Has Right-Wing Comedy Arrived?
Note: Since this article's original publication, Gutfeld! has consistently been around the top of the late-night ratings, Fox has leaned hard into comedy ‘coverage,' and even CNN has thrown what's left of its hat into the ring around comedy.
Ladies and gentlemen, we have a new late-night champ.
No, it’s not that crack-up-scamp Jimmy Fallon. It’s not Jimmy Kimmel or James Corden or any of the other Jimmys. Not Samantha Bee or Trevor Noah. It’s not even Stephen Colbert. For at least one ratings period in August, America’s favorite late-night host was …
In case you haven’t heard of him (and despite the ratings win, many haven’t), Gutfeld is a comedy outlier. Conservative comedians have spent years trying to develop an alternative to the perceived liberal comedy of Jon Stewart and Jimmy Kimmel. Now, Gutfeld has achieved what seemed impossible when his Fox News show launched last spring: Besting the kings and queens of late night.
"If you cannot tell the other late-night shows apart, join the club," Gutfeld said back in April when his show launched. "They're as bland as string cheese and not nearly as appetizing. It's the same jokes, the same assumptions, probably the same writers, all reading the same columns from the same hacks in the New York Times. So we aren't going to be like them."
If you can imagine a show that crossbreeds Fox News with The Daily Show, topped with an old-fashioned Jay-Leno-style monologue, you’ve got a good handle on Gutfeld! (exclamation point his).
While Gutfeld! Isn’t completely dominating the competition (The Late Show with Stephen Colbert has more overall viewers most weeks), it’s still accomplishing something many thought couldn’t be done: Delivering a successful conservative comedy show.
Comedy goes where the funny is
It isn’t just Gutfeld. On HBO’s Real Time, Bill Maher has taken a break from his usual riffing with left-leaning HuffPo pundits and spends more time poking fun at liberals. And if they don’t like it? It’s their own fault, says Maher.
"I keep saying to the liberals ... if what you're doing sounds like an Onion headline, stop,” says Maher. “When you tear down statues of Abraham Lincoln in the Land of Lincoln — Land of Lincoln cancels Lincoln, it's an Onion headline. You know, three-year-old's pick their own gender is an Onion headline."
Maher believes “conservatives don’t know how to do comedy,” but he's volunteering to fill the void. “I do it now more here than I used to because comedy goes where the funny is and there is funny on the left now as well as the right.”
There is a perception that conservatives just aren’t natural comedians. When Dennis Miller appeared on Jimmy Kimmel in 2018, Kimmel came right out with it: “I think it’s weird for a comedian to be conservative — unusual, I should say.” (For the record, Miller considers himself to be socially liberal and fiscally conservative. A real man of the people with an extensive vocabulary.)
Is Gutfeld the one unusual conservative who knows how to do comedy? His cancel culture jokes aren’t exactly cutting edge. One recent sketch imagined a politically correct James Bond chasing down a counterspy and pulling a banana on him instead of a gun. Rather than a martini, PC Bond orders a latte. Soy.
Critiques of the material aside, as the lone conservative comedy voice in late night, Gutfeld has the advantage of driving half of the ratings expressway all by himself while Noah, Bee, Colbert, Fallon, Kimmel and friends fight the traffic in the liberal left lane.
"Those hosts, sadly, are just different slices of the same white bread," Gutfeld says. "Gutfeld! is just so different from them that when viewers discover it, it's like a blast of refreshing cool air on a grossly humid, hot day.”
That's a maximum white bread thing to say, there, Gutfeld! - but we get your point.
The Daily Show for conservatives
Offering a conservative take on comedy seems like a no-brainer. So why hasn’t Fox News tried this before? Turns out it has -- and failed miserably.
In 2007, the network tried to deliver a Daily Show counterpunch - The ½ Hour News Hour, a Weekend Update-esque news parody with a conservative slant. Kimmel’s buddy Dennis Miller brought his brand of socially liberal/fiscally conservative sarcasm to a regular, creatively-titled segment called “The Buck Starts Here.”
It’s exactly the same idea as Gutfeld! -- appeal to Fox News’ loyal viewer base with a right-wing version of popular political comedy shows. Literally, the pitch was “The Daily Show for conservatives” from show producer Joel Surnow, previously known for the hilarious antics of 24. But The ½ Hour Comedy News Hour didn’t take.
