Fox News recently purchased a billboard on Hollywood Boulevard and local spots during Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmy Fallon, Stephen Colbert and other late-night shows to promote its new nightly entrant, Greg Gutfeld, with the line, “Cancel culture just got canceled.”
As much as the news channel might be presenting the show as an alternative from the right, Gutfeld’s biggest challenge is the same one that all of the other shows face: being funny, night after night.
As many have noted, Fox News’ programming of Gutfeld! — as the April 5-premiering show is called — is another example of how the network has been expanding its nighttime doses of opinion, in the post-Donald Trump presidency. Fox Corp. CEO Lachlan Murdoch suggested last month that the job of the network during Joe Biden’s presidency would be to act as the loyal opposition, while outlets like Newsmax have made a run for the disaffected Trump voter.
But it is one thing to add another political voice among Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham or a new iteration of The Five, the popular panel on which Gutfeld appears; it will be another to have the nightly comedy impact of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert or Jimmy Kimmel Live!, particularly with younger viewers
“I don’t really think about those shows that much, because anything I could predict, I lose interest in,” Gutfeld said in an interview last week. “So I already kind of know that they share the same assumptions. In a way, they are there to please their peers, and not necessarily the audience, which they cannibalize.”
He’s made those shows occasional targets on the Fox News show he has been hosting on weekends since 2015 and, before that, on the overnight show Red Eye starting in 2007.
Gutfeld said that they are adding a handful of more writers and he plans more taped segments, which could make for a faster pace. The show will have a studio audience, and “more experimentation.” He says that they will get beyond politics into other topics. “It could be looser, because you have five opportunities a week, 25 segments, to try something,” he said. “That’s exciting. That’s where you start chipping away at traditional, conventional assumptions, traditional, conventional talk shows.”
Jon Macks, a comedy writer and political consultant who authored Monologue: What Makes America Laugh Before Bed, said that it would be “interesting to see a late-night show that leans to the right but that does not topple over to the right. But it has to focus on having more of an entertainment edge, being just plain funny.
“The question to me becomes this: What does this provide that is not already there?” he said. “If it is just political commentary with humor, I don’t know if that’s enough. Is it a funny show with a little politics? That could work.”
Fox News points to the numbers that Gutfeld has gotten on Saturday night: Through mid-March, it drew an average of 1.87 million viewers. On weeknights, Late Show with Stephen Colbert garnered 2.44 million, Jimmy Kimmel Live! drew 1.63 million, The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon garnered 1.38 million and The Late Late Show with James Corden garnered 914,000.
Gutfeld! is taking the time slot of the newscast Fox News@Night, which moves to midnight ET. In March, Fox News@Night drew an average of 1.2 million viewers, compared to MSNBC’s The 11th Hour with Brian Williams with 1.35 million. CNN Tonight with Don Lemon, which starts at 10 p.m., averaged 998,000.
Gutfeld’s show will start a half hour earlier, at 11 p.m. ET, the same time as Comedy Central’s The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, and what he does on Saturday night has much more in common with HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher, featuring guests and panelists discussing the day’s news, than the likes of The Tonight Show, which depend on a steady stream of celebrity guests.
“He has an area that no one else is touching,” said Dave Berg, who was co-producer of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and author of Behind the Curtain: An Insider’s View of Jay Leno’s Tonight Show.
He said that Gutfeld “is not just a political commentator. He understands humor. He understands satire. He understands a good joke and how it works.” He also said that Gutfeld understands pop culture in a way that many others on the right do not.
The late-night universe itself got more overtly political during Donald Trump’s years, as the likes of Kimmel and Colbert thrived on a nightly diet of humor at the president’s expense, at times shedding comedy in favor of serious commentary. That was the case with Kimmel as he fought against GOP attempts to repeal the health care law. Colbert, meanwhile, headlined a fundraiser for Biden. In the aftermath of Election Night, he got emotional as he described Trump’s refusal to accept the 2020 presidential election results.
Gutfeld may offer an alternate POV, but Berg said the challenge still will be booking entertaining guests.
“That is going to be tough, that is going to be really tough,” he said. “It is still going to be hard to attract them because Fox News doesn’t fly well in Hollywood.”
Gutfeld, though, isn’t setting out with a goal to draw A-listers promoting their latest blockbuster. He said that he plans to draw from other areas, like the podcast realm, for guests, “which is where I think the most interesting people are.” He cited as an example Dave Rubin, the political commentator who hosts The Rubin Report on YouTube and BlazeTV.
