Comic Jordan Klepper Assumes An Anti-Fact Persona On 'The Opposition'

Feb 7, 2018
Originally published on February 8, 2018 8:34 am

Former Daily Show correspondent Jordan Klepper remembers a time, not so long ago, when he was barely aware of far-right media outlets like Alex Jones' Infowars and Breitbart News. That changed during the 2016 presidential race.

"I was going out into the field and covering a lot of Trump rallies and talking to people," Klepper says, "and they were getting a lot of their ideas and their news from these far-right sources. So what first felt fringe, suddenly felt mainstream."

Today those sites are required reading for Klepper's job. As the host of Comedy Central's satirical political show The Opposition, Klepper delivers commentaries in the persona of a far-right conspiracy theorist.

"He creates his own reality," Klepper says of his character. "He sees the two dots and he fills the spaces with the things that make him feel more comfortable."


Interview Highlights

On developing his character for The Opposition

The character that I play lives in this world of Alex Jones, but is not a one-to-one satirization of Alex Jones. We kind of wanted to create a character that stood alone from those characters. So it's got the paranoia and the opportunism of an Alex Jones; it's got the Trump support of a Sean Hannity. It feels like state-run media. It's got the snark and smarm of a Jesse Watters, and it's got a little bit of Midwestern Jordan Klepper in there as well.

The look that we've started to cultivate is less like "I'm a New York guy with skinny ties and thin suits." ... These guys like to have flashier suits, bigger watches, big stripes and things of that nature. And so costume-wise we try to go in that direction. They sort of all preach the prosperity gospel; they're going to talk about God. But the best way to show that you are a person of God and living a righteous path is that you are successful. I think the Jordan Klepper character on the show wants to show he's successful in how he looks and how he holds himself.

On how he relates to the people he satirizes

I don't want to overplay my hand as someone who has lived a really difficult, tough life. I've been very fortunate. I had a great upbringing. [But] trying to become a professional comedian had its toil. I didn't have a lot of successes. I had a lot of failures, and I think out of that comes this [insecurity of], "Am I smart enough? Am I thoughtful enough?" And I do think we're all dealing with those issues and we all have those fears deep down inside. ...

When I look at these characters who might be more on the fringe, who I disagree with ideologically or the things that they're pushing, and I try to find what is really going on right there — "Why are you pushing so hard against this anti-intellectualism? Why are you so angry?" — it's like, I think I can relate to [you] because you are scared.

On how "resistance" is a theme for both the left and the right

You see the ideology that exists on these far fringier sites like Infowars and even Breitbart — they're not like traditional Republican ideologies. They're based in conflict and opposing the mainstream — anti-mainstream, anti-intellectualism, anti-fact in many ways.

As we wanted to build this show, we saw that, "This is all opposing something. Find an enemy. Call it out. We want to be that." We also realized what was so interesting is [Jones] was calling himself "the resistance" at the same time Keith Olbermann had a show calling itself The Resistance, and it felt like a very American moment that we could all be united in being against something. We're all resisting something. We all want to be the underdogs.

On getting cast for The Daily Show over his wife and comedy partner, Laura Grey

They had us both audition and we went through a bunch of rounds. We both came in and read with Jon [Stewart] and they could only take one person, and I was the person who got that job, which was one of the weirdest, strangest, happiest, saddest moments of my life. ...

We had worked together for so long, worked on these projects and gotten so close to this really cool dream job — one which she was so perfect for, I felt I had a strong chance for. ... So I got to go along with it and she didn't and started working on other things. ...

It's kind of the truth of this industry. On the outside everything is a dream and you get to have dream jobs. And, again, I am so fortunate with the opportunities that I had, but up until that point, Laura and I had both been doing comedy for 15 years and we had some successes, but a lot of that was us making videos ourselves on no money, teaching improv 40 hours a week to try to get by, hustling, getting really close to opportunities and then failing. So this idea of this dream thing happening and everything is great is a fallacy. I think when I had that opportunity ... it was a mix of so many emotions. It's always going to be complicated.

Heidi Saman and Seth Kelley produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Nicole Cohen adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest is Jordan Klepper, the creator and host of Comedy Central's satirical political series, "The Opposition," which is on right after "The Daily Show." He hosts the show in character as a far-right commentator whose views are in sync with Breitbart News and Alex Jones's InfoWars. Here's Klepper on the premier episode last September.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE OPPOSITION")

JORDAN KLEPPER: (As character) I know why you're here. You're here because you've noticed that all mainstream media sounds the same. You keep hearing the same talking points peddled by the same people who are all controlled by the same elite puppet masters. It's why they all agree on certain facts.

(LAUGHTER)

KLEPPER: (As character) Like climate change is manmade, President Trump lost the popular vote.

(LAUGHTER)

KLEPPER: (As character) I can't park there.

(LAUGHTER)

KLEPPER: (As character) That's how they operate. That's how they smuggle their dangerous ideas across the open borders of your mind. I want to shut down those borders. I want to close your minds.

