police don’t have racial biases or to quiz supporters at Trump rallies about the relative feminism of “Trump That Bitch.” Klepper worked just one year under Jon Stewart, but when Trevor Noah arrived in 2015, Klepper understood his voice in the show. Like many correspondents before him, including Steves Carell and Colbert, Klepper excels at playing a self-assured blowhard, cluelessly flaunting his white privilege, or cleverly, subtly engaging passersby in man-on-the-street interviews. After giving an assured performance as TDS guest host, Klepper was offered his own Daily Show spin-off, which is set to premiere this fall. In the interim, he teamed up with TDS producers to make Jordan Klepper Solves Guns, an hour-long special in which Klepper plays a caricature of a self-righteous liberal journalist looking to snatch up the nation’s firearms. In the course of an hour, he embeds himself with Georgia’s Three-Percenters Militia, hosts a Bachelor-like reality competition to find a lovable moderate gun owner and gets his adrenaline up on an extreme shooting range. Rolling Stone talked to Klepper about the special, the state of political comedy and why pulled pork wins over Islamophobia.
Because this is required by law, I thought we might get it out of the way up top: Trump. When do we, as a populace, get exhausted with political comedy about him?
Oh boy. He is such a focal point of our lives right now, no matter how tired we are with his day-to-day machinations, we can’t help be consumed by him. Partially because there’s fear that we’ll be annihilated by him and complete optimism that he’ll change our lives. As long as he takes up all the air in the room, there will be space for comedians to try to puncture that and let the air out.
One of the charges leveled at The Daily Show and programs like it is the sense that they engender complacency in an audience that otherwise might be motivated to political action. What’s your feeling about that?
We have to laugh because it makes us connected to those around us. We’re all in our little media silos, and we’re all sitting alone at bars staring at our phones, and I think when we get scared, we look for something to tell us we’re not so alone, and sometimes it’s a joke that says,”No, we feel the same way you do.” You’re almost looking for that thing to stabilize you. Comedy has found this new spot in our culture, where people go to be like, Are other people finding this crazy? If other people are laughing at this, I’m not alone.
In the intro of Jordan Klepper Solves Guns, you make this tongue-in-cheek pronouncement that it’s 2017, and “it’s a comedian’s job to save the world.” But the truth is, any think piece about comedy will tell you that comedians are the new philosophers. So, how much do you agree with the sentiment behind the gag?
I do think there is an over-lionization of a comedian. I understand the necessity for it, and I don’t take it lightly that people turn to comedians to find a little sanity here and there. Yeah, it is a little bit ridiculous that you would turn to me to fix a very serious issue, so in doing this special, I wanted to approach it and poke fun at a bit of that liberal mentality. And when I go to the middle of the country, and talk to people for The Daily Show, that’s the perception of people on the right about comedians, too. That they’re out to be overly self-righteous.
I’ve always found humor in portraying that thing that feels slightly absurd or ridiculous. So I wanted to play a character that poked fun both at the left, but also was a creation of people on the right. “Oh you’re a comedian? That means you’re out to take our guns.” Well, what if I am? Let me play that character, who earnestly wants to go do that. The people who make the most sense in this special hopefully aren’t me, they’re the moderates who shine because I get to outflank them farther at the left.
If this character is, in part, a manifestation of fear on the right, how did you imagine it so conservative or even moderate viewers might watch beyond the two-minute mark?
I’m sure there are some people who will watch the first few minutes and not get the joke. There are people who decide what they feel just from headlines they read, so I’m already getting trolled by people in the NRA, “This guy wants to take our guns away!” It’s like, I literally say that the first two minutes. I’m always just a little more interested in showing, not telling – and if you keep watching, you’ll hopefully see I’m making fun of that fear. This character tells one thing, but hopefully the thing that he shows is more interesting and more funny. It is interesting if it does walk the line, though, and people have to look closely enough to find out if they think this is a character or not a character.
Speaking of people who have walked that line, Steven Colbert’s standard wisdom for correspondents doing field pieces was,”Check your soul at the door.” What does that mean to you? How have you applied it to your stories?
Working at The Daily Show, you have to know what you want to say. It’s not just creating something for the sake of shock value. If it’s a topic that you care about, and you’ve done the research, and you want to make a point that you believe, then you go out into the field. So be fearless. Go with your gut. You’re trying to make comedy, you have a point of view and you’re also talking to real people that you’re making this point with. It’s not going to be easy, so go get it.
Because you’re from Kalamazoo, Michigan, does that make you a de facto Midwestern white person whisperer?
It could be! When you have a big, dumb face like me, you look pretty trustworthy. Trevor [Noah] often talks about the optics of sending me out is different than sending other people out. At those Trump rallies, optics is a big deal. I do think I am a pretty affable and approachable guy, and people feel comfortable talking to me. Also, I’m earnestly curious about what they will share and what they want to talk about. If you go in like that, people will meet you halfway.
Before the special, you worked on a lot of gun stories for TDS. When did you find it was an issue you really cared about?
Guns is something I’ve always been interested in. I grew up, my grandfather took me out shooting guns. They were a part of his lifestyle, he was a hunter. So as a midwesterner, I had a relationship somewhat with guns, even though I wasn’t a gun kid. When I come to New York, people have a very different perspective on it. So I’ve always found that really fascinating to explore.
I’ve also found it so infuriating, how there was no progress being made with so many people who agreed on basic elements on common sense gun control. After doing a handful of those pieces, I kept talking to people on both sides, and they were repeatedly having these conversations, finding common ground, and then being unable to get funding from the CDC, for example, just banging their heads into the wall. Then there was that shooting my hometown, and then I’m talking to my parents about these same issues. It doesn’t go away. The more time you spend learning about what is happening in America in regard to guns, the more you can’t just sit down and watch it.
