Television

A Fox News Host’s Strange Backstory Shows How Liberals Lost Comedy

Conservatives now have one of the most popular shows in late night.

Greg Gutfeld sitting in a chair onstage with a smug grin.
Greg Gutfeld in Dallas on Feb. 22. Omar Vega/Getty Images

Greg Gutfeld has been in the Fox News universe for over a decade, consistently representing the network’s hope to compete for younger viewers and expand its brand identity away from pure, partisan news commentary. A libertarian with a background as a men’s magazine editor, Gutfeld made his name as a comedic provocateur, first gaining national attention in 2003 by hiring three dwarfs to loudly eat potato chips in a successful, if appalling, effort to disrupt a publishers’ panel discussing buzz creation. The New York Times described him as a “pest” who would “annoy, harass, mock and traumatize” his rivals. At its most charitable, the Times noted that Gutfeld possesses a “bizarro” sense of humor that most people, or at least most Times readers, probably would not understand.

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Gutfeld’s subsequent career as a Fox News star is a very useful object lesson in the growth of right-wing comedy. Today’s commonsense liberal perspective on mainstream right-wing comedy derives from a handful of forgettable efforts that were unable to give the format its marquee media franchise, like The Daily Show has been for liberal comedy in the 21st century. Moreover, popular coverage of right-wing comedy reinforces narratives and taste-based preferences among liberals about the necessary failure of conservative comedy. This sentiment is outdated and shortsighted. Among the post–Daily Show failed experiments in right-wing political comedy that liberals like to point to, The ½ Hour News Hour (on Fox News) ended during the second George W. Bush administration, while the first-run syndicated talk show The Flipside and Headlines Tonight (on One America News) lacked the economic support that franchises like The Daily Show enjoy. Focusing on these failed comedic attempts obscures the much more recently successful development of political comedy in Fox News’ programming strategy, thanks to figures like Bill O’Reilly protégé Jesse Watters and Gutfeld himself. It also prevents liberal critics from understanding the size, scope, and strength of today’s right-wing comedy industry.

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Gutfeld has long demonstrated an obvious knack for garnering attention through what would now be described as trolling. Developing a highly performative, occasionally over-the-top style of comedic presentation, he became the host of the panel talk show Red Eye in 2007. The show was an experiment for Fox News and highly unusual by any standard of television. Airing at 3 a.m. Eastern time, the program combined political commentary with occasional comedy sketches, a variety of recurring segments, and a general sense of disjuncture and improvisation. Although loosely resembling liberal satire shows in its reliance on news commentary, Red Eye was in many ways more akin to Adult Swim’s absurdist, experimental comedies Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! and The Eric Andre Show. Very low-budget and mostly unconcerned with ideological coherence, Red Eye often unfolded as a live deconstruction of the news, talk show, and late-night genres all at once, all with an absurdist bent. Gutfeld’s relentless intensity and insistence on laughing a little too much at every joke evoked a fun house version of Jay Leno, Jimmy Fallon, or Stephen Colbert.

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Inside jokes erupted and expanded on Red Eye across episodes. For example, the show’s “halftime report,” an errors-and-omissions bit that was weird enough on its own, went through weeklong phases in which Gutfeld would disrupt his editor by pummeling him with cat puns and attributing to him a variety of improbable feline interests. Panel discussions would swell to 16 pundits, none of whom had time to do anything more than introduce themselves. Yes, the politics were mostly right-wing and the show’s language pushed against discursive norms. However, in a rare instance of the left acknowledging conservative comedy, the New Yorker described Red Eye as “mindlessly sarcastic, sneakily smart, patently absurd, and generally refreshing.”

