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‘Islam’ in Gutfeld’s brand of (right-wing) comedy

Attached to Paper Session

The success of Fox News’ late night comedy talk show *Gutfeld!* keeps growing. As of 2021, self-described libertarian and comic host Greg Gutfeld joined Stephen Colbert as ‘king’ of late night television. Numerically, The Washington Post reports that the viewership for both *Gutfeld!* and his other (co-hosted) panel talk show *The Five* reached “an average of more than 5 million per day in the fourth quarter of 2021” (Roig-Franzia, 2022). This roaring success is significant in light of what Marx and Sienkiewicz describe as the American right’s attempt “to seize spaces of comedy and irony previously held firmly by the left” (UCPress, upcoming 2022). Fox News sees in *Gutfeld!* an opportunity not only to tap into a late night TV market dominated by liberal-leaning programs but also to distinguish the channel from other conservative news outlets by offering ‘more than news’ (Palmeri, 2021). Following satirist O’ Rourke, Gutfeld capitalizes on comedy to provide a new discourse of the right. While there has been a tendency to focus on comedy’s ability to generate social change (e.g. Chattoo 2019; Chattoo and Feldman 2020; Meier and Schmitt 2017), comedians can and do ‘punch down’ and mobilize satire and other jocular means to perpetuate dominant discourses and representations (Krefting 2014; Meier and Schmitt 2017; Opplinger and Shouse 2020).

This paper specifically examines the representation of ‘Islam’ in Gutfeld’s show *Gutfeld!* since 2015, and *The Five* since 2011. While the paper’s focus lies on the comedic show *Gutfeld!*, an analysis of *The Five* illustrates a continuity between Gutfeld’s serious and comic takes on Islam. Through discourse analysis, this paper shows that Gutfeld’s brand of juvenilian satire and aggressive rhetoric perpetuate anti-Muslim alarmist narratives of threat, peril and evil. Through his satire, *Gutfeld!* presents a regime of ‘truth’ about ‘Islam’ that is free of journalistic conventions. Gutfeld’s rare discussions of Islam in the shows (almost) exclusively occur in the context of Islamism, radicalism and terrorism. Invested in a clash of civilization paradigm, he recurrently emphasizes the threat of ‘radical Islam’ – echoing Daniel Pipes’ menace theory. Saleem et al’s study demonstrates that negative representations of Muslims in American media influence support for public policies that target Muslims in international and domestic contexts. Representations that associate Muslims with violence lead to support for military intervention in Muslim majority societies and civil restrictions for American Muslims (Saleem et al, 2017).

In a 2015 episode of *The Greg Gutfeld Show* (renamed *Gutfeld!* in 2021), the host posits that radical Islam needs to be countered with radical Americanism, which he describes as “a forceful return to patriotism, a radical defense of our way of life, and a fearless vocal championing of our freedoms” (Gutfeld, 2015). In this bit, the satirist entrenches an uncompromising nationalist ethos within a binary construction of ‘us’ versus ‘them’. Through a partial, simplistic and decontextualized reading of current events and ‘facts’, Gutfeld capitalizes on fear and Islamophobic stereotypes to vouch for military frameworks, discriminatory practices and essentialized (and exclusionary) narratives of social belonging. The connection between Islam and violence is recurrently established in theological (and psychological) terms, foreclosing any meaningful analysis of sociopolitical contexts. His formula replicates what Said describes as a media pattern that “represents the aggression as coming from Islam because that is what ‘Islam’ is. Local and concrete circumstances are thus obliterated” (Said 1981, 1997, xxii; also see Razack 2018). In fact, one of Gutfeld’s sardonic bits links sociohistorical analyses of radicalism and Muslim militant groups to an “educational system that’s more about indoctrination than instruction [ …]  One that pushes anti-American bile” (Gutfeld, 2021).

For the purpose(s) of this paper, two aspects of humor particularly hold my attention. First, humor and laughter present important interrelated social and societal functions. They express and reinforce group cohesion, therefore strategically marking social boundaries (Bergson 1913; Fine & De Soucey, 2005; Smith, 2009). Sollors emphasizes the social dimension of humor by comparing the community of laughter to “an ethnicizing phenomenon, as we develop a sense of we-ness in laughing with others” (Sollors 1986, 132). In fact, the possibility of unlaughter draws attention to the politics of humor and laughter (Billig 2005; Zimbardo 2014) and attending to the dynamics of humor production and reception provides key insights into the various structures and relations of power at play. Von Burg and Heidemann examine the ways conservative and self-proclaimed God’s comic Brad Stine articulates hardline partisan political identities through burlesque comedy. “By looking at the ways in which humor is deployed by specific actors for political purposes, much can be learned about the practices of collective identity-making that underlie the political process within representative democracies” (Von Burg and Heidemann 2017, 153).

Second, humor sheds lights on patterns of meaning making and self-identification. Understanding jokes as forms of personal narratives, Ochs and Capps argue that they are intertwined with self-understanding. “One of the most important functions of narrative is to situate particular events against a larger horizon of what we consider to be human passions, virtues, philosophies, actions, and relationships” (Ochs and Capps 1996, 30). Jokes represent a site for negotiating not only the disjuncture between expectation and experienced reality but also the relationship between one’s shifting selves and the collective. Islam-related materials in Gutfeld’s shows how he defines himself and his ideals of communal belonging. Furthermore, this aspect of humor helps explain the popularity of satirical news as audiences seek these programs with the expectation “to make sense of the world and public affairs” (Chattoo 2019, 507).

Gutfeld’s discussions of Islam are significant given the growing popularity of right-wing comedy. They provide insights into the ways Islam plays a role in Gutfeld’s construction of group belonging – promoting an exclusionary (and exceptional) vision of American identity along the lines of a conservative-liberal division. Agreeing with Saleem and Chaudhary’s recent findings that Fox News programming perpetuates prejudice “against Islam by representing it as a religion of terrorism and extremism” (Saleem and Chaudhary, 2021), it is important to consider how the channel relies on satire to expand its viewership.

Abstract for Online Program Book (maximum 150 words)

The boom of right-wing comedy has increasingly garnered attention from scholars in various fields. As of 2021, Fox News self-described libertarian and comic host Greg Gutfeld joined Stephen Colbert as ‘king’ of late night television. Focusing on Gutfeld’s shows Gutfeld! and – secondarily – The Five, this paper examines the ways in which Islam plays a role in Gutfeld’s construction of group belonging, promoting an exclusionary (and exceptional) vision of American identity along the lines of a conservative-liberal division. Considering comedy’s rhetorical power, meaning-making possibilities and community dynamics, the analysis demonstrates that Gutfeld’s brand of juvenilian satire and rhetoric present a regime of ‘truth’ about ‘Islam’ that is free of journalistic conventions and perpetuate alarmist narratives of threat, peril and evil. Gutfeld’s discussions of Islam are particularly significant given the news channel’s use of satirical programming to expand its viewership.

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