Is the right winning the comedy wars?

Alex Gilbeaux for Vox
Vox’s home for ambitious stories that explain our world.

The biggest comedy show on late-night right now is not on ABC or NBC or CBS or Fox. It’s not on Comedy Central. It’s certainly not streaming. It’s on Fox News, and its name is Gutfeld!

Gutfeld! launched in April 2021 with the tagline “Cancel culture just got canceled” and was immediately top of its time slot among cable channels. Since August, Gutfeld! has been consistently pulling in an average of over 2 million viewers a night, placing it well above late-night stalwarts like The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Kimmel Live. So far, its audience has held steady, even as a string of critics have greeted the show with the puzzled verdict that it’s really not very funny at all.

The affably acerbic Greg Gutfeld, leading with his eyebrows, is the host who lends the show his name. He’s a libertarian former men’s magazine editor turned Fox News personality and has exactly the screen presence you would expect from that combination: a little bit charming, a little bit smarmy. Fox has been grooming Gutfeld to be the face of its nascent comedic programming since he began hosting the 3 am comedy show Red Eye in 2007, which he followed with the weekends-only Gutfeld! precursor The Greg Gutfeld Show in 2015. Now at last he has ascended to his long-awaited destiny as the face of late-night comedy on Fox News.

Gutfeld’s version of political comedy looks, in a lot of ways, like a mirrorverse version of the formula Jon Stewart developed and perfected on The Daily Show 20 years ago. Every night, Gutfeld opens the show with a steady monologue of jokes over a video montage mocking the hypocrisies and foibles of Democratic politicians or the mainstream media or both. Then he brings the conversation to a panel of recurring right-wing personalities, and together they crack wise as they discuss topical issues.

Generally, the panel comes to a cheerful consensus. Racism: over, and anyone who tells you otherwise is trying to con you. Democracy: absolutely not under siege, and you only think it is because of scaremongering from the left. Liberals: humorless and earnest and virtue-signaling and just so fucking prudish, absolutely determined to spoil your good time, about as edgy as a teddy bear.

“As for those late-night shows we’re supposed to compete against — why bother? Who do they offend?” Gutfeld asked in his first monologue. “The only time Stephen Colbert ruffles feathers is in a pillow fight. The definition of risk for Kimmel is dehydration from crying too much. Fallon? That guy fawns more than a herd of deer. And I heard Seth Meyers and Trevor Noah have run off to be obscure together.”

The ratings suggest a certain amount of support for Gutfeld’s stance from audiences. That’s a big shift for the world of comedy.

Ten years ago, the late-night network shows were led by figures like David Letterman, who declined to make politics the center of their humor. The hip cable comedy universe was dominated by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, who built their brands on center-left satire of Bush-era neoconservatism. Political comedy, back then, meant making fun of the heaving dinosaurs of the right.

At the time, the consensus was that it was conservatives who weren’t funny. Any joke related to George W. Bush was almost certain to be at his expense, not a joke he made himself. Attempts at a conservative Daily Show clone, including most infamously The 1/2 Hour News Hour, all seemed to end in ignominious failure. Media theorists of the era argued that satire, with its ethos of critiquing existing power structures, was by its very nature liberal. Conservatives, the thinking went, were simply incapable of harnessing its power to their own ends, because they were too invested in preserving power structures to critique them. There’s no “conservative Jon Stewart,” went an Atlantic headline in 2015, and the implication was there never would be.

Yet now there is Gutfeld presenting himself as Stewart’s heir apparent, the edgy cable comic breaking through the pieties of the mainstream media to tell you the truth as he sees it. A number of people seem to be buying what he’s selling — just not liberals or TV critics. Instead, the response to Gutfeld! outside the right-wing media universe has been one of profound mystification, with critics apparently bewildered by how anyone could possibly laugh at this show.