(LAUGHTER)

KLEPPER: (As character) It's called mental nationalism, and it's an idea whose time has come. That's right. Here at "The Opposition," we believe in our own Golden Rule, may you only hear from others what you've already been telling yourself.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: "The Opposition" also has other commentators, who are called citizen journalists. The show ends each night with Klepper interviewing a guest, typically a politician, actor, journalist or social activist. Klepper got his start in improv and sketch comedy. In 2014, he became a correspondent on "The Daily Show" with Jon Stewart, where his persona was often the clueless white guy. He stayed on "The Daily Show" after Trevor Noah became the host, until Klepper started "The Opposition."

Let's hear one of Klepper's commentaries from last night's show about Monday's stock market plunge, the biggest one-day drop in Dow Jones history. After months of Trump taking credit for the stock market's daily gains, the White House issued a statement after the plunge saying it was focused on long-term economic fundamentals.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE OPPOSITION")

KLEPPER: (As character) Trump is committed to long-term economic growth. He's always in it for the long-term - airlines, casinos, marriages.

(LAUGHTER)

KLEPPER: (As character) He was with that one lady for a while.

(LAUGHTER)

KLEPPER: (As character) Guys, come on. Look, it's ridiculous to blame one person for an economic downturn. Now, credit for an economic upturn? Simple. That's Trump, baby. Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

KLEPPER: (As character) But a downturn? That's complex. I wouldn't even know where to start placing the blame. Luckily, Hannity might know a good spot.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HANNITY")

SEAN HANNITY: Because the Obama economy was so weak all of these years, we had just artificially cheap money.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE OPPOSITION")

KLEPPER: (As character) I knew Obama ruined our economy with his short-sighted investments in solar energy and our children.

(LAUGHTER)

KLEPPER: (As character) How long has Obama been wreaking havoc on our markets? The Great Depression? The Great Recession? The great me losing 200 bucks at blackjack during my buddy, Jeff's, bachelor party? OK.

(LAUGHTER)

KLEPPER: (As character) So guess what, Obama? You're going on my enemies list for the 49th time.

(LAUGHTER)

KLEPPER: (As character) He's on there a lot. The fight continues.

(APPLAUSE)

GROSS: Jordan Klepper, welcome to FRESH AIR. It is a great pleasure to have you here. I'm going to ask you to describe your character on the show.

KLEPPER: Well, I think you heard that idea of mental nationalism, which feels like - to me, it feels like this time and this place that we're living right now where we only want to hear those things we already believe to be true. And so this character, Jordan Klepper, on this show, embodies that. He is somebody that only trusts himself. He's an opportunist. He's egotistical. He has privilege, but he doesn't understand that he has that privilege. And he's looking to be the center of attention and the victim in every situation. He creates his own reality.

GROSS: And he believes in some conspiracy theories.

KLEPPER: Indeed, he does. He definitely sees the spaces, he sees the two dots and he fills the spaces with the things that make him feel more comfortable. I think he's constantly paranoid. I think deep down it's because he knows there's a lot of stuff he doesn't know, but he won't admit that to himself so he fills that in with this sense of paranoia. He connects the dots with something that's much more interesting than the real truth that actually exists out there.

GROSS: Well, I was in New York shortly before the show started, and there were bus ads that were really hilarious. And it was a picture of you, and the caption was, there is hydrogen in the water. (Laughter). Like, that was so great 'cause it sounds like, uh-oh, wow. There's hydrogen in the water - I should be scared. And then you realize by definition there is hydrogen in H2O. But it was such a great example of how you can start a conspiracy theory about something when there's nothing wrong.

KLEPPER: Exactly. I think science, to some people, is already scary. So we are using that as a weapon in that situation. But I think what we had a lot of fun with in creating both those billboards and building that show were, like, you can (laughter), you could scare people with half truths. You could even scare people with truths because people react to fear. All across town, you saw that China wasn't real. You saw that the mail knows where you live. And you definitely saw that there was hydrogen in the water.

GROSS: (Laughter). So have you been, like, since you've started preparing for the show, have you been immersed in far-right and fringe media?

KLEPPER: I have. So I was at "The Daily Show," and I was covering a lot of Trump rallies and talking to people, and they were getting a lot of their ideas and their news from these far-right sources. And, I've got to say, a year and a half ago, I was barely aware of InfoWars and Breitbart, Daily Caller. And so as I started hearing about this, I started to dive into it, and that's sort of where the genesis of the show, that's where it started. And so now as we build this show, we're constantly checking what the mainstream narratives are on all of the networks and the papers, but we're also then turning then to the Internet and saying, like, what's happening out here? What's on people's social media feeds, and what do these fringier outlets, what are the stories they're running with?

GROSS: Why, when you started getting more familiar with the fringier outlets, did you want to immerse yourself in them and learn more about them?

