Jordan Klepper, the newest addition to "The Daily Show," doesn't mind risking a little poison ingestion if it is in the name of comedy. And if that doesn't bode well for his future as a correspondent on the show, I don't know what does. More on that mildly unsafe incident in the Q&A below.
Hired earlier this spring to fill the opening left vacant when John Oliver migrated over to HBO (where he headlines his own show), Klepper has brought a buoyant energy to his segments. That spirit was evident early on during his years as a contributor on the Big Ten Network's "Friday Night Tailgate" (where he played a perfectly ill-informed correspondent), as well as his performances on stage in Chicago, where he was a regular presence at iO for almost a decade before moving to New York.
I remember seeing Klepper in a show back in 2008, one he wrote and performed with current Second City mainstager Steve Waltien, and it stood out as one of the best sketch shows of the year. Klepper often has a sly, Will Ferrell-like dopey good-naturedness that allows him to be deeply vulnerable in a comedic context. As a performer, his facial expression hovers somewhere between supreme self-confidence and a man about to suffer a nervous breakdown, and that tension can be extremely funny.
"What have you learned so far today?" Stewart asked Klepper in his debut appearance, in which he "reports" from Crimea: "Well, you have to dial 9 to get an outside line. Um, lunch is at 1. And if I keep my head down here for a couple of years, I've got a real shot on my own sitcom on NBC. Oh, you were talking about Crimea…."
This month he traveled to West Virginia, where he interviewed a Republican legislator who voted in favor of environmental regulations after the local water supply became contaminated. "You ingested a chemical and it turned you into a Democrat?" he asks, and though she shakes her head no, Klepper is oblivious: "I love origin stories!" he says, throwing on a pair of 3-D glasses and munching popcorn.
With three months on the job under his belt, Klepper and I talked on Memorial Day, before he and wife Laura Grey (a Second City alum and a very funny performer in her own right) departed on a road trip to Nashville. "We're going to see a little bit of America, listen to some great music, eat some barbecue."
Klepper and Grey have performed together over the years, including early on in a Second City touring company. One of their more recent collaborations is a knowingly satiric web series called "Engaged," which Klepper described thusly: "Instead of spending time planning a wedding, we thought, let's spend our time making a Web series about planning our wedding, and put off planning our own wedding." They got married in September, but that video (produced by the Upright Citizens Brigade) played a small role in landing Klepper his current job.
"I found out afterwards that people at 'The Daily Show' saw 'Engaged' and liked it and I think that was part of the reason I got called in to audition originally."
After a one-week break, "The Daily Show" returns with new episodes Monday.
Q: How did you get the job on "The Daily Show?"
A: They asked for me to send in a videotaped audition. And then I heard back that they wanted me to test for the show a few weeks later. So that meant a live audition where I would do a correspondent piece with Jon (Stewart), to see how that felt. I ended up doing that on a Thursday, and I got the call later that day to come in on Monday to start. As soon as the "go" came, we were in "Daily Show" mode. It was pretty quick.
Q: That is quick! They obviously really liked you.
A: They, well, uhhhhh, yeah, I think…. You know what, that's what I tell myself when I'm scared at night.
Q: Well, they put you on the air that very first day.
A: They told me to come in on Monday and bring my suit just in case. And I arrived, was sort of meeting people, getting a lay of the land, was getting a tour of the place and introductions. And mid-getting acclimated, they decided I was going to be a part of one of the pieces that night. So it shifted from "get comfortable" to "get working." So I hit the ground running.
Q: Some news organizations will ask potential hires take a test to gauge their knowledge about current events and newsmakers. Did they have you take a test?
A: They did not. Thank God. I think my test was: Day 1, we're going to do a piece on Crimea. And I'm like: Great, I'll get back to you in 10 minutes right after I Google where the (expletive) Crimea is.
Q: You were a longtime performer in "Whirled News Tonight" at iO, which is an improv show that riffs on news of the day (8 p.m. Saturdays). I wonder if that informed anything you do with "The Daily Show"?
A: When I started "Whirled News," it inspired me at that time to really start becoming more aware of the world around me. Reading the newspaper. Knowing what is happening.
Q: Before that you were just vaguely aware of what was going on in the world?
A: Yeah. I was a college student; before that, I thought I was the center of the universe. And the great thing is that now that I'm on TV I'm back to thinking I'm the center of the universe. So I've come full circle in my own ego.
But "Whirled News" was definitely a show where you had to be well-versed in what was happening. The format was: the audience would cut out newspaper clippings from that day; we'd read a paragraph from it and then improvise satire off of that. So it was important to be engaged in the news.
So as far as a connection to "The Daily Show," it was definitely an introduction to using the news as fodder for comedy and creating satire from that (under a time constraint).
