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Interview: Jordan Klepper Discusses Hungary, Trump Rallies & Extreme Improv

Jordan Klepper has been working in comedy for more than two decades. After studying and performing improv with Second City in Chicago, he moved to New York where he spent time with the Upright Citizen’s Brigade. In 2014, he was hired as a correspondent on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and continued after Trevor Noah took over as host.

Klepper gained notoriety for his coverage of Trump rallies during the 2020 election, as well as his coverage of the January 6 attack on the Capitol. He hosted the nightly talk show The Opposition with Jordan Klepper and the investigative docuseries, Klepper, as well as specials such as Jordan Klepper Solves Guns and Jordan Klepper Fingers The Pulse – Into The MAGAverse. His special, Jordan Klepper Fingers the Globe: Hungary for Democracy, in which Klepper traveled to Budapest to examine Hungary’s far-right, autocratic turn, has been nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Writing For A Variety Special.

We spoke with Klepper about the logistics of filming comedy in a foreign country, trying to find comedy in an insurrection, and how his improv training has helped inform his career.

Well, let me first compliment you on getting the Zoom set up without you getting your giant balls in the shot. 

Thank you very much. I appreciate the kind words

And congratulations on the Emmy nomination for “Hungary for Democracy.” It’s well deserved. 

Thank you. I’m excited about it.

I’d like to start with that special. It’s more of an extension of what you’ve been doing lately, especially on your Klepper docu-series. But this is obviously on a much grander scale and had a lot more moving parts to it. Were you concerned about the comedic value being overshadowed by the logistics of producing some of this scale?

Sure. I think what’s been interesting these last few years, balancing for some, the downfall of democracy, and finding humor, has always been an interesting challenge. It was such an interesting story in Hungary, that we followed what we thought was both interesting in Hungary and what it meant about American politics. That sort of led us there, and we knew we would try to find humor within it. A skill set that I found with the Klepper series that I did at Comedy Central, and even that gun special in and of itself, is you bring your comedy toolkit, you bring a little bit of ignorance, and luckily, I bring that in just bucket fulls wherever I go, and, and you to do the right thing, and bring a little creativity, you’re able to hopefully find some humor and ways in which to contextualize these stories so an audience can relate.

There’s obviously a cultural and language barrier this time around, although, the comparisons were pretty astounding as far as their political and social views. But how much of a challenge was that for you?

We were traveling with a translator. When we do the man on the streets, sometimes I could use a translator when I go into the middle of the country and talk to Trump rallies. They’re usually miles ahead when it comes to certain conspiracies, so I’ll look into that for the future. But on the road, it was an interesting thing to adapt to. Trying to be quick and responsive with a person in between is a brand-new challenge, especially when it comes to approaching it comedically. And the culture in Hungary is different than the culture in America. So, I think for us, that was another way to find a little bit of humor in it, but also a challenge. I think the whole purpose of doing these specials internationally is to go beyond the stuff that I’m doing at rallies in America, and sort of see what is similar in other places in the world and where are they where the differences lie.

I’m curious when you’re speaking with someone notable, like Prime Minister Orbán’s sportsperson, Zoltán Kovács, or even someone like Mike Lindell, do they know what they’re getting into when they agree to speak with you? Where do they lie in the awareness of the context of what you’re presenting?

You know, they know who we are, we’re coming in. It’s up to them to do the due diligence and the research beyond it. I will say in those two examples, I think they were both fully aware. I think Mike Lindell is somebody who wants to talk to any and everyone. Not only did we talk to Mike Lindell, but Mike Lindell invited us and gave us passes to come to his event, so he was very much aware of who we were and wanted to engage. And when talking to Zoltán Kovács, who was a spokesperson for Viktor Orbán, I think the same was true. We were, quite frankly, kind of shocked that he opened his doors to talk to us. Sometimes when you reach out to somebody, especially within the Orbán administration, we’re not expecting the doors to swing open, but his job is to craft the narrative that they want to get out. And I will say he is a savvy spokesperson. I think the Orbán administration wants the West to see them as an open administration that’s not afraid of engaging in conversation. And so, I do think in that situation, I don’t know if he’s watched all the videos that I’ve done in the past, but I think they knew what they were getting and we’re welcoming.

