It was William F Buckley.
He was the one who sent me down a certain path in my late teens. I was in another hotel room, on another tour, flipping through the same channels, trying to pass the time and quell the abject boredom, when I happened on an in-depth interview with him. He wasn’t talking about politics as much as he was talking about human behavior. As a songwriter, THAT got my attention.
I was raised around southern Democrats who had all turned for Reagan when they got a stiff dose of just how bad presidential policies can be, in Jimmy Carter. I probably leaned conservative (as did most of the country) in certain things already. I mean those were the dark ages when your gender was based on whether or not you had a penis or a vagina; when enforcing immigration law wasn’t considered fascism; when lowering taxes was thought to be a good thing and not an act of pure evil; and when loving your country was something actually expected of you instead of a scarlet letter of racism branded on your forehead.
But I didn’t pay too much attention to political thought or theory …until that day. Buckley didn’t talk about Ds and Rs and prattle on in hack political jargon. He talked about motivating principles. What do we as humans all want? Need? Expect? How do we achieve those things? Where does the government fit in to those needs? Where does it NOT fit? Is it present in places it shouldn’t be? Is it NOT present in places it should be?
And what of the people IN government itself? What are their motivating principles? Are they inherently better people – more inherently moral – because they work in government instead of the private sector?
These questions are at the core of any writer’s day-to-day work. Finding out why people do what they do is part of my job description. Buckley led to Milton Friedman and de Tocqueville and Thomas Sowell and many others. And becoming a “conservative” (for me, at least) was more about an odyssey of political thought than it was a knee-jerk reaction to personalities and sound bytes in sensational news stories.
The big problem with a conservative (or what it actually is: classic liberal, which is what I am and what most “libertarians” are) is that it often puts you in the same camp with some of the least thoughtful, least savvy, least articulate politicians this country can produce. And as the token conservative in any room (especially in the entertainment business), I have often found myself being forced in a corner to defend the indefensible.
For the record, I’ve never used the phrase “legitimate rape” or “Adam and Steve” or “Freedom Fries” or any of the cliches that have so often turned some conservatives into …well …cliches.
And so I, like so many others like me, have laughed along with one-sided SNL sketches and late night talk show host jabs and looked past all the absurd Hollywood stereotypes of conservatives, to try and enjoy a movie or sit com. Even when I know they are mischaracterizing ME, I let it go. Because …you know …it’s no big deal. And I allow for all the speeches at the Oscars and Grammy’s and chalked it all up to …I dunno …whatever.
But one night I was again flipping through channels (I do that a lot), when I stumbled on a show at 3 in the morning. I had no idea what network it was on. All I knew is these guys were on fire comedically and their humor was right in line with my own. I perked up and laughed out loud (I hardly ever do that). It felt as though I’d found some kinship out there in TV land.
I’d never seen anyone send up the things I had always rolled MY eyes at but had no one to roll them along with me. These guys weren’t afraid to jump all over the absurdity of sacred cows on the right AND left. They were able to riff on subjects that drive conservatives nuts. They took shots at celebrities (in the right way – not the “barely missing the mark by someone too old to actually get it” way). They were completely on the bleeding edge of culture and weren’t afraid to push the envelope. They were doing jokes inside jokes inside jokes. They were taking nothing, including and ESPECIALLY themselves, seriously.
After the first commercial I realized this was the FOX News Channel. And the show was called Red Eye. From that moment on, I was hooked.
The high-strung host would shamelessly get the names of bands and their songs wrong. Then make the passing comment about house boys being tied in his basement, while making cogent arguments about congressional budgets and culture clashes. Clearly he was moving in and out of schtick so fast it made my head spin; spoofing the straight-faced media host who constantly gets things wrong and doesn’t know it, while simultaneously dissecting the stupidity of things that would be called out by “mainstream” comedians …if they themselves weren’t a part of that stupidity. He played it straight and unapologetic.
It was more edgy and fast-paced than the slow-plodding Colbert (who had one overtly obvious running gag) and was operating on a few different levels than even than patron saint of the humor/news mashup, John Stewart (one of Stewart’s writers even ended up as the Red Eye host, later).
There was a character named “TV’s Andy Levy” (halftime ombudsman) which was a clear send up of people being “TV’s” something. Famous for nothing, yet there. We have no idea why, but we just accept it as if it’s supposed to be. Sidekick Bill Shultz was the easy-going liberal balance to host Greg Gutfeld’s brash, intractable character.
Then there would always be a beautiful female guest who was unapologetically showing almost too much leg. It was a literal, living joke about Fox News, itself. And if you weren’t paying close attention and you didn’t understand the context or the “send up” factor, you wouldn’t get all the subtlety. The whole thing was genius.
When my first book came out, my publicist asked me what shows I wanted to do. I said I only wanted to do one: Red Eye. She looked at me like I had three heads. “Seriously? Not Oprah? You want to do that little show at 3 in the morning?”
I told her I would obviously do whatever show she set up, but Red Eye was the only place on the TV dial where I thought I might feel completely comfortable. So, she made some calls and got me on the show. And I did indeed hit it off with the guys. My first run-in with (then) host Greg Gutfeld was when he caught me coming out of the bathroom. He didn’t lecture me about the “slant” of the show or give me any pointers on what or what not to say. He simply introduced himself and said, “I got one rule on this show. Don’t F&*k up!” Ten minutes later …we were on the air together.
Later that night, we shut down a bar, discussing everything from spirituality, love, Jesus and oblivion to wine and wives to weight and nutrition to the absurdity of fame.
His (then) sidekick Bill Shultz was a very sweet man who had actually done research on my daughter’s condition before I came on the show (hardly anyone really ever does that). I got to sit with Imogene Weber (Andrew Lloyd’s daughter) and discuss how her father could actually fix a sink. Or maybe he couldn’t. I can’t remember and it was loud in the bar.
I found them all to be genuine, gracious, knowledgeable, curious and much softer edged than their on-screen personas. Incidentally, I didn’t find ANY of those things to be the case when I did CNN.
I ended up doing the show several times. And they asked me back several times after that. But flying to to New York and getting my own hotel at a moment’s notice is hard to do with my family situation. It also gets pretty expensive. So I stopped doing the show several years ago. And the people I met on the show went on to other things.
Greg Gutfeld is now a bonafide FNC star, co-hosting The Five as well as his own show on Saturday nights, that bears his name.
As Fox News goes through a tectonic shift in its programming, and all eyes are on (and off) Bill O’reilly (who I don’t know and couldn’t care less about) and the new bevy of faces and names (who I don’t know and couldn’t care less about) floating across the screen, this little late night show has officially left the air waves. But Red Eye – NOT Bill O’reilly – represented the kind of rowdy, irreverent, “post-everything” conservative I am. NOT the buttoned down, “family values,” “war on Christmas,” brand of conservatism that is such an easy punch line for lazy, comedic hacks. I, for one, will miss it.
The legacy of Red Eye (for me, anyway) is that it exposed the fact that while there is certainly absurd, religious dogma on the right, there is as much absurd, religious dogma on the left. The difference is the left’s “religion” IS government. And government is made up of people. And people are flawed and contradictory and ridiculous.
And if you take yourself or your politics too seriously, it doesn’t matter what side of the political spectrum you’re on. You’re already the punch line of a joke waiting to be written.