Most late night talk shows nowadays aim to serve an audience that is, late at night, not watching their TV set. The calculated virality of bits from James Corden’s “Carpool Karaoke” to Seth Meyers’ “A Closer Look” to Jimmy Fallon’s TikTok dances with Addison Rae — all of those things are meant to be disseminated on social media when morning comes.
It’s hard to imagine “Gutfeld!,” Fox News’ attempt to enter the late-night wars with a comedy-news hybrid show, accomplishing what these shows do and spreading its message beyond the people who happen to tune in live. For one, this show’s tone of acrid nihilism looks ugly in the light of day. Even by the standards of the network it’s on, this is a nasty, unappealing thing, preying on its viewers’ insecurities in a manner that Fox News, elsewhere, makes at least somewhat subtextual. For another, much of the series relies on a shared language of resentments that is most legible to the hardcore Fox viewer.
Greg Gutfeld, the host, is a comedian and commentator who’s been part of Fox News’ orbit for some time; he previously hosted “Red Eye,” which aired deep into the night, at 3 a.m. With “Gutfeld!,” airing at 11 p.m., the emcee gets called closer to the heart of the action, doing dubious battle with some of the biggest stars in the landscape. There are grounds to criticize the work that various of these hosts have done over the past several years. Not having seen “Gutfeld!,” one could conceivably frame an argument about how certain network late-night shows have so cringingly leaned into earnestness at the expense of comedy that a response from the right is, if not consistently agreeable, then at least fair play.
But the show lets its host off easy. Rather than engaging with the same issues his counterparts do, Gutfeld proposes an alternative-world slate of issues: To judge by his show, the greatest issue facing American society over the past week was the decision made by Major League Baseball to move the All-Star Game from Georgia to Colorado. It would be at least interesting to see Gutfeld mount a full-throated denunciation of Biden from a comic perspective, given that Biden appears both broadly popular and uniquely hard for even sympathetic humorists to get a bead on. Instead, the show mainly leaves the President alone, simultaneously leaning on invocations of the dark forces of cancel culture and attempts to cancel Biden’s son Hunter. The show can do its version of wonkery, as in a lengthy diatribe by a panelist about how people with voter IDs are likelier to be independent thinkers and thus should be the only people allowed to vote (really), but it’s easier to skip the amateur political theory and skip right to hatred.
The treatment of Hunter Biden, here, is something worse than shabby. Late night outside of “Gutfeld!” is in the midst of an era of sympathy, one that began, before Donald Trump’s nomination for president, with a 2015 episode of “The Late Show” in which Stephen Colbert asked then-Vice President Biden to describe his family’s grief. One can feel that the aftereffects of that moment, the infusion of empathy throughout a genre once defined by Johnny Carson’s remove, have overcorrected. But watching Gutfeld sneer at an addict in recovery — in the opioid era, as addiction is among the defining threads of American life — and to repeatedly use his personal struggle as the only available cudgel against his father, felt unworthy of even of a network that has showcased advocates of the Obama birther conspiracy, specious anti-climate change experts and baseless voter election fraud claims, among other outrages.
Cruelty is all Gutfeld has at his disposal. He has no affirmative argument for why one should watch his show, only evidence that one may as well settle for a bad show instead of what he would claim is a worse one. In a repeated motif throughout the first several episodes, actors play a CNN panel shouting about racism. While CNN’s endless panels are difficult to defend, Gutfeld, so fixated on MLB’s corporate speech act, has little grounds to call anyone else’s priorities into question. And his guests seem, at best, scattered and confused.
In a particularly sad showing, “Up in the Air” author Walter Kirn showed up to plug his Substack and drew vague, perhaps-half-joking conspiratorial connections between Lysol and the federal government’s COVID response, as well as noting that Major League Baseball may seem best suited to North Korea, “where you can get a crowd at gunpoint to clap for anything.” Going from a baseline of normalcy to a point of surreal supposition over the course of a sentence is a Fox News standard, but doing so on a comedy show raises the question of whether or not it’s a joke. Too often during this show, it’s unclear what’s played for fun and what isn’t.
To wit: Is Gutfeld’s Howard Beale act serious? “Screw all corporations,” Gutfeld declared on his show, decrying the manners by which he felt white-collar America spoke down to the common man. Leaving aside the obvious — that Gutfeld is broadcast by a corporate entity, one that is supported by ads from many others — how seriously are we meant to take a burn-it-all-down act from a fellow whose first Fox News show began in the George W. Bush administration? Greg Gutfeld wants to position himself as an avatar of the viewers’ rage. What he really is, perhaps, is a stand-in for stasis. The system as it currently exists needs Gutfelds to bring voice to a peculiar American sort of rage, an envious desire to root out anyone getting an advantage, a willingness to indulge in hate and call it free-thinking. “Gutfeld!” fails as shareable comedy for the same reason it will likely run for as long as its star is willing to stumble through the TelePrompTer: Because it serves as a concentrated dose of Fox News at its most toxic while Gutfeld assures the audience that watching will make them feel better.