Jordan Klepper on Launching a Late-Night Series in Trump's "Paranoia" Era

THR -Jordan Klepper - Photographed by Aaron Richter - EMBED 1- 2017
Photographed by Aaron Richter

If you believe the Comedy Central promos, Jordan Klepper will be the voice of "the new America."

Or so says Comedy Central, which will introduce his late-night entry, an alt-media satire entitled The Opposition w/ Jordan Klepper, on Sept. 25. It will fill the 11:30 p.m. slot formally occupied by two other Daily Show alumni: Stephen Colbert and then, briefly, by Larry Wilmore.

In a bid for topicality, Klepper will adopt an Alex Jones-esque persona, much as Colbert once did a then-timely Bill O'Reilly one. And though the initial announcement of Klepper's series caught flak — another white guy gets a late-night show? — the Kalamazoo, Mich., native seems to have a solid handle on how to differentiate his effort.

"We have a lot of people [in late night] who are mad at what is happening, and they're very articulate about their frustration," says the 38-year-old comic, from his headquarters in Manhattan, N.Y. What's missing is something "showing where that comes from and trying to satirize from that place."

Ahead of The Opposition's launch, THR caught up with Klepper to discuss the show’s ambitions, the advice Stewart doled out and how a Jones-esque character will tackle tragedy.

It’s a crowded field. Give us your elevator pitch for The Opposition?

There are a lot of great people who have a lot of great takes, and shake their fist at what's happening day in and day out. We are going to play in the world where myself and this team and this world around us are going to be the ones who are shaking their fists. These alternative media sources are a really big part of our culture right now, and so we're excited about playing in this world. We’re taking the points of view of all of these sources that are influencing culture, but we're also trying to build this satirical and heightened "media station." This is the opposition, it's a show, but it's more than that, it's a movement. It's multimedia. It's not just me, it's the team of people who are against everything. They might not know [what they’re against], but they know they definitely feel “against.” Perhaps that’s a long elevator ride…. [Laughs.]

And your goal is to not only mock the alt-right but also the alt-left? That’s a tricky line to walk…

We’ll look at the news and ask, "Where do we feel the bullshit is and how do we speak to that?" Bullshit can be on the left, it can be on the right. We try to attack it through these characters that we play, and so you have myself as a very specific personality, but we're populating the show with other personalities who are a little bit more extreme and feel like the country's not necessarily going the way they want it to go. A lot of those will feel fringe, but we’ve seen fringe on the left, too. You started to see what happened with Bernie Sanders. So, it’s less a partisan point of view than it is a bullshit point of view.

How did you settle on this idea for the show?

I got a deal to do a pilot and an hourlong special, so I'd been talking with Comedy Central about some ideas for the show as well as the special. As the gun debate heated up, I focused on the special and then as that started to wrap up, I came back to Comedy Central. I said, ‘Here's the thing that I've been seeing in the world that I want to explore.’ I was on the road a lot at these Trump rallies [for The Daily Show] and as I would talk to these people, the things I’d hear out there were coming from places like Infowars, Breitbart and nontraditional media sources. That was the chorus. And so as people were like, "What is the show that’s about 2017 and about what people are talking about now? And if we are satirizing some of these points of view, where are they coming from?" I was like, I think I've seen it. I've been going around talking to people and I think that's where the show needs to live.

And it should feel very current as a result. But what happens if there’s a change in the White House?

Well, we're hoping to be reflective of now, not necessarily of the administration. The administration is such a focal point of everything right now, but I think we've built to this point where the paranoia is so high, but "the paranoid style of American politics" has been around for forever. I don’t think we’re gonna solve it in the next six months. I do think we are so paranoid of what the other side is going to do and of hearing things we don't want to hear, and these echo chambers are getting stronger and stronger day in and day out, so I hope the world changes and these ideas that we satirize and the way in which Americans communicate to one another and believe the reality that they create, I hope that shifts dramatically and puts me out of a job. That would be fantastic. But sadly, I think what we're making fun of is an extension of where we've been, it’s not an aberration.