This year the Atlantic called Gutfeld! “where comedy goes to die,” and found the show’s comedic perspective so bizarre that it could only attribute the show’s ratings to a sense that Trump’s presidency “introduced into the culture a tremendous uncertainty about what was actually funny.” Variety argued that the show was impossible to follow, because “too often during this show, it’s unclear what’s played for fun and what isn’t.”

“Is Gutfeld! the worst show on television?” asked the New Republic. It went on to call Gutfeld! “the latest futile attempt at providing a conservative counter to The Daily Show and proving that conservatives are funny, too, goddamnit — a pathetic and profoundly insecure show that mostly serves as a collection of anxieties about the left’s cultural power. But mostly,” the review concluded, “it just sucks.”

The premiere of Gutfeld! isn’t the first time the left has responded with a mixture of confusion and hostility toward the right’s claims of humor. “The right is starting to get better at comedy and it’s making lefties nervous,” tweeted InfoWars contributor Paul Joseph Watson in 2018. He was talking about a video from conservative Blaze TV personality Allie Beth Stuckey, who had edited herself into an interview with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to make AOC look like she was answering Stuckey’s questions badly, in a sort of clunky rendition of a slick old Daily Show trick. Stuckey hadn’t labeled the video as satire, and she was facing a wave of outrage from leftists who said she was creating fake news.

“A lot of people on the left just can’t tolerate someone on the right making a joke, because the only humor now that is protected is humor that is against conservatives or against President Trump,” Stuckey responded on her podcast.

Liberals derisively memed Watson’s “better at comedy” tweet, pasting it over conservative dad jokes and clumsy right-wing puns, in a move that at once provided a counterargument to Watson’s claim and also betrayed a certain nervous defensiveness: The right better not be getting better at comedy, was the subtext.

The right, meanwhile, is perpetually on the defensive against the left’s comedic dominance, as Gutfeld’s “fawns more than a herd of deer” speech makes clear. (The New Republic wasn’t wrong about that insecurity!) “The boring, dull, uninteresting comedians on late-night TV were and continue to be obsessed with Donald Trump, and that’s what actually destroyed their shows,” claimed the New York Post in October. In contrast, the right was where all the comedic action was happening: “Gutfeld also happens to be actually funny, and his co-hosts Kat Timpf and Tyrus are hilarious too. They aren’t making lame jokes about Trump or the guy who is president right now. They aren’t predictable like the rest of the late-night lineup.”

It’s as though there’s some sort of fundamental disconnect between right and left on the issue of comedy. On a very basic level, the two sides seem to disagree on the question of what a joke should look like, what it’s okay to joke about, and what is so under threat that to joke about it would be unthinkable.

No one seems sure how to talk about the difference, exactly. They just know that they want to be the funny ones.

Humor theorists see some basic differences between conservative and liberal humor.

Teresa Prados-Torreira, a historian and the former head of the American Humor Studies Association, argues that the comedy you can watch on John Oliver’s show Last Week Tonight and the comedy you see in right-wing spaces are based in two intrinsically different versions of reality. If we can no longer agree on what’s true, she says, then we won’t be able to agree on what’s funny, either.

Stephen Farnsworth, a political scientist and the co-author of Late Night with Trump: Political Humor and the American Presidency, says this split is exacerbated by the increasingly polarized conservative news landscape. Fox News has created a siloed environment for their viewers, one where they can pick up memes and in-jokes that are incomprehensible to those outside their bubble and then go watch someone they agree with make jokes about those things.

“Fox News has been able to create an environment where there is more of a seamless transition [for] the people who are spending their time consuming news in the silo of the conservative media environment, [where they have] that back-story understanding,” Farnsworth says.

In other words, conservative media has created such an all-encompassing narrative that now its practitioners are able to joke around about that narrative, like when a Marvel movie puts in sly nods to other characters in the MCU. Meanwhile, Fox News viewers might not get exposed to the storylines the rest of the country is making jokes about, and vice versa.

