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The first thing you notice about Gutfeld!, Greg Gutfeld’s ratings-gobbling, Colbert-battling, have-some-of-that-Don-Lemon phenomenon of a late-night political-satirical talk show on Fox News, is the silences. The pockets of dead air. Gutfeld cracks a joke, one of his reliably and knowingly terrible jokes, and you hear not well-fed mirth but crickets, tumbleweeds, a nightclub vacuum: maybe a few reluctant yuks from his guests, maybe a whoop or a groan from some hollow depth beyond the set. It’s as if he’s bombing on his own show.

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You notice this, of course, because like me you’re a simpering liberal reared on toothless consensus comedy. We’re used to The Daily Show With Trevor Noah and Last Week Tonight With John Oliver, where a one-liner about Ted Cruz’s facial hair will be bathed in eager applause. Clapping as ideology, tier upon tier of it, an orgy of herd affirmation.

Not for Gutfeld. His gags die of exposure, they perish proudly in a frisson of awfulness, while Gutfeld, very charming, gleams and grins and does heavy work with his eyebrows.

Because it is currently one of the most popular late-night shows on television—it regularly beats Jimmy Kimmel Live and The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon in the ratings and has even, on occasion, supplanted The Late Show With Stephen Colbert—I watched Gutfeld! for a week, growing more and more fascinated as the days went by. Here’s Gutfeld on Monday. “Hope you had a great weekend,” he says. “I know I did.” A jovial leer into the camera. “Although the last thing I remember was Larry Kudlow putting on the leather mask …” Cue a split screen with Kudlow, Donald Trump’s former economic adviser and one of Monday’s guests, cackling and rocking creakily in his chair. What?! What is happening?

It had to happen: a fizzy late-night space where the pieties of all the other late-night spaces are inverted.

But this is the Gutfeld vibe, and you must get used to it. He’s not a blow-dried Fox News supervillain like Hannity or Carlson; he’s crass and hacky-on-purpose, with a deplorable private life. That’s the conceit, at any rate. Now he’s steaming into his monologue, castigating Joe Biden for his confused/confusing statements about Vladimir Putin. “For us,” booms Gutfeld in his beefed-up, semi-ironic WrestleMania voice, “toppling regimes has worked out about as well as dating a stripper. At least for the people I dated when I was stripping.” See what I mean?

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It’s post-Trump, all of this, in the sense that Trump—the worst stand-up comedian in the world, with the world’s weirdest timing—introduced into the culture a tremendous uncertainty about what was actually funny. And it had to happen, didn’t it: a fizzy late-night space where the pieties of all the other fizzy late-night spaces are inverted, where the jokes are not about Trump being orange but about Joe Biden being senile, where the lost gospel is not the Mueller report but Hunter Biden’s laptop.

Gutfeld, though, is not just Seth Meyers through the looking glass. The writing on Gutfeld! is clunkier and more hostile, and the riffs meaner, because he’s got a job to do for Fox News. “When I was a kid, I had a dog named Chipper … And whenever the dog got out, you’d think it would run to the park to pee or poop—you know, like vagrants in Democrat-run cities. But no, it always ran up the street towards the traffic.” He’s making (tortuously) some point about liberals, but Jesus Christ—vagrants in Democrat-run cities, peeing and pooping in the park? Nowhere in the universe is that funny. But it’s good for some of that flickering, snickering Trumpian anti-laughter.

Gutfeld, who was once the editor in chief of Men’s Health and spent long years on Fox’s graveyard-shift talk show Red Eye, is a proud metalhead. On the back of the clipboard holding his show notes you can see the skull icon of horror-punks the Misfits. He has a friend (he mentions on Tuesday) called Buzzo—that’s King Buzzo, of absurdist crunch gods the Melvins. This is important, because a love of metal gives you a sophisticated relationship with bombast. And a sophisticated relationship with bombast is what Gutfeld—or the character he plays on TV—is all about. He’s serious/unserious, loud/empty, doing end runs around his own personality: “I’m never morally outraged,” he says, “because I’m so disgusting.”

black and white illustration of comedy/tragedy masks with comedy mask replaced by Gutfeld's face on red backgroundIllustration by Gabriela Pesqueira. Sources: Bagi1998 / Getty; Omar Vega / Getty.