Predictably, the show got poor reviews, which were even more predictably blamed on the critics’ liberal bias. (With a composite score of 12 out of a possible 100, it’s the lowest-rated show ever at Metacritic.) At least one reviewer, who put ½ Hour Comedy News Hour on his list of the worst shows of the 2000s, wanted to be clear about any political prejudice:
This show wasn’t bad because it was right wing. It was bad because it was. Not. Funny.
But it’s not like Tucker Carlson is a critical darling. The real problem with the show was the ratings. They were terrible. The show was canceled after only 15 episodes.
Nothing more dangerous than a likable conservative
Identifying as both a conservative and a comedian isn’t easy--and many right-wing funny people believe the deck is heavily stacked against them.
Tim Allen’s Last Man Standing, in which he played a conservative sporting-goods executive, was canceled in 2017 by ABC after six seasons. Allen is certain politics are the reason why, telling Jimmy Kimmel that being conservative in Hollywood is like living in Germany in the 1930s. "You've gotta be real careful around here."
Ratings were decent for Last Man Standing, bolstering Allen’s claims, at least in his mind. “There is nothing more dangerous, especially in this climate, than a funny, likable conservative character,” complained Allen. “He is mitigated on the show by a family of women who had a difference of opinions, but he was a likable guy and a principled guy about work and ethics."
ABC, for its part, blamed the cancelation on its decision to pull the plug on all of its Friday comedies. Fox picked up the show for two more seasons, where again it garnered good but not stellar ratings.
There aren’t a lot of other comics out there claiming to be conservative, and for some reason, most of the ones who do are mid-90s alumni of Saturday Night Live. Seriously, Lorne, what was in the water?
Dennis Miller has been the most successful turning conservative takes into actual dollars, showing up regularly on The O’Reilly Factor for a sarcastic spin on current events. He seems well aware of the pitfalls of the path he’s chosen, continually telling interviewers that he’s really not a political guy at alI.
Castmates Victoria Jackson and Rob Schneider have had a rougher road, though it’s hard to say if that's due to conservative views or limited comic skills. Jackson claims she was the only SNL cast member banished to an overflow room at the show’s 40th anniversary, speculating Lorne was punishing her for her views on gay marriage and vocal criticism of Barack Obama.
Schneider says he’s careful about sharing his conservative views -- “this cancel culture is real” -- but that hasn’t stopped him from appearing in 18 Adam Sandler films and counting.
Other SNL cast members from that era, including Sandler, David Spade, Jon Lovitz, and Norm Macdonald, have been labeled as conservatives but you’d be hard-pressed to find a whole lot of public quotes to back up the claim. At least in the case of Spade and Sandler, there seems to be a concerted effort to be publicly apolitical -- likely a smart stance in any comedy climate.
Lovitz and Macdonald have gone so far as to deny the label -- yet both find a way to take a poke at liberals while doing so.
The late Macdonald always took delight in being a contrarian more than representing a coherent political view. He said plenty that both conservatives and liberals could hate, a reason that he remains so beloved.
Why can’t right-wing comics be funny?
Creating conservative comedy that finds an audience is still hard. And it’s hard to do well. Most comedy aficionados aren’t flocking to Gutfeld! for the inspired jokes.
Some liberal critics complain that their favorite brand of comedy is more likely to “punch up,” while conservative comedy reinforces unjust systems of power. The Greg Gutfelds of the world would disagree, of course.
After all, why can’t right-wing people be funny? Trevor Noah has pointed out that Donald Trump was pretty darn successful connecting with audiences in the same ways that stand-up comics do. “He knows how to make you laugh in a moment where you didn’t think you would.”
Conservative comics are finding an audience (and occasionally, bans) on platforms like YouTube, where niche audiences can mean viral success.
For years, pundits have theorized why there couldn’t be a conservative Daily Show. The thinking went that political comedy might just be inherently liberal, taking aim at people and institutions in power. But in a world where conservatives feel disenfranchised -- or that they're being unjustly canceled – they see a new kind of social power structure to skewer.
The success of Gutfeld! means that for comedy on the right, that’s a step up from where they were - which was nowhere.
Top Image: Fox