Can Laugh Tracks Make Anything Funny? A "Gutfeld!" Experiment
The new Fox News late night show strains the limits of what can be considered humor.
Last week Fox News introduced their latest attempt at late-night comedy: Gutfeld!
Previous forays into the genre have included the short-lived, criticially panned The 1/2 Hour News Hour — the network's response to The Daily Show — and Gutfeld's own show Red Eye, which aired in a 3:00 AM time slot, and The Greg Gutfeld Show, which ran on Saturday night's at 10:00 from 2015 until just a few weeks before the Gutfeld! premiere. But in a new weeknight spot at 11:00, Greg Gutfeld of The Five is officially up against the traditional late-night hosts like Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Fallon.
And while he has upped his game so much that he had to add that exclamation point to his last name, Greg Gutfeld was the first to acknowledge where he differs from his competition — he's not a comedian. And when you subject yourself to a clip of Gutfeld!, that difference could not be more apparent.
sweet googly moogly https://t.co/qxpEDghbi7— Andrew Lawrence (@Andrew Lawrence) 1617678305.0
Are these jokes? Are they even supposed to be funny, or are they just a more casual, sarcastic way to tap into the same nexus of confusion and resentment that Fox News has been cultivating in its viewers' brains since the gays took back the word "queer?"
Because while Greg Gutfeld — not a comedian, but not really anything else either — is quick to lambast "the media" as playing a partisan, Left vs. Right game where "the way you win is by being the first and loudest, without facts or context," he hasn't done much of anything to remove himself from that dynamic.
Fox News host Greg Gutfeld has thoughts on the media trying to make people hate each other. (… https://t.co/1vlioBqhg6— Eric Hananoki (@Eric Hananoki) 1617892548.0
The Problem with Conservative "Comedy"
He doesn't throw shade at any of his fellow Fox pundits, or at seemingly any conservative — he somehow thinks he can have a political comedy show without talking about Matt Gaetz. But he can't even get through a sentence decrying partisanship without throwing a loud, fact-and-context-free shot at Fox News' favorite leftist punching bag: "The Left-Right thing is deader than a bill submitted to congress by AOC."
And while his criticisms of Joe Biden as senile, Kamala Harris as opportunistic, and Hunter Biden as a failson could all be reasonable fodder for comedy, they would be undermined by Gutfeld's fawning conservatisim even if he didn't fumble his awkward punchlines or compensate for the studio audience's lack of response by smirking and chuckling at his own wit or informing them after the fact, "That was a joke."
In the days since its premiere, the show's producers have evidently noticed that they have a problem and have reached out for freelance writers to offer their talents. But are they looking in the wrong direction?
Sure, the show has terrible writing that recycles the same lame "jokes" over and over again — everyone on CNN is obsessed with calling each other racist, Brian Williams lies. It's so bad that even guests and old colleagues can't hide their disbelief. But they're not going to find writers who can make conservative political commentary funny.
Ouch. https://t.co/9ats04Fqe6— Aaron Rupar (@Aaron Rupar) 1617680786.0
At the core of conservative thought is the principle that authority, tradition, and hierarchy are inherently good and should be preserved. Is there anything more antithetical to the fundamentally anti-establishment cause of comedy than adherence to those concepts? Any writers they manage to hire are likely to be either as hopelessly unfunny or out of alignment with the show's conservative ethos.
And yet, Gutfeld!'s ratings are a testament to a truth far more powerful than the fact that conservatives aren't funny. Because whether or not "conservative comedy" is even coherent as a concept, there is an audience that is desperately craving it.
According to the Nielsen ratings, Gutfeld! (somehow, the stupidity of that title gets funnier every time, and it was already funnier than the entirety of the show's content) managed to overtake its closest cable competitors — pulling in 1.69 million viewers on its first night, compared to Brian Williams' 1.21 million on MSNBC and Don Lemon's 678,000 on CNN.
And Gutfeld! only did better on the second night. If Greg Gutfeld can manage to actually deliver some entertainment, he won't just be trouncing his cable news competition, he'll be competing with network TV — surpassing Kimmel and maybe even coming for Fallon and Colbert.
So why even worry about the content? Do you think Chuck Lore — famed television producer of hit shows like The Big Bang Theory, and Two and a Half Men — ever let a lack of comedic content stop him? If you've ever seen a clip of his shows with the laugh track removed, you know the answer.
The Big Bang Theory - No Laugh Track 1 (Avoiding the Shamy)www.youtube.com
The trick isn't to write better jokes; it's to provide your audience with the pleasant illusion that something funny is happening, so they can shut down, forget their worries for a while, and soak their brains in some Charlie Sheen, Bazinga pablum. Or — in Greg Gutfeld's case — some Right-wing propaganda.
The Power of Laugh Tracks
Since they were first pioneered in the 1950s, laugh tracks have been among the most powerful tools for convincing audiences that they're watching something funny. While possibly surpassed in the '90s — when The Nanny started hiring live, professional laughers — the fact that Greg Gutfeld has to point out when he's told a joke makes that job a little more complicated in this case. But a laugh track might just be up to the task.
Just as the removal of a laugh track transforms The Big Bang Theory from a show where toxic nerds say hilariously wacky stuff into a show where toxic nerds say vaguely odd or unpleasant things and then leave big empty pauses, the addition of a laugh track might just turn Gutfeld! into a real late-night contender. But is canned laughter up to the task?
While sophisticated viewers might be turned off by the sense of deception and coercion involved, that's not likely to cause many problems for a Fox News show. Plus, they would save money on paying people to sit in the audience not laughing. It's a win-win...assuming that a laugh track would be up to the task.
While it's been known to transform bad writing and lackluster acting into comedic hits, there are surely limits to the power of the laugh track. You couldn't — for example — turn Schindler's List into a laugh riot with the addition of some well-placed chuckles.
So the question is: Is Gutfeld! funnier than Schindler's List? There's only one way to find out.
Oof... Never mind.
By adding a free laugh track to a Gutfeld! clip, we were able to create a sophisticated simulation of what the show would look like in a parallel universe where the concept of humor has just recently been invented, or where people compulsively laugh when they're overwhelmed with second-hand embarrassment. Unfortunately, that doesn't make it funny.
The laugh track just isn't powerful enough to overcome Greg Gutfeld's creepy step-dad energy. The funniest part of the clip is the same as ever — the moment when he tells his audience they've "made a great choice."