In late October, I made plans to visit New York City to see a months-long obsession of mine come to fruition — something I never thought I would realistically end up doing. Along with my dear friend Natalie, I was going to a live taping of the late-night Fox News program Gutfeld!.
My first encounter with Gutfled! — hosted by Greg Gutfeld, a one-time Maxim editor and HuffPost contributor turned mid-level Fox talking head — was in the spring of 2021. Living in Toronto, I was deep in what felt like an endless lockdown. I would sit at my computer scrolling, absorbing nothing. That was until a short video made its way to my Twitter timeline. It was an opening monologue from the show, and I’d never seen anything like it:
This particular clip went viral in many circles outside of Gutfeld’s target audience of Fox News viewers. People online wondered if it was a parody, and for many it confirmed the assumption that conservative comedy can never be funny, even to conservatives. Still, the show continued to gain viewers, frequently beating every other late night television show in ratings. In October, it ranked No. 8 in Nielsen’s top cable shows — a list that consisted of mostly Fox News programming, save for The Rachel Maddow Show.
Gutfeld! took a strange hold on me, almost like I imprinted on it. There was a quality to it that I couldn’t get enough of. It had very few actual jokes and showed no signs of improvement. In the clip above, Gutfeld stumbles through his lines and refers to Black voters as “blacks.” The audience, not recognizing anything resembling a punchline, more or less guesses when to laugh.
It all felt like an imitation of what liberal comedy turned into under Trump’s tenure as president — only centered on Joe Biden. Insofar as liberal comedy “worked” during those four years (which is itself debatable), it did because of Trump’s ability to shock. Politics aside, Biden is simply not as interesting. In the post-Trump era, Gutfeld seemed to grasp at straws to create imaginary personalities for Democrats and liberals with very little material. This, mixed with his lack of charisma and comedic talent, mesmerized me. I couldn’t get enough of this peek into a world to which I don’t belong, one that sees someone like me as the enemy. Every time I watched a segment, some sick part of my brain wondered what it would be like to experience it in real life.
A sample episode goes as such: Gutfeld delivers his monologue to very little laughter (sometimes, even he remarks on the lack of laughs with an, “I thought this was funny”). He then introduces the guests of his show. There are some mainstays: libertarian writer and blogger Kat Timpf and professional wrestler Tyrus appear frequently. Timpf, a Fox News blonde woman with glasses, is the only remotely charming presence on the show — only to be the butt of repeated jokes about her being a stupid girl who has low standards for men. The show features sketches which have the look of old “Funny or Die” videos and poke fun at liberals in a way that boomers can appreciate, or at least understand. Frequent topics include cancel culture and wokeness, seemingly the biggest threats to the American way.
Much of Gutfeld! hinges on the assumption that a conservative audience, or any political audience, needs to be engaged — that they are the underdogs and that all of their beliefs are constantly under threat. But unlike other comedians that draw certain types of conservative audiences — Steven Crowder, Joe Rogan or now Dave Chappelle — Gutfeld! is a watered-down version of the kinds of “edgy” right-wing beliefs that liberal talking heads would likely sound alarm bells about. Gutfeld’s fans won’t dox or harass his opponents online like those of podcaster Steven Crowder. He’s barely a stepping stone to Q-Anon.
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Standing in line with Natalie outside of a Fox News building, we both couldn’t believe we were finally there. We kept trying to have a normal conversation, but we were in awe of our surroundings. We learned that the man and woman in front of us had been in the audience the night before. There was also a group of four middle-aged men who we later learned were visiting from Maryland. Their arms were crossed, and they looked like they didn’t spend much time talking to one another outside the golf course.
Natalie and I picked a Friday afternoon taping. We both stood out for many reasons. We were two of four people under the age of 50 (the other two men in their thirties had what we called “insurrection” looks); I was the only visibly Muslim person and black person, whereas Natalie is a well-dressed actress. We were also, I assume, the only socialists in attendance, although I'm not sure that could be gleaned from our appearances.
As we took our seats in the building’s basement waiting room, we got a better look of our surroundings. The woman beside me was wearing a Blue Lives Matter bracelet and revealed herself to be a diehard Gutfeld! fan, asking the couple in front of us whether or not they knew who the guests were. Were the people here true fans of the show?