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Most importantly, people watched. Red Eye regularly beat its overnight competition of infomercials and sitcom reruns, garnering Gutfeld a shot at prime—or at least prime-r—time every Saturday evening. His promotion resulted from a number of converging factors. For one, he had provided evidence that at least some Fox News viewers would tolerate both political comedy and, on occasion, pure nonsense. Just as importantly, there was a major shift in right-wing culture, and particularly right-wing comedy, over the course of Gutfeld’s Red Eye tenure. His stunt with the chip-eating little people, so odd in 2003, foreshadowed a contemporary moment in which ostensibly comedic 4chan memes and Twitter trolling play tangible roles in electoral politics. Indeed, it’s no coincidence that Proud Boys founder and right-wing troll Gavin McInnes broke through to mainstream success as a regular panelist on Red Eye during this period. Whereas before conservative viewers may have scoffed at Gutfeld’s bombast, irreverence, and utter disregard for intellectual or ideological consistency, Donald Trump has primed viewers to accept these as well as a number of far uglier traits. The rise of Trump and Trumpism in the 2010s offered a transitional moment for existing Fox News viewers to reconsider Gutfeld’s style. Embracing Trump’s eccentricity while de-emphasizing much of the brazen racism and misogyny of Watters’ show Watters’ World, Gutfeld promised Fox News leadership a chance to appeal to a younger audience hungry for comedic content.

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As Gutfeld thrived in the Trump era—first with a weekend show, then the weeknightly Gutfeld!—it became clear that The Daily Show’s irony-literate viewership and the comedic aesthetics that appeal to this audience were not the exclusive domain of the political left. In 2019, Gutfeld regularly drew a larger average viewership (1.73 million total viewers) than any other late-night show, except for the broadcast stalwarts The Late Show With Stephen Colbert on CBS and The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon on NBC. By late 2021, Gutfeld! (2.12 million viewers) was even beating Colbert (1.896 million viewers). Gutfeld’s success came on the heels of Fox News’ attempts that summer to broaden its appeal to advertisers, reminding them “that its audience is wide and can be found across the nation, not just in so-called ‘red states.’ ” Fox News’ expansion of its brand is a curious reversal of the industrial logics driving broadcast and cable television, respectively. Broadcasters like CBS have traditionally been home to a big tent of viewers across the demographic spectrum, yet its late-night host (Colbert) has been among the loudest voices doing anti-Trump comedy. Fox News, by contrast, has focused with laserlike precision on older, whiter, almost exclusively conservative viewers. Yet the cable network is now clearly deploying Gutfeld to siphon off younger viewers who perceive late night as a much more politicized space than it was before Trump.

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Many Gutfeld! segments are drawn more or less directly from preexisting liberal comedy shows like The Daily Show and Real Time With Bill Maher (before the latter took its recent anti-“woke” turn). The show opens with a monologue and media montage either pointing to the hypocrisy of other cable news outlets or underscoring the foibles of Democrats. The July 27, 2019, episode, for example, begins with a montage of clips from Robert Mueller’s congressional testimony, stitching together the multiple instances in which he demurred during the hearing, stating that questions were beyond his “purview.” The bit uses editing to build comedic momentum through excessive repetition, evoking the classic comedy theory that humor readily emerges from human agents acting like automated machines. It also makes a right-wing political point: The Democrats, the clips suggest, held a hearing with no purpose. The next moment in the segment emphasizes Gutfeld! as a Daily Show competitor, capable of combining the political with the truly silly. Having completed the Mueller “purview” montage, a graphic advertising “The PurrView,” a daytime talk show hosted by cats, appears on screen. Such jokes, which semi-logically combine news stories with popular culture through wordplay, have long been a staple of liberal satire television.

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In addition to displaying a knack for purely silly comedy bits, Gutfeld! also routinely engages political sketch comedy à la Saturday Night Live. In a sketch from the Aug. 17, 2019, episode, for example, two men sit across from each other in a nondescript office setting, one of them snacking. “What are you eating?” his co-worker asks, to which the other blithely offers, “Macadamia nuts—want some?” This reply sends the first co-worker into a tailspin of feigned indignance—no, he will not have any macadamia nuts because they’re from Hawaii, where there’s also a Trump International Hotel. The sketch escalates the joke by singling out harmless cultural artifacts, sports affiliations, clothing choices, and pop culture preferences for their increasingly tangential relationship to Trump. Everything from Hallmark Channel movies to bandannas are declared symbols of white supremacy until eventually the first co-worker—now nearly naked after his kilt is revealed to have a troubling connection to Trump’s Scottish heritage—turns to the camera and stammers, “Thanks, Trump!”

