The new late-night vehicle for longtime Fox News Channel contributor Greg Gutfeld, excitedly named Gutfeld!, is the ratings surprise of the year. Since debuting this spring it has routinely finished second in the ratings to Stephen Colbert’s Late Show and, despite being on cable instead of network, it often comes in second to Colbert among all shows in the 25-to-54 demo hour. This is entirely appropriate, because Gutfeld! is largely an answer to the partisanship of Colbert’s show.
Before you reach for your keyboard: I didn’t say it was like Colbert’s show. If you’re a big fan of Colbert’s show, you’ll probably hate Gutfeld! But its arrival was inevitable. In the current politicized atmosphere of American entertainment, having a right-wing answer to Colbert was too tempting for Fox News to pass up. And Gutfeld was the obvious choice to host, since he had experience running Fox’s overnight yukfest Red Eye from 2007 to 2015. On that show Gutfeld would review offbeat news stories and the foibles of Democrats with a panel that included comedians, entertainment writers, and other not-obviously-right-wing-shills. Imagine Chelsea Handler as a Republican and you’d be close.
But the new Gutfeld! is less like Red Eye and more like The Five, Fox News’ answer to The View. There are fewer wacky news items and more harangues. The panelists all seem like they were vetted by Hannity’s people. Disillusioned ex-Red Eye panelists say they hate the new show. Gossip stories portray Gutfeld as a Lonesome Rhodes type, a onetime folksy dude who let success go to his head and now specializes in alienating those around him. (If you thought Meghan McCain leaving The View was dramatic, that was a model of decorum compared with Juan Williams leaving The Five reportedly because he couldn’t take any more of Gutfeld.)
All of this may be true, but I also have to admit that I kind of like Gutfeld! The host has an appealingly weird personality. “I met Robert Bork once,” he offered during a recent roundtable. “Best smoker I ever saw.” And yes, the flashes of anger are undeniable, but every comic will tell you that’s part of the package. “We should start calling Jen Psaki Miss Information,” Gutfeld said, archly raising his eyebrows in the direction of radio host Lauren Chen. “How do I come up with this stuff, Lauren?”
And once you get beyond the tactless opening bit — unfunny cold opens are a specialty of the Colbert show as well — the banter is relatively amusing. And the panelists do score some not unfair points about the usual suspects, which these days include woke Hollywood, woke Biden, woke protestors, woke cities and woke CNN anchors. Also, I miss seeing Republicans in late night. They’ve been almost completely shut out. Jimmy Kimmel has COVID denier Adam Carolla on his show occasionally, but that feels more like the times David Letterman would have comic George Miller on his show, not because he’s funny but because you don’t give up on your old friends.
It’s part of a wider politicization of late-night TV that I’ve bemoaned before. But this is not the national crisis that Trumpists make it out to be. Most of the people who have been “canceled” are still making bank. They’re even burnishing their brands with appearances on shows like Canceled in the USA. The real problem is that entertainment is now subject to the same echo-chamber effect as news. Colbert has his anti-Trump parody videos, so it was only a matter of time before Gutfeld! came along and started doing pro-Trump parodies.
What I really miss is the sound of interesting clashes between conservatives and liberals. And there once was a show that featured that and did it well. It was called Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher — and it was literally canceled by ABC. Maher had carefully cultivated a following for his show featuring the likes of Laura Ingraham and Ann Coulter sparring with lefty celebrity types. It graduated from Comedy Central to ABC, which paired it up with Nightline. All was going well until six days after 9/11. With the Twin Towers still smoking and Americans still reeling, one of Maher’s guests, the conservative provocateur and future Trump pardonee Dinesh D’Souza, pushed back against President Bush’s characterization of the 9/11 attackers as “cowards.” Au contraire, said D’Souza, they were “warriors” because they were willing to be “slammed into concrete” for their cause. Maher completely agreed, adding that Americans had “been the cowards, lobbing cruise missiles from 2,000 miles away.” In the outrage that followed, sponsors and affiliates began dropping Politically Incorrect and ABC parted ways with Maher.
About a year later he emerged on HBO as host of his current show Real Time. I interviewed him early on (oddly at the same offices and studio he’d been using for Politically Incorrect). Maher promised he would continue to have pro-Bush as well as anti-Bush viewpoints represented on his new show. He even wanted to try to balance the number of Democrats and Republicans in his studio audience. But that didn’t last long. The Great Sort was underway, and soon it became clear the only people who wanted to be in his audience were Democrats. Maher, no dummy, went with the flow.
And now, all these many years later, we have Gutfeld! with a pro-Fox News studio audience, pro-Fox News panelists, pro-Fox News punchlines, and presiding over it all, the former overnight sensation turned company man, a fellow who used to fulminate at his fellow panelists for excessive “Trumpsplaining” who now can’t Trumpsplain enough. (“Why the hysteria over January 6 as opposed to the ongoing violence in Portland, Atlanta, San Francisco, L.A., New York, Seattle?” he ranted the other night. Oh, I don’t know, maybe because one of those types of violence is ongoing and the other is unprecedented?) It's in lockstep with the Fox News base, just as Colbert's show is with his liberal base. I guess we can be thankful some Fox smart-aleck didn’t name it Politically Incorrect with Greg Gutfeld!
Gutfeld! airs weeknights on Fox News at 11:00 PM ET/8:00 PM PT
Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.