January 25, 2022

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Greg Gutfeld has risen to the top at Fox News

NEW YORK – Greg Gutfeld is picking through a long, narrow closet. He wrenches a painting from the depth of the clutter. A painting of himself. That familiar arched right eyebrow. That sideways grin. But most important, a saggy, bloodshot left eye.

The caricature, which had served as decoration in a Fox News Channel green room, is an homage to his bygone show, “Red Eye.” It was a subversive, periodically hilarious, reliably sophomoric program he hosted from 2007 until 2015, airing variously at 2 a.m. or 3 a.m. on weekdays and 11 p.m. on Saturdays, on a most unlikely venue: Fox News Channel at its most self-righteous.

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Someone keeps taking down the painting from a spot on the wall between two unisex bathrooms and replacing it with a framed poster celebrating the 25th anniversary of the network in 2021. Gutfeld keeps sneaking it back up.

This little game – reminding everyone of a show he left years ago at the expense of something more corporate and institutional – delights the 57-year-old Fox News star. He considers himself the scamp in a still buttoned-up bastion of scolding conservatism – the disruptive court jester, the fool. “Red Eye” made him something of a cult figure, a performer with street cred in a heavily left-leaning New York comic scene.

Underground acclaim as a television comedic host has given way to more traditional right-wing fame as he’s become a superfan of former president Donald Trump, 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. After years on “The Five,” an ensemble show he co-hosts, he’s become even a bigger part of the dominant news network’s success as the host of a late-night comedy program that debuted in April – “Gutfeld!” Defying predictions, “Gutfeld!” is regularly generating higher ratings than more established late-night fare, such as “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” and “The Tonight Show starring Jimmy Fallon,” and has at times even topped “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.”

His combined viewership on the two programs – “The Five” and “Gutfeld!” – soared to an average of more than 5 million per day in the fourth quarter of 2021. It’s quite a feat for an edgy former men’s magazine editor who finds himself at a network populated by some of the biggest and most enduring figures in the conservative media pantheon.

Other marquee names at the network, such as Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson, may have a larger overall reach because of their presence on additional platforms, such as radio or the network’s streaming service. Still, in a matter of months Gutfeld’s new program has made him significantly more influential – well-positioned to aid the right-wing in amplifying its agenda going into the midterms and the next presidential election. His fidgety, high-energy combination of comic jabs, spliced with just enough analysis to be taken seriously by the faithful, makes him a uniquely potent foe for the left.

Far from mimicking the deadly serious voice of Fox News stalwarts, such as Hannity, Carlson and Laura Ingraham, “Gutfeld!,” which airs weeknights at 11 p.m. on the East Coast, is banging many of the same topics, but with an irreverent tone.

With each quip and each tick up in the ratings, he’s leading an incremental evolution to a slightly looser on-air vibe at Fox News as it celebrates its 20th straight year as the most watched cable news network this month. “When I join things, it’s not to become whatever they are – it’s so that maybe they become a little bit more like me,” Gutfeld says in an interview.

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.

He tempers the drumbeat with a tad bit of countervailing commentary, including his advocacy for drug legalization and ending the war on drugs.

“I have a lot more in common with liberals in terms of creativity, music and all that stuff – Republicans are always seen as staid and stodgy,” says Gutfeld, a punk-rock and metal fan who was delighted that he got splashed with blood not long ago at a performance by the heavy-metal monster band GWAR.

“Gutfeld!” spins out each weeknight like a whirligig of agreement and affirmation straight from the Fox News playbook, featuring four mostly like-minded panelists, including the network’s on-air personalities, as well as lesser-known conservative commentators. His live audience can find Gutfeld side-splittingly funny, but also is prone to reacting with awkward silences. After a recent clunker, a panelist can be heard off-camera saying, “Cue the laugh track.”

The rare panelist inclined to regularly push back against Gutfeld is Tyrus, a 6-foot-8-inch, 365-pound Republican actor and professional wrestler, who towers over the 5-foot-4-inch host. “He’s never asked me to share his vision,” Tyrus says in an interview.