It would seem to that at least for them, it’s an opportunity to reach an audience that they wouldn’t normally reach. In the US, at least, it’s going to be the MAGA Trump supporters that are really following what they’re doing over there, where whereas now they had a pretty different audience than what they’re accustomed to with you as a conduit. 

Yeah, I think it’s interesting to see, both what’s happening in Hungary and what’s happening here when we reach out, there’s definitely still a large part of the folks that we reach out to, even when I go to a rally, that want to engage. They want to talk. The hypocrisy of five years ago doesn’t exist anymore. You may feel like you’re making a point to someone, and because we’re living in different realities, that point has been made on their side as well for the people who are watching from their perspective. So, the engagement actually hasn’t been shut down in a way that some people might assume. There are still certain places where they don’t need to engage with the audience that say, Comedy Central or Paramount would bring in, but places like the Orbán administration, I think are welcoming the chance to try to put a different spin than they think the audience that we might have on Hungary.

Do you ever sit back and think that 20 years ago, you were doing Yes/And exercises, and now you’re speaking with foreign governments about their policies? Can you wrap your brain around that?

Well, I think this is the problem with Yes/And. It just keeps building.

You’re saying Yes to the extreme. 

This is the extreme. You say, “Yes, okay, what’s next”? Eventually, you’re going to find yourself in the middle of insurrection or talking to foreign governmental officials. It does make me laugh. I feel very fortunate about the opportunities I’ve gotten to have within the entertainment industry. And I think it’s also reflective of the times and the evolution of comedy. The comedy that I did was social satire with the Second City and teaching improv was all about listening and responding in the moment. Things that I’m very much doing right now. But what started as a ‘Now you write sketches,’ or ‘You do improv,’ has evolved into ‘You play heightened characters of a newsman’ when Jon Stewart hired me, all the way to ‘You get to host the show as a heightened Alex Jones character,’ to where we are now, where we’ve stripped away all artifice, and now we just send the shell of a human to go talk to other people to try to find some sanity. So, it’s really not only been a comedic journey for me but it’s been a truly personal journey to find out what is at my core and keep some of that hope that yes/And had back in the day.

That’s interesting because it does seem that there is definitely a level of improv. You’d have to have an improv background to do what you’re doing.

Yeah, when I got the Daily Show, I’d been doing improv for almost two decades at that time, and the job of the Daily Show is a strange one, in that you are not only going to be somebody who can write stuff really fast and work with writers in a room to create what we call ‘Chats’ in front of green screens with John at the time, but also grab an idea go on the road and be able to improvise with the leader of a country or somebody who has backward beliefs. And that is all improv. You come prepared, but your biggest weapon is listening. So, I think that was a real strong suit, and part of what perhaps John saw in welcoming me on board, is that this guy is not precious with ideas, he listens. You got to move fast. So, let’s take that improv mentality and put it to work.

You mentioned speaking with people with different ideas. To me, it sometimes seems like you’re shooting fish in a barrel at these rallies. You showed it in the MAGAverse special that you are scouting these people. You’re casting, essentially. But there has to be footage of you speaking with right-minded people that can put together coherent thoughts that you’re just not using. I hope for the sake of our country this case. at least.

