Is Jordan Klepper the Future of Comedy Central?

The Daily Show correspondent aired his first special ahead of a nightly show coming later this year. But can he stand out in a crowded field?

Comedy Central

Give him some credit for self-awareness: Jordan Klepper knows exactly how much of a chance he has of solving America’s ongoing gun control debate within the confines of an hour-long comedy special. In Jordan Klepper Solves Guns, the Daily Show correspondent marches onto Capitol Hill barking his credentials at the camera. “I’m enlightened, I’m progressive, and I feel like I was put on this Earth to enact righteous change. a.k.a.: I’m a 2017 comedian,” he jokes. “I have four brown-rice cookers, 12 gay friends, and five podcasts. I tweet blogs, meme thinkpieces, and tumble GIFs. Powerful, thought-provoking GIFs. As a television personality, I’ve repeatedly reported on America’s obsession with guns. Despite my efforts, guns are still a problem.”

Klepper is the latest in a very long line of Daily Show cast members with a certain cock-of-the-walk vibe: entitled, high-status, preppy guys with plenty of product in their hair and a charming, performative arrogance that’s intended to be self-deprecating but ends up taking a life of its own. So many of these correspondents have journeyed on to stardom, from Steve Carell to Stephen Colbert, Ed Helms to John Oliver. All of them forged their credentials in the battlefield of The Daily Show’s field pieces, in which they have to sucker real-life politicians and fringe activists into saying silly stuff on camera.

All these aforementioned stars had to adopt a sort of fake-newsman persona to thrive in that awkward sphere, and Klepper is no different. In his three years on the show, he’s stood out for his mockery of that specific faux-expert haughtiness you might catch from a cable-news reporter filing a remote segment. Now, like Colbert, Oliver, and others before him, he’s getting his own show, debuting sometime later in 2017; it’ll follow The Daily Show in the 11:30 p.m. timeslot recently vacated by Larry Wilmore’s Nightly Show.

Jordan Klepper Solves Guns comes across as a trial run for Klepper’s forthcoming host personality. While correspondents on The Daily Show serve a specific purpose, working as intentionally hyperbolic sounding boards for the more deadpan host (now Trevor Noah, previously Jon Stewart), having them host their own show is a somewhat harder needle to thread. Colbert solved it by dialing the parody levels up to 11, making his Daily Show character a cable news pseudo-expert with godlike delusions of grandeur. Oliver went a more serious route, turning his HBO series Last Week Tonight into a newsy half-hour that dives into one big story, in-depth, for the entire episode. Wilmore attempted something approaching a panel show with round-table discussions, while also sprinkling in comedic monologues.

Klepper doesn’t have quite as defined a personality as any of these aforementioned stars. With a bouffant hairstyle and a tall, thin frame, he’s a Conan-esque goof unafraid to employ physical comedy, but less reliant on truly out-there silliness; like other correspondents, he needs to keep one foot in the real world to maintain the newsy illusion of his pieces. “Jordan Klepper” the Daily Show character doesn’t feel very removed from the real Jordan Klepper; he’s an admitted liberal trying to understand and break down issues, even if his on-screen persona’s self-satisfaction is a little more vivid.

It’s probably the right approach for 2017, as he acknowledges in the opening monologue for Jordan Klepper Solves Guns. This is the era of the comedian-as-thought-leader: Late-night hosts like Seth Meyers, Samantha Bee, and Oliver are looked to as public intellectuals who weigh in on current events with long, well-researched pieces. It’s a formula Jon Stewart helped establish, but Stewart was always resolute about his status as a comedian and “pretend” newsman, mocking other news networks for their inconsistencies and inaccuracies. As news drifts further towards entertainment, and vice versa, those distinctions feel less and less crucial.

So Klepper’s right to mock it, turning Jordan Klepper Solves Guns into his own one-man odyssey to resolve one of America’s most polarized political topics by talking to experts, performing on-camera stunts, and intoning his noble goals in a hilariously self-serious monologue. As he acknowledges at the top of the show, he’s just another 2017 comedian: Whatever his ideals or however woke he is online, he’s not going to solve any of the country’s issues in an hour-long special.

Klepper talks to politicians (like New Jersey Senator Cory Booker), ATF agents (who explain the agency’s complicated bureaucratic rules, which are heavily restricted by the Second Amendment), and, of course, many a gun enthusiast, including members of the Georgia State Militia (whose chief representative refers to himself as “General Blood Agent”). Through it all, Klepper’s a pro: He asks good questions, he never takes himself too seriously, and he does well not to make himself the overwhelming star of the show, letting his muted, often horrified reactions amplify the extreme partisanship of the militiamen he meets, while similarly highlighting the common ground he shares with more moderate NRA members he interviews (some of whom live in his hometown of Kalamazoo, Michigan).

But I’m still somewhat unsure what makes Klepper distinctive as a comedy presence: He mostly feels like a solid facsimile of earlier, more famous Daily Show stars who set the tone for his line of work. His resolute self-awareness aside, I’m not sure I could describe one thing that Klepper does especially brilliantly: There’s none of the mania of Carell, the hyper-sardonic collectedness of Colbert, or even the goofy upper-class foolishness of Helms. Klepper’s adept on camera, but he’s still in search of a personality, and Jordan Klepper Solves Guns felt like it was going through the motions with him, expanding a five-minute Daily Show piece into a 50-minute special with perfunctory professionalism.

Klepper has plenty of time to figure things out—his boss at The Daily Show, Trevor Noah, is still charting that show’s path ever since Stewart’s retirement and defining his on-screen temperament. Once he’s given a nightly show, Klepper’s competence will at least steady the ship as he determines how it stands alongside The Daily Show; even masterworks like The Colbert Report took some time to settle into a formula. Klepper has the unenviable task of walking in the footsteps of many a comedy titan; his choice will be whether to mimic their strong work in the future, or to try and carve out something newer, but riskier, as he goes solo.