Responding to mass shootings, terrorist attacks and other violent atrocities has become a grim rite of passage for late-night comedians in this fraught era. But for Jordan Klepper, the moment has arrived sooner than most. Just a week after the premiere of his nightly show, “The Opposition,” Americans are riveted to their screens following news of the carnage in Las Vegas.
“We all woke up shocked,” says Klepper, 38, in his office near Penn Station on Monday afternoon. “We're constantly watching the news as the numbers keep changing. It's heartbreaking and it's overwhelming.” Klepper and his team have already formulated their approach: they will address the tragedy that night but wait to weigh in more significantly until later in the week when “we feel like there is something to be added to the conversation.”
Instead, they’ll offer viewers “some laughter on a dark day” with a lead story about Chance the Rapper’s bizarre feud with Rotten Tomatoes — a subject that’s apolitical but “full of joy,” he says. (On Tuesday, though, Klepper offers a tongue-in-cheek guide “to avoid[ing] the gun debate in times of crisis.”)
Las Vegas would be a difficult subject for any comedy show to tackle but is especially tricky for a new program whose host performs in character as a factually challenged fear-monger styled after Sandy Hook truther Alex Jones. Just as “The Colbert Report” satirized the belligerent, hyper-partisan cable news environment of the Bush-Obama years, “The Opposition” skewers far-right media outlets like InfoWars and Breitbart.
The nightly half-hour follows the same basic recipe of news segments, field pieces and interviews as “The Daily Show” and its offspring, but there are adjustments that reflect the zeitgeist when the very concepts of observable reality and nonpartisan truth seem to be in question. Correspondents are known as “citizen journalists,” and the bunker-like set includes a projected conspiracy board and desk piled high with dog-eared papers.
Just as “The Colbert Report” introduced the idea of “truthiness,” Klepper — or “Klepper,” rather — laid out the show’s manifesto in the debut episode: "No human society has ever enjoyed such an abundance of facts, which is why in America in 2017, you get to pick which facts are right for you.”
While the format makes it hard for Klepper to be earnest, in other ways he’s well-suited to discuss gun violence. Raised in Kalamazoo, Mich., where six people were killed in a mass shooting last year, he fondly recalls shooting with his grandfather as a child.
“Guns mean something different in Michigan than they do in New York City,” he says.
He also spent months traveling the country, talking to lobbyists, militiamen and gun enthusiasts — including his duck-hunting cousin, Pete — for a special, “Jordan Klepper Solves Guns,” that aired this year. The experience left him surprisingly hopeful.
“My big takeaway was just how much middle ground there is on the issue of guns. It's mostly middle ground,” says Klepper, who, with a voluminous pompadour and a tall, lanky frame accentuated by a wardrobe of slim-cut suits and skinny ties, is physically reminiscent of a young Conan O’Brien. There are traces of the Midwest in his voice, especially when he mentions Chicago. He pursued comedy there after college, performing at Second City and in the improv show “Whirled News Tonight,” which stoked his interest in political satire.
Eventually relocating to New York, Klepper joined “The Daily Show” as a correspondent in 2014, not long before Jon Stewart announced his retirement. Klepper struck up an easy rapport with Stewart’s successor, Trevor Noah, who is an executive producer on “The Opposition.”
In an email, Noah praised Klepper’s “ability to make any situation funnier. I hope Jordan is at my funeral to keep people laughing.”
He’s also shared some advice: “I just told Jordan to enjoy every moment of the journey. The doubt, the fear, the critics, all of it. It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and the joy you get from creating the show is the joy the audience often feels when watching the show.”
Particularly once the 2016 presidential campaign got underway, Klepper earned notice for his field pieces, often filmed at Trump campaign events, where the candidate’s popularity was undeniable. In a memorable segment, Klepper interviewed Trump supporters who suspected that Bill Clinton had contracted AIDS from NBA legend Magic Johnson and wondered why Obama wasn’t in the Oval Office on 9/11.
“What I quickly noticed was people weren't necessarily talking about Fox or CNN; they were talking about these other alt-media sources,” Klepper recalls. “There's this world of news, this perspective that I'm not very tapped into, but half the electorate is, and it's controlling our dialogue right now and eventually our policies.”
When Comedy Central began looking for the right talent to take over the 11:30 time slot, Klepper was the inevitable choice, says network President Kent Alterman. “His approach was so responsive to how much the world has changed. He’s actually going into the new ways that people are engaging with political discourse and the new ways people are getting their news and information — or misinformation, as it may be.”
While Noah has successfully steered “The Daily Show” in the post-Stewart era, finding a worthy successor to the “The Colbert Report,” which bowed out in late 2014, has been trickier. The ratings-challenged “Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore” was canceled last year and replaced by “@midnight,” a comic game show whose nonpolitical bent (and title) didn’t really work following “The Daily Show” at 11:30.
Early reviews of “The Opposition” have been positive, and viewership in the time slot is up by 43% over last year. But “The Opposition” joins an already crowded field of satirical shows featuring graduates of the University of Jon Stewart, including “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver,” “Full Frontal With Samantha Bee” and “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert.”
“It is definitely a golden era for these types of late-night programs,” says executive producer Stuart Miller, one of many “Daily Show” and “Colbert Report” veterans now working at “The Opposition.” “What we bring to the table is obviously Jordan, being in character and being able to use satire in a unique way.”
Given the current political climate, where news stories are increasingly shared with the caveat “not an ‘Onion’ headline,” there is a risk that real life is beyond satire and that figures like Alex Jones — who has already dismissed Klepper’s fans as “mentally retarded” — are too absurd or too loathsome to lampoon.
Klepper and his team are “constantly calibrating” in order to hit their satirical mark, he says. “Even though we can go to crazytown, we have to keep our foot grounded in reality.” The goal is to “find the nugget of truth and the nugget of empathy,” no matter how outlandish the subject.
It also helps that, like Colbert, Klepper has an innate likability that softens the edges of his bloviating persona. Despite the pressure, during Monday’s taping Klepper seems at ease in the role of host, responding nimbly to a few audience questions before the cameras roll. (Q: “If you could ask Donald Trump one thing, what would it be?” A: “How much longer?”).
In the episode’s cold open, Klepper, out of character, soberly acknowledges the events in Las Vegas and sounds a note of unity. “Remember that the goal we have in common is bigger than the differences that separate us,” he says. During a commercial break, as Tom Petty’s “Runnin’ Down a Dream” blares over the studio sound system, Klepper briefly points upward — quietly acknowledging another sad event in a 24-hour news cycle full of them.
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