“The most interesting people aren’t on television — outside of Fox, of course,” Gutfeld said. “They show up on these podcasts where they’re allowed to speak freely, and I think that is kind of the direction we might be going in, in terms of guests.”
He said that he will go after other late-night hosts with his satire “because that’s fun, and there’s risk involved. I am not going to be invited to any events with my peers, and I was the same way when I was at magazines.” He does say that Bill Maher, who has railed against what’s now dubbed as “cancel culture” for years, “should be an inspiration for the rest of these comedians who share his political perspectives, his progressive politics.”
Gutfeld comes from a different background than other hosts. He grew up in the Bay Area of California and attended the University of California at Berkeley, and after college got a job at the conservative American Spectator. But he didn’t follow the path of political commentator, venturing instead into health and fitness, first working for Prevention and later as an editor at Men’s Health. He was an early contributor to The Huffington Post, and during that time boosted his profile with Fox News appearances and then the show Red Eye.
Gutfeld pushes back on the idea that conservatives can’t be funny, calling it “really kind of a lazy thing.”
“If someone says, ‘Conservatives aren’t funny,’ well, I don’t think they know what a conservative is, or a libertarian is, because if you go back in history and look at some of the great comics, they would not pass muster as a liberal,” he said. “The goalposts have been moved, so that to be a left-wing comedian is to not specifically be funny, and also not to take any risks.”
The new show will be before a studio audience — because of Covid, it will start off small — and feature some of the regulars from the weekend show, like Tyrus and Katherine Timpf. Gutfeld’s recent shows have mined the Biden administration for material, from what he sees as the media’s fawning coverage, to Press Secretary Jen Psaki’s propensity to use the phrase “circle back.”
The news media is a frequent target, at times even others on Fox News, as when he criticized the Decision Desk for their call of Arizona for Biden on election night as premature, although the call turned out to be correct. More recently, Gutfeld slammed Meghan Markle, following her interview with Oprah Winfrey, for acting as a victim and blaming her problems on race. “Markle can cynically exploit the racial obsession embraced by western media, but the tabloids would have hounded her whether she’s white, Black or brown,” he said.
Gutfeld defends the promotional focus on “cancel culture,” which has been atop the agenda across the network’s programming this year, on everything from Dr. Seuss to the recent departure of a Teen Vogue editor.
“This is a very small group of people. It’s just that they’re immovable, and my concern always has been, if you remove the debate, then what’s left?” Gutfeld said. “… And if you decide, that, no, you know what, this is racist, or that is racist. Or just being around an idea or bringing up and idea, saying, ‘I believe in border enforcement.’ Well, you know, that sounds very xenophobic. The redefinition of beliefs as entirely racist is a way to chill debate, because nobody wants to step in and be the person that says, ’No, I am not racist.’ So it has become the club, the hammer that is used is on every nail.”
But “cancel culture” also can be in the eye of the beholder. When pro-Trump rioters stormed the Capitol on January 6, many on the left saw that as the ultimate in “cancel culture,” an effort to erase the votes of millions. Results already had been certified, dozens of Trump campaign legal challenges had been exercised, and electors had cast their ballots. Trump’s own attorney general, William Barr, said in December that the Justice Department had not found widespread election fraud on a scale that could affect the outcome.
On his show, Gutfeld condemned the violence of the Capitol siege, but he suggested that the media, not Trump, played a role in their distrust. Gutfeld chided what he saw as lopsided coverage of the Capitol siege versus last summer’s unrest following the death of George Floyd.
“They made an industry out of division and anger,” he said. “Could they have been complicit? If the media is a civic institution as they claim, shouldn’t they behave like one? What if we didn’t label half of America as racist rubes? What if we had pushed for more transparent elections? What if we took the concerns of those suspicious of fraud seriously? Would it have gotten this far and this bad where people breached the Capitol?”
Yet when it comes to the media, doesn’t Fox News do just that, exploit “division and anger”?
Gutfeld said that characterization is “unfair.”
“The polarization lie is that we live in a polarized country, but in reality what happens is that there was only one pole for the longest time and now there are two. And the people that have been sitting on that one pole forever, this kind of liberal assumption that everybody agrees with us and we’re the right, sophisticated elite people, now they’ve got to fight to defend their ideas, and they call that ‘polarization.'”
“I don’t think they are equal, but I can understand that when somebody turns on Fox and goes, ‘Wow, these people are mad at these people.’ I can see that.”