Would you be launching this show if Hillary Clinton had been elected?

I think, yes. What happened with Donald Trump caught a lot of people by surprise, but it was indeed a movement. I think people's fears have shifted, and now you have people on the left who have a much different view of the world than they did before November 8. We would have wanted to address what that was, but now both sides have this almost doomsday view of the world. I think one side came into the world with that, and now the other side has it. So, perhaps there's more universality to it now after that election. But I do think even with a Hillary election, you still have a lot of people who didn't feel like Hillary represented the world that they wanted to be a part of. So that still was affecting culture, we just didn't know how much until after that election. But who knows? Maybe Hilary gets elected and this is more of a musical, I could do that. Perhaps I add a few more dance pieces, something that's more expressive in that sense, maybe that's what the people would have wanted. I would have disappointed them greatly. It wouldn't have played to my strengths, I'll tell you that much. I'm more of a, "Oh, it looks like the world's gonna end, I'll tune into this guy" type.

You like to say that the show will build to a place of absurdity, but one could argue we are already living in a place of absurdity, no?

You're right. But to me, what’s fun about that absurdity is not yelling at it but going along with the logic behind it. And so, it is the machinations of that absurdity that we get to play with. It's so much more fun to play with that absurdity than it is to just be mad at it. We have a lot of people who are mad at what is happening day in and day out.

That's pretty much the entire late-night landscape right now.

Yes. And people are very articulate about how frustrated they are with that, and I applaud them because it's very well done. Something that isn't out there right now is showing where that comes from, and trying to satirize from that place. It's not just screaming, it's showing. That's what will hopefully feel fresh, and allow us to go places that might feel like a relief and not just a frustration.

One of the things Stephen Colbert did remarkably well was to take a character who seemed like it could feel tired quickly and instead got years and years out of it. What did you learn about long-term persona evolution from him that you will bring to this process?

He proved that you could do a show night in and night out from this persona, and he showed that, in order to do that and want to watch night in and night out, you have to bring yourself to that as well so that people can still see the humanity and the person underneath. And that is something we are aware of as well. So, this world is born out of this alt-media landscape, but this character is also born out of this comedic persona I've been playing for years on the Daily Show, and even before and outside of that. We're just replacing those blind spots with things that are more aligned with the way the culture is right now. So, I'm looking to bring myself to this character. Just because I'm playing a character doesn't mean I can't find that authenticity in it, and that's the thing I'm trying to find. I'm still in there. I might be saying the opposite things that sometimes I believe, but hopefully you can still see me.

How do you foresee a character like this handling tragedy? How would he tackle a Hurricane Harvey or the events in Charlottesville, Va., had the show been on?

This character is decent — he’s not a bad person, he has blind spots, sure, but we want to make sure that people understand that this person is not heartless, he just doesn’t have the best perspective. And so in dealing with those things, what we do is show empathy toward what is happening, and then find the things around it that we might find flaws with. So, in the case of Harvey, that's not the storm itself. We're satirizing how the media is telling the story. Certain news outlets wanted to declare that racism was solved because of the instances of African Americans and white people helping each other. I think Breitbart had a headline about that. So, we'd be able to call out that bullshit, which is not about the victims. At the same time, we’re also poking fun at the left, because you'll watch the news and there are pundits who are just ready to pounce on the climate change argument — they really want to talk about climate change and give an "I told you so" as soon as it's possible to do that and not be considered un-empathetic. So, we talked about doing a forecast for the liberal slug storm that's about to hit America in about three days. [Laughs.] There are ways for us to find that humor and it's not pointed at the people who are suffering.

In most of the run-up press, your on-air persona is likened to an Alex Jones of Infowars. Fair?

