Yes, reality TV is talking about the Constitution
There seems to be a lot of talk about the Constitution on television these days, with some interesting opinions from outlets like PBS, the stars of Duck Dynasty, and yes, even Larry the Cable Guy.
The definition of reality television has changed a lot in the past decade. Once upon a time, the cable channel known as TLC was called The Learning Channel, the History Channel actually had a lot of history programming, and the Arts and Entertainment Network (which we now call A&E) had lots of artsy programming.
The channels served as for-profit extensions of the type of educational programming offered by PBS. In fact, The Learning Channel was founded by the Department of Health, Education and Welfare under the Nixon administration in 1972, and privatized in the 1980s.
But in the pursuit of profits, the three networks now thrive on offerings such as Here Comes Honey Boo Boo (from TLC); Pawn Stars (from History Channel); and Duck Dynasty (from A&E).
So a show like Constitution USA, which just finished its first run on PBS this week, would have been a natural as a “real” reality TV show about 15 years ago. Instead, the four-part series, with a gaggle of corporate sponsors and positive media reviews, found a welcome home on PBS.
The show features NPR radio show host Peter Sagal riding a motorcycle around America in search of answers about the Constitution’s ability to keep up with modern society.
You can watch the entire series on the PBS website and judge for yourself. There are lots of questions and answers, and real people who are deeply engaged in constitutional issues. (You’ll also see a few National Constitution Center trustees among the bunch, too.)
One memorable moment in the series is in Part Two, when Sagal sits down with some biking friends at the Arizona Leathernecks Motorcycle Club to discuss the Bill of Rights and individual freedom. The club is made up of Marines who aren’t currently in active service (though as Sagal will tell you, there’s no such thing as an ex-Marine).
The club members also happen to carry pocket Constitutions with them when they ride, just in case they need to settle any arguments about individual rights, like riding without a helmet.
The subject of the Second Amendment didn’t come up with the Leathernecks, at least in the interview shown on the series, but it is at the core of the hottest show on that other form of reality TV.
The surprise hit Duck Dynasty maybe shouldn’t have caught TV executives by surprise. Shows about family lifestyles have done well in recent years, from the original Jon & Kate Plus 8 to the adventures of the Duggar family. And even Honey Boo Boo’s critics will admit that it is a show about a close-knit family.
For the Robertson family on Duck Dynasty, the First and Second Amendments are part of their mantra of faith, family, ducks—and the Constitution.
The family’s most recent first-run show on A&E drew almost 10 million viewers, a blockbuster number for a reality TV show.
The Louisiana-based Robertsons have made out quite well selling duck calls and hunting-related gear, and they’ve also been on the road promoting their show, business, and philosophy.
At a recent appearance in Castle Rock, Colorado, patriarch Phil Robertson entertained a crowd of 2,000 people at a private school fundraiser, with tales about God, the Constitution, and Thomas Jefferson.
According to a local newspaper, Robertson also has opinions about the separation of church and state, a topic that was important to Jefferson, too, in a different way.
“The Founding Fathers would be shocked that there was not biblical instruction in our schools,” Robertson told reporters at a press conference before the appearances. He also spoke about Jefferson at the school, mentioning a phrase that was actually said by Dr. Benjamin Rush back in the day.
“The only foundation for a useful education in a republic is to be laid in religion,” Robertson said.
At another appearance, in Midland, Texas, Robertson attributed part of his business success to “constitutionally protected and biblically sanctioned” duck hunting.
Another reality TV pundit who at least occasionally touches on constitutional issues is Larry the Cable Guy, who is known to his family and friends as Dan Whitney. His first two comedy albums were called “Right to Bare Arms” and “Morning Constitutions.”
Larry, like Peter Sagal, has been traveling across America in search of answers. In Larry’s case, the quest just started its third season on History Channel. In past episodes, Larry has appeared with a professional Abraham Lincoln portrayer in Illinois; spent a day at the Capitol in Washington, D.C.; and joined the TSA at an airport.
In a 2012 episode devoted to guns, Larry dug into the origins of the Second Amendment and squirrel hunting. (Yes, there is a connection; here is the video.)
“Why am I doing a show on guns in America? We are the greatest country in the world because we have the right to bear arms,” he said.
But there is one constitutional quote widely attributed to Larry back in 2011 that was said by someone else:
“They keep talking about drafting a Constitution for Iraq. Why don’t we just give them ours? It was written by a lot of really smart guys, it’s worked for over 200 years, and we’re not using it anymore.”
That’s actually a line attributed to George Carlin in 2005, a few years before the legendary comedian passed away.
Scott Bomboy is the editor-in-chief of the National Constitution Center.
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