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The sketch mimics the satiric project of innumerable bits on The Daily Show and Saturday Night Live, taking to an (il)logical extreme some of the core ethical values of political liberalism. It clearly lampoons the left’s “cancel culture,” in which social justice–oriented progressives call out the problematic racial, gendered, or otherwise biased nature of a cultural artifact. What separates the Gutfeld! segment from other bits of conservative comedy, though, is its broad range of referents, one that doesn’t stay confined to purely political targets. Moreover, it (and many others on Gutfeld!) demonstrates an awareness by the show that political comedy need not—indeed, cannot—be purely political. The thrust of the sketch’s humor is equal parts Trump boosterism and scattershot pop culture references, offering a touchpoint of engagement for viewers who might not be as securely anchored in red-state politics as the rest of Fox News’ viewership. In other words, it’s a comedy sketch on a comedy show on a right-wing news network—clear evidence that the political right does comedy.

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Gutfeld! creates other comedic bits that embrace political ambiguity in the process of crafting funny performances. This irony and ambiguity are most apparent in the show’s regular deployment of an unusual double-act segment, a vaudevillian performance style in which two comedians rapidly bounce jokes off of each other—think Abbott and Costello’s famous “Who’s on first?” routine—in the creation of a single bit. The segments cut back and forth between clips of Trump giving one of his trademark rambling bizarro speeches and Gutfeld commenting from the studio in the role of straight man. The resulting product has a sense of surreality, presenting Trump as funny, yes, but also strange. One such segment begins with Gutfeld talking to the camera, commenting on the then outrageous, now somewhat quaint, controversy about Trump’s interest in purchasing Greenland from Denmark:

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Gutfeld: He [Trump] now wants to buy Greenland. That is awesome. And it’s no surprise, he’s a real estate guy, he probably wants to buy it so he can flip it. Add some granite countertops, a subzero fridge, some nice bathroom amenities, done. It leads me to wonder, do you love cranes or trucks?

This last phrase is, of course, a comically nonsensical transition, and purposefully so. Gutfeld uses it to slide into a double act in which he interacts with a series of clips taken from a single, actual Trump speech that moves through a dizzying, profoundly silly array of topics:

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Trump: I love cranes, I love trucks of all types. Even when I was a little boy at 4 years old, my mother would say, “You love trucks.” I do. I’ve always loved trucks. I still do. Nothing changes. Sometimes, you know, you might become president but nothing changes. I still love trucks.

Gutfeld: Nothing changes. But what about the rain?

Trump: I said, “Don’t worry about the rain. Do we have umbrellas? Don’t worry about the rain. Umbrellas work very well.”

Gutfeld: It’s so true! He speaks the truth about the umbrella. And what do we send them, wheat?

Trump: We send them wheat. Wheat. That’s not a good deal. And they don’t even want our wheat. They do it because they want us to at least feel that we’re OK, you know, they do it to make us feel good.

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The bit goes on and on in this fashion, with Gutfeld playfully providing the connective tissue for Trump’s incoherent effort at political messaging. These double-act segments are unusual both in terms of their comedic strategy and their ideological ambivalence. Framed in the general context of Gutfeld’s wild exuberance and obvious admiration for Trump, it is fair to say that the segments are friendly to the former president. They are, however, much more complicated than simple cheerleading. Much of the humor comes from the seemingly unintelligible connections and juxtapositions, as the bit takes political speech and twists it into a kind of avant-garde spoken-word performance. The content of Trump’s original speech is rendered not merely hard to follow; it is impossible to even guess what the president actually said in the fuller version of what Gutfeld excerpts. To try to follow along is to engage in serious literary interpretation, as Gutfeld molds Trump into a Joycean hero whose stream of consciousness somehow includes loving trucks, admiring the effectiveness of umbrellas, and feeling OK about selling wheat. All of which creates a mountain of incongruity that is fun and funny to the extent that you believe that Trump’s popularity on the right and political power resolves, or at least nullifies, all contradictions.