Tyrus, who is African American, is a central figure in the show’s relentless lampooning of woke culture. He appears in regular skits as “The Angry Black Male” to mock activists who he and Gutfeld believe overuse and misuse assertions of racial inequities.

On the program, “racist” has become a punchline. On a recent show, Gutfeld held up a copy of “Fox & Friends” co-host Brian Kilmeade’s book, “The President and the Freedom Fighter: Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, and Their Battle to Save America’s Soul.” The cover features an image of Lincoln in the top left corner and Douglass in the bottom right.

“Look at this book. White man on the top, Black man on the bottom – racist!” Gutfeld said to the strait-laced Kilmeade. “You are a racist.”

What Eric Deggans, NPR’s television critic, sees at play in programs such as “Gutfeld!” is an effort to undermine the idea that there is systemic racism in this country.

“Some of the ways you push back against that is through humor,” says Deggans, an MSNBC contributor and author of the book, “Race Baiter: How the Media Wields Dangerous Words to Divide a Nation.” “You try to turn the term ‘woke’ into a joke and a pejorative.”

Gutfeld, a self-described libertarian, says he doesn’t remember how he’s registered. (He’s officially listed as no party or refuses to disclose.) He did not cast a ballot in the 2016 presidential election, according to New York voting records reviewed by The Washington Post. This came as a surprise to Gutfeld, who says he voted by mail – though he thinks it’s possible he missed the deadline. Gutfeld, who has been critical of mail-in balloting, says he wrote in the name of someone with whom he works but can’t remember who.

Gutfeld’s ascendance coincides with a 180-degree turn on Trump after the 2016 election. His spiel on Trump has blossomed into hyperbolic boosterism that borders on sycophancy. During a recent segment critical of Biden’s handling of the economy, Gutfeld declared that Trump “would have nuked the supply chain crisis like it was a hurricane.” The former president has described Gutfeld’s feelings toward him “as almost love.” Gutfeld prefers “admiration.”

“I made the mistake of getting wrapped up in [Trump’s] words, which is all you actually get when somebody is running for president – because they haven’t done the deed yet,” Gutfeld says. “So I became a hypocrite by becoming emotionally tethered to it – to the outrage over an obnoxious person.”

Gutfeld’s current show, which replaced an eponymous Saturday night program he’d hosted for several years, debuted to abominable reviews and social media ridicule. But he’s got much to brag about now, and – just in case anyone has missed his high ratings – to brag about again and again.

His show has registered a 23 percent increase in total viewers and a 25 percent jump in the coveted 18-49 age demographic since first airing in spring 2021, according to Nielsen figures provided by Fox News. The website Mediaite just named Gutfeld the 12th-most influential person in American media.

The silliness – he loves poop and flatulence jokes, and salts the program with low-production skits and Trumpian name-calling – is folded into surefire right-wing pleasers such as criticism of coronavirus vaccine mandates and mask requirements. Gutfeld is vaccinated. He asked Trump on-air recently to help persuade his wife, who is skeptical about vaccines, to get immunized. Gutfeld says he was trying to persuade viewers that Trump, whose supporters have been far less likely to get vaccinated, is unfairly portrayed by the media as anti-vaccine.

Therein lies the puzzle that is Greg Gutfeld. Is he merely the fool – or is he something larger? In the theater, “the fool often gets the best line,” he says.

“We’re past the point of pretending there are clean divisions between culture, politics, show business and political theater,” says Matt Sienkiewicz, a Boston College professor who is co-author of a forthcoming book, “That’s Not Funny: How the Right-Wing Makes Comedy Work for Them.”

Sienkiewicz’s co-author, Colorado State University associate professor Nick Marx, says they hope to issue a “warning” that conservative comedians are already a force in building a broader and younger coalition of true believers and converts, and that liberals ignore them at their peril.

Indeed, for years media observers have wondered when – or if – there might be a conservative version of Jon Stewart, who hosted the smash-hit “The Daily Show” on Comedy Central, a satirical news program that tended to skewer the right-wing.

For now, at least, they have a one-word answer: Gutfeld!

Lately, when Greg Gutfeld goes to bed – after the melatonin (“The dreams are insane,” he says), maybe a marijuana edible, probably a few glasses of wine – he’s been listening to science podcasts about the concept of simulation.

