The late night rise of "Gutfeld!" is telling us something. It isn't funny, but that doesn't matter

Greg Gutfeld's late night incursion forces us to acknowledge that Americans live in two separate comedy ecosystems

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published March 4, 2023 11:00AM (EST)

Greg Gutfeld hosts "Gutfeld!" at Fox News Channel Studios on February 14, 2023 in New York City. (Steven Ferdman/Getty Images)
Greg Gutfeld hosts "Gutfeld!" at Fox News Channel Studios on February 14, 2023 in New York City. (Steven Ferdman/Getty Images)

Greg Gutfeld proudly preaches that his worldview is informed by 1978's "National Lampoon's Animal House," a movie Generation X and Boomers consider to be a comedy classic. Watch his Fox News hit "Gutfeld!" and you can see it. In his mannerism, expressions and attitude, the host marries the affability and deceptive polish of Tim Matheson's  Delta Tau Chi rush chairman Eric "Otter" Stratton with the sloppy, slovenly soul of John Belushi's John "Bluto" Blutarsky. One might expect the show to be proportionately wild and hilarious. It is not.

Holding that opinion betrays two traits. One, it must be coming from a liberal. And two, that person is under the mistaken impression that Gutfeld looks to the movie's script or performance as influences. Nope. It's much simpler than that. Gutfeld believes "Animal House" explains the difference between progressives' self-image and how conservatives are generaly perceived. He calls it The Dean Wormer effect, named for the buzzkill college official who is dead set on getting in the way of the Delta Tau Chi House's good time.  

Once upon a time, Gutfeld believes, the liberals were the frat boys pitted against the conservative fun police. "In every situation, the right had a stick up their ass. Meanwhile, the left had a joint in their mouths," he says in his February 18, 2022 monologue. "My goal was to flip that script to reverse the Dean Wormer effect . . . and now it's happening: the big flip. We're having fun — they aren't. It's driving them crazy, and we really didn't have to lift a finger. And when we do … it's always the middle one."

"All it took was a little Trump and a lot of wokeism," Gutfeld concludes. "Donald Trump showed us that we could be as obnoxious, funny and feisty as they are and win."

There's a lot to overthink in that statement and with "Gutfeld!" generally. Critics, seeking some explanation for his show's success, tend to come away from several episodes in some state of bafflement since, even when one accounts for the subjective nature of humor, it barely shows up in a recognizable form. To those people. 

But let's skip that. Indulging in a pedantic analysis of classic joke structure, comedy rules and the ways Gutfeld falls short of those standards is pointless and fails to understand what his rise signifies. Beyond the obvious, we should say, which is that "Gutfeld!" is the only conservative late-night comedy destination in a landscape that favors left-leaning satirists. 

Critics, seeking some explanation for his show's success, tend to come away from "Gutfeld!" episodes in some state of bafflement.

Ratings-wise it is nipping at the heels of "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert."  But CBS' top-rated late night talker is competing for an audience that might otherwise watch Jimmy Fallon on NBC's "Tonight Show" or "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" on ABC. Gutfeld's diehards might put up with Bill Maher, which explains why in February CNN began running is his HBO post-show segment "Overtime" on Friday nights.

Overall, "Gutfeld!" succeeds by existing, fulfilling its mission of winding down the anti-left animosity ginned up by Fox News' prime-time hosts by ridiculing the people or groups he views as its exemplars. That could be "worst mayor ever" Lori Lightfoot whose looks Gutfeld relishes tearing to pieces while positing that her identity as Black lesbian was the only reason she was elected to lead Chicago. ("I'm sure she'll land on her feet," he says. "It's hard not to when you wear a size 14 and a homeless guy's head.")

It could be snickering at a Canadian schoolteacher who was suspended for allegedly wearing prosthetic breasts, defines herself as "intersex"  and says she has a condition known as gigantomasia by referring to the person as transgender, lazily swapping their pronouns, and naming the segment "Gazoombagate: Canada 2023."

And this is what the success of "Gutfeld!" is telling us. Americans aren't merely existing in separate information ecosystems but in disparate comedy worlds. One is ruled by men in tailored suits basking in the audience's clapter, who send their faithful off to sleep by making light of heavy headlines and the lunacy of the MAGA movement with simple, bland jokes. The other is run by this guy, Gutfeld, and his friends, doing brisk business by laughing with the red cap wearers, wrapping his primetime colleagues' anger in sweeteners they recognize.

Greg GutfeldFox News host Greg Gutfeld speaks during Fox News Channel's "Gutfeld!" (Omar Vega/Getty Images)

Each "Gutfeld!" subject is a concrete example of the feckless liberal insanity that Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham rail against in the hours leading up to the show. Fox pundits may twist the substance of whatever bête noire they choose to attack (which, noticeably does not include a peep about Dominion Voting Systems' $1.6 billion defamation lawsuit). But Gutfeld one-ups them by finding a funhouse personification of their outrage. So Lightfoot isn't merely a loser, she's an ugly one mistakenly elected by dumb Democrats, while the teacher may be actually be a con artist, "the greatest troll in the history of trolls," exposing "the lunacy of the woke agenda in a world where no one dares criticize her, much less pass a dress code policy without fear of being labeled a transphobe."

Gutfeld remains a co-host on "The Five," which in February unseated "Tucker Carlson" to become the most-watched show on cable news. (Meanwhile, "Gutfeld!" landed seventh behind "The Ingraham Angle.")  Between "The Five" and "Gutfeld!" Fox has built a Dagwood Bumstead sandwich of spleen and ignorance nestled between soft white layers of wan insult humor.