KLEPPER: Well, I saw the effect that it was having. Trump rallies, people were cheering, InfoWars, InfoWars, InfoWars. I started hearing about Alex Jones and how he had a pipeline to Donald Trump, hearing about Breitbart and realizing that Steve Bannon was right in lockstep with Donald Trump, in fact that, you know, Bannon's creating some of these policies. And Donald Trump himself, like, he's the world's biggest conspiracy theorist and he's been put on the highest stage. He was looking for Obama's birth certificate. He's constantly, constantly stirring this pot. And so it no longer felt funny or irrelevant anymore.

GROSS: Alex Jones, when he opens his show, he says, if you are receiving this transmission, you are the resistance. Is your show, "The Opposition," as an echo of the resistance?

KLEPPER: It definitely is. I think you see the ideology that exists on these far fringier sites like InfoWars and even Breitbart, they're not like traditional Republican ideologies. They're based in conflict and opposing the mainstream - anti-mainstream, anti-intellectualism, anti-fact in many ways. And so as we wanted to build this show, we saw that. It was like, this is all about opposing something - find an enemy, call it out. We want to be that.

GROSS: You know, so much of the far-right stuff, it's in code. And, like, even when Alex Jones introduces his show, it's, like, from deep in the heart of FEMA Region 6. So how FEMA Region 6 figures into it, I have no idea. Can you tell me?

KLEPPER: (Laughter). Well, it sounds evocative. It sounds like something you don't fully understand. And when you don't fully understand something, you have to take somebody at their word. And then that word may become something about gay frogs, and suddenly you're already down a conspiracy of rabbit hole.

GROSS: (Laughter).

KLEPPER: (Laughter). So I think, like, Americans love a good conspiracy. We want there to be something we cannot see. And so I think even this idea of Deep State is so evocative. Like, we want to know more about it. Like, something is being hidden from us, I want to be in on the know.

GROSS: OK. So since we've mentioned Alex Jones, before your show even went on the air, Alex Jones was talking to his listeners about it because he had read that your character was going to be partially modeled on him. So in your first episode, you played two clips, one of him just talking about Hillary, (laughter) and another of him talking about you. So I want to play that excerpt from the first edition of "The Opposition." And you're talking about how one of your allies in the fight against mainstream media is Alex Jones.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE OPPOSITION")

KLEPPER: (As character) We have to mention another ally in this fight, Alex Jones, of InfoWars. Now, this man is a full, glistening slab of Texas truth.

(LAUGHTER)

KLEPPER: (As character) And don't take my word for it. Just listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "THE ALEX JONES RADIO SHOW")

ALEX JONES: I can tell you 100 percent. The Clintons have had vacations in Haiti. They have visited voodoo priests. They've spent weeks in voodoo churches. They practice demon possession. That's what voodoo is, ladies and gentlemen.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE OPPOSITION")

KLEPPER: (As character) Yeah. I can tell you're right, Alex, because you growled it at me.

(LAUGHTER)

KLEPPER: (As character). See, it takes a crazy amount of voodoo to both win and lose a presidential election.

(LAUGHTER)

KLEPPER: (As character) Now, Jones is a raging bull of truth. His whole show, total bull. And I respect that.

(LAUGHTER)

KLEPPER: (As character) ...Which is why this broke my heart so hard.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JONES: You know why they hate me? You know why they now have an entire new Comedy Central show...

(LAUGHTER)

JONES: ...with their comedian, quote, "playing the part of Alex Jones?" And they will say things and do things every night that I haven't said or I haven't done to create branding with the type of mentally retarded people that believe and watch the channel.

(LAUGHTER)

JONES: You got to know I'm not making fun of the real people that are mentally retarded. I'm talking about people that have been induced into these comas. People, who, you understand, we have their plan, we know their plan.

KLEPPER: (As character) Alex, no, no.

(LAUGHTER)

KLEPPER: (As Character) Alex, no. Look, look, they are trying to divide us, but we can't let them. I don't know where you got that plan, but I promise you it's not our plan.

GROSS: So what was your reaction when you heard Alex Jones call your viewers - before you even had any - mentally retarded people who were induced into comas?

KLEPPER: It's bold. I want him on our branding.

GROSS: (Laughter).

KLEPPER: I think, immediately, I'll click on that. It felt very classic Alex Jones. I think what I love about that clip, you can boil it down to the first part of how he introduced our show. He's like, you know they hate me. Like, it's all about creating enemies. It's drawing a line. They - it's them versus us. They hate me. And it's - and I am under attack. We are under attack. Look at these people. They're coming at us. For us, that's sort of how we approach every story, and Alex Jones constantly does that. He's tribal. He plays into the worst parts of tribalism. It's us versus them, and he looks to just create enemies that he can immediately go at. And so - I mean, I was touched that he chose us.

GROSS: (Laughter) So you created this, like, website called ifyouarealexjonesclickthisifnotdont.com. And on that website, you lay out your plan. And the plan is, find out what people are scared of. Make people even more scared of those things. Develop products that protect people against those things. Sell those products that protect people against those things. Sell those products to the people who are scared. Get rich as hell (laughter).

KLEPPER: It's good plan.

GROSS: It's a good plan. Yeah. So when you were in high school, I think it was, you were on the mock trial team.