He describes his own experience of simulation – a concept that posits humans exist in an artificial world – as kind of like living in a video game, but kind of not.

“For someone with anxiety, to live your life as a video game does wonders. When I’m faced with plane delays, or traffic jams or bouts of nausea – to look at them as video game obstacles to overcome removes all the catastrophic thinking,” Gutfeld says one day via email. “And if you die, you just start over!”

He’d brought up simulation earlier during an interview at his mid-century modern lake house he shares with his wife, the Russian photo editor Elena Moussa, in the New York countryside. Between bouts of laughter, he wondered how he might be portrayed: “This man is insane.”

As he muses, Gutfeld leans back in a lounge chair wearing sweatpants with his back to the soaring glass walls that frame a breathtaking, wooded view. Gutfeld’s hair has gone salt-and-pepper. But sitting there, laughing at his own jokes, bobbing his legs up and down on the ottoman, slapping his thighs, he could pass, at a glance, for someone’s rambunctious kid back from college with a head swimming with ideas.

Naturally, somewhere in the mind-bending stream of Gutfeldian Logic, the conversation had for a few moments turned to – what else? – the Big Bang.

“The Big Bang says you have a beginning. What if, like, we’re okay with infinity, we understand infinity. But we never think that infinity goes backwards,” he muses. “So that would destroy the whole idea of creation . . . then you don’t need a creator because there is no creator. That’s the scary part about it!”

These are not the ideas Gutfeld was spoon-fed at Catholic school in the San Francisco suburb of San Mateo or as an altar boy. From an early age, he developed a facility for playing a part. “Like a rat getting its edible pellet I discovered that fake caring could reap rewards,” he wrote in his 2012 book, “The Joy of Hate: How to Triumph Over Whiners in the Age of Phony Outrage.”

Gutfeld’s transformation from phony liberal to libertarian meandered through his out-of-place college days at the ur-liberal bastion, the University of California at Berkeley, to a career as a health magazine writer and editor.

Once he wrote an article about getting dating advice from a charming leper in order to explore “alienation, rejection and isolation” after Gutfeld had gone through the breakup of a long relationship. As an editor, he commissioned a recurring feature written by a person with a terminal disease.

The demise of a year-long tenure at the top of Men’s Health was helped along by petulant insubordination and publishing a multi-page “Special Report” in September 2000 about the best and worst colleges for men – the worst were campuses that prided themselves on “tolerance and diversity” and supposedly demonized men. The vibe at Dartmouth College was that “every guy’s a rapist here,” the article said.

His time at the top of Stuff magazine imploded when he hired a group of dwarfs to accompany him to a conference session on hyping magazines.

“He just doesn’t want to get bored,” says his longtime friend, the science fiction writer Tony Daniel. “When he gets bored it’s a bad thing.”

“Hey, this is ‘Red Eye,’ a new show about politics, pop culture and macramé. The first thing we’re going to talk about – this is our first show – is porn.”

Thus began Greg Gutfeld’s career as a Fox News host in February 2007. Years later, in an anniversary episode, he said his new bosses “did not want us to start with porn. . . . Perhaps I might have been drunk.”

“I like the innuendo that I’m up to no good,” he says in an interview.

As a new host, he didn’t know how to read a teleprompter, but says he “ended up embracing the incompetence.”

The musician Adam Bomb lighted his guitar on fire on the show. They sent Bill Schulz, the show’s most pronounced left-leaning voice, to a bar with future Trump press secretary Kayleigh McEnany for a contest that involved holding a beer stein at arm’s length for as long as possible.

Gutfeld earned a reputation – not unheard of in the television world – for tempestuousness off camera, exploding at low- and high-ranking staffers.

“He’d have hissy fits over almost nothing . . . verbally eviscerate people,” one former Fox News staffer said, reflecting an atmosphere described by other current and former staffers, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss personnel issues. “Then, in some magical way, the next day he’d say something in such a way or crack a joke so that you’d almost kind of forget it – as would the bull’s eye of all the vitriol he was giving for no reason whatsoever. He’s a bully.” Gutfeld declined to comment.