"Gutfeld!" joined the late-night fray in April 2021, but didn't gain much mainstream notice until August 2022 when his total audience numbers edged ahead of "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert" in the ratings, raking in 2.355 million to Colbert's 2.143 million. The Fox News late-night entry also dominated the key 25-54 demographic with an average audience of 397,000 viewers for that month to Colbert's 373,000 and NBC's "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon" with 372,000 viewers.  

For the entirety of 2022 and January 2023 "Gutfeld!" came in second to "The Late Show" in total viewers, which still has the show beating "The Tonight Show" and "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" 

This confuses anybody who views broadcast late night talk shows and their hosts, or the latest featured star playing "The Daily Show" musical chairs, as the form's standard-setters. These performers came up through an established system, forging their style in clubs and on the improv circuit and working their way into the industry.

Gutfeld worked in magazines before joining Fox in the mid-aughts as the host of a 3 a.m. show called "Red Eye," where he often featured comedians while not exactly aspiring to establish himself as a sidesplitter on par with them. Still, his ever-present smirk in old clips and new announces his Delta bro status to the world. We so-called Wormers ignore him at our peril.

Trump's rallies are chaotic attempts at stream-of-conscious japes, where threats of violence earned gargantuan applause.

Sometimes Gutfeld lurches in that direction — but, you know, in a fun way!  — as he did this week while touching on the Energy Department's "low confidence" assessment that the virus that caused the COVID-19 pandemic was likely leaked from a lab. "Do you think it's wrong for me, Kat," he asks regular co-host Kat Timpf, "when I think about all those people who made fun of us, to want to murder them?" Pause. "With mockery."

In the main, though, "Gutfeld!" monologues are largely silent affairs save for the odd whoops or two from the folks in the seats, and maybe a few side-eyes from Timpf, who functions as Gutfeld's Guillermo and resembles Kennedy, albeit a Millennial version. The energy picks up once Gutfeld opens the floor to the rest of the panel, which typically consists of a regular Fox contributor or fellow host, and National Wrestling Alliance champion Tyrus. It quickly becomes plain that nobody's there to make sense. They're just, you know, hanging out.

This is the heartbeat of conservative comedy as Fox News and Trump have defined it, a vein dedicated to "owning the libs" and little else. And to someone who enjoys comedy, that's disappointing. Not because said humor normalizes harmful stereotypes; so does nearly all of the content on Fox News, which just makes it redundant. Rather, it imagines that plying the audience with mythical rivers of liberal tears is enough and confirms the assumption that there are no funny conservative comedians, which simply isn't true.

Greg GutfeldGreg Gutfeld in concert on October 11, 2020 in Cedar Park, Texas (Gary Miller/Getty Images)

Perhaps this was inevitable at a time when the broadcast talk variety space is mainly defined by alumni of "Saturday Night Live" and the Jon Stewart era of "The Daily Show" (and Comedy Central generally, to rope Kimmel into this mix). All were trained to confront Trump in specific ways and earned healthy ratings and coverage for that effort.

But the 2016 election was the fruit of a cultural metamorphosis that had been in progress since the Clinton presidency, accelerating during George W. Bush's time in office. After 9/11, left-leaning comedians mined politics and challenged journalistic complacency to meet that shift head-on. Meanwhile, Fox News was instrumental in pulling the news industry rightward, catering to alienated right-wing news consumers while insisting their competitors didn't respect conservative principles and weren't delivering the full truth. Their hosts provided mountains of fodder to the comedy world, needling the right-wing mediasphere's "us versus them" stance.

But that also meant Fox viewers were bombarded by gags that they perceived to be at their expense, coming from an assortment of outlets. A dominant theme in conservative comedy holds that Democrats see Republicans as stupid, uncultured, QAnon believers. Another encapsulates their take on gender politics, queerness, racial injustice (which doesn't exist), effete intellectualism – anything related to fantasies about soft soy-drinking leftists – within the ill-defined amoeba of "wokeness." To people who view their political leaders as an extensions of their values, a decade's worth of Trump-skewering in late night is an affront. "Gutfeld!" is a team player who gets them.

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Gutfeld has brought up his "Animal House" theory throughout his career. He mentions it during his 2017 Freedom Fest appearance, when he hosted a weekly topical series, "The Greg Gutfeld Show," along with co-hosting "The Five." He mentions Dean Wormer in a 2010 Breitbart interview promoting his book "The Bible of Unspeakable Truths."

On the occasion cited here, he was paying tribute to conservative humorist P.J. O'Rourke, who died that same week. "My inspiration was P. J.," Gutfeld said. "He made it clear that to fight politics, the weapon was always going to be fun."

Gutfeld went on to admit that O'Rourke was "definitely no fan of Trump," which is soft-selling his late hero's feelings. But one also wonders how O'Rourke truly felt about this reduction of conservative humor to facile repetitive meanness, or the notion that humor itself would be treated as artillery to be aimed at other audience members instead of the politicians making everyone's lives difficult.

"The war is not between Republicans and Democrats or between conservatives and progressives. The war is between the frightened and what they fear," O'Rourke wrote in 2016's "How the Hell Did This Happen?" "It is being fought by the people who perceive themselves as controlling nothing. They are besieging the people they perceive as controlling everything."

Now, thanks to "Gutfeld!," those people have a standing invite a subdued toga party hosted by the worst fraternity on this campus.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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