KLEPPER: Yeah. I...

GROSS: I'm not sure what that is, but you can tell me what it is. And then tell me if it helped you prepare for this kind of, like, deconstruction - the logical creation of illogical arguments.

KLEPPER: Well, Terry, I was on the national champion mock trial team in high school.

GROSS: OK (laughter).

KLEPPER: So I want to make that very clear. We were very good at mocking trial.

GROSS: You were the best of the best.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: OK.

KLEPPER: Mock trial is sort of like an even nerdier version of debate. So you put on a faux trial. We pretend to be witnesses, pretend to be attorneys. You're actually working with real attorneys and doing it in front of actual judges. So it's, like, part play, part Menendez trial.

GROSS: (Laughter).

KLEPPER: So it's exactly what a young 15-year-old wants to be doing, which was, like, stay up all night, both preparing a play and working with real-life attorneys to figure out how a voir dire works.

GROSS: (Laughter).

KLEPPER: And so I was kind of drawn to that in high school because I was a nerd. I went to Kalamazoo Central High School, and this was - they were very good at it. They won the state championships each year. And so I got really into it. Like, this was something that I could kind of bring my nerdiness to and also kind of indulge a little bit in performance. I thought at the time that I wanted to be an attorney. I quickly realized what I liked about this wasn't the law. It was, like, showboating. So...

GROSS: (Laughter).

KLEPPER: ...Took me a while to figure that out. But I think from an early age with that - that took me into college, which I got into math. And I think, like, I've always had somewhat of an analytical brain. And it wasn't until I got into the comedy world where I got to use that kind of - those kinds of mechanics to break down news stories and the ways in which you can kind of attack something through comedy.

GROSS: So getting back to your character on "The Opposition," have you changed your look for that character?

KLEPPER: I have. And we've been playing around with it a little bit. I think - the character that I play lives in this world of Alex Jones but is not a one-to-one satirization of Alex Jones. Like, we kind of wanted to create a character that stood alone from those characters. So it's got the paranoia and the opportunism of an Alex Jones. It's got the, like, the Trump support of a Sean Hannity. It feels like state-run media. It's got the snark and smarm of, like, a Jesse Watters. And it's got a little bit of Midwestern Jordan Klepper in there, as well.

And so the look that we've started to cultivate is less, like, of a New York guy with skinny ties and thin suits. And so I try to have a little bit - like, these guys like to have flashier suits, bigger watches, big stripes and things of that nature. And so - even costumewise, we tend to go in that direction. Like, they sort of all preach the prosperity gospel. We're going to talk about God, but the best way to show that you are a person of God and living a righteous path is that you are successful. And I think the Jordan Klepper character on this show wants to show that he's successful in how he looks and how he holds himself.

GROSS: So let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Jordan Klepper, the host and creator of "The Opposition" on Comedy Central. We'll be back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLIE HUNTER SONG, "MIGHTY MIGHTY")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Jordan Klepper, the host and creator of the Comedy Central satirical political show "The Opposition." And his character on this show is somebody from the far-far-right, modeled in part on Alex Jones, Breitbart News.

So one of those stories you have talked about on your show coming from your character's point of view is guns and mass shootings. And that's something that you talked about earlier. You even had a comedy special on Comedy Central called "Jordan Klepper Solves Guns" in which you promised that, as a comedian, you were especially equipped to not only explain the problem but solve it, as well. So let's hear what you had to say on your show after one of the many mass shootings. In fact, this was in October after the Las Vegas shooting where a gunman opened fire on a crowd of concertgoers, and 58 eight people were killed, 851 injured. So here you are in character on "The Opposition."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE OPPOSITION")

KLEPPER: (As character) It's right here in the playbook. This is your how-to guide for how to avoid the gun debate in times of crisis. Now, don't tell your snowflake friends about this beauty.

(LAUGHTER)

KLEPPER: (As character) This is a sacred text that stretches back hundreds of years to the 1970s.

(LAUGHTER)

KLEPPER: (As character) ...When the NRA began shifting the gun debate from a hunting issue to a self-defense issue. And thanks to brave gun defenders like Rush, and Hannity and that one cousin that you never visit...

(LAUGHTER)

KLEPPER: (As character) ...We have been adding tactics to it ever since. Basically, this manual has perfected how to shut down any gun control talk. No. 1, not the time.

(LAUGHTER)

KLEPPER: (As character) Everyone has heard this one because it's the first line of defense against a well-regulated dialogue. Listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS: I think that we can have those policy conversations, but today is not that day.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I just don't think that that's an appropriate time for this to be happening.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HANNITY: They couldn't even wait a half a day to play politics.

KLEPPER: (As character) The beauty of this argument is that it's always valid. According to the failing New York Times...

(LAUGHTER)

KLEPPER: (As character) ...In the last 477 days, there have been 521 mass shootings in America, which is obviously phony math because how can you have more shootings than there are days?

(LAUGHTER)

KLEPPER: (As character) If that were true, we'd be insane not to do anything about it.

