This week Manuel Roig-Franzia, a feature writer for Washington Post’s Style section, wrote what many are legitimately deriding as a “puff piece” on Fox News’ resident “humorist,” Greg Gutfeld. For 12 years Gutfeld headlined a comedic show titled Red Eye, which aired in the graveyard, 2 AM to 3 AM time slot during most of the week on Fox News channel. It earned him what Roig-Franzia characterizes as a “cultlike” devotion among his fanbase as well as a degree of respect among more liberal comedians. Since the election of Donald Trump, however (according to Roig-Franzia), Gutfeld has honed his material to conform to Trump’s incendiary brand of right-wing rhetoric, becoming “ a scorching critic of America’s racial reckoning following high-profile police shootings of Black men, and leaned harder into the Democrat-bashing that characterizes Fox News.”
It’s frankly difficult to tell if Roig-Franzia’s intent is to elevate Gutfeld by describing his work with such superlatives as a “high-energy combination of comic jabs,” or touting him as a “uniquely potent foe for the left.” But there seems to be a deliberate lack of awareness at work here, as demonstrated in uncritical paragraphs like this:
In Gutfeld’s America, President Biden is a doddering geezer. The mainstream media is essentially a house organ for the left. And the nation isn’t engaged in a necessary national conversation on race, and racial disparities in housing, health care and employment. Instead, he aims to persuade his audience that the nation is consumed by destructive and divisive “reverse racism” and an insidious campaign against Whites.
What Roig-Franzia fails to mention (but Media Matters points out) is that the above paragraph is simply a distillation of the entire Fox News agenda. There’s no daylight between the two at all—Gutfeld is simply another operative in Fox’s playbook.
In his eagerness to highlight Gutfeld’s appeal, Roig-Franzia also doesn’t acknowledge Gutfeld’s prior performance and past statements. As pointed out by Media Matters, these include the following:
We are a country of fighters, and we will do it again by February 1st. Because, you know what? We can. We’ve got the Second Amendment. We run this country. […]
Teachers unions have managed to take one of the most beloved occupations and redefined it as selfish and lazy. […]
[On Kyle Rittenhouse]:
He did the right thing. He did what the government should have done which was to make sure these dirtbags, these violent disgusting dirtbags, were not roaming the streets.
That is just a small taste of the mindset that informs Gutfeld’s “humor.” (He also dispenses vaccine disinformation).
But we are quickly informed—perhaps to reassure us?—that Gutfeld is a “punk-rock and metal fan” and advocates drug legalization, as if that somehow compensates for his abhorrent views. At the same time, we’re told that Gutfeld’s Fox News show, Gutfeld!, presents a “whirligig” of propaganda consistent with Fox News talking points, particularly its “relentless lampooning of woke culture” in which the word “racist” has become a punchline, and its adoring “sycophancy” toward Donald Trump. All of these have contributed, it is implied, to a resurgence of his show’s popularity and influence, particularly among youthful conservative viewers who liberals (we are warned) ignore “at their peril.”
It’s not my intent here to ignore Gutfeld—at my peril or otherwise—but to elaborate on something that Roig-Franzia barely touches on in what is for the most part a fawning account of Gutfeld’s emergence and popularity. It’s the insidious nature of comedy and humor when adapted to service and normalize a regime of exclusion and racism such as the one constantly exhibited by the modern Republican Party in this country.
Fascist and other right-wing attempts to co-opt humor have a long history. In the early years of WWII, the Nazis released a series of 14 film shorts called Tran und Helle (Tran and Helle) to accompany their newsreels. Tran was portrayed as a dimwitted fellow constantly falling into “bad” ways of thinking until he received a lecture from Helle setting him straight. Laced heavily with antisemitic, nationalist propaganda, these short films enjoyed broad popularity until about 1940 when the Nazis realized that the German populace was identifying with Tran and even approved of his actions. The films were quickly pulled from distribution by Goebbels after this was discovered.
