The Tucker Carlson Role Just Opened Up
The actor who played him for so many years is stepping down
Actor Winston Beefo has announced that he will no longer portray his beloved “Tucker Carlson” character, effective immediately. Beefo had portrayed Carlson across three decades, with the character evolving from a button-down conservative to a race-baiting populist in the mold of Archie Bunker. Fox News did not immediately announce plans to recast the role, though the blockbuster ratings for Perpetual Outrage Tonight with Tucker Carlson — consistently the highest-rated show on cable news — suggest that Fox will be hesitant to abandon the character.
I should probably be giddy about Carlson going off the air. He was a source of toxic divisiveness and batshit lunacy of the type that never leads to anything good. I often feel shadenfreude when shows get cancelled: I was happy when I Wanna Marry Harry got the boot and was downright tickled pink when Mindy Kaling’s Champions was sent to sitcom hell. So why don’t I feel the same glee when a truly malignant show gets the ax?
I think it’s because I’m sure that Tucker will be replaced by something similar. I’ve worked in media for a while now, and I know that people’s tastes drive media, not the other way around. Carlson didn’t invent conspiratorial, rage-based divisive politics — some people like that stuff, and Tucker Carlson simply tapped in to that audience. Media is a product, products have markets, and Carlson’s product served a particular market. And Fox News made five shit-tons of money by selling time to advertisers who presumably sold a lot of My Pillows and reverse home mortgages in turn.
If anyone ever doubted this reality, the texts from the Dominion suit should have put that doubt to rest. Those texts proved that — though Carlson is not, to my knowledge, played by an actor named Winston Beefo — he is playing a character on TV. Carlson doesn’t believe the bullshit he spouts, and neither do other Fox hosts. They omit aspects of reality that don’t match their viewers’ worldview, thus portraying a world that’s not reality at all. If you report on the Kentucky Derby and omit any mention of horses, racing, small men, or stupid hats because your audience finds those things objectionable, then you’re not actually reporting on the Kentucky Derby. Carlson et al only “report” on the world as their audience wishes it to be, and we now know that they’re keenly aware of the alignment between their shows’ content and their viewers’ preferences.
Carlson is far from the only media figure capable of performing that trick. Let’s remember that Carlson replaced Bill O’Reilly, whose brand of cranky Long Island conservatism was just about the worst things any liberal circa 2010 could imagine. When O’Reilly was forced out in 2017, the rejoicing across Liberal Land was akin to the interplanetary hootenanny at the end of Return of the Jedi (minus CGI Hayden Christensen). But nothing got better. O’Reilly stepped out, and Carlson stepped in — we traded one inflammatory asshole with an implausibly wide head for another.
I don’t mean to absolve people who make garbage media of responsibility — I don’t mean to shrug and say “What are you gonna do?” It would be better if everyone in news media portrayed the world as it is, ratings be damned. A media ecosystem in which entertainment trumps news creates a public that’s even more uninformed than we’re already inclined to be. And it’s not quite as simple as “people in media figure out what people want and then give it to them” — the relationship between a content producer and their audience is a positive feedback loop. Giving people whatever they want is great if you’re running a chain restaurant, but the ethical bar in media should be higher.
But I don’t expect much to change now that Carlson is out at Fox. They won’t replace him with something totally different, like Police Squad reruns or a new show hosted by Barbara Streisand. His time slot will go to a show that offers up the same brand of frothing-at-the-mouth right-wing vitriol, because there’s an audience for that. There’s a market, there’s money to be made, someone will figure it out.
Which isn’t to say that nothing can change. The opinions expressed in political media obviously do change with time; it wasn’t that long ago that “gay people should have to live in the woods” was a mainstream opinion. But I think that for the most part, public opinion changes first, and then media reflects that change; I think the extent to which media figures drive the conversation is limited. People will stop watching Tucker Carlson — both the literal Tucker Carlson and the idea of Tucker Carlson — when it’s considered embarrassing to watch an ethically malleable stuffed shirt yell your opinions back at you. Which it should be.
You know who I’d like to see Fox cast as Tucker Carlson? Richard Kind — I’m just always happy to see Richard Kind show up in anything. His politics probably aren’t similar to Carlson’s, but the guy’s just fun to watch. Stephen Tobolowsky is also great — there are so many good options! Maybe one of them has an itch to play a villain, because the Carlson character is a meaty, Tony Soprano-esque role. But if neither one of them takes the job, someone surely will, because — like it or not — there’s an audience for that show.