Well, I will say that when you go to these rallies, people are dressed to talk. It’s not as if we’re just like, “Oh, we only want to talk to these people, not these people.” We welcome anyone who wants to talk to us, and when you’re wearing a cape, and blowing a giant horn, there’s a decent chance you want to be heard. So, those people tend to come up to us and talk. There are people that maybe are a little bit more moderate. That has shifted, though. I will say I went to a rally this past weekend, and down to a person, what I would say five years ago, you might get the very fringe with wilder beliefs. Those would definitely be there at rallies. But they might be a smaller subset of the people that we talk to, and the majority of people you might disagree with or find hypocrisy in their points of view. But what you might call conspiracy theorists were a smaller subset. This last rally I went to, most of the people brought up the existence of JFK Jr. and his running for vice president. We learned about Gematria. We learned about Aaliyah being alive, along with Osama bin Laden whose real name is Tim.

Is his last name still bin Laden? Is his name Tim bin Laden?

These are the exact questions that I had. She didn’t have the last name. But I was like, “Where is she getting this Tim from?”, and I went down a rabbit hole. I forget his last name. He apparently works for the CIA, and maybe grew up in St. Louis. So, these are the things that are out there in the rallies. Again, that was very fringe when I started doing this. I’m in Kenosha, Wisconsin this past weekend, and the people who are coming to these rallies, they already normalized the idea that the election was stolen, and it was Antifa, or the socialists, or maybe Hugo Chavez. This is already baseline, so, you’re seeing the movement shift and go deeper and darker. As much as I’d like to say, “When I go to these rallies, it’s full of very fairly rational-minded people.” It’s, it’s turning Donald Trump, at one of his last rallies was talking about 911 and how we haven’t gotten to the bottom of this. That’s where you’re starting. So, I’m afraid of America, because at times I think our brains are melting.

To be fair, would you be able to go to a Democratic event and do the same job? Would you be able to walk away with a produced piece with similar results?

No. I will say this- when we were following COVID/anti-COVID reactions, a piece that we were very proud of and wanted to focus on, we would go to Los Angeles, and people would talk about all of these right-wingers who wouldn’t take the vaccine, and then they’d say, “Well, I know people who are way into the wellness community who won’t take the vaccine as well.” We’re like, “Oh, I think there’s an underreported story there as well.” When you go to these fringes, they sometimes meet back around. So, finding those fringe ideas, the anti-Vax world in the wellness community, we were able to have pieces that could kind of expose that hypocrisy. At a baseline though, I think the hypocrisy levels of the traditional Republican Party in the Democratic Party were similar. I think often a conservative mindset is ripe for comedy because they’re holding on to the status quo, and I think comedy is often trying to poke holes in that. Unfortunately, going to a rally now is the difference between a Democratic rally where people are fighting for things like saving the environment and women’s rights, then you go to a Trump rally, and people are talking about Osama bin Laden still being l alive, and Joe Biden being a socialist, and there are pedophiles and pizza parlors. So, I like to be equal and find comedy in both, but it’s harder for the people who are like,” I just think women should have rights.” You know what? It’s hard to find a lot of humor in that person.

Speaking of finding humor, I actually want to address January 6. You were there on the ground. You show in the WAGAverse special that it was clear at a point that it was too dangerous, and you and your crew had to get out of there. Was there a point though, prior to that, where you thought to yourself, “Well, can we still make this funny?” Because that’s essentially your job. 

Yes. I will say this though, we have leeway at The Daily Show. I’m a comedian out there. I am not a journalist. I’m a comedian. My bias is that I work for The Daily Show, and I’m trying to find humor in this. But our job is also to find what is happening respond to it, and essentially, bring it back to our audience to see from our perspective. So, that day was so unique and sad and absurd, and so many things, that we found the absurdity within it. It was also frightening to us. And I think at that point, we are privy to history, and our goal there is to bring it back. Again, I’m a comedian. I’m going to poke holes in this. But the satire is happening in front of us, I am not having to do a lot when I’m talking to a man waving a pitchfork and a guy charging the hill with the Segway. There’s humor there and there’s sadness there.

The guy on the Segway was probably one of the funniest moments in all of your specials.