Q: There's a segment that aired earlier this month where you interview members of a group offering an insurance policy that would pay the legal fees for people charged with gun crimes. It is interesting that they would agree to be interviewed. I would have thought they would say, "Forget it, the show will only make fun of this."
A: People believe in what they believe in, so even if we see it from a comedic perspective, most of the interviewees are like: "This is how I see it. I will stand by what I say." We tell them, "We want you to speak from your expertise and your own point of view." And they know that they will be poked fun (at). But I think their convictions kind of allow them to walk into that. Plus, everybody likes being on TV.
Q: There's another segment where you're actually eating videotape as a hide-the-evidence gag.
A: Yes! Which, I will say, after I did that in rehearsal, one of our producers came up and was like, "I just want to warn you, as that was happening, somebody mentioned that it could be poisonous so we called poison control, um, and they said there's a mild chance that your tongue will go numb. So you don't have to do it on the show."
And I was like, but it looked funny! So I'm going to eat this videotape during the show and there may be a chance that I'm slightly poisoning my tongue.
Q: What did it taste like?
A: It tasted a little like poison and fear.
Q: Talk about working with Jon Stewart.
A: He's just so engaged and comfortable with what he's doing. It's so great to be there in all of these meetings and pitch sessions to get his point of view. He's just great around the office, too. He makes fun of me for being super tall compared to him, so it's fun to have weird office small talk with somebody who is one of my comedy icons, but is still going to make fun of me for being three feet taller than he is. That's a weird shift: Oh you're an icon! Oh, now you're the guy who's in my way getting coffee! Oh, Jon!
Q: Do you have friends and family emailing with story ideas now?
A: It's just begun to happen. I'll get little messages about news stories. Even on Twitter, people I've never met will tweet stories at me. So I think I've suddenly become a repository for weird news stories. Like, oh clearly, yes, that weird friend who lives in Wisconsin is going to be super up-in-arms about Wisconsin microbrew politics. But most of them, even if they're not right for the show, it is fascinating to see how many little news stories you actually miss even if you are engaged in this (for a living). There's a million little local stories that affect your friends and family out there and now I get to hear about them all the time.
Q: What has stood out about the experience so far?
A: When my wife and I toured with Second City we performed old Stephen Colbert scenes, because when you're with the touring company you're performing those old pieces. (Second City touring companies typically perform sketches pulled from the company's archives, meaning those created by past cast members such as Colbert.)
And then at "The Daily Show" a few weeks ago, Stephen Colbert was a guest, which was a very exciting thing. This is somebody that I've watched perform for years and years. That day during rehearsal, he wasn't there, he was just coming over for the show. But they had to have somebody read his lines, so they had me go down and read Colbert's piece with Jon. I was the stand-in for Colbert. And afterwards Jon was like, "Oh, that was a good Colbert."
And in my head I was like: I've been doing this. I did this seven years ago, the exact same thing, in Chicago, watching tapes and doing Colbert.
Q: Have you had to go out and buy a bunch of new suits for the job?
A: They provided me with another suit, and I went out and bought a couple more. And ties. And I'm using old ties that John Oliver left behind. I think he took the ties that were cool and of use and left behind the ties that were not. So if I'm wearing a bad tie, there's a good chance that it's a tie John Oliver deemed not worth taking over to his show.
If you missed the Chicago premiere of David Dastmalchian's "Animals" (which I profiled in this space May 9), the film returns for an additional screening Tuesday at Landmark's Century Centre Cinema, courtesy of the Midwest Independent Film Festival. Though fictional, the indie is based on Dastmalchian's own experiences in Chicago during his 20s when he was a regular heroin user. Despite the subject matter, the storyline is flecked with unexpected glimmers of humor. Director Collin Schiffli and several producers will be in attendance for a post-show talkback. Go to midwestfilm.com.
"There's 35 million acres of lawns in this country," a woman says in the new documentary "Growing Cities." "What if we unleashed 35 million acres of urban farms on the industrialized food system? What would that look like?" Director Dan Susman's urban farming road trip through the U.S. includes a stop in Chicago, where he talked with the Growing Home organization. The film screens at 8 p.m. Saturday at Chicago Filmmakers and 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at Columbia College Chicago. Go to chicagofilmmakers.org.
"The Great Dictator," a sharp-eyed satire of Hitler and the rise of fascism in Europe, was Charlie Chaplin's most commercially successful film, as well as his first feature-length talkie (which came in 1940, a good decade after the silent era had faded out). A twisted riff on "The Prince and the Pauper," a dictator and a Jewish barber who bear a striking resemblance are mistaken for one another. It screens at noon Sunday at the Music Box Theatre with a post show discussion with Anne Libera, director of comedy studies at Second City. Go to musicboxtheatre.com.
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