…the New Yorker finally notices Greg Gutfeld’s Red Eye, an often hilarious send-up of talking-heads news shows, a show where the guests are regularly insulted by the host and the participants admit they don’t know what they’re talking about.
Last month, Jon Stewart declared that he would be leaving “The Daily Show,” after sixteen years. One of many writers who paid him tribute was Oliver Morrison, in The Atlantic, who used the opportunity toconsider the relationship between comedy and ideology. Stewart’s former colleague, Stephen Colbert, once joked that “reality has a well-known liberal bias.” Morrison wondered whether political satire, too, might have a liberal bias. He noted that liberal humor would live on, thanks to programs such as “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver,” on HBO. But he couldn’t identify an equivalent tradition on the other side of the political spectrum. “Why,” he asked, “hasn’t a conservativeDaily Show found its own place on Fox?”
It wasn’t clear whether Morrison meant to refer to the Fox Broadcasting Company, which isn’t known for politics, or to Fox News, which isn’t known for comedy. (Why couldn’t a conservative comedy show air on Comedy Central, the ostensibly nonpartisan network that broadcasts “The Daily Show”?) But for more than eight years, Fox News has been broadcasting a 3 A.M. program called “Red Eye,” an odd and often funny late-night show that is not exactly satire, and not exactly anything else, either. Its sensibility is snarky and surreal, thanks to its host, Greg Gutfeld, a former magazine editor who adopts a tone of half-sarcastic alarm, as if he can’t decide which is more annoying: the politician he is talking about, or the fact that he has to talk about politicians. It sounds like faint praise to call “Red Eye” the funniest and most unpredictable program on cable news, but that’s what it is—or, rather, that’s what it was.
Last week, Gutfeld announced that he, like Stewart, would be leaving late night—in his case, to develop a new weekend program for Fox News. (“Red Eye” will continue, with a different host.) In his article, Morrison discussed Gutfeld in a dismissive paragraph, judging that his humor was often “hackneyed,” and “far . . . from working in prime time.” In fact, Gutfeld is a familiar presence on the network’s two highest-rated programs: he is a regular member of the panel on “The Five,” an afternoon talk show, and a guest and occasional guest host for Bill O’Reilly, at eight. Somehow, Gutfeld—the proprietor of a program whose continued existence once seemed like both a secret and a mystery—has become one of the most prominent faces on Fox News.
From the beginning, “Red Eye” was cheerfully repetitive, finding humor in a series of running gags. Gutfeld liked to introduce guests with absurd, sexually suggestive hypotheticals that were meant to be flattering. (On Greg Proops, the comedian: “If hilarity were a telethon, I’d do him in front of a bunch of sick kids.”) For a time, Andy Levy served as the show’s pesky “ombudsman,” delivering persnickety or off-topic corrections during a “halftime report” in the middle of the show. “You said we need to weaponize space,” Levy told Gutfeld, one night, deadpan. “Actually, the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 prohibits the U.S. or any other signatory nation from installing any kind of nukes or weapons of mass destruction in space, and limits the use of the moon and other celestial bodies to purely peaceful reasons.”
Sometimes, Gutfeld tweaked cable-news conventions, as when he purported to address banking reform by convening a sixteen-person panel of experts, including familiar Fox News personalities such as John Bolton, and markedly unfamiliar ones, such as Rosie O’Donnell. As he introduced them, they appeared (or seemed to appear) live, forming a four-by-four matrix of pundit redundancy—by which point it was time, of course, for Gutfeld to thank them all, by name, and then end the segment. Other times, the show came joyfully unmoored from those conventions, as when Levy, throwing the broadcast back to Gutfeld, suddenly began quoting “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”:
GUTFELD: Thank you, Andy.
LEVY: Get you gone, you dwarf; you minimus, of hindering knot-grass made; you bead, you acorn. Greg.
GUTFELD: Why rebuke you him that loves you so?
LEVY: I apologize for nothing.