“For humor to be funny, it needs to be somehow based in reality. Humor exaggerates and you want to emphasize what is grotesque, but it has to be based on something accurate,” says Prados-Torreira. “If your joke is about Hillary Clinton eating babies, that’s untrue, so it’s not going to be funny. The connection to reality is getting more tenuous for conservative people.”

One way the conservative and liberal worldviews mirror each other, though, is that each side likes to position themselves as an underdog, mocking the oppressive elites on the other side.

“Both left and right can claim positions of victimhood and aggrievement that give them plausible claims to punching up,” says Nick Marx, a media scholar and the co-author of That’s Not Funny: How the Right Makes Comedy Work for Them. “We’ve got lots and lots of great comedy from non-white folks and marginalized folks punching up at white hetero patriarchal systems of power, right? But all you have to do is talk to a right-leaning person about their love of Gutfeld, and they’ll say, ‘Well, no, we on the right are the victims, because Joe Biden is president, because my kid is coming home wanting me to use their pronouns, because I’m constantly inundated with left-wing ideas.’”

According to this theory, left-wing and right-wing comics are basically telling the same kinds of jokes, but they’re doing so from within two different realities. That explains at least some of the disconnect between the two styles.

There’s another theory that’s a little more controversial. Dannagal Young, a communications scholar and the author of Irony and Outrage: The Polarized Landscape of Rage, Fear, and Laughter in the United States, argues that there are structural differences between liberal and conservative jokes. Her theory is that those differences arise because of the oppositional psychologies of the people who hold the two ideologies.

According to Young, liberals like jokes based in irony and misdirection that end in a surprise punchline, while conservatives like jokes based on exaggeration and grotesqueries that say what they mean from the beginning and then escalate.

“The general structure of a political [liberal] late-night joke tends to use incongruity,” says Young. “You as the audience are asked to make a series of incongruous ideas fit together.” Doing the work to make those two parts fit together is what makes the joke funny.

By way of illustration, Young points to a groaner that’s made its way around liberal internet spheres a few times: “Why are Trump’s ties so long? Because they go all the way to Russia.” To get the joke, you have to know that Trump has lots of connections to Russia that are likely deeply corrupt, and then you have to apply that knowledge to the pun.

“To make sense of it, that is cognitively taxing,” says Young. “It takes a lot of resources to do that, and that kind of humor is tailor-made for someone who has a high tolerance for ambiguity, a high need for cognition, and really likes riddle solving.”

In contrast, Young argues that conservative humor, including Gutfeld’s, is often built on the model of a “yo mama” joke: You state a premise once, and then you keep repeating it in increasingly absurd ways.

“It doesn’t comport with the incongruity framework that underlies most punchline-oriented humor,” Young says. “What they’re doing is exaggeration-based humor. It’s insult humor. It doesn’t take a lot of unpacking. But for that audience, it scratches an itch.”

“That’s an unoriginal metaphor, Captain Jowls,” Gutfeld said in one monologue addressed to CNN’s Brian Stelter, after Stelter opined that former Fox News anchor Chris Wallace stood out “like a sore thumb” at an increasingly radicalized Fox News. Stelter has been public with his weight loss journey in the past.

“It’s been used more times than your waffle iron,” continued Gutfeld, who previously complained that his late-night comedy peers never offended anyone. “You should have said, ‘Chris Wallace sticks out like my belly when I undo my bathrobe after dinner.’ And Fox is radicalized? If only Weight Watchers could radicalize you, Brian.” By the time the monologue ended, Gutfeld had also called Stelter a “fabricating fart-pillow” and a “corpulent crumb-sucker.” (If this type of humiliation-based humor brings another conservative figure to mind, well, yes, and more on his effect later.)

