Like so many of us, Jordan Klepper got burnt out on talking about Donald Trump all the time. His nightly talk show, The Opposition, was the Colbert Report to Trevor Noah's Daily Show, with Klepper in character as a right-wing conspiracy theorist. He did 128 episodes from the fall of 2017 to the summer of 2018 before deciding it was time to do something different. His new vision premieres Thursday on Comedy Central as Klepper, a comedic docuseries in which each episode finds Klepper diving deep into a single compelling liberal political issue by embedding with the people working for their cause.
"After The Opposition, it was like 'how do we stop focusing on 1600 Pennsylvania, and how do we focus on other stories out there?'' Klepper told TV Guide. He wanted to get back into the field, like he did for his 2017 special Jordan Klepper Solves Guns. "'Also, I want to drop some of the irony that keeps us at arm's distance, and let's try to earnestly interact with people with stories we care about, with characters that are interesting.'"
Those characters include veterans trying to raise awareness about PTSD through pro wrestling, environmental activists working to stop an oil pipeline in the Louisiana bayou, and undocumented college students studying at an underground university. And Klepper is helping them tell their stories by serving as an audience surrogate. He's a self-deprecating smartass who seems like he stepped out of the cubicle next to yours and into getting bodyslammed through a table for the troops and capsizing in a boat in the middle of the night while trying to evade police and getting arrested alongside activists disrupting a Georgia Board of Regents meeting while protesting a law that prevents undocumented immigrants from attending public universities. Klepper is more of an informative documentary series than a joke-driven comedy series, and the humor comes from Klepper's discomfort with the serious situations he puts himself into. "I thought this all was supposed to be fake," he complains after getting backhanded hard in the chest by a beefy vet giving him a wrestling lesson.
Klepper doesn't want to be prescriptive and tell people that they have to be out on the front lines fighting for change every day, but he hopes that his show communicates the energy of the people who are. "I hope some of these stories inspire people to be aware of what they can do, or to respect the people who are out there doing something about it," he said. "It's really easy to turn on CNN or Fox or MSNBC and just see the fighting, and cross your arms, tweet a couple things, and be like, 'yeah, this whole system's f---ed.' Then there's people who think that, and then get up, pitch a tent, and go out to a pipeline to try to do something about it." Most mainstream media depicts the type of left-wing activists the show profiles as fringe wackos whose ideas are not to be taken seriously, but Klepper treats them with respect. And Klepper grapples with his own privilege as a straight, white, comfortable man in a way that's neither futilely self-lacerating nor lets him off the hook, which is difficult to do and rare to see.
The episode "Invisible Nation" deals with Native American representation in media, and artist Cannupa Hanska Luger tells Klepper point-blank that he has a responsibility to use his privileged platform to affect how these stories are told, in this case to show how the simplistic, racist depiction of Native people in media can be changed. "When he makes eye contact, he's like, 'You need to weaponize your privilege. You can joke about your privilege all you want, but you should weaponize it,''' Klepper said. And in the show, Klepper often subverts his role as the guy with his name in the title by taking an ignorant, lower-status conversational position and letting the people who know what they're talking about explain themselves.
It's an interesting inversion to see a smirking comedian not present himself as the smartest guy in the room. Klepper is a move from a satirist's detached irony to a more earnest, empathetic, and unabashedly bleeding-heart style of humor. It's about literally getting in the boat and documenting the inspiring, funny, and very human people who are trying to fix America.
Klepper premieres Thursday, May 9 at 10:30/9:30c on Comedy Central.