"I used to be behind a desk," Jordan Klepper says in his new and surprisingly affecting Comedy Central series, which debuted May 9.
The name is Klepper, but it might well have been called Jordan Unchained or Jordan On the Loose or any of a dozen titles that you may have encountered for the tried-and-true correspondent-roams-America format.
What makes this one different, though, is the host himself, the improv comic schooled in Chicago and a consistent bright light since taking the national stage.
Klepper, a 40-year-old Michigan native, made his name as a correspondent in the waning days of Jon Stewart's The Daily Show and then moved to the desk to host his own confection, the late, lamented The Opposition with Jordan Klepper. Lasting just nine months, that show got better and better as it went along, overdelivering on wringing laughs from the host's far-right-conspiracy-theorist persona while underdelivering viewers.
The new-era Klepper, back on TV after less than a year away, has indeed forsworn office furniture. He devotes single-topic, half-hour episodes to exploring such causes as veterans rights, pipeline construction protests and the struggles of undocumented immigrants.
The eight-episode Klepper works because its host manages to be very funny amid these concerns while, for the most part, not making fun of them. Yes, an environmental protester gets called out for the ponytail on the end of his beard, but the issue is taken seriously, even when the boat Klepper is riding in en route to a late-night direct action in a Louisiana swamp capsizes, stranding Klepper and the activists like Ginger and the crew of the Minnow.
Yes, in the first episode about military veterans fighting PTSD through pro wrestling, Klepper poked fun at a wrestler for his over-the-top kid's-party-Juggalo makeup, but he also takes time to understand where the wrestler and his colleagues are coming from.
Most of the comedy comes from Klepper himself not having to work very hard to play the fish out of water, whether he's trying out his own wrestling moves or realizing that he should have Googled "boat safety" before his night cruise.
"I'm not much of a nature guy," he says, preparing to join pipeline protesters from the Water Is Life movement camped out in swamp territory. "I'm more like what veterinarians would refer to as an indoor cat."
Later, after fumbling predictably to build his tent, he asks, "Every element is uncomfortable. Why would I want to save this place?"
Klepper's writing, the framing the host gives these stories, is very good. "Water is life, but oil is livelihood, and you can't blame the locals for wanting to work," he says in a scripted introduction to a segment explaining why the protesters haven't won much local support. After a sleepless tent night, Klepper's voice-over says he woke up "in a bayou vinaigrette of sweat and bug spray."
But his in-the-moment ad-libs are even sharper. "If we're spitballing here, maybe I'm the kind of guy who stays behind," he tells pipeline protesters in a planning meeting.
It's one thing to be funny on the spot when you're mocking something, a la Borat or any number of Daily Show field reports, some of them done by Klepper himself. It's a greater challenge to find humor from a basic point of identification. This show's best moments recall some of the spirit of Michael Moore's short-lived guerrilla-comic-populist newsmagazine TV Nation, from 1994-95, another out-in-America series with a social-justice bent.
Klepper rhymes, sort of, with "clever." But in essence, he's now on the hunt for sincerity, in society and to a surprising degree in himself. The guy who once laughed up his sleeve at Donald Trump die-hards and at Alex Jones and his ilk is now wearing his heart on that sleeve.
He talks of pipeline builders as "sociopathic industrialists." He says, in the third episode, on Atlanta undocumented immigrants attending an underground college because they've been banned from state schools, "History doesn't always repeat itself, but it does rhyme. With 'bacist.'"
I don't know about Klepper's personal journey, but this shift to spotlighting people seeking change seems an appropriate response to the times. Maybe that's why Klepper's The Opposition didn't catch on. It moved during its short tenure from being a triple-Red Bull take on The Colbert Report's faux right-wing host concept to developing its own comic language and its own giddy rhythms.
But its satiric conceit walled it off, to a degree, from the world. Now the host, under his own name, is out on the front lines feeling the mosquito stings of direct engagement, the body slams that invariably come when you enter the ring.
Style on 05/21/2019
Print Headline: In Klepper, comic kisses sincerity (and he likes it)