(LAUGHTER, APPLAUSE)

GROSS: That's an excerpt of the October 3 edition of "The Opposition." I'm wondering, is the gun issue a very personal issue for you as well as a, you know, larger political issue for you?

KLEPPER: I mean, it is. I think - I mean, even hearing those stats yet again, it's infuriating how little is done in terms of the gun debate and people moving forward with that. I - you know, I come from Michigan, and I have family members who grew up hunters and had guns. And then moving to New York, the debate surrounding guns is very different than the one that was happening in Michigan. When I went to "The Daily Show," I got a chance to do a lot of pieces on America's gun debate. I went to Texas, and I talked about what it meant to be a good guy with a gun and if that could stop mass shootings. I talked to a lot of really smart people on both sides, and I was shocked at how many people shared the same points of view. And I'm really - we really weren't that separated when it came to the basic issue.

You know, people with guns don't want people who could be dangerous with guns to have those guns. And that - most Americans believe that. These conversations that this country keeps having are dominated by the gun lobby and so few people, but people with money, and people with microphones and people with megaphones. And there are so many people in the middle of the country who don't get a voice. And they might have guns. They might not have guns. They might be in Michigan, where I came from. And they're just as disgusted by all of the violence that keeps taking place.

And so, like, what you just played right there - I think it was our fifth day of filming our show. Like, there was the terrible Vegas massacre. And then a few days after that, there was the Texas shooting. And it just doesn't go away. And it feels very American in that, like, the American people want one thing, but our country can't do anything about it. And it just infuriates me.

GROSS: How were guns used in your family? Did you have a lot of hunters in your family? Did you hunt?

KLEPPER: My grandfather was a hunter, and so he would take me out shooting. He would usually point them at pheasants, ruffed grouse. I would mostly point them at hubcaps and sit on the back of his truck. They were kind of a part of life for me growing up. It was something I never really took to but wasn't necessarily afraid of. They were kind of normalized in that sense.

GROSS: But so you have a different perspective because you grew up around guns. You understand why people hunt. You know hunters, so you can't just be, like, dismissive about that in the way some people are. Do you get into discussions about guns with family?

KLEPPER: I do. I mean, again, I think there's a lot of common ground that we have on that. It only gets dicey when it becomes political and identity-based. Like, we can talk about guns, but if the discussion of guns becomes a discussion of who you are as a person and that I'm trying to take that away from you, well, then there's no middle ground.

GROSS: My guest is Jordan Klepper, host of Comedy Central's satirical political show "The Opposition." It comes on right after "The Daily Show," for which Klepper used to be a correspondent. Coming up, we'll talk about how he made his debut on "The Daily Show" as its senior Caucasian correspondent. And Maureen Corrigan will review a new novel about art and morality. That's after a break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ST GERMAIN'S "LATIN NOTE")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Jordan Klepper, the creator and host of the Comedy Central satirical political show "The Opposition." It's on after "The Daily Show," Monday through Thursday. Klepper hosts the show in the persona of a far-right commentator whose views are in sync with Breitbart News and Alex Jones's InfoWars. "The Opposition" premiered in September. Before that, Klepper was a correspondent on "The Daily Show."

Now that you host a satirical political show, and you're taking sides, in character, on issues, like, every day, do you get into political discussions with family members who you might not agree with? And is it more difficult for you to get out of those discussions...

KLEPPER: (Laughter).

GROSS: ...Now that you're becoming famous for your political persona?

KLEPPER: My family - they're very open and want to talk about a lot of things. And I think, like - when I go home and talk with my parents - my mother is fairly liberal. My dad is kind of right in the middle - I think, like, would consider himself, like, fiscally conservative. I think they - I think he voted Obama round two or maybe round one, not round two. Like, he's kind of right in the middle. And I think, like, right now, this day and age, I feel like we both share a lot of the same opinions about many of the things we're talking about. They see the same frustrations.

I feel like Trump has kind of galvanized people to almost pick a side in that sense. When I go talk to other people at home or Thanksgiving or things of that nature - think people who are maybe on the other side of the aisle tend to not want to engage. I mean, that's because I'm - you know, I'm a television star now. So for God's sakes, I'm going to win. I'm going to get the upper hand.

GROSS: (Laughter).

KLEPPER: I do this professionally. I try to win. And I play a character who's only going to win. So I think that's a success for me - is I've at least scared people away from that conversation.

GROSS: (Laughter) So I first heard you on "The Daily Show," and I want to play your very first appearance on "The Daily Show." And this was the Jon Stewart era. You were supposed to be reporting from Crimea, which was then part of Ukraine but had just been invaded by Russian troops claiming it as Russian land. And Ukraine's authoritarian President Viktor Yanukovych had just been ousted. So here you are on "The Daily Show" supposedly reporting from Crimea. And it starts with Jon Stewart.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE DAILY SHOW WITH JON STEWART")

JON STEWART: For more on the story, we're joined by our new senior Caucasian correspondent...

