Why "Gutfeld!" is the Highest-Rated Political Comedy Show on Cable
It's not because it's good
Did you know about this?
It’s true: Gutfeld! — the Fox News comedy starring Greg Gutfeld that launched last year — is the highest-rated political comedy show on cable. And by a lot: It has twice as many viewers as the second-place show, three times as many as any other show, and more than four times as many viewers as The Daily Show, which was arguably the seminal show of the genre. And, as I’ll explain further down, in some ways, the gap is even more extreme. Gutfeld! is a legitimate force in the world of late night political comedy.
This is stunning to me. I’m a long-time late night comedy super-fan: I watched Letterman, Conan, and The Daily Show pretty much every night for twenty years. Then, I wrote for Last Week Tonight with John Oliver from 2014-2020. Now, I’ve left the genre, and in a development that I didn’t see coming, I don’t watch any late night shows. Maybe I’ve changed, maybe the shows have changed, I’m not really sure; I think it might be sort of like how I used to work at Wendy’s, and after I finally quit, I didn’t eat a hamburger for a year. At any rate, my sudden detachment from late night TV has only increased my fascination with it.
The ascendance of a conservative political comedy show is, to my mind, the most interesting thing that could have happened to the genre. For decades, people wondered why there wasn't a conservative Daily Show. Fox News actually attempted one in 2007 — anyone remember the 1/2 Hour News Hour? — and it flopped. I’ve been asked many times why there’s no conservative Daily Show; I always said that it has something to do with the fact that there aren’t many conservative comedians, and that the conservative worldview isn’t compatible with the subversive nature of comedy. Now, Gutfeld! has shoved those words pretty far up my ass. So, I’ve been very curious about what Gutfeld! is doing, whether it’s any good, and what it can tell us about the state of entertainment and politics.
Just how big of a phenomenon is Gutfeld!? Well, to take a bit of the shine off the penny: “Total viewers” is only one number that measures a show’s success. Another important data point is a show’s number “in the demographic”, meaning younger viewers. For advertising reasons, networks mostly care about young people; old people have bought everything that they’re ever going to buy except for a reverse mortgage and a funeral plot, so as far as Madison Avenue is concerned, old people can go straight to hell (and soon!). Networks often prefer the “demo” number, and so do I, because it measures 18-49 year-olds, so my 41 year-old ass gets lumped together with actual, legitimate young people. Yep…me, Zendaya, Chloe Kim, those BTS twinks — birds of a feather, we are! We should all hang out some time and talk about what it’s like being young. At any rate, the “demo” number brings Gutfeld! back down to Earth:
There are several ways that these numbers aren’t apples-to-apples, most of which I’ll pack into this footnote.1 But at least one difference needs to be discussed: In terms of quantity of output, Gutfeld! is Danielle Steel to everyone else’s J.D. Salinger. In the past six months, Gutfeld! has churned out — some would say “shat out” — an incredible 127 hour-long episodes! Those are Dickensian work house hours, and that’s barely even a metaphor: They worked through Christmas week, Bob Cratchit-style, while almost every other show took all of December off. In the same six month period, Full Frontal with Sam Bee produced 11 episodes featuring 22 minutes of content each; Desus & Mero was on exactly four times. In terms of minutes broadcast (so, not counting commercials), the numbers look like this:
That’s an absurd gap. But it’s important to make note of it if we’re less interested in the “how successful is Gutfeld! as a TV show?” question and more interested in the “how much of a cultural impact do these shows have?” question. To try to assess how much real estate these shows occupy in the collective American headspace, I’ve made a “minutes people have spent watching each show” number — which is total minutes aired times average viewers — and this is the ridiculous result:
A lot of what’s going on here is that Gutfeld! is retaining Fox News’ already-large audience. But they are retaining it; remember, Fox tried comedy 15 years ago, and failed. What’s working this time? Well, the trick seems to be that Gutfeld! is only sort-of comedy.
