Each weeknight, Fox News Channel’s primetime opinion hosts seek to own the libs. Greg Gutfeld says he wants to own some laughs.
In an unorthodox maneuver, executives at the Fox Corp.-owned cable-news outlet will explore whether jokes and satire can capture a crowd after 11 p.m. with “Gutfeld!,” which debuts Monday night. Fox is the latest in the media industry to try and blend news and comedy into a hybrid it hopes will sell.
“Human beings aren’t always 100% funny or 100% serious,” says Gutfeld in an interview, suggesting he has leeway to test concepts that Fox News viewers don’t usually see on weeknights (his show will replace Shannon Bream’s “Fox News @ Night,” which moves to midnight). He has been honing his craft on Saturday nights, where he has led “The Greg Gutfeld Show,” another program that aims for fans of late-night styles and that Fox News says generates a substantial audience. Among the sketches presented there: a spoof ad for “Demotrex,” which promised a cure for “Democrats who over-promise and under-deliver.”
Expect more, says Gutfeld: “We are going to do some weird things.”
Fox News launches “Gutfeld!” after this evening’s primetime opinion programs, giving the longtime panelist on “The Five” another non-traditional step in a career that is full of them. He parlayed a stint as a flashy editor at Men’s Health and Stuff into “Red Eye,” an overnight Fox News Channel program he once described as being “put together like a drunk would put together a sandwich at 3 A.M. – whatever is in the fridge.” He joined “The Five,” one of Fox News’ most durable hours, in 2011.
“It has always been about packaging — taking something boring and making it interesting, finding something mundane and finding the truth,” says Gutfeld. “That has followed me all along.”
Fox News executives want people to compare Gutfeld to the late-night options already standing in his new hour: Comedy Central’s “Daily Show,” TBS’ “Conan,” ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” NBC’s “Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” and CBS’ “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert.” Fox even went so far as to buy up local commercials for “Gutfeld!” on TV stations and cable systems that run those programs, and put up a billboard for the show on Hollywood Boulevard in proximity to the theater where Kimmel tapes his show. Of course, Gutfeld will also square off with more traditional 11 p.m. rivals, like CNN’s Don Lemon and MSNBC’s Brian Williams — and may be judged more seriously on how his show performs against them.
“After watching the late night programs on broadcast networks, especially over the last few years, it is easy to see they are all battling for the same audience with the same viewpoints and completely alienating a large swath of the nation,” says Meade Cooper, Fox News’ executive vice president of primetime programing, in response to questions submitted by email. “It makes sense for us to enter this space to give late night viewers who feel underrepresented a place they can laugh at night without feeling they are getting laughed at.” Executives believe the show will “complement” the opinion programs from Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham that precede it each weeknight, she adds. “We think ‘Gutfeld!’ will be something our viewers and Greg’s fans can enjoy as well as something those who have felt alienated from the current late night landscape can test out — even if they aren’t regular Fox News viewers.”
Fox News has in recent months tested a range of programing topics that are less directly tied to the conservative politics that are the network’s meat and potatoes. In November, the network ran a weekend sports special led by sports journalist Jim Gray. Its Fox Nation streaming service has bolstered programing centered around real estate, cooking and true-crime.
Still, comedy hasn’t been easy for the nation’s news divisions. CNN enlisted comedian D.L. Hughley in 2008 and 2009 for a weekend program, “D.L. Hughley Breaks The News,” that proved short-lived. Fox News in 2007 launched a satirical newscast called “The ½ Hour News Hour,” that was produced by Joel Surnow, the creator of the hit drama series “24,” and included contributions from comedian Dennis Miller. It also didn’t last long.
But comedic news, for lack of a better term, is a sustaining presence in the entertainment world. It has fueled “The Daily Show” on Comedy Central and the “Weekend Update” segment on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” for decades. HBO has two different programs, Bill Maher’s “Real Time” and John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight,” devoted to the format. WarnerMedia’s TBS recently extended Samantha Bee’s once-a-week program, “Full Frontal,” for another season.
The genre has growing appeal — not always because people want to laugh at the headlines. “As trust in news plummeted over the past half century and media outlets multiplied, the boundaries between news and entertainment programming eroded,” says Dannagal Young, an associate professor of communication at the University of Delaware who studies political satire. “And with a polarized electorate perceiving bias in the most ‘neutral’ news stories, a demand for creative, belief-confirming quasi-political content has grown. This explains both the explosion in the political satire genre on the left and the explosion in the political opinion talk genre on the right.”
Fox News and Gutfeld may face some challenges. “There is not a lot of indication that hardcore conservatives get a lot of pleasure from satire, certainly not in the form in which it has been practiced,” says Geoffrey Baym, a media studies professor at Philadelphia’s Temple University who is the author of “From Cronkite to Colbert: The Evolution of Broadcast News.” Still, he adds: “In fairness, most of the satirists are decidedly left-leaning.” Gutfeld can’t be easily pinned down, says Cooper, the Fox News executive. “Just like you can’t pigeonhole Greg to a particular political party, you can’t determine which type of humor he embraces the most.” Late-night aficionados will likely want to see whether his range of targets extends from the current Fox News bête noires (think President Joe Biden, officials in his administration and so-called “cancel culture”) to other newsy possibilities like the scandal that enmeshes Republican Florida Representative Matt Gaetz.
Gutfeld, who will do his show in front of a small live audience adhering to coronavirus protocols, knows he has something on his side: He’s not starting something from scratch.
Viewers “already know me on ‘The Five.’ They already know what they are going to get when they are coming to this show,” he says. “The viewers have a relationship with me where they know what to expect from me.”
Each weeknight, Gutfeld will tilt at daily headlines, with the help of newsmakers and Fox News personalities, but also comedians. Tom Shillue, a comic who has hosted “Red Eye,” will contribute, as will Joe DeVito and Joe Machi,, who have appeared on Comedy Central. Gutfeld says he is likely to poke fun at targets that could include President Joe Biden, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki and U.S. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff.
The host says he’s mindful of his role and his words. He pledges not to go after wide groups of people, saving his barbs for individuals in the news cycle. “Don’t punch down” is a maxim he says he follows. And, he says, he checks his humor: “Is this a cheap shot? Is it necessary? And is it surprising, is it different? That’s the driving force.”
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