Young’s theory is that liberals like satire because they’re less concerned with danger than conservatives are. “Liberals are less attuned to threat in their environment. They’re not as stressed about whether or not they’re going to be the victim of crime,” she says. “This translates to a higher need for cognition. They are less worried about someone coming out of the shadows, which gives you the luxury of being able to sit around and think.” Liberals, in other words, have enough time on their hands to like jokes that make them work a little bit, in the same way they might like cultural products that make them work, like jazz or abstract art.

In contrast, Young argues that conservatives are constantly monitoring the world for threats, and as a result, they’re less patient with ambiguities and uncertainty. “Conservatives like things that are more fully cooked: art that looks like what it’s supposed to look like, songs with a straightforward breakdown, and straightforward jokes,” she says.

Young’s theory, to be sure, has a certain resonance with such classic culture war fights as “My Kid Could Draw That” and “Who Actually Likes Opera?”

“If Obama was a sonnet, Trump is a limerick,” Gutfeld mused shortly after Trump’s 2017 inauguration. “And really, which ones do you enjoy more?”

Young’s critics, however, argue that her framework is just more liberal posturing, and that all she’s really saying is that conservatives are too stupid and unsophisticated to understand satire. Still, “this is not about sophistication or intelligence or political knowledge,” Young says. “Our survey research shows conservatives are high in political knowledge. You could just as well say liberals waste a lot of valuable time chewing their cud. They cannot make a decision to save their life.”

Part of the evidence Gutfeld and his cohort cite for the idea that liberals aren’t funny is the idea that liberals have become prim. At the center of his comedy is the sense that the left’s satirists have become censorious scolds.

Regardless of whether that idea is true or not, plenty of people agree with Gutfeld, and that’s a big cultural change. Moral disapproval over standup comedy used to be associated with the right. According to Lauren Levine, a communications PhD who wrote her thesis on the ways comics navigate concerns about political correctness, that association has been shifting toward the left slowly over the past 60 years.

“Throughout the ’50s and ’60s, political correctness is going to be used more so by the right, and it’s going to be thought of as something used to police profanity, obscenity, vulgarity,” says Levine. “This is when Lenny Bruce is arrested, because at the time we have obscenity laws.”

Levine argues that the left began to get concerned about political correctness starting in the 1970s, when continental philosophers like Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida became all the rage in academia. “People were really interested in the relationship between language and power,” she says. Then in the 1980s, as the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) fairness doctrine disappeared and the political extremes began their long retreat toward separate media silos, Levine says that progressive activist groups began to make political correctness part of their arguments against figures like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. “They were using PC as a strategy,” she says. This new rhetorical move emerged into an increasingly polarized media landscape and ignited a new fight.

Young, going back to psychology, argues that a mounting sense of danger motivates the left’s political critiques of comedy. Conservatives, per her framework, don’t want to bother with satire because they’re too busy scanning the landscape for threats, and she posits that liberals get into the same state of mind when they’re facing jokes about disenfranchised groups. “There are some liberals unwilling to enter the state of play when it comes to human rights, women’s rights, LGBTQ rights,” she says. “My sense is there is an unwillingness to entertain those ideas because there is a real perceived threat. Threat salience is always going to interrupt humor processing and appreciation.”

To be clear, it’s pretty reasonable to feel worried about violence after you hear bigotry-inflected jokes that involve racial slurs or harmful stereotypes. Studies consistently show clear links between hate speech toward marginalized groups and hate crimes against them, and it makes sense that people who either belong to or care about protecting these groups might not feel “playful” when it comes to joking about them hatefully.

Levine interviewed working comics for her fieldwork, and she found that the concern over a woke mob censoring the jokes of hapless standups is largely overblown. “Most of the people I interviewed felt that the people at live shows are not really the people getting outraged. The outrage tends to come from voices on the fringe getting amplified for a catchy headline,” she said. “I’ve started thinking about the idea of political correctness as a moral panic over overregulated and underregulated speech. The idea that audiences can’t take a joke is an amplified idea from the media.”

Levine’s research, though, shows that the idea of a humorless liberal ruining everyone’s comedy fun remains firmly ensconced among working comics.