A typical episode of Gutfeld! contains about six to eight minutes of scripted comedy. That’s 30-40 minutes a week, well short of the roughly 60 minutes a week produced by the Jon Stewart-era Daily Show. Now: I had planned to not comment on the quality of the comedy. There’s an unwritten rule in comedy that you don’t go after other comedians for being unfunny. I think it’s a good rule, because comedy is subjective, so if we all started slamming each other for not being funny, comedy would turn into a cat fight fueled by professional jealousy (and it is already sort of that). But Greg Gutfeld shits on other comedians all the time; he did basically an entire segment calling Colbert unfunny. So, if he won’t adhere to the rule, then I won’t either: I have been to children’s funerals that are funnier than Gutfeld!
Gutfeld!’s scripted bits typically use the clip/joke format that Jon Stewart pioneered more than 20 years ago. Gutfeld!’s use of this form is neither innovative nor good; he’s overly-reliant on simile jokes, and he sometimes uses puns. The one belief I hold that I might literally be willing to go to war and die over is that puns are not funny. Puns are humor the way chocolate milk is jet fuel; comedians who use puns should be subject to torture unless we can think of something worse.
Gutfeld! also features brief cut-away sketches featuring what I assume are the writers. That’s too bad, because the acting weighs down the sometimes-kinda-okay writing. Probably my second-most-firmly-held belief is that writers should never act, and actors should never write. When actors write, you get The Brave and House of D; when writers act, you get all the incessant, crippling self-awareness and introspection that turned us into writers to begin with seeping through our pores and making the audience uncomfortable. If there was a bar exam to become a TV or movie producer, it should consist of one question, and that question should be: “Should you ever let an actor write or a writer act?” And the answer is fucking NO.
The one point I’ll make in Gutfeld!’s defense is that — as addressed on this newsletter before — I no longer like anything. I spent too many years in comedy ‘Nam, and I cracked up, and now the only thing I find funny is moonwalking cats (below). So, when I say “Gutfeld! isn’t funny,” please remember that my soul threw itself in front of a train during year three of the Trump presidency, and I now respond to comedy the way a tree responds to Beethoven.
Comedy aside, Gutfeld! has made one major innovation: They’ve solved the political comedy panel problem. That’s key, because panels are about 85 percent of the show — they make the show’s prodigious rate of output possible. Personally, I’ve never enjoyed panels; the panels on Bill Maher’s old Politically Incorrect show typically featured an unholy mix of brain-dead celebrities and unfunny think tank types. A Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations would make a solid point about NATO mission creep in the post-Soviet era, and then he’d be rebutted by the bass player from Hoobastank. Today, Maher’s “panels” are basically interviews with (usually) two people. A few years ago, The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore brought back five person panels, and they didn’t work. Panel shows are a thing — they’re huge in Britain — but other than Maher sometimes, they haven’t been a part of the American political comedy landscape.
Gutfeld!’s panels work for two reasons. The first is that they’ve found the right people. Instead of mixing lightweight comics and bland-as-plain-white-toast intellectuals the way Wilmore and Maher often did, everyone on Gutfeld! is in the politics-as-entertainment business. Some are comedians who know politics, while others are pundits with a working knowledge of humor, but all have the basic job description of “person who is professionally on TV”. They also don’t rotate them much, which is how they do it in Britain: If you watch five episodes of 8 Out of 10 Cats, then you’ve seen pretty much everyone who appears on 8 Out of 10 Cats. This allows a rapport to develop; the panelists know each other, and the viewers know them, too.
The second reason Gutfeld!’s panels work is that the content is light and conducive to comedy. Gutfeld! isn’t trying to inform its viewers or talk about the world in any substantial way; each segment is just a big, scattered pile of Republican talking points. A topic’s political valence is far more important than its real-world importance. Culture war items feature prominently; they’ll talk about some lefty nobody’s stupid tweet for 12 minutes. As bad as this is for America — shouldn’t the situation in Ukraine get more attention than a press release about M&Ms? — it makes for good TV. Gutfeld’s barely-structured discussions are breezy and ripe for comedy; it’s basically a sports talk show where everyone is rooting for the same team.