(LAUGHTER)

STEWART: ...Jordan Klepper. Jordan, thank you for joining us on the program.

(CHEERING, APPLAUSE)

STEWART: Jordan, welcome to the show. First of all, we're excited to have you. You are in Crimea. Obviously you have studied this region for years.

(LAUGHTER)

KLEPPER: Yes, that is 100 percent true. OK, as you know, the Crimean Peninsula is ethnically Russian. Now, it's important to remember a peninsula is a landmass surrounded on three sides by water, unlike an island or an isthmus. Now, the Crimean Peninsula is dependent on Russia for most of their natural resources.

STEWART: Actually, they're dependent on the Ukraine for most of their natural resources.

KLEPPER: Right, right, stupid, stupid. I'm sorry. I don't know why I said that. I'm not going to fail you, Dad - Jon.

(LAUGHTER)

STEWART: It's all right, Jordan. It's all right. It's fine.

KLEPPER: OK.

STEWART: Just relax. How are the people feeling?

KLEPPER: They're scared, Jon, real scared, a little sweaty.

(LAUGHTER)

STEWART: Because they have ties to both the Ukraine and Russia. Is that...

KLEPPER: Sure. I mean, if you would've asked them a week ago, would you like to be a part of Russia, they would've been like, yes, Russia's my favorite. I'd love to join Russia. I watch Russia every night. But now they don't know what they've got themselves into, you know? And they think, maybe I've gotten a little bit in over my head.

STEWART: Just - it's fine. You're doing fine. Stay focused. What have you learned so far today?

KLEPPER: Well, you have to dial 9 to get an outside line.

(LAUGHTER)

KLEPPER: Lunch is at 1. And if I keep my head down here for a couple of years, I've got a real shot at my own sitcom on NBC.

(CHEERING)

GROSS: That's Jordan Klepper's first appearance on "The Daily Show." Whose idea was that for your first sketch on "The Daily Show" to be about how nervous you were on "The Daily Show"?

KLEPPER: I think that was Jon's idea, although I'd like to say that I brought being nervous to "The Daily Show" myself.

GROSS: (Laughter).

KLEPPER: So I think if he was reading the room, it really - it started with me.

GROSS: How nervous were you?

KLEPPER: I mean, I was nervous, but I couldn't be more excited. Like, that day - that brings back a ton of memories. I remember walking in that day. And it's - you know, I had gotten the call three days earlier that I should show up on Monday and bring my suit because I might be on the show. And it was a dream come true. And I walk in. They usher me into Jon's office. And they're like, oh, this Crimea story took place. We're going to do a story about this. And at that point, I'm like, this is my first day at the job. I couldn't be more excited, nervous. And they're talking about Crimea. I don't know anything about Crimea.

GROSS: (Laughter).

KLEPPER: I want to be a part of this conversation, but, boy, I need to get to a Google fast. And so we started building this piece around it. And throughout the day, we continue to write it, continue to write it. I remember that dad joke was my first joke I got on the show. There's no better feeling than improvising in a room on your first day, then Jon Stewart liking that joke and it becoming part of the final piece.

GROSS: So you were first introduced as the new senior Caucasian correspondent, and your identity was often the clueless white guy. Why was that your persona?

KLEPPER: (Laughter) You know, I don't know what it is about me that people see a clueless white guy.

GROSS: (Laughter).

KLEPPER: So it's a difficult role for me to get into.

GROSS: (Laughter).

KLEPPER: I mean, I think it's - it is something. With comedy, it's like, what do people read, and what do they see with you? But I definitely came in there - I think what I bring and what I've always had fun doing is, like - you play these pompous, heightened characters who have these big blind spots. And I think, like, that's something that "The Daily Show" kind of crafts out for their correspondent roles. It's a type of character I've played before, and I think, like, adding the racial element of it gives a little bit more - I think a little bit more punch and more reality to it.

And I think people look at me, and if I'm honest, they look like, oh, there's that guy. That guy gets everything handed to him. Oh, and he's more confident than he should be, and he acts like he's smarter than he really is. Screw that guy. It's like, if that's what people see, let me play around with that, heighten it. And hopefully we can find comedy there.

GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Jordan Klepper, host of the Comedy Central satirical political show called "The Opposition." That's on Monday through Thursday at 11:30. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Jordan Klepper. He hosts "The Opposition," which is a political satirical show on Comedy Central - 11:30 Monday through Thursday. And he hosts the show in character as a far-right conspiracy theorist. The character's loosely based on Alex Jones, on the kind of stories you hear and maybe you read in Breitbart News and other far-right groups.

So your wife, Laura Gray, is one of the, quote, "citizen journalists" on the show. Instead of correspondents or something, they're called citizen journalists on your show. And you did comedy sketches together on the web before - I guess this was before you were on "The Daily Show." And...

KLEPPER: Yeah.