“Both sides have their own idea of PC,” she says. The right continues to push back against ideas they think of as vulgar or obscene, while the left continues to push back against ideas they think of as anti-progressive. (You might remember that take from Trump’s infamous Access Hollywood tape: The right thought that the problem was the word “pussy,” and the left thought that the problem was the word “grab.”) “Both sides have the things they like and they don’t like,” says Levine, “but I think most people would say the left currently is louder in voicing their dislikes when it comes to comedy.”

That sense of the left’s loudness is key to the rise of conservative comedy Gutfeld exemplifies.

“There might have been a period, particularly during the early 2000s, when right-wing media really struggled to brand itself as comic. That period is gone,” says Matt Sienkiewicz, a media scholar and the co-author with Nick Marx of That’s Not Funny.

Sienkiewicz and Marx argue that part of the reason for the recent rise of conservative comedy is that liberal comedy, in the traumatized post-Trump era, is now seen as overly pious.

“For the last 20 years we have owned the cultural terrain of comedy and irony, arguably to good effect. The Trump era made liberals forget that. It made our comedians want to act like paternal figures who would pat us on the head,” says Marx. “The right has correctly seen that and said, ‘Oh, they’re not doing comedy anymore. We’re the ones doing transgressive edgy comedy now.’”

Sienkiewicz argues that this sense of edgy transgressiveness allows conservative comics to hitch their wagons to the legacy of figures like Lenny Bruce, who was arrested repeatedly for saying dirty words in his comedy routines in the 1960s before he was eventually convicted and sentenced to four months in a workhouse.

“Lenny Bruce is this key figure in the story of American comedy, and his story is liberal: He’s got real important things to say, and part of his appeal is that he was willing to say them and they shut him down,” says Sienkiewicz. Now, conservative comics who say that they’ve been put in “YouTube jail” — had their videos demonetized because of their use of hate speech — can cast themselves as modern-day Lenny Bruces. “There’s this idea that a real comedian gets put in prison for saying the things that the other people just can’t take,” says Sienkiewicz.

Meanwhile, it’s clear that the faces of liberal satire are no longer the scrappy outsiders they were when The Daily Show first scored press credentials to the 2000 presidential election campaign. Today, Stewart’s disciples — among them not just Colbert, Noah, and Oliver, but also Samantha Bee, Steve Carell, and Jessica Williams — are the comedy mainstream. That transition, Marx and Sienkiewicz say, has cost them some cool, especially with the Gen Z-ers who didn’t grow up watching them. It’s also created a space where right-wing comics can frame themselves as the new underdogs.

“Zoomers are not interested in recreating the Gen X comedy power structure, which is logical,” says Sienkiewicz. “If something was the height of fashion 20 years ago, that almost inversely makes it less likely to seem hip and cool at the moment. There’s a rebelliousness in the way people think of this right-wing comedy, right? Even if it really is regressive and pointing back to old dominant ideas. But it can be branded as being the opposite of Stephen Colbert crying about January 6 during his monologue, which is very much not cool to the teens.”

Part of this shift came not just with time, but specifically with the Trump administration. Both a viciously cruel and highly skilled insult comic, one of Trump’s more bizarre political gifts was to be so blatantly corrupt and incompetent that he paradoxically rendered satire toothless. The Daily Show could effectively mock George W. Bush because it was ripping away the veneer of “compassionate conservatism” from a lying and warmongering administration, but Trump never bothered to hide what he was, and Alec Baldwin’s impression grew more tired every time he trotted it out. So by the end of Trump’s term in office, liberal comedy had lost a considerable amount of potency, and conservative comedy had received a shot of adrenaline from one of its most adept practitioners.

This displacement of cultural capital has created changing economic incentives for advertisers who want to chase the lucrative 18- to 34-year-old male audience. In the 2000s, those young men were glued to The Daily Show. That’s no longer the case.