But in your formative years, you have pleasant memories of going hunting with your grandpa?
I didn’t go hunting because I was nervous about that, but we would go out to the sand dunes and shoot at hubcaps. My grandpa was an NRA member, and one of my fondest memories of my grandpa is he would always wear a Guns ‘n Roses hat. Not because he had any idea about the dangerous qualities of an autumnal rain, but because he loved guns and he drank Four Roses whiskey. Those were his two favorite things.
Was he aware of Axl and the gang at all?
I don’t think that he was. My uncle gave him that gift, and he was like, “Perfect. I love guns, I love Roses.” My grandpa was a wonderful man, a very responsible man, and kept rifles at the house, always under lock and key. So guns were not scary to me when I was a kid. So when I go back to the midwest and talk to people about it, I get it. Guns aren’t the worst thing in the world. If you’re responsible, if you’re gone through training, and you want a gun, you should have a gun. That’s what America is all about, it’s in the Second Amendment, I get all of that. I also get being afraid of the people on television who say “They’re coming for your guns.” When you talk to them and get a little bit farther, and dispel some of those fears, “Oh, yeah, like, we shouldn’t be arguing about most of this stuff, we’re on the same page.”
After embedding with that militia in Georgia, how much do you sense that all militias, regardless of how scary they look on Youtube, are mostly about guys camping?
We were nervous about going to embed with that militia. Their videos had pretty intense rhetoric, they wore masks and had big guns. But when we showed up, there were two other camera crews filming them. We quickly realized, They’re afraid of governmental tyranny, but not overexposure. Okay, we’re less scared and now I see what this is a little bit.
What immediately struck me: We’re all tribal, we all need our group. These are guys in Georgia who get together once a month – some guys drive from hours away, because it’s a really fun weekend where you get to shoot guns, barbecue, drink some beers. I’d be like, “It’s camping, you want to play in the woods, shoot some guns. I won’t begrudge you that.” They felt comfortable talking about feeling like you’re part of a family, and then when challenged, the ideology came out. Some would be like, “We’re here to defend our country. We’re here because of Sharia law.” Some people definitely believe that, and that might be the reason they are out there. A lot of people, that was just the excuse they could give to give legitimacy for a boys’ weekend. And that I understand. If you think there’s going to be Sharia law in Atlanta, that’s bullshit, but if you like pulled pork, you’re onto something there.
What’s the most challenging aspect of working in the field, something we’d never notice just watching the pieces?
You are with this people for a very long time, generally. You are building relationships, you see the nuance of each person and each story. But it’s no secret that you’re only going to get a concentrated version of what that experience was. It’s a challenge, trying to tell the story you need to tell with the restraint of what television is.
I spent an entire day with the militia, and there’s so many interesting things that happened. We only get to show six minutes of that, so how do you find these interesting, earnest moments that represent the experience? You’ve got to stay sharp and aware the entire day. That’s what good correspondent will do, and what good producers do. You’re making comedy, you’re making sketch, you’re also filming a documentary. You’re always wearing three different hats at the same time, and you’ve got to remember which one you’re wearing.
The upshot to the special is that moderates who agree on sensible gun control should follow the lead of everyday activists and do something about it. When, during the process of making the show, does this through-line appear?
The special is a lot like The Daily Show field piece: You go out there with the best laid plans. We wanted to follow this character as he had to see it from both sides, and see his own opinions and preconceived notions challenged. What you get in the field completely changes that trajectory and the story begins to shift. The ending was something we found at the end of shooting, because after months and months of delving into this issue, it gets pretty depressing. After working on this thing for six months, we’re like, “We said we’d solve guns, shit, how do you solve guns? Let’s call some people who are doing this stuff.”
Once we started reaching out to these groups doing these actions, we really were affected by the small changes people were making. I am a buffoon on certain levels, hopefully pointing out some things that are interesting in this debate, but it would be shame for us not to highlight the people who are not just goofing around about this, telling you what to do, but are out there doing those things. The woman Tamar Manasseh from MASK [Mothers Against Senseless Killing] in Chicago was nervous about keeping her child safe with all the shootings in her neighborhood. She started to make hot dogs and give them to people, and as a result, more people started to go outside and the neighborhood became safer, more of a a community space. She doesn’t give a shit about political fights, she’s going to affect whatever change she can now. And that’s so much better than what I’m doing. I can be an unreliable narrator through the journey of this issue, but if you can land on some people who actually are living it, that to me was the thing to point to.
Former Daily Show correspondent John Oliver swears that his satirical news is not related to journalism. Where do you sit on the entertainment/educational divide?
This is something Jon [Stewart] would talk a lot about and I would 100% agree with: The thing I know how to do is look at a situation and find what I think is absurd about that situation. And if you’re going to spend this much time on anything, you’d better pick something you fucking care about. All of us have put the research and the time in, but I don’t want to misconstrue it as, I am a journalist looking for an unbiased take on what the gun issue is. No, I am a comedian who has biases, who is going to attempt to show those biases. When people respond to these satirical shows, I hope they understand that these are editorials, not just straight news pieces. I do take it seriously, but understand that there’s bias here just like there’s bias with any of those other journalistic outlets you’re frustrated with, too. So get another source.
What can you say about the new series? Are you reinventing the wheel or sticking close to the Daily Show format?
We’re keeping that under wraps until we solve the gun issue. So let me solve guns, and maybe I’ll figure climate change in there, too.
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Okay, if you could keep it simple and send the solution out on Twitter, that’d be great.
Maybe a Snapchat story, something like that? You need millennials to be part of the climate change solution, so speak their language.
Perfect. Just get that taken care of before your show starts, and you’re golden.
I’ve got a lot of work. It’s going to be a busy couple weeks.