A video of one of the Tran und Helle shorts is below:
Mobilizing hatred and resentment through the use of humor has also been attempted more recently by the political right. Employing black humor and so-called irony is one of the ways the white supremacist alt-right, for example, manages to soft-pedal the hatefulness of its views to new recruits; it’s often the only face that the outside world sees, at least at the outset. This has been described as a “troll culture” because its purpose is to provoke while allowing its proponents the glee of participating in an “inside joke” and instilling in them a sense of moral superiority. Often the humor is simply used as a cover for exposing the viewer/participant to radical ideologies.
In all honesty, Gutfeld’s brand of humor doesn’t even rise to this level of sophistication. It’s mostly a lowbrow, mean-spirited, distorted regurgitation of GOP talking points that seems weirdly prepackaged, an embarrassingly poor and puerile parody of what humor is supposed to be. But the fact that it is clearly made for ardent fans of Fox News and thus serves that network’s function as a political propaganda outlet for the Republican Party places Gutfeld! in a special category of humor. If in fact (as Roig-Franzia urges us in his Post article) liberals ignore it “at their peril,” then at the very least we ought to understand what it is we’re ignoring.
From June 1, 2021:
Last year, Pew reported that conservatives were far less likely to be diagnosed with mental health issues than those who identified as either liberal or very liberal.
The worst suffers white women aged 18 to 29, who were given a mental health diagnosis at a rate of 56.3 percent. That’s more than double moderates and conservatives. The first thing you learn from their surveys, there’s a lot of mental health issues out there. But you also can learn that from being on Tinder for a week. But it raises the question, do leftwing ideas cause mental health issues or do people with mental health issues gravitate towards left wing stuff?
From May 24, 2021:
It is — it is amazing how the mentally ill and this is the — I’m not laughing at this because I’ve been talking about this this problem in New York City and the thrive issue, the $800 million dollars that they can — they know when you’re — they — like it’s not safe on the subway. They look right at you. And then you go, oh, God, here it comes. Kat, you must be just — when you see all these drugstores closing this has to scare you.
Or from May 26, 2021:
Yes. I think that no — I think that we should allow the mystery of whether you’re vaccinated or not to permeate in restaurants because that will cause waiters to spend less time at each table because the spread is directly related to the amount of time you spend with somebody. It’s like 15 minutes leads to transmission or something like that. But if the waiter doesn’t know, Tyrus, then they have to take your order faster and move to the next table. So you actually increase the productivity of the restaurant help. What do you make of that? I keep up with that this morning in the shower.
The “punching down” quality of conservative humor is on full display here, with the targets being young liberal women, mentally ill people, and service workers (waitstaff), the latter whom Gutfeld suggests should be toyed with. (It’s notable that there’s an element of contempt almost always present in right-wing humor.) But more broadly, because both he and his show are inextricably associated with Fox News, Gutfeld provides us a window into exactly how the Republican Party feels about large swaths of the American population. He would not be on the air if he wasn’t articulating the Republican vision, one which, as observed by Erin Gloria Ryan writing in 2021 for the Daily Beast, most Americans simply don’t find to be very funny at all.
The second problem here is that the things that Gutfeld and other clapter-chasing conservatives assume their audiences will laugh at and agree with would be considered cruel and unfeeling by mainstream audiences. People make jokes from the “I’m a selfish asshole” perspective all the time, but they take the time to explain where they’re coming from in order to get their audience to buy into who they are. It would take a little work to bring all but the hardest of hardcore Fox audiences around to understand what the premises of many modern conservative “jokes” even are, but the Huckabees of the world do not see the need to do any work to explain their point of view, because they have no idea what people who don’t already agree with them actually think.
That lack of regard for their audience combined with a lack of self-awareness and empathy—as Ryan observes—is why right-wing humor hardly ever succeeds. But it may be even more fundamental than that: When all you have to offer is hatred, resentment, and ridicule, there’s really not much to laugh about.