How conservative comic Greg Gutfeld became America’s most popular late-night TV

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Then, of course, there are the silly “Saturday Night Live”-like sketches. One recent episode broke from a panel discussion on cancel culture in order to imagine what a politically correct James Bond would look like. In the prerecorded bit, a crudely costumed actor chases down a thief and pulls a banana on him instead of a gun. Then “Bond” heads to a bar to order a latte – a soy latte – instead of a martini. You get the idea.

Regardless of whether or not this comedy is to your taste, it’s working for Gutfeld and his audience.

Hiding in plain sight

Despite its growing prominence, right-wing comedy remains largely invisible in both mainstream and scholarly discussions of media and humor. In part, this has happened because social media algorithms don’t send users jokes likely to challenge or offend their political sensibilities.

There are also intellectual trends that make it possible for Greg Gutfeld to spend two decades sneaking up on the Colberts of the world. Comedy theorists tend to diminish, or at least distinguish, right-wing humor from what they deem to be more authentic, liberal humor.

Philosopher Umberto Eco, for example, demotes joking that fails to critique power structures to the status of mere “carnival.”

Others make similar arguments, saying “true” liberal comedy is more likely to “punch up,” while dismissing conservative comedy as mere mockery that reaffirms unjust systems of power.

This effort to use ideology in order to categorize comedy can lead audiences, political analysts and even comedians to downplay or outright dismiss right-wing humor.

But even if conservative comedy doesn’t fit liberals’ tastes, it’s still comedy. And it’s increasingly becoming a feature of right-wing politics. Even “Daily Show” host Trevor Noah noted how former president Donald Trump’s performances at rallies mirrored those of stand-up comedians.

Some studies go as far as to identify innate, psychological differences that explain why liberals are more likely to laugh while conservatives are more prone to seethe. This research, often inspired by the success of liberal satirists such as Colbert, Jon Stewart and Samantha Bee, certainly provides intriguing looks into the relationship between politics, psychology and sense of humor. They are, without question, pleasing to the liberal reader’s ego.

They do not, however, square with the way Trump changed the country’s politics and culture.

The political comedy of the early 2000s, with its relatively big tent media companies and pre-Barack Obama politics, tended to joke primarily in the political direction of the largest audience segment interested in satire at that moment. “The Colbert Report” and “The Daily Show” became hugely successful during the years of president George W. Bush and inspired countless imitators, crowding the media marketplace for liberal laughs.

However, comedy’s perceived political bias at the time was more likely driven by specific economic circumstances, which have now radically changed.

Since then, further audience fragmentation, along with the proliferation of podcasts and social media platforms, has made it possible for right-wing comedians like YouTuber Steven Crowder to rise to prominence beyond conventional cable television. And it’s forced networks like Fox News to take comedy seriously.

On one level, Gutfeld succeeds today because he has virtually no competition from fellow conservatives in the late-night television comedy space. On another, he thrives because the current media industry moment is built not for a big tent of all viewers, but for audiences who share specific demographic, psychographic and political traits.

In this environment, the partisanization of comedy to the right was perhaps inevitable.

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