Of course, intellectual dishonesty flourishes in that type of environment. And so it does on Gutfeld!; it’s generally taken as given on the show that Biden is hopelessly senile and that the media relentlessly back him (did they see any of the coverage on Afghanistan?). Gutfeld isn’t anti-vaccine, but he frequently criticizes those who criticize the unvaccinated. A segment on the removal of a Teddy Roosevelt statue conspicuously omitted the fact that the Black and Native American figures next to Roosevelt were more the issue than TR himself. In a piece about Biden’s press conference, Gutfeld played a supercut of reporters’ questions and unironically asked: “Why are reporters so obsessed with Russia?” I dunno…might the 100,000 Russian troops on the Ukrainian border have something to do with it?
Gutfeld! certainly doesn’t do anything to dispel my belief that the Republican Party is intellectually brain dead. Of course, Gutfeld isn’t technically a Republican — his Wikipedia page says he’s a registered Libertarian — and several of his frequent guests identify as Libertarian. But that seems like splitting hairs; I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Fox News is a Republican network, and Gutfeld is carrying exactly the water the Republican Party would want him to carry. He’s teeing up the crime and “Democrats only care about wokeness” talking points that Republicans are going to run on in November. He hates Biden, is friendly to Trump, and thinks that Ron DeSantis walks on water. I don’t doubt that Gutfeld considers himself intellectually a libertarian, but I think it’s clear that his form of libertarianism fits comfortably within today’s Republican Party.
Does Gutfeld!’s success tell us anything about the state of TV political comedy? Yes, I think it does: I think it confirms that the comedy-to-politics ratio that people expect has shifted. The 1/2 Hour News Hour, like the Daily Show of its era, was about 70 percent comedy, 30 percent politics. Gutfeld! roughly inverts that ratio; it’s about 70 percent politics. The jokes and lighthearted vibe give it a different flavor than the six hours of opinion TV that come before it, but it’s of the same genus.
Does Gutfeld! tell us anything about the state of American politics? Yes, I think it provides evidence for two trends that were already pretty clear. The first is that libertarianism has displaced religious conservativism as the primary strand of conservatism in the Republican Party. The second is that the left has become culturally dominant. The Daily Show of the George W. Bush era worked largely because Stewart got to be the cheeky upstart giving the finger to the stuffy old guard. This, as I’ve written before, is the natural state of comedy. But today, “the system” — the President, corporations (or at least their PR departments), and most of the media (including entertainment) — tilts to the left, which puts left-leaning comedians in a strange spot. We are the system now! Furthermore, much of the zealotry that used to characterize the right and makes for great comedy fodder has migrated to the left. In today's environment, a right-leaning comedian can claim the mantle of rebellious truth-teller pushing back against “the man”. And that’s basically what Gutfeld — a punk rock fan who supports legalized drugs — is doing.
I didn’t talk about network shows in this piece because they’re different animals — different reach, different focus, different time slots — but there are nights when Gutfeld! gets more viewers than any of them. Mediate just named Gutfeld the 12th most influential person in news. Gutfeld! is here to stay; the show’s numbers are steady and its formula is replicable. In the end, I don't think that my explanation for why there wasn't a conservative Daily Show was really wrong; I just failed to recognize that what's considered “subversive” changes over time. And apparently, the time for a conservative political comedy show has arrived.
There are several factors extraneous to a show’s popularity that affect its ratings. The first is time slot: Earlier is better. The second is lead-ins, which matter a lot — at “Last Week Tonight”, our ratings would almost double during weeks when “Game of Thrones” was on. The third is “other viewing methods” — the numbers I had access to don’t capture DVR or streaming views, which tend to be larger for shows with younger audiences. The fourth is network; when a network is doing well, a rising tide lifts all boats, and obviously fewer people have pay cable than standard cable.
And, in case you were curious, I couldn’t include The Problem with Jon Stewart or The Amber Ruffin Show in this because they’re streaming-only, so no numbers are available.