What didn’t make air is that we saw that Segway man up at the top level of the Capitol a half hour later, as an ambulance arrived, and somebody was getting trekked on an ambulance. The ambulance was pulling out, and then trailing the ambulance was this man on the Segway. That day was absurdity and tragedy, which is, in many ways, the Trump administration.

You’ve been hosting your podcast, Kasich and Klepper for the last eight months or so. How’s it how is it working with a former Governor Kasich?

That guy. I tell you. That guy wants to talk. I talked to him for an hour, then he picks up the phone and talk to me for about a half hour to talk about all the things I was wrong about.

He’s a talker. 

He likes to talk.

I was surprised. I’ve listened to a handful of episodes, and I was surprised. Granted, he was in politics, but he can talk.

It turns out that when they put you in charge of a state, you feel pretty confident about your own opinion. In my job, I’ve talked to a lot of politicians, so I understand the type. It’s been really fascinating. I think we didn’t really know what we would get out of this podcast, except that we sort of liked the idea of trying to start in a different place than most of these partisan conversations. So, it’s been strange. We’re talking to IndyCar drivers, heavyweight champions of the world, and politicians and journalists. So, it’s, it’s a weird day, I will tell you. I wake up and I’m like, “OK, I’m talking to Deontay Wilder today with Governor Kasich.” And then also we’ll talk about what’s happening in the news. “Oh, they’ve overturned Roe v. Wade. Cool. All right.” It’s going to be a lively strange hour of talk.

Now, you present the show as a conservative and a liberal basically trying to find a common ground in your common interests. But he’s not exactly the GOP’s Golden Boy. He’s slightly more moderate than I think they would prefer. That said, would he get your vote if he would run [for President] again? 

No way. I’ve heard him talk for too long. I mean, I respect his opinions, but he’s got to work much harder for my vote. I will say this, though. I don’t agree with some of his political stances, although I do think there’s a moderation there that I really wish was more present in the GOP. In fact, I do think it is present. It’s just not what the GOP is running on right now. Part of the reason I’m doing this podcast is that his point of view is a rational point of view that reflects that of a lot of people in my family, and people that I know. What I think was so compelling to me about Governor Kasich was the fact that he was able to put his party aside when he felt the country needed to come first. So, even if I don’t agree with him, and even if he’s still got to work harder to get my vote, I do think it’s really interesting to hear him articulate what I think is at the core of traditional conservative beliefs so that I can engage with that perspective and not have to get all the distraction of just the fear-mongering that happens on the more fringes.

You’ve done improv, you’ve acted, you’ve hosted daily talk shows, you’ve done a podcast, you’ve addressed podcast and political social issues. Do you feel there’s any particular medium that you work in that expresses you best as an artist?

That’s a great question. You know, because I come from improv, I do love a medium that allows me to discover in real-time, and I think these specials are the closest embodiment of that. I love to write. I love to craft jokes and create all that space. It’s so fun being behind the desk. But there’s something about going out into the middle of America, improvising around people, crafting a story, bringing it back, and then putting it together. It’s essentially, if I can get nerdy, what they teach you back in Chicago. We used to improvise scripts for comedy shows, which means you’re improvising ideas as much as you can. And then you take the improv and then you craft what you have into a sketch that becomes more perfected. It’s what The Daily Show does on a daily basis; brainstorm big ideas, and then hone it down and polish it for the final show. And I think that’s what sort of these specials are, go out into the world, see what you find, bring back a lot, and then put together a story that makes sense for your audience.

Well, I have to say, sometimes prepping for interviews can be tedious. But that’s not the case when it’s someone I admire and whose work I enjoy. So, thank you very much for taking the time.

I appreciate that. Jeff, thanks for your thoughtful questions.

You can watch Jordan Klepper’s Emmy-nominated special, Jordan Klepper Fingers the Globe: Hungary for Democracy, on Comedy Central’s website. You can also watch our full interview with Jordan Klepper below.


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