It's an easier thing for people to digest that way. The world that we are playing within is influenced by the world of Infowars and the points of view of Breitbart and some of these online places like The Blaze. But this is not a one-to-one satirization of any one of those things. Infowars has the most complete world around it and that's what interests us, and my character is going to borrow some world views and elements from Alex Jones but it’s not going to be an impersonation of Alex Jones. It's also good to have other elements that are much more me. The joke I’ve made is that it’ll be like Alex Jones meets Garrison Keillor. That’s half a joke, half true in that this person also is me, a little more Midwestern, a little more of a storyteller.

You can’t assume viewers will watch this at 11:30 p.m. each night. How will you court them online?

We are creating our own digital department that’s focused on that. This is the alt-media world, and [online] is where it lives. Alt-media doesn't see itself as cable news, it sees itself as radio that’s on air, video, tweets, memes, think pieces — it traffics almost primarily in that digital space. So, we think that's a real opportunity for us. We want our Twitter feed, our Instagram feed, Facebook, all of these things, we want to create content from the point of view of the show. In the world of the show, the show doesn't just exist in the 22 minutes on Comedy Central. The show exists with radio shows and other things that are streaming all of the time, always happening, and other correspondents on the show have their own outside projects that are part of The Opposition. So, you can get content you wouldn't see on the show, because it's coming from this monolithic structure that is The Opposition. So we see it as an opportunity to introduce people to what we’re doing on the TV show by seeing what we’re doing outside of the world of that show.

So, you'll have a stand-alone web series and a radio offshoot?  

Not exactly. In the world of the show, I'm also doing radio shows throughout the day and so are other correspondents. And those are things that you may be able to see bits and pieces of. In the logic of the world, they're happening 24/7 but we will not be creating 24- hours news. But I will say, we're giving ourselves permission that you're not just going to see elements from the TV show. Certain correspondents have radio shows in this world that you might get to see videos of, a minute of that so-called radio show or other pieces here and there, so that it has a life unto its own.

You’ve talked to Samantha Bee and Jon Stewart about this next act. What advice did they offer?  

It was more Jon. He’s always been wise beyond his years, or perhaps equal to his years. He's old. [Laughs.] No, I've been checking in with him throughout this process, and even in the early days of brainstorming around this, he's the kind of guy who pushes you to go toward what your strengths are and believing in what you think is funny, which is really a helpful thing to hear early on. And as I started creating the show, I went back to him and said, “OK, I'm going to figure out how to make this show, but what I need from you is how to be a good leader within the show.” The guy was a great host, but beyond that, he was a great boss. It was a place I loved to work. So, as I was trying to hire a lot of people who are going to put a lot of time into this show, he was great at guiding me toward the type of people to look for: people who are eager and who I don't have to convince to be excited about this process; people who are going to match the enthusiasm that I bring to it, so that any extra energy that I have isn't put into convincing people to get on board, it's put into making the ideas that are already there better.

How did you go about assembling a writers room?

We did a big blind submission from all over the place. We wanted really diverse backgrounds and so we cast a wide net: people who had agents, people who didn't have agents, people from the coasts, people from the middle of the country. And we [landed on] a crew of people who are from different walks of life, but also a lot of people who are from the improv world. For me, that was a big, important thing as well since I came through improve and that kind of mentality’s really important. We need people who can see things through a character’s perspective.

Trevor Noah, who is still relatively green himself, is a producer on your show. What’s been his role?

He’s been an incredible sounding board, and somebody who’s pretty blunt and open with me about each step of the process. We’ve been in our own bubble creating the show, so what I’ll do every week or so is go to him and bounce things off of him. He has a fresh perspective, and he can see it with clear eyes. I also talk to him about the nitty-gritty of how to build a staff and things that he didn't know he needed until he started doing the show. The creation of a show is something that's fresh in his mind. And beyond that, he's excited, as I am, to keep these shows connected in some way. We want them to live in the same world.