The murmurs of conversation fell silent as Biden Press Secretary Jen Psaki appeared on a TV placed in front of us. She had barely started speaking when my fellow audience members broke out into laughter. The people in front of us turned around to the Blue Lives Matter lady and said, “We call her the Bride of Chucky,” which made everyone laugh even harder. “Someone get her a voice coach,” another person said.
After what felt like a full hour, we were finally led into a different building for the taping. The main producer, a man I recognized from some of the show’s sketches, came out to warm us up. After telling us he was a failed actor from Arkansas, he started throwing candy at us and telling us to make some noise, to very mixed results. He told us two jokes. The first was about CNN’s Brian Stelter being fat and the second was about Jen Psaki being bad at her job. Finally, he told us that we were not, under any circumstances, allowed to boo the guests or anything that is said on the show, because Gutfeld! was all about good vibes.
Then, some classic rock began playing and the episode’s guests were introduced to us: Kennedy, a former MTV VJ-turned-host of Kennedy on Fox News Business, CEO and author of Woke, Inc. Vivek Ramaswamy, comedian and Fox News contributor Tom Shillue, Kat Timpf, and Blöthar the Berserker, the lead singer of the heavy metal band Gwar.
It was time to see what I came for — would the audience laugh at Gutfeld’s monologue?
Although I was seated in the back, I was within eyeline of Gutfeld. His first joke went almost completely unregistered. “What a crazy week, it’s like one of Hammer’s hot tub parties. Bad things are happening, but it’s okay because we’re all in this together.” It seemed nobody knew who the actor Armie Hammer, who had recently been embroiled in a sex scandal, was. Nevertheless, he continued.
The main topic of the monologue was Biden’s CNN town hall from the night before. It’s very easy to make fun of Joe Biden — he’s barely aware of his surroundings, and he appeared rambling and incoherent in the clips Gutfeld chose. Very few of his jokes landed. About the supply chain, he said, “Kat can’t even buy hair; she’s the true victim!” Only she laughed.
While talking about the supply chain, Gutfeld remarked that the issues would not change because they did not affect “the politicians, the rich, the activist class — the very assholes responsible for this mess. But it affects you, you measly country bumpkins. And you don’t rate.”
Gutfeld is by all measures a coastal elite. He studied English at UC-Berkeley and is now a member of the Chaotic Evil faction of the media elite. But he’s a rarity in that late-night television is dominated by liberal comedians, most of whom spent four years riding on jokes about Trump. It should be Gutfeld’s time to shine, but unlike Stephen Colbert, Seth Meyers, or John Oliver, he doesn’t seem to understand how comedy works on a technical level. Simply put, Gutfeld can’t tell a joke.
His jokes ranged from cringe-y to incomprehensible. He said that Pete Buttigieg was not a leader: “He’s Eddie Haskell from Leave it to Beaver, except he doesn’t like the beav.” He then compared Buttigieg’s paternity leave to Octomom, who has not been relevant in at least a decade. He then went into full lecture mode on how Trump would’ve saved America (“He would’ve nuked the supply chain crisis like it was a hurricane the same way he solved North Korea, The Middle-East with the Abraham accords and of course, the vaccines.”) Ok.
Post-monologue, there was a quick break. The classic rock resumed and the failed actor from Arkansas played the air guitar in the corner. As the remainder of the hour went on, I paid more attention to what my fellow audience members were enjoying. They knew to laugh when Gutfeld said trigger words, like “woke” or “pronouns.” It felt like everyone was there because the show existed, not because they thought it was particularly good.
We left the studio with the same “how is it still daytime” feeling you get after staggering out of a particularly long matinee. Did I feel changed, or like I had spent time in a “dangerous” side of the world I wasn’t supposed to be in? Not remotely.
At a previous job, I covered several right-wing, mostly anti-Islam rallies that happened in Canada shortly after Trump was elected. At the time, these rallies got my heart racing — of course, I’d experienced racism in my life, but until then I had never seen how the anti-Islam sausage got made. With Gutfeld!, no sausage was being produced.
Gutfeld’s audience would probably agree with everything I heard at those rallies. Yet his viewers are not members of a fringe group, and their beliefs no longer feel like some long-kept secret that is finally being shared. It all just felt normal.