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Trump gave the original speech to advance his political agenda. But the above-quoted edited version, complete with Gutfeld’s emphasis on its most bizarre phrases and inscrutable transitions, is something entirely distinct. Reminiscent of Saturday Night Live’s “Fun With Real Audio” sketches, which created non sequitur animations to illustrate often banal political speech, the double act both uplifts and mocks Trump’s words. It is engaging and funny insofar as it lays bare the artifice of linguistic convention that underpins all communication. Taking only complete sentences uttered in a single monologue, it seems comically improbable that an adult human, let alone a president, could be edited to sound so unmoored.

This unmooring, of course, is where the politics of the piece become both powerful and prone to varied interpretation. Gutfeld’s double act does not—as so much of Jesse Watters’ Watters’ World and other Fox News shows do—embrace the humor of punching downward at those in lower positions of cultural power. If anyone is being mocked in the bit, it is Trump. However, people are not the main target of this high-concept humor. Gutfeld’s likely intention is to praise Trump’s disregard for norms and his zeal for destabilizing hierarchies, linguistic or otherwise. Gutfeld here avoids the uglier, hateful elements of Trump’s rhetoric and much right-wing humor. He is, however, quite visibly enthused by the damage Trump does to institutions and traditions. For Gutfeld, his double act with Trump emphasizes what reactionaries can gain when they lose the pretense of seriousness. Gutfeld portrays Trump as a fool, yes. However, he also signals to conservative viewers that they can express their politics through the process of ironic distanciation so often associated with the postmodern left. Whereas most Fox News programming is fueled by anger and fearmongering, Gutfeld’s comedic double act celebrates the right’s self-realization that unseriousness can be wielded by and attractive to a wide array of demographic groups within its ideological coalition.

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At the same time, Gutfeld’s double-act bit runs the risk of making Trump look incoherent or making Gutfeld appear anti-Trump. It is a near certainty that some conservative viewers won’t get the joke. Media scholar Linda Hutcheon describes the dangers of irony, noting that any good bit of ironic joking fundamentally requires that some portion of the audience be confused or even hurt by the joke. Ambiguity is a central feature of any comedy that plays with satire and irony. Pop culture commentators and political communication scholars have argued at great length that liberals tend to tolerate humorous, intentional ambiguity, while conservatives do not. Gutfeld’s success, we argue, proves that, given an accommodating industrial and cultural context, right-wing viewers are in fact open to political comedy, ambiguous and otherwise.

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When Greg Gutfeld scaled up the success of his weekend show to the nightly Gutfeld! in 2021, the liberal commentariat took the opportunity to perform disbelief at the possibility of right-wing comedy. The New Republic, for example, asked if Gutfeld! was “the worst show on television,” and declared it to be “the latest evidence that conservatives have no sense of humor.” And, depending on your vantage point, Gutfeld! may well be both. Gutfeld! is not, however, new evidence of anything whatsoever. Red Eye did well for years. Jesse Watters has been using irony to enhance the Fox News brand since 2014. And The Greg Gutfeld Show was already beating cable competitors before transitioning to the higher-profile Gutfeld! Once more, Greg Gutfeld is making a comedy show that conservatives like and that liberals would rather wave away with “that’s not funny,” even as right-wing comedy plods along, growing in stature and influence. It is understandable to be upset at how expensive the heating bill is every February, but at a certain point it shouldn’t be hard to remember that winters are cold.

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Excerpted from That’s Not Funny: How the Right Makes Comedy Work for Them by Matt Sienkiewicz and Nick Marx, published by the University of California Press. © 2022 by Matt Sienkiewicz and Nick Marx.

That’s Not Funny: How the Right Makes Comedy Work for Them

By Matt Sienkiewicz and Nick Marx. University of California Press.

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