August 19, 2022 - 10:36am

For now, Fox News Channel host Greg Gutfeld stands alone as the undisputed king of American late-night television. His show Gutfeld! lapped the field last week, outdrawing nearest competitor Stephen Colbert by 2.355 million viewers to 2.143 — and nearly doubling the numbers posted by NBC’s The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon (1.318 million viewers) and ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel Live! (1.084 million viewers). Not only that, but Gutfeld! also led all three competitors in the coveted “adults aged 25-54” demographic. In the midst a late-night landscape littered with lame Donald Trump jokes and garish vaccine pandering, how on earth is Gutfeld — marooned as he is on a partisan cable news network — outdrawing the highly-paid clowns on the major networks?

The phrasing of that question suggests part of the answer. Gutfeld, a University of California-Berkeley grad who moved from a career in the publishing industry to the late-late night Fox News show Red Eye in 2007, has never been quite in sync with loudmouthed, moralizing colleagues such as Sean Hannity or Glenn Beck. He is, rather, someone who “became a conservative by being around liberals” and a “a libertarian by being around conservatives”, he told Reason in 2009. “The worst part of each of them is the moralizing” — a sentiment with which many of us would surely agree.

Owing to its 2:00 a.m. time slot, Red Eye did things few shows on Fox News — or any major cable channel — would ever do, such as repeatedly inviting Mark Prindle, the socially awkward, chrome-domed king of bizarro 1990s web-based music critics, to comment on the latest in pop culture. There was something about Gutfeld’s persona — smarmy, slightly right-of-center hipster — that recalled the epically apolitical David Letterman of the host’s NBC years, before his epic CBS meltdowns when debating the likes of Bill O’Reilly, and bearded, arch-liberal Netflix phase, rendered him extremely uncool.

While Gutfeld has had his occasional controversies, they’ve usually been along the lines of something that contrarian liberal Bill Maher might do, like joking about wanting to build a Muslim-friendly gay bar near the Ground Zero mosque. By the time Gutfeld launched Gutfeld! on Saturday nights in 2015, he was already a fixture on Fox News and the author of best-selling books such as The Bible of Unspeakable Truths and The Joy of Hate. When the program moved to weeknights in March 2021, he was primed to start shooting fish in a barrel. Colbert, Kimmel, and Fallon, whose earlier careers were all considerably more eclectic and heterodox, have converged on the generic anti-Trump, believe-the-science liberalism, with which Saturday Night Live has sustained itself for the past half-decade. 

Even if there were five or six million potential viewers for such material, three shows were vying for that audience (and some of the political audience have surely grown weary of the clichéd sameness of the material). Gutfeld, meanwhile, had a more or less captive audience waiting for him, with two million viewers — 400,000 of them in the “key demographic” — receptive to hearing anything else, anything at all. The cornball consensus that unites the three network television late shows has led to numerous risible moments, like Colbert’s ridiculous “vax-scene” sketch — insufferable, paint-by-numbers propaganda so lacking in redeeming artistic value as to alienate even those who dutifully received their vaccinations.

At the end of the day, the audience drawn by Gutfeld’s competition just about doubles his own. But the golden age of late night —and perhaps even of comedy — connecting all elements of society is long over, replaced by a scolding, take-your-medicine popular culture that likely retains a large, vestigial audience simply because it’s there and because watching it is what one still does. Gutfeld, by comparison, offers “a choice, not an echo” in the marketplace of ideas. To watch him in 2022 is, if nothing else, a very different act of resistance than the #resistance peddled by an increasingly mainstream monoculture from which there are otherwise few avenues of escape.

Oliver Bateman is a historian and journalist based in Pittsburgh. He blogs, vlogs, and podcasts at his Substack, Oliver Bateman Does the Work