There was a time, Daniel says, when Gutfeld “could be very frightening to people he didn’t like.” Gutfeld, Daniel says, “was surprised that people that were stupider than him had any power over him. But now that he’s made it, he’s forgiving everyone for being stupider.”

During his highly rated first seven months on the air, Gutfeld’s targets have been almost exclusively Democrats and liberals. In the interview with The Post, the comic gave a laughable answer when asked whether he’d make fun of Republicans and conservatives: “The problem is they’re not in the news right now. If you give me one, I’ll take it.” In fact, for weeks before the interview congressional Republicans had been in the news fighting Biden’s infrastructure proposals, and Texas Republicans were pushing the Supreme Court to uphold a restrictive abortion law.

Instead, he’s zeroed in on popular conservative topics, such as the case of Kyle Rittenhouse, who has become a gun rights hero on the right and an exemplar of out-of-control gun violence on the left. Rittenhouse was acquitted of using an assault rifle-style weapon to kill two men and wound another who he says he felt threatened by at violent demonstrations in Kenosha, Wis., following the police shooting of a Black man.

Rittenhouse, Gutfeld said on “The Five,” “did the right thing.”

The very first words spoken on “Gutfeld!” in its April 5, 2021, debut were not spoken by Gutfeld.

“I spent more time on my hands and knees picking through rugs, smoking anything that even remotely resembled crack cocaine,” Hunter Biden says in a CBS clip. “I probably smoke more Parmesan cheese than anyone that you know.”

Quick cut to Gutfeld: “Wow, that’s exactly how I got fired from Pizza Hut.”

Hunter Biden has offered Gutfeld no shortage of material, parlaying his famous name to sell his novice artwork, and earlier joining boards of companies in China and Ukraine with scant experiences in those businesses. What makes Gutfeld’s special relationship with the topic of Hunter Biden so, um, special is the host’s Olympian efforts to insert the president’s troubled son into segments on almost any topic, including the economy and polling numbers.

Actor Alec Baldwin holding the gun that killed a crew member on the set of a movie?

“Might as well put Hunter Biden in charge of the medicine cabinet.”

In Gutfeld’s world, there are countless racists among those who talk about systemic racism. He’s labeled as “racist” Hakeem Jefferson, a Stanford University professor, who is African American, for tweeting: “Make no mistake, this crazy opposition to mask-wearing that is leading folks (read white ppl) to act violently at school board meetings & council meetings & everywhere else-yeah, you can’t disconnect it from whiteness.”

In an email to The Post, Jefferson responded “that projection is a classic defense mechanism when one feels that some negative feature of the self is being exposed.”

Gutfeld was also irked by a viral TikTok post by Joy Reid, the African American MSNBC host, who used the term “White tears” to refer to Rittenhouse crying at his trial. Supporters have interpreted her remarks to reflect a view that American culture is more accepting of expressions of emotion and remorse from Whites than Blacks. Gutfeld asserts that Reid, who he has also labeled as “racist,” is engaged in “reverse racism.” (Reid declined an interview request.)

In his unending skewering of the mainstream media, Gutfeld finds it hilarious to body-shame Brian Stelter, the host of CNN’s “Reliable Sources” and author of “Hoax: Donald Trump, Fox News, and the Dangerous Distortion of Truth.” Stelter, who has written about his struggles to lose weight, declined to comment.

Once Gutfeld played a clip of Stelter saying he feared for the country’s and his young daughter’s future “given the craziness we’re seeing from the GOP.” Gutfeld’s rejoinder: He called the CNN host “Poppin’ Fresh,” the chubby ad character.

That was Monday.

By Wednesday, Gutfeld was back to Hunter Biden, saying he’d like to start a band called “Joe Biden’s Crackhead Son.”

On Thursday, Gutfeld loved a story about a TikTok prankster making millions fighting a retired boxing champ. “They’re making cash like strippers on Hunter Biden Night.”

On Friday, Gutfeld aired a skit imagining a weekly feature on CNN showing anchors apologizing for being involved in scandals. When it ended, Gutfeld was ready: He had something mean to say about Hunter Biden.

– – –

The Washington Post’s Alice Crites contributed to this report.

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