In true WWE fashion, Jordan Klepper appeared to have sustained catastrophic internal damage, writhing in pain and riddled with dramatic misery on the mat he previously believed would be more forgiving.
He had just been blasted through a table that fell like a house of cards under his weight — as well as the weight of a high-flying wrestler, known only as “Mr. Studtacular,” who, seconds earlier, soared across the ring to crush the table-bound comedian.
But this was not WWE.
This was the Valhalla Club, a small, veteran-run wrestling organization designed to provide a unique physical and mental outlet for veterans searching for a sense of community and a natural remedy to the trials of post-traumatic stress.
The spectacle of an untrained comedian getting tossed around an unfamiliar ring while getting reacquainted with his own limited physical stamina was just one highlight from the first episode of Jordan’s new television venture ― the Comedy Central series, “Klepper” — in which the comedian ditches the comfy digs of a studio and hits the road to confront some of America’s most pressing issues.
In another such veteran-centric episode, Klepper spends time in Tijuana, Mexico, talking to veterans who have recently been deported, then hits the road with a 70-year-old Marine veteran determined to drive across the United States to raise awareness for veterans who were shuttled out of the country they fought for.
Throughout, Klepper’s unique brand of dry, self-deprecating comedy that was fine-tuned during years of working with both Jon Stewart and Trevor Noah on “The Daily Show" shows brilliantly. Noah is one of the executive producers of the new show.
Klepper chatted with Military Times about his new series, the reasons for getting out of the studio and hitting the road, and his newfound takeaways after being immersed in a diverse veteran community.
WHAT WAS YOUR MOTIVATION FOR CREATING A SHOW LIKE THIS?
We’re living in a unique time right now, where, no matter your political affiliation, people feel really energized and are taking action.
A lot of people I know want to take action but are often sitting on their couch at home — it’s pretty easy today to be a Twitter activist instead of the kind of person who goes out there and puts it on the line. So, for me, it was an opportunity to break from that and to see [today’s issues] up close.
And comedy is such a great in for people to see stories in a new light and maybe give them context in a way that’s more digestible, so we tried to do both in this series.
WERE THERE ANY PARTICULAR INFLUENCES THAT SPARKED A SPECIFIC INTEREST IN ISSUES IMPACTING THE VETERAN COMMUNITY?
My grandparents were vets, and then one of our producers had done a handful of military stories with Vice. And just from working with Jon Stewart at “The Daily Show,” vet appreciation was such a priority there with trying to get veterans opportunities in the entertainment industry.
There is also something so unique about veterans from a civilian point of view like mine. It is so symbolic of what we aspire to as Americans, and it feels like a no-brainer that people on the left and the right should support veterans, but at the same time, we’re having a hard time engaging in earnest discussions about what veterans need when they come back home.
YOU TOOK A UNIQUE ROUTE TO ENGAGE IN THOSE DISCUSSIONS — TALKING AND WRESTLING WITH THE VALHALLA CLUB. WHAT ABOUT THAT EXPERIENCE SURPRISED YOU?
We didn’t talk politics hardly at all the entire time I spent with those guys. And you realize that when you go out to a lot of places across America, it’s not that people aren’t affected by politics or aren’t passionate or divided — they are, there’s truth in that — but people are not being solely defined by it.
We tend to kind of get in this bubble where it’s like, “Oh, you’re either this or you’re that.” But then you go out there and you realize there are people who care about so many other things instead of being focused on that divisiveness.
Coming from a civilian perspective, you quickly realize when talking to these guys that there is a disconnect between civilians and service members.
So, this show is an opportunity to get outside of your own bubble and spend some time with people who you normally don’t get to spend time with.
AND HOW DID DEPORTED VETS AND A FEW WRESTERS FROM TEXAS HELP LESSEN THAT CIVILIAN-VETERAN DIVIDE?
Immediately, all those barriers come down, and you’re left with these surprises. Those guys wrestling were incredible. They are so emotionally open and thoughtful about things — even in silly clown makeup.
