In the rough-and-tumble world of cable news where shows and personalities come and go, it’s something of a miracle that “Red Eye” — the late-night/early-morning iconoclastic talk show that dared to treat the whole idea of cable news talk shows with a sort of irreverent smirk — lasted as long as it did. When Fox News pulled the plug this week, the show’s coterie of fans and regular guests all reacted with something akin to grief, and for good reason: “Red Eye’s” absence will leave a glaring hole in the cable news landscape, a nightly “news” program that was willing to have a little bit of fun.
Those of you who haven’t been struck by sleeplessness at 3 a.m. Eastern, midnight Pacific, may be unfamiliar with the show. Launched in 2007, the panel show starred Greg Gutfeld as its host, Bill Schulz as the token punching-bag liberal who could give as good as he took, and Andy Levy as the “ombudsman,” providing corrections — some jokey, some more serious — to the statements made by the show’s participants. Tom Shillue, a stand-up who was a regular on Jimmy Fallon’s show as part of Fallon’s Barbershop Quartet, took over for Gutfeld a couple of years back, maintaining the show’s anarchic spirit after its original host left for bigger and better things.
Gutfeld, Levy, and Schulz infused “Red Eye” with a chaotic spirit, featuring a wide array of guests such as comedians Amy Schumer, Jim Norton, Sherrod Small, former White House spokeswoman Dana Perino, and conservative writers such as Charles C.W. Cooke and John Podhoretz.
“You got on the set of Red Eye and the only real requirement for the next sixty minutes was that you be clever,” Podhoretz said when I emailed him to ask his impression of the show. “That you say something amusing. And that, when you got corrected on a point of fact by Andy Levy, you threw it right back at him. It was a funny news chat show. There was never been anything like it before and we shall not see its like again.”
Podhoretz really nailed what was so great about appearing on the show, which I was fortunate enough to do several times over its last few months. It was the only cable news show on which I’ve felt truly comfortable — it was almost like a real-life, in-person version of Twitter at its best, a program that reveled in competitive cleverness and understood, in its own meta way, the absurdity of the whole format. Plus: It was fun! As Cooke put it when I asked him what would be missed when the late-night talker disappeared from the airwaves, “Red Eye exhibited the irreverent edge that conservatism is going to need if it’s going to win. Fox lacks that in general; Red Eye had it in spades.”
This doesn’t mean Red Eye couldn’t be smart or serious when the need arose; my all-time-favorite moment on the show came in 2011 when TV’s Andy Levy “apologized” to Chris Brown and his numerous (and idiotic) fans for mocking the girlfriend-beating singer on Twitter:
By happenstance, I was scheduled to be on the panel for one of what would turn out to be the last two shows — the lesson, as always, is to never book Sonny Bunch for anything, ever; he’s a real career killer — when the news “Red Eye” had been canceled came down. And while I was bumped from the panel because big shot A-listers wanted to relive their glory days, I was happy to have the chance to hang out in the green room beforehand and watch the last show’s taping.
It was from the couch — angled off to the side of the studio, where guests sat as they watched the shenanigans unfold — that I truly understood just how special “Red Eye” was, how unique its place on the cable landscape was. I, and a few others, guffawed offstage as the last show’s pleasing mix of in-jokes and sad references to the show’s ending melded seamlessly together. Part Irish wake, part roast, it was a real treat to watch.
As we sat there sipping on our drinks, we saw what made “Red Eye” unique — the silliness and the jokiness, the camaraderie of it all. The slightly lunatic nature of shooting a show that treated pop culture and politics on an equal footing with the intention of putting it on air at three in the morning. We all smiled as things drew to a close; it truly was the end of an era. Some resentment of Fox News is inevitable, but it’s hard to be too angry; “Red Eye’s” fans should be happy it lasted as long as it did. A decade is an almost-inconceivably long time in the world of television.
I’m typing now on a train headed back to Washington, a bit sad I didn’t make it on stage for the last show, a bit weary from heading up and down the Acela corridor in the same day. But I have no regrets: I was happy merely to be invited on “Red Eye” — the only cable news show in the past 10 years to really revel in the inherent absurdity of the format. Congrats are due to Greg and Andy and Tom — you did something no one else would’ve thought possible, and I hope someone is wise enough to resurrect the anarchic spirit you animated.