At 2 A.M., Dark Humor Meets the Camera Lights
It was a big day for “Red Eye.” After two months on the air, the late, late, late-night cable talk show had wrangled its highest profile guest yet, a bona fide presidential hopeful.
Politics aside, Mr. Kucinich is, in some ways, a pretty good match for “Red Eye,” which is shown from 2 to 3 a.m. during the week on the Fox News Channel. Like the Kucinich campaign, “Red Eye,” with a full-time staff of eight and no writers, does not appear to be incredibly well financed; slick, smooth and scripted are not words you would use to describe it. But, the show’s partisans say, that’s the appeal.
John Moody, an executive vice president at Fox News, described it this way: “It’s sort of like making a sandwich late at night. You just grab what’s in the fridge and put it all together.”
Last summer, Mr. Moody and Roger Ailes, the chairman of Fox News, decided to fill that unexploited time slot with something aimed at 20- and 30-somethings. Scott Norvell, the network’s London bureau chief, suggested Greg Gutfeld, who was living in London at the time and working on a book, as a possible host.
Mr. Gutfeld, 42, a compact but enormously animated man (“a drugged-up turtle” as he referred to his on-screen presence), was known for injecting his dark, absurdist humor into a series of magazines he edited: Men’s Health, then Stuff, then the British version of Maxim. Among his endeavors were going on a pub crawl with a leper and hiring a group of dwarfs to infiltrate a magazine conference.
Management was not always amused. (His contract was not renewed at British Maxim last spring.) But he kept attracting buzz, and continued to do so during his tenure as a blogger at The Huffington Post, where he stood out like a drunk who crashes a cocktail party.
“Red Eye w/Greg Gutfeld,” as it is officially called, is set up like “The McLaughlin Group.” Mr. Gutfeld throws out issues, from developments in Iraq to wacky local news stories (incidents of bestiality seem to be a go-to topic), and lets the guests go at it, witty banter, awkward pauses and all.
Mr. Gutfeld’s sense of humor is still very much evident, though, particularly when he shows off his crude drawings of unicorns or calls his 82-year-old mother in California to ask what she saw that evening on “The O’Reilly Factor.”
Slate, the online magazine, called it the most bizarre hour of programming on any major news channel. In March, the show averaged 309,000 viewers in its time slot, down about 9 percent from last year but still beating MSNBC’s true-crime programs and CNN’s reruns of “Anderson Cooper 360.”
At 7:30 p.m., about an hour before last Thursday’s show began taping, Mr. Gutfeld sat in a grungy corner of the empty Fox News offices, the floor littered with magazines, newspapers, crumpled Post-It Notes and plastic bags. He was doing research.
“Have you ever heard the Osmonds song ‘Crazy Horses’?” Mr. Gutfeld asked, looking up the song on the Internet.
The Osmonds, it should be added, had nothing to do with the night’s show, though Donny Osmond had come up in a discussion of short-lived late-night talk shows.
Sitting across the room, under a broken clock, was one of the “Red Eye” hosts, Bill Schulz, a friend of Mr. Gutfeld’s from their days at Stuff.
Next to Mr. Schulz sat Andrew Levy, a boyish-looking 40-year-old former publicist for the Directors Guild of America. Mr. Levy was living at his parents’ house on Long Island when he started leaving droll, approving comments on Mr. Gutfeld’s Huffington Post blog. Mr. Gutfeld sent him e-mail and, not long after, asked him to join the show.
Mr. Levy’s deadpan delivery didn’t work in the frenzy of the hourlong gab-fest, so he became the “Red Eye” ombudsman, appearing at the halfway mark of each show to comment on the first 30 minutes.
They would be joined later by Rachel Marsden, a columnist for The Toronto Sun in the venomous vixen style of Ann Coulter. She’s a well-known figure in Canada, not just for her conservative punditry, but also for her controversial past: in 1995 she accused a college swim coach of sexual harassment. He was later cleared of any wrongdoing by the school. And in 2004 she pleaded guilty to harassment of a former Vancouver radio personality.
Asked what brought her in, Mr. Gutfeld said: “I think they just thought she would be a good kind of lightning rod. We did one or two rehearsals, and I know for a fact that people liked her legs.”
The camera does tend to linger. But it is not only Ms. Marsden’s appearance that sets her apart. Off-camera, she keeps mostly to herself, conspicuously detached from the detention hall frolics constantly going on around her.
There are three or four guests every night, most of them celebrity magazine writers or bloggers whom Mr. Gutfeld and Mr. Schulz know or have connections with. Mr. Moody called the lineup an “on-air homeless shelter” for Mr. Gutfeld’s acquaintances; it has become such a dependable showcase for the young media set that Julia Allison, a freelance writer and frequent guest, described it on her blog as “the town bicycle of cable news shows.”
The mix can be surprising. Occasionally, when the mocking turns from Anna Nicole Smith to environmentalists and war protesters, the guests, wiseacres who earn their paychecks by scoffing at authority, become timidly sincere in defense of liberal causes.
But despite the show’s generally libertarian politics, affront has come from the right. Reacting to an episode that included a segment called “Sex With Roadkill,” Cliff Kincaid, editor of the conservative organization Accuracy in Media, wrote on the group’s Web site, “Will somebody at News Corporation or Fox News come forward to explain why this kind of trash is on the air?”
Even Bill O’Reilly has been jabbed on “Red Eye” (which is taped in the same studio as “The O’Reilly Factor”). While discussing a feud between Mr. O’Reilly and Rosie O’Donnell, Mr. Schulz said on a recent episode that having to choose between the two was like — well, the analogy he used was a colorful one, but the takeaway was this: “Either way, I’m disgusted.”
The network seems to be happy with it. “Red Eye” has not been heavily promoted in part because the Tribune Company filed a trademark infringement suit in February claiming that the show was creating confusion with RedEye, the company’s free daily newspaper in Chicago. But a preliminary injunction was denied last Wednesday.
Promotion of the program is beginning, Mr. Gutfeld said, and there has been talk of showing at least an episode or two in a less obscure time slot.
But, wrote Keith Blanchard, a former editor of the American version of Maxim, in an e-mail message: “I’m not sure the culture of the country is ready for prime-time Gutfeld.” Mr. Blanchard added, “There’s no question Gutfeld’s humor does not appeal to everyone, which I think he’s rather proud of.”
The show’s dark humor is not the only thing that is endangered by the bright lights of prime time. Viewer mail, both approving and condemning, often begins by asking how these people ever got to be on television. As Mr. Gutfeld said, a lot of the charm comes from the fact “that I really don’t know what I’m doing.”
The problem with that is, as you’re doing it, you have to make sure you don’t get any better at it.
“No,” Mr. Gutfeld said. “And I don’t think I will.”