GROSS: Several sketches that you did together have to do with getting married. I've watched a few of them. They're really funny. And one of them is about the pros and cons about having wooden napkin rings (laughter) at the wedding reception. Another sketch, like, you get a cousin's wedding invitation in the mail, and it's a lavish invitation on expensive paper with a ribbon in it. And you're comparing that to your cheap invitations and feeling like you've been so outdone, and it makes you feel like you've done such an embarrassingly inferior job with your wedding invitation. So I want to know what your wedding planning was like...

KLEPPER: (Laughter).

GROSS: ...Like, two improv comics getting married, doing spoofs about weddings.

KLEPPER: I mean, you saw it. I think that's basically - the videos that we made from that replaced what we were supposed to be doing with actually making content about it. Laura and I worked together for years in Chicago. We toured on the same touring company at Second City, and then we moved to New York together. And we were collaborators, loved working together. We were dating, we were living together, and then we got engaged, still working together. And I think, like, it - the idea of putting together a wedding was very daunting to us as a couple in Brooklyn.

We had a Brooklyn aesthetic that made us sick, but not enough to the point where we wanted to change it. We were like, oh, this is so - we are we are so hipstery (ph) and pretentious, and we're not going to change it, but we are aware of it. And we've always found making comedy out of the thing that you're experiencing is, like, the best outlet, and it also makes the best kind of content for it.

So, like, our wedding was us frustratedly trying to stumble through creating what the invitations look like, how you - who you include, who you don't include, the dynamics there, what it's like buying flowers - like, small, little things that you don't know anything about until you're thrown into that world. And for us, every time we stumbled on something like that, it was like, let's use this, and let's try to make something fun out of it. And I will say that was - from that, that got us attention at "The Daily Show." And Jon and some of the producers over at "The Daily Show" saw those videos, liked them, liked both me and Laura, and had us audition for the show.

GROSS: And you made it, and she didn't.

KLEPPER: They had us both audition, and we went through a bunch of rounds. We both came in and read with Jon. And they could only take one person, and I was the person who got that job, which was one of the weirdest, strangest, happiest, saddest moments of my life. It was very weird. We - but we - I think I - it's a - it was a strange situation for us to be in. I think we had worked together for so long and worked on these projects and gotten so close to this really cool dream job, one of which she was so perfect for, I felt I had a strong chance for, and, like, it was a good fit for me to do this.

And so I got to go along with it, and she didn't and started working on other things. And so that's where even with working with her again on "The Opposition" feels like, oh, we've worked so well together. Like, I got to work on this dream job, but the really - dream job is getting a chance to work with her again in this capacity.

GROSS: Jon Stewart split you up as a performing team.

(LAUGHTER)

KLEPPER: I know. Yeah, oh, Mr. Genius Jon Stewart, wait, yeah, uh-huh.

GROSS: (Laughter).

KLEPPER: Oh, yeah, oh, boy. Oh, boy. He's the smartest guy, right? He sees it. No, Jon. You had it right there, and you blew it. And that's why you quit. You saw the mistakes that you made. You couldn't live with yourself. You know, like, I got to walk away from this thing. Jon knows. He made a huge mistake.

GROSS: I'm trying to imagine what was going through Laura's mind when you were hired because on the one hand, I'm sure she was very happy for you. And on the other hand, you were hired, and she wasn't. You weren't going to have time to do sketch comedy with her. And gosh, that's...

KLEPPER: I...

GROSS: What a complicated mix of emotions.

KLEPPER: I mean, I would - and I would say that it's kind of the truth of this industry. Like, on the outside, everything is a dream, and you get to have dream jobs. And I am so fortunate with the opportunities that I had. But up and to that point, Laura and I had both been doing comedy for 15 years. And we had some successes, but a lot of that was us making videos ourselves on no money, teaching improv 40 hours a week to try to get by, hustling, getting really close to opportunities and then failing. And so, like, this idea of, like, this dream thing happening and everything is great is a fallacy. And I think when I had that opportunity, it was. It was a mix of so many emotions, and it's always going to be complicated. It added stresses to our creative output at that point because I had to focus on this one thing.

But yeah, at the same time, I'm also watching somebody who came really close to this thing, didn't get it, deserved it, but because of how this industry works, now has to keep hustling, keep going at that. And I think, like, she's a hard worker. She got other opportunities, supported me in the opportunities that I got, where she might be working twice as hard, but I'm getting accolades because I'm on television and on this show. And so, you know, it's about sticking with it and knowing, like, you know what? I'm going to get that next opportunity. But it doesn't come without pain and frustration, and it's a complicated picture the closer you look.

GROSS: So you grew up in Kalamazoo, Mich. Describe your neighborhood.

KLEPPER: We moved around, I think, seven times in Kalamazoo, so I had a bunch of different neighborhoods. I lived in Westnedge Hill, which is, like, this beautiful, quiet, little hill area. I lived near Kalamazoo College, where I ended up going to school, which is just this very small school of 1,200 people. I would walk out my back door and go to a park where all the kids on the block would go and play basketball. We played basketball in the summers all day. We'd come back. We'd play Tecmo Bowl in my parents' basement, go out and play basketball again. Like, it was a pretty classic, middle-America kind of upbringing in a town that was really supportive of me and kind of - and still has been. But I have a lot of love for Kalamazoo. My family is still there, and I go back a lot.