They’re also remarkably inclusive in their experience in terms of recognizing that their own PTSD is not the same as everyone else’s, and that someone’s experience of suffering sexual abuse or trauma outside of the military context is equally important.
As somebody who is coming from the outside and meeting up with vets who do wrestling in a machismo Texas wrestling ring, my first expectation was not that they were going to start talking about the kinship they feel with victims of sexual abuse and how we need to be more careful and open about mental health.
It’s just so nice to be confronted with that in conversation — I just wish they weren’t wearing face paint at the time. (laughs)
What also really resonated was this discussion on a loss of community.
The deported vets thing is so heartbreaking and beautiful at the same time. The simple mantra of “don’t leave any one behind” is just based out of caring for one another. And there’s something so pure and human in that.
You see this one man fighting so many things against all odds, and it just resonated, this simple concept that you take care of your brothers.
AFTER SPENDING TIME WITH THE SUBJECTS OF THESE TWO EPISODES, WHAT WOULD YOU SAY IS CREATING THAT LOSS OF COMMUNITY?
Talking to the war journalist, Sebastian Junger, on our podcast, he discussed that there’s the concept of experiencing trauma overseas, but there are also people who come back, maybe didn’t see combat but still experience PTSD.
He talks about going from a place where you have a sense of community and brotherhood but come back to an American society that is highly individualistic.
It can be isolating. You turn on the news and see things are completely fractured — the things you feel you’re fighting for. You’re told that you’re either this side or you’re that side, and we hate the other side.
The alienation that this society creates for people who served to come back into ... that, in and of itself, can be a trauma people experience. It’s easy for us to put it at a distance, but we also bear a responsibility in that we are currently not creating a welcoming society.
We have a fractured community right now that is not upholding the ideals that people are fighting for, that is not about building off of one another and creating communities and families. It’s about pointing at the other side and screaming. And that’s something we need to face with open eyes and do something about.
HOW CAN COMEDY, OR SOMETHING AS UNIQUE AS WRESTLING, HELP THE HEALING AND COMMUNITY BUILDING PROCESS?
Not only is it dynamic to see how these guys are dealing with mental health in this unique way, but for me … there are some issues that feel dark in a way that I might not know how to articulate but I can filter through comedy.
And what was so nice about hearing them talk about how they got that out of wrestling was that it was very similar to my experience of what is cathartic to me about doing comedy.
Suddenly, we find ourselves having conversations about what we need, what communities we’re drawn to, how we express ourselves, and it’s like we’ve tricked ourselves into having a conversation, but we’re not talking about military service, we’re putting them on a pedestal where it’s hard to interact.
With this approach, maybe you don’t have to relive these memories you don’t want to relive, or don’t have to feel like I’m not able to engage with you. Instead, we found this common ground through unique expression in a way that was really incredible to be a part of.
People are very sensitive right now, and a lot of that for good reason, but I do think comedy does break down barriers. Just being in a room, being in a space where people are collectively laughing, is a good experience.
One of the wrestlers, Eddie, is starting to do stand up. It was really powerful to see a vet get up there. It’s awkward in a room — talking about shitting himself and some of his combat medic stories — but what it does is confronts people’s stereotypes or expectations, and if he can make them laugh at the stereotype they have of him, already that’s moving people in the right direction.
I don’t want to be a comedian who’s says comedy is the fix for everything, but I think it is a way for people to find some common humanity. At the very least, it’s a recognition of common ground with each one of those laughs, and if you can get that in more mixed company, you’re in a better place.
Thank you, Jordan Klepper, for taking the time to chat. “Klepper” airs Thursdays at 10:30 p.m. ET/PT on Comedy Central. Episodes are also available On Demand, on the Comedy Central App and cc.com. Episodes can also be found one day after launching on a number of platforms, including iTunes, Google Play, Amazon Prime Video.