Once Gutfeld has wrapped up his always-appalling monologue, once the guests start talking and opining and being guests on a late-night talk show, the atmosphere shifts. Gutfeld is a great host. Now we’re having fun. Now we’re learning something. Did you know that Eric Trump has views on the state of American cinema? Could you have guessed that they involve slagging off lefty celebrities and complaining about Hollywood’s obsession with representation? Maybe you could. “They don’t make good stuff anymore!” says Trump on Tuesday. “I mean, go back 10 years, with Saving Private Ryan and Gladiator, and, you know, these great movies—” “Only white people!” Gutfeld yells in mock outrage, and then grins his expensive, fiendish, but strangely vulnerable grin.

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Along with Gutfeld himself, two of the show’s regulars are the libertarian podcaster Kat Timpf, who wears lethal-looking high heels and gamely fields a lot of Gutfeldian banter, and Tyrus, a National Wrestling Alliance champion who sits there in a backward baseball cap with his championship belt slung over his left shoulder, petting it with a huge, tattooed hand. They are both excellent panelists, very watchable. Tyrus’s pronouncements in particular have a trenchant, last-word quality, even when they don’t 100 percent make sense.

In the counterworld of Gutfeld!, there is no eclipse of the republic, no fascist sludge on the rise, no QAnon nibbling at the roots of reason.

The guests are mostly Trumpers and renegades, all in bubbly late-night mode. On Friday, Piers Morgan points out the hypocrisy of vegans who drink almond milk, because the process of growing almonds is injurious to the bee population. Why, the panel muses, should bees be less important than cows? “We assign consciousness to size. So we assume that bees don’t think,” says the whimsical Gutfeld. “But they have their own little thoughts.” “Of course they do, yes,” says Kayleigh McEnany, Trump’s former press secretary. “Like Jim Acosta. He has his own thoughts.”

I do appreciate the doggerel: the vigorously crude rhyming couplets with which Gutfeld tees up a new segment. “Is Will Smith in Oscar disgrace / Because he left his fresh prints on Chris Rock’s face?” Or—my favorite, introducing McEnany—“When she was behind the podium / The media needed Imodium!” And the in-house Biden impressionist—Tom Shillue, who speaks in hoarse, nonsensical reams of Biden-bluster while his head, seemingly via some special effect, throbs at the edges like a stubbed toe—is very good.

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But a week of Gutfeld! wore me out, in the end, because the messaging is bloody relentless. “Hey there, my friendly Friday friends! So how do you know when you’re living in a delusion? I mean, other than Joe Biden thinking he’s president. I mean when people suddenly believe something is happening when it really isn’t.” In the counterworld of Gutfeld!, there is no eclipse of the republic, no fascist sludge on the rise, no QAnon nibbling at the roots of reason, and barely any racism—or at least not as much as everybody says there is. There are only regular, Gladiator-loving, cow-eating Americans, and the venomous wokery that seeks constantly to bum them out. “The left in this country,” says Gutfeld, “is like that mentally ill homeless guy screaming at someone on the sidewalk, but there’s actually nobody there.”

Is Gutfeld! a completely cynical operation? It would be cynical to say so. The Gutfelders love saying naughty, unliberal things; they kick with energy against the smothering jargon of the left; and they enjoy, contagiously, one another’s company. But there’s a hard sell going on here. That new Parental Rights in Education law, for example, down in Ron DeSantis’s Florida—it’s not anti-gay. No, no, no. It’s not even controversial. “Like my extra nipples,” says Gutfeld, “the bill seems pretty benign to me.”

So get with the program. As Jello Biafra, punk-rock gadfly, put it back in 1987: “Do not attempt to think, or depression may occur.” Don’t be a scold, don’t be a moaner, don’t be a finger-wagging elitist, don’t be an eco-bore, don’t be a mentally ill homeless guy. Relax, and hang with Gutfeld!, where comedy goes to die.

This article appears in the June 2022 print edition with the headline “Fox News Does Late Night.”

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