It’s a weird time for political satire. Every comedian heard the same bullshit after the election, “Trump is going to be gold for you.” But it turns out mining comedy from an administration that tries to ban Muslims and separates children from their parents is hard as hell. You can’t wink and nudge at fascism.
Perhaps this is why the once mighty Daily Show no longer has the viral pull it once did. Trever Noah’s version of the show is a kinder, gentler version than we had during the Obama and Bush eras, but it’s easy to wonder if even Jon Stewart would be struggling. There’s nothing cute about the problems we face. Which is why I was surprised by how much I loved Jordan Klepper’s new eponymously titled documentary series on Comedy Central.
After watching the first three episodes of Klepper it’s easy to imagine the network has a hit on their hands. Drawing from the documentary format Vice has turned into a massively successful video empire, Klepper is more about stories than jokes. Each week Klepper visits a part of the country where people are fighting for change. We meet vets in Texas who use pro-wrestling as a treatment for PTSD. He embeds with environmental activists in Louisiana protesting an oil pipeline and talks to oil workers who live nearby. And, in a particularly brutal episode, Klepper visits undocumented DREAMers in Georgia who are fighting for the right to access public colleges.
The biggest hurdle Klepper faces is its host’s previous Comedy Central show, The Opposition with Jordan Klepper. Even as a fan of Klepper’s work on The Daily Show, The Opposition burned a lot of goodwill. It was smug without ever digging deep enough into the stories it covered to be interesting. More importantly, in an era of “fake news,” his character couldn’t compete. How do you make parody comedy news when the reality TV show president has ties to Alex Jones?
Klepper sidesteps this problem by dropping the fake conspiracy act in favor of letting the host be exactly what he is; a privileged, baby soft comedian used to the comforts of TV. Starting from the standpoint of privilege acts as a unifying force in each episode. Whether talking to veterans haunted by the war, environmental activists who think he’s a coward, or DREAMers fighting to stay in the only country they know, Klepper is almost an annoyance to the subjects at first.
Because he’s being Jordan Klepper and not the character of Jordan Klepper we get to see stories evolve in ways comedy news has never explored. Pro-wrestling is easy to look down on, but once you experience the community of amateur wrestling its impossible to write off. The “fake” combat may seem silly at first, but our host learns to respect it when he’s slammed into the mat.
Sure, the episode uses the crowd-pleasing idea of pro-wrestling troops as a back door to discuss the VA. But the real story is always the three soldiers who find wrestling as a way of fighting a battle at him with themselves. Also, as a pro-wrestling fan, watching one of the vets in full make-up turn heel (wrestling for bad guy) at a show was magic. First, he asks the crowd, “Where my veterans at?” When everyone cheers he points at a section of the crowd and yells, “Air Force sit down! You don’t count.” Everyone boos and the bad guy gets obliterated to chants “USA! USA!” If you can’t find the joy in it, you’re dead inside.
The other two episodes are significantly more somber, but because of the way they unfold, I’m hesitant to give away many details. For all the jokes about people almost getting their balls shot off, Jordan sneaking snacks, and how he’s just a comedian Klepper is an actual documentary series. Part of the fun is watching the host out of his element, especially in the episodes that feature protests.
Watching a woman who risks her life to protest an oil pipeline call Klepper a coward to his face is jarring, even if she’s not doing it to be mean. This is serious, and regularly you get the impression that the subjects are only letting the cameras in because these are the only cameras that will watch. Even when they’re welcoming, they’re cautious. In both the second and third episodes the subjects ask that cameras be turned off to discuss security. This isn’t comedy for them. It’s life or death for their community or for their citizenship.
At no point did I anticipate a comedy series showing the Georgia Board of Regents laughing in the face of praying ministers asking God to soften their hearts towards undocumented immigrants. It was surprising, but not as remarkable as the fact that Klepper is funny.
In some regards, Klepper is the straight man of the series, even though he’s making constant jokes. He’s warm during the interviews and casually hilarious. But the biggest laughs often come from his subjects personal stories or wry observations about his privilege. These are fascinating people struggling through situations that seem unbelievable in our world of prosperity. Sometimes you’ll find yourself wincing after you stop laughing at the weight of their gallows humor settles.
If you’ve ever binge-watched Vice documentaries on YouTube, there’s a good chance Klepper is about to be your new favorite show. While it never forgets to be funny, we were truly impressed at its willingness not to be at times. Satirical news may not work anymore, but earnest stories about struggling people are timeless. We can’t wait to see what they do next.
Klepper premieres on Comedy Central tonight, May 9, 2019, at 10:30 p.m.
John-Michael Bond is Paste’s assistant comedy editor. He’s on Twitter @BondJohnBond.