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Scott Larson

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Seeing Red (Eye)

It’s time to re-examine the state of late-night political comedy.

Seven years ago (gee, I’ve been doing this an awful long time) I lamented the passing of the comedy/chat show that had been following Nightline on ABC, Politically Incorrect. None of the other shows in that time slot (Leno, Letterman) were combining comedy and real chat as satisfyingly as PI. Not that the show, like any, didn’t have its occasional flaws and annoyances, but it was fun to see real conversations and humor that was truly spontaneous—since things weren’t scripted in advance.

I’ve been waiting a long time for a successor to PI, and I think maybe it has arrived. One might have thought that the torch would logically be passed to the PI host’s next show, Real Time with Bill Maher. But I’ve never really been able to judge that show because it has always aired on HBO, which I have never subscribed to, and (not surprisingly) I’ve never come across it on any channels on my side of the Atlantic. But from the few bits I have seen, Maher seems to have continued the unfortunate trend that he had started toward the end of PI’s run of taking himself much too seriously. Nothing kills good chat or good comedy than a personality that is too full of himself.

Now there have always been plenty of chat shows on television. And there have always been plenty of comedy shows. But somehow the ability to lace real discussion with light-heartedness has proved to be something unsought or elusive for television networks. Back in the olden days, such giants as Steve Allen, Jack Paar, Dick Cavett and Johnny Carson mastered it. But in recent times, television seems to have segregated itself into neighborhoods of relentless forthright discussion shows (of the type one sees on PBS or from network news divisions) and comedy shows that ape the sketch and monolog humor of Saturday Night Live and Leno/Letterman. When famous guests drop by on the shows that air at 11:35 and 12:35 at night, they are all business. Plug the movie/TV show/book/infomercial and engage in some banter that seems rehearsed. You can get some good discussion on Sunday news programs (ABC’s George Stephanopoulos and CNN’s Howard Kurtz are the best), but even the professional pundits (let alone the politicians) are always agenda-driven. Under Ted Koppel, ABC’s Nightline had few yuks but was always a place to go for a topical discussion that went beyond sound bites and disciplined talking points. Sadly, after his departure, the show has inevitably gone into a more tabloid direction.

So where is one to go for the spiritual (if not political) successor of Politically Incorrect? It is, of course, on the cable news channel that the president doesn’t want you to watch. Do I really mean Fox News Channel? I do.

Now FNC, like MSNBC, is the cable channel you either love or you hate. And you don’t even have to watch it to know which it is. It is also the cable news channel with the largest audience although, in the fragmented world of zillions of channels, that fact doesn’t mean as much as it once would have. People who tack rightward politically are drawn to it variously for its provocative opinion shows, its fast-paced and easy-to-follow tabloid-ish news shows (usually hosted by the strangely authoritative-and-vertical-yet-laid-back Shepard Smith) or for its downright wonkish and in-depth Washington-based shows, hosted by the likes of Bret Baier (who recently replaced veteran newsman Brit Hume) and Chris Wallace (son of legend Mike). But at 3 o’clock in the morning (Eastern), something strange happens. For an hour the channel is taken over by madcap pranksters.

Red Eye (the name refers both to its overnight time slot and its political complexion) is hosted by Greg Gutfeld, a UC Berkeley grad and journalist whose eclectic c.v. includes stints at The American Spectator, Men’s Health, the UK’s Maxim and The Huffington Post. The program has the trappings of a panel discussion, but it is more like a parody of such a show. Always present among the guests is Bill Schulz, a writer whose askew gaze perpetually suggests that he has just been smacked with a heavy frying pan. The other regular is Andy Levy, who acts as a sort of remote anchor who beams in from another studio with periodic summaries of what will happen on the show what has happened on the show and what has since happened on the show. Another standard convention of the program seems to always have a woman in a short skirt on the seat closest to the camera, what one correspondent has referred to as “the leg chair.” In addition to all else the show is doing, it is a thinly veiled parody of Fox News itself.

If you haven’t seen Red Eye, it is hard to describe. The experience is a bit like hanging out with (male) friends from college who have really, really been needing to get away from their wives and girlfriends for some guy time. One constantly tries to outdo the other with one-liners and zingers, and there is much sexual innuendo. There is much discussion of issues of the day and, this being Fox, the thrust is generally conservative. But this is hip, young, irreverent conservatism. Strangely, the political ascension of Barack Obama and the Democrats has made conservatives the anti-establishment crowd. They are the ones tweaking the nose of authority now.

This was not Fox News’s first attempt at middle-of-the-night humor. A couple of years ago it aired something called The 1/2 Hour News Hour, which was like an expanded version of Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update segment. Filmed (as they say) in front of a live studio audience, two actors did a credible job of looking like typical bland news anchors and reading a series a bits, satirizing issues in the news. And, again, the thrust was conservative. Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter turned up once or twice in filmed bits as the president and vice-president of the United States. And, to make the SNL connection explicit, former Weekend Update anchor Dennis Miller turned in a weekly commentary that was usually fairly passionate. (A fiery lambasting of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid after he pronounced the Iraq War “lost” comes to mind.) But, after a few weeks, the program was gone. Red Eye, a very different animal, was its eventual replacement.

So does Red Eye really deserve to be considered the successor to Politically Incorrect? Well, the two shows have at least this much in common. The only ground rule seems to be that the participants can say anything they like, no matter how non-mainstream or provocative, as long as it is said with a smile and in a way that can make people laugh. But in hindsight, Maher’s show seems downright stodgy by comparison. Gutfeld’s program is one crazy non-sequitur, absurdist outburst after another. You don’t know whether it is masterful theater or just infantile. And, depending on your taste, it is oddly compelling. It’s the sort of thing you want to keep watching and you don’t know why. Other people apparently feel the same way. Great noise was made lately about the fact that Red Eye at 3 a.m. was getting better ratings than some of CNN’s primetime lineup.

I was able to start watching Red Eye because Fox News is part of my satellite package, which is part of the same Rupert-Murdoch-owned corporate family as Fox. It is the only channel that has exactly the same programming in the British Isles as in the States. Except that a while back Red Eye mysteriously disappeared from the lineup here. Of all the programs on Fox News, it is the only one to get pre-empted, and I am now reduced to searching for Red Eye highlights on YouTube. What happened? Did the Obama administration get to them?

Bring back my Red Eye!

-S.L., 22 October 2009

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