GROSS: OK, so this is a really stupid question. But when I was growing up, what I knew about Kalamazoo was the song - The Glenn Miller recording "I Got A Girl In Kalamazoo" (ph).

KLEPPER: Yeah. I got a gal in Kalamazoo-zoo-zoo.

GROSS: "I've Got A Gal In Kalamazoo." Yeah, yeah, yeah. So did that recording kind of stay with you? Was that popular in Kalamazoo? Like, how does - how do the people of Kalamazoo feel about that record?

KLEPPER: I mean, I think as a kid, any reference to Kalamazoo felt special, so I knew about that song. I can't say I was big into Glenn Miller-era swing music when I was 12. But I knew that there was a song that referenced Kalamazoo, that made us cool. I think Creedence Clearwater Revival referenced Kalamazoo and a song, as well. That made me feel very cool. Like, whenever it popped up on any kind of pop culture spectrum, people from Kalamazoo owned it and loved it because it has this funny, weird, mystical-sounding name. Even our town slogan is, yes, there really is a Kalamazoo, which...

GROSS: (Laughter) That's - I didn't know that.

KLEPPER: I love it. It's, like, defensive. It's like, we get it. You don't think we're real, but trust us, it's a real place. I assure you.

GROSS: That sounds like good preparation for a conspiracy theorist (laughter).

KLEPPER: I think it is. Yeah, I feel like it's one of those details, when I tell people I'm from Kalamazoo, they're like, oh, that's a fake name. It's like, no, that's real. That's like, oh, but this is the world. We don't trust anything anymore. If it sounds fake, it might just be.

GROSS: So you had what sounds like a really good childhood in Kalamazoo. In your personas on "The Daily Show" and now on your show "The Opposition," you play somebody who, you know, is - on "The Daily Show" was sometimes, like, the clueless white guy, and on "The Opposition," you're, like, the right-wing conspiracy white guy. A lot of comics - and I'm thinking more of stand-up comics here - really dwell on the things that make them nervous or neurotic, that keep them awake at night, that make them feel insecure, that scare them. And that doesn't seem to be where comedy comes from in your life.

KLEPPER: I mean, I think, as a human, I have all of these emotions. And I think, like, as I build this character, like - I do play this character who is confident, who is cocky, who doesn't understand these blind spots, who has this privilege but wants to be the victim and the center of attention. And I do think, for me, where I find humanity in a character like that I very much connect to, I often think, like, the fear that I have inside, that I hold on to, that I try to bring into this character, as well, is like - I, like, everybody else - I'm afraid that I am not smart enough. I am afraid that I am not kind enough.

And I think when I look at these characters who might be more on the fringe or who I disagree with ideologically or the things that they are pushing - and I try to find like, what really is going on right there? It's like, why are you pushing so hard against this anti-intellectualism? Why are you so angry? And it's like, I think I can relate to because you are scared. And I see these characters out there, and that's what I can relate to, and that's what I can bring to that - is, like, that's why you're pointing out that enemy. You're angry. You don't feel smart enough to be in this situation, and that's why you're covering it with bluster. That's why you're trying to make yourself the victim, because you need to be the center of attention, because you're scared if people look too close, they're going to see those holes.

GROSS: Do you ever wish that you were not on at 11:30 opposite Colbert, and Fallon and Kimmel? And, you know, Conan O'Brien's on then, too. And, like, most of the late-night comics now are starting with political comedy, and I keep thinking like, shouldn't somebody be on at, like, 10 or 10:30? I mean, Samantha Bee's on at 10:30, but, like, can't we just, like, rearrange the schedule a little bit so, like, everybody's not on at the same time?

KLEPPER: (Laughter) It's...

GROSS: I know we can all DVR or watch it on the Internet. Nevertheless, I think I'm asking a very rational question here.

KLEPPER: (Laughter) It's a very rational - I will go directly to the network and be like, guys, there's a lot of people out at 11:30. If we could just bump that up a little bit - I will say what's also so interesting now is the news breaks so late in the day.

GROSS: I know.

KLEPPER: ...That we almost - like, we - it's so funny. I feel like all of these late-night shows, we're waiting, and we're in rewrite at, like, 5:45, getting ready to, like, send our things to graphics so we can hopefully tape at 6:30 or 7. And news breaks, and you've got to throw it out and try to write something new, so you almost benefit by pushing it as late as you get. And the fact that these shows are basically - it's as close to the next day as you can get before the show starts is emblematic of - this news cycle just does not end. We need all the time in the day we can get in order to comment on what's already happening.

GROSS: Jordan Klepper, it's been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.

KLEPPER: Terry, thank you.

GROSS: Jordan Klepper hosts Comedy Central's satirical political show "The Opposition." It's on right after "The Daily Show." After we take a short break, Maureen Corrigan will review a new novel in which art and morality, ambition and empathy come into conflict. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.