“The young male audience is being pursued by conservative comedians, because the liberal comedians we’ve grown so fond of have calcified and become institutionalized,” says Sienkiewicz. “The space exists economically for figures like Joe Rogan to go after this young male audience that Comedy Central wooed before.”

Marx believes this economic takeover is the result of a deliberate coalition. “I do believe there’s an intentional use of comedy on the right between right-wing politicians, entertainers, and others to reach out to young men,” he says. “I do think they get together in their smoke-filled back rooms and say, ‘How do we replenish the aging electorate with people who aren’t going to buy MyPillows any time soon? Well, here’s this Joe Rogan character.’”

The strategy may or may not be deliberate, and it may or may not be effective. Rogan, whose politics are inconsistent to the point of incoherence but who frequently platforms far-right figures in the name of entertainment and comedy, is most popular among young men. (Gutfeld also consistently reaches a young audience.) But young men aren’t trending more conservative now than they used to. Instead, young women are overwhelmingly trending liberal, while young men’s political preferences are standing still. In this fall’s midterm elections, Gen Z broke left hard, and the margins only get slightly smaller when looking at young men and young white people.

The sheer amount of crowing from the right and hand-wringing on the left over Gutfeld’s success suggests that there’s a lot at stake in this fight for both sides. It seems to matter a surprising amount which political affiliation gets to call themselves the funny ones. There are a few reasons for that.

To begin with, social scientists have found that political humor can have measurable consequence. Communications scholar Amy Becker points to the Tina Fey effect: “Watching her parody Sarah Palin on Saturday Night Live made both Republicans and independents less supportive of the ticket,” she says.

Political comedy can also serve as a gateway for getting low-information voters into politics. “We see in polling in particular that a lot of young adults become more interested in politics because of the consumption of political humor,” says Farnsworth. “Their friends have talked about it, they then start talking about it and become more interested in it.”

If Gutfeld! is the gateway for a new generation of young people, that’s going to have strong effects on the kinds of politics they get interested in, argue Sienkiewicz and Marx.

“The ways in which people discover new comedy today — algorithmic suggestions on YouTube, retweets on Twitter, cross-promotion on podcasts — provides a set of pathways that connect more banal right-wing humor to the truly evil stuff, up to and including actual neo-Nazi comedy spaces,” they write in That’s Not Funny. “In a few clicks, one can move from Gutfeld on Fox News laughing at a story about immigrants to a libertarian comedy podcaster interviewing a race scientist to a song parody on YouTube of Oasis’s ‘Wonderwall’ featuring the line ‘Today is gonna be the day / that we’re gonna fucking gas the Jews.’”

In a sense, the fight over who gets to be funny is a cousin to the fight over who gets to decide which books are taught in schools: What people are really arguing over here is who will be teaching young people how to think about the world. Comedy, however, comes with an associated sexiness that schoolbooks lack. There’s a certain power that comes with being funny, a cultural capital everyone wants to claim for themselves.

“People who are funny are perceived as powerful, high-status. To be able to make people laugh is a status move,” says Young. “There’s also an aspect of social identity. Liberals like to think of themselves as the smart, funny ones: ironic, sophisticated humorists. The right might look at that and say, ‘They’re so condescending and nerdy. We make the jokes we know everyone really finds funny. They just feel like they can’t laugh at them.’”

The power that comes with being funny translates enormously well into politics.

“It’s a political asset, an electoral asset,” says Sienkiewicz. “Good for recruiting young people, renewing the coalition and keeping it moving forward. I think that’s important and definitely happening on the right.”

Perhaps most importantly: If what you think is funny defines and is defined by the version of reality in which you live, then the person who most people think is funny is the person whose sense of reality most people are currently sharing.

So right now, it’s Greg Gutfeld’s world. We just live there.

Correction, December 20, 10:45 am: A previous version of this story misstated Lauren Levine’s title. She is a PhD.

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