This last line was Levy’s catchphrase, and it also served as a constant reminder of the time, in 2009, when Gutfeld was obliged to apologize to the Canadian military, after a particularly irreverent discussion. The head of the Canadian land forces had said that the Army might need “a short operational break” lasting “at least one year” following its engagement in Afghanistan. Gutfeld hadwondered whether this might not be “the perfect time to invade this ridiculous country,” adding, “The Canadian military wants to take a breather, to do some yoga, paint landscapes, run on the beach in gorgeous white Capri pants.” Gutfeld probably regretted offending Canadian troops and their family members, but he was probably also pleased that his biggest scandal involved the phrase “gorgeous white Capri pants.”
For all his seeming clumsiness, Gutfeld had a remarkable knack for saying ridiculous things without getting himself fired. (When one guest, a musician, set his electric guitar ablaze, Gutfeld was afraid that he might face punishment; he concluded, when no punishment came, that none of the executives stayed up late enough to watch his show.) On Friday night, during his final broadcast, he revisited some favorite old segments, including an excellent clip of Mick Foley, the former professional wrestler, mistaking Chris Barron, a co-founder of the gay conservative group GOProud, for Chris Barron, the lead singer of the Spin Doctors. (“I looked you up, man,” said Foley, sounding embarrassed but also disappointed—he had prepared a zinger about “Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong.”) “I dare you to find one boring moment,” Gutfeld said, sounding uncharacteristically earnest. “Excluding this one.”
During that final broadcast, Gutfeld also paid fond tribute to one of his favorite guests: Dave Brockie, (slightly) better known as Oderus Urungus, the lead singer of the costumed metal band Gwar, who was named the program’s Interplanetary Correspondent. He appeared in his usual alien-Viking-burn-victim outfit, dispensing jolly but coarse commentary on matters having nothing to do with the issues of the day. In one episode, Gutfeld accused him of harboring anti-Earth bias. “Oh, I despise it—but I love it at the same time,” Oderus said. “See, Earth is the only place in the galaxy that has crack.”
Gutfeld remembered the time he told Brockie that “Red Eye” would have to remain Oderus-free for a few weeks: “I said, ‘Look, because of what you did at one of your shows, I’m getting a lot of letters. Can I just not have you on for, like, a month or six weeks, and then people will just forget, and I’ll have you back on?’” Gutfeld didn’t specify what Gwar had done wrong, but he might have been referring to the fact that the band had pretended to disembowel Sarah Palin. Brockie took the news calmly, but then announced, on Twitter, that Palin had gotten him “canned.” Later, in an online interview, Brockie talked about his tenure on Gutfeld’s show. “It was a nauseating gig, anyway” he said. “But I did it, because it’s Oderus in front of twenty million people every night.”
No doubt Gutfeld would beg to differ. He might concede that his “Red Eye” was often “nauseating”—not to mention inane, ramshackle, mindlessly sarcastic, sneakily smart, patently absurd, and generally refreshing. But he would be quick to point out that the show never had anything like twenty million viewers. Last month, for instance, “Red Eye” was watched by an average of three hundred and thirty-nine thousand insomniacs, including a hundred and thirty-seven thousand in the key demographic of viewers between twenty-five and fifty-four years old. For a program broadcast at three in the morning, though, that’s an impressive feat: by comparison, Chris Hayes, the 8 P.M. host on MSNBC, attracted only a hundred and eleven thousand viewers in that demographic.
The central insight of “Red Eye” was its contention that cable news is driven as much by the demands of time as by the demands of ideology. Every show, every day, is another hour that must be filled with chatter, no matter the quantity or quality of the day’s news. And while conventional cable news shows work hard to maintain a tone of urgency, “Red Eye” was often unapologetically slack: the joke was that Gutfeld and his guests had nothing better to do—and neither, apparently, did you, the viewer. With any luck, he will continue to bring that puncturing sensibility to the rest of the network. In the meantime, it’s worth pausing to give him credit for creating a show so ridiculous that it could make everything around it seem ridiculous, too. After Gutfeld’s final “Red Eye” broadcast, in the small hours of Saturday morning, the network cut to commercial, and then moved swiftly to the next show: a rebroadcast of that evening’s “Kelly File,” with Shannon Bream as the guest host. She began with a breathless monologue: “Breaking tonight! The first big test for the 2016 Presidential hopefuls is under way! Already some contenders are rising to the top, while others are seeing their political dreams”—a theatrical pause—“slip away.” Surely some “Red Eye” fans, too lazy to change the channel, were still watching, waiting in vain for the punchline.