Greg Gutfeld, 2022 AmericaFest
Greg Gutfeld speaking with attendees at the 2022 AmericaFest at the Phoenix Convention Center in Phoenix, AZ, on December 18, 2022. Photo credit: Gage Skidmore / Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Do they even know what a joke is?

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Recently, watching Jimmy Kimmel interview “My Pillow Guy” Mike Lindell in a claw machine (Lindell was in the machine, Kimmel was at his desk), I worried that the popular talk show host was giving the right-wing nut too much of a platform.

Mike Lindell in a claw machine is very funny, but even crowded among the plush toys, he still managed to spread falsehoods about alleged “voting machine irregularities” during the 2020 presidential election.

To his credit, Lindell, though deadly serious about his crackpot conspiracies, seems to have a sense of humor about himself. But he shares Trump’s unseemly urgency to get on television at any cost.

Kimmel feeds this urge, regularly referencing Lindell in his monologues and quoting liberally from Trump’s social media texts, squeezing humor out of the lead insurrectionist’s stream-of-conscious rants. The late-night audience eats it up, and admittedly it’s often funny stuff, but it’s a choice in marked contrast to Stephen Colbert, who refuses to even utter Trump’s name on his show, referring to him as “the former president,” and in graphics replacing his name with asterisks.

I understand the concept, and it may frustrate former President Donald Trump’s fragile ego, but it’s an odd decision. In the UK, during the Thatcher and Major years, the government refused to allow the voices of Irish Republican Army members to be heard on the BBC, forcing the broadcaster to replace the real voices with actors’ voices, thus getting their message across while showing how ridiculous the government’s ban was. (It was eventually dropped.)

Colbert’s embargo on Trump’s name strikes me as similarly coy, but I suspect he wouldn’t have Mike Lindell on his show for the same reason I questioned Kimmel’s invitation.

I can remember when evening talk show hosts were loath to wade into politics of any kind; it was the rare Johnny Carson joke that even mentioned the president (and over 30 years he had several presidents, of both parties, to choose from). But now the evening talk shows are mostly a liberal safety zone, with the hosts reliably pro-Democrat, or at least anti-Republican.

This means the country is bifurcated by comedy, just as it is by almost everything else. But are Republicans even getting their fair share?

In a word (well, four words and a hyphen): What is right-wing comedy? Does it even exist?

You may have never heard of Greg Gutfeld (I hadn’t), but his evening talk show on Fox News has higher TV ratings than any other current late-night show. So people are watching it. But is it funny?

Gutfeld!, as it’s called, is on Fox News at 11 p.m., so you can catch the first half-hour-and-change without missing any of your favorite loony-lefty show at 11:35. Go on, give it a whirl.

Recent shows have poked fun at Hunter Biden (a favorite target), President Joe Biden’s age (a topic regularly lampooned by the left-wing hosts as well), and the downtrodden.

A clip I found online of a Gutfeld monologue began, “It was day two of protests following the deadly shooting of a young black man…”

That was the set-up. What followed was less of a joke than a rant of the kind seen regularly by one of Fox News’s commentators, but it was presented as a joke.

Several more recent Gutfeld monologues addressed “cancel culture” and migrants complaining about conditions in a New York hotel, as well as a “satire” of two white, left-wing commentators accusing each other of being racist.

Right-wing comedy just isn’t funny, and there’s an easy explanation for this. Most liberal comics punch up, skewering those in power, whereas conservatives like to punch down, ridiculing those already low on the social ladder, besides the occasional Hollywood celebrity.

Gutfeld doesn’t seem to have a very appreciative audience. A lot of the “jokes” fall with a bit of a thud, and the three guest commentators sitting on easy chairs nearby have to work overtime to provide their guffaws.

The hollowness of the reaction is so pronounced that at first I didn’t think Gutfeld even had a live crowd. 

Maybe he should invest in a laugh track.  

But then, I’m not sure if comedy is actually the raison d’être of Gutfeld! Because a lot of right-wing humor seems to be all of a piece with the current Republican program of “owning the libs.” This project takes precedence over any major legislative goals (recall Trump’s 2020 reelection campaign didn’t even have a platform), and “humorists” like Gutfeld seem to act as a rear guard to this effort.

Right-wing comedy just isn’t funny, and there’s an easy explanation for this. Most liberal comics punch up, skewering those in power, whereas conservatives like to punch down, ridiculing those already low on the social ladder, besides the occasional Hollywood celebrity.

But a lot of conservatives still like to watch it. Just “owning the libs” is probably enough to give them malicious satisfaction.

Still, the TV ratings don’t tell the whole story, and if you look at online viewership, Kimmel, Colbert, and Jimmy Fallon regularly double their audience on YouTube (that’s how I watch them), regularly drawing over 1.6 million views each — whereas Gutfeld rarely pulls more than 400K. Seen in that light, the left-wing shows, even when matched up individually, draw larger audiences than Gutfeld does. Add all the shows together and the left-wing audience outdraws the right-wing one by several million. 

Please Donate to WhoWhatWhyMuch of the left-wing humor about Republicans zeroes in on their hypocrisy and intolerance of a changing society, making the right wing look out of step to a majority of the country, especially the younger viewers whose demographic TV producers and YouTube are eager to attract.

It’s worth noting that left-wing humor has had to adapt to changes in society that haven’t shifted the other side’s approach to comedy. Since the #MeToo, Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ+ movements, jokes on the left have had to be less offensive to certain groups than previously allowed, and comedians have been rebuked for violating this admittedly shifting boundary line.

Dave Chappelle got into some trouble last year when his Netflix special was perceived by many to be anti-trans, and there have been progressive comics, going back to Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy, who have expressed homophobic views in their routines.

Murphy later apologized for his anti-gay and AIDS-related material from this period, and speaking of his 1987 special Raw, commented, “I was a young guy processing a broken heart, you know, kind of an asshole.”

As the late George Carlin told the late Larry King in 1990, “Comedy has traditionally picked on people in power, people who abuse their power. Women and gays and immigrants, to my way of thinking, are underdogs.”

Criticizing the then-popular “shock comic” Andrew Dice Clay, he said, “I think his core audience is young white males who are threatened by these groups.”

I think that’s still the case, and Clay’s core audience could now be substituted for the entire MAGA crowd, who feel threatened by society’s changes, especially the demographic shift that will see a non-Hispanic white minority in the US by 2045.

As Carlin said, “I think that’s what is at the core of that experience that takes place in those arenas: sharing of anger and rage at these targets.”

He could just as easily be talking about a Trump rally three decades later.

It was at such a rally in 2016 that Trump promised to pay the legal fees of anyone arrested for “knocking the crap out of any protesters.” He got some laughs.

Talk about punching down.

Personally, I find Mike Lindell stuck in a claw machine funnier. Even if he is doing his usual crackpot rant about voting machines.


J.B. Miller is an American writer living in England, and is the author of My Life in Action Painting and The Satanic Nurses and Other Literary Parodies.


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