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The Comedy Stylings of Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson

The truly remarkable story behind Duck Dynasty is about a family of backwoods duck hunters who capitalized on liberal stereotypes about rural America by playing A&E like a fiddle.


If Phil Robertson were a liberal, he would know exactly how to smooth things over with A&E after the uproar he raised with his politically incorrect GQ interview. He would take a page from the Jon Stewart playbook, and call himself a comedian. Everyone knows that comedians are allowed to be crude and politically incorrect without suffering any consequences. No one is permitted to question the precise line at which their humor bleeds into serious advocacy. Comedians are practically the only people in the world nowadays who get a pass when they say true (but unpleasant) things about sex.

Unfortunately, this strategy probably won’t work for the patriarch of A&E’s hit reality series, Duck Dynasty. But it’s worth taking a moment to savor the delicious ironies of A&E’s predicament, because the truth is, Phil Robertson is a comedian, and a good one at that. The problem is that Phil Robertson wasn’t supposed to be a comedian. He was supposed to be a punch-line. In the eyes of the liberal entertainment industry, redneck humor is only permissible when rednecks are the joke, not when they’re making them, and that’s why Robertson has to go.

In the aftermath of the kerfuffle, plenty of conservative writers have made the point that society should have room for a genuinely diverse array of viewpoints, and that politically correct liberals are totalitarian bullies who only “tolerate” those who agree with them. That’s all true and worth repeating, but it’s fairly old news to anyone who follows conservative media, or just happens to know any PC liberals. And it misses the point a little, because this defense gives tacit support to the notion that Phil Robertson is a crazed fringe figure when the network’s real problem is that he wasn’t nearly fringe enough. The truly remarkable story behind Duck Dynasty is about a family of backwoods duck hunters who capitalized on liberal stereotypes about rural America by playing A&E like a fiddle.

If you watch television or movies at all, you probably understand what backwoods red-staters are supposed to be. They fall a notch above skinheads as among the world’s most repulsive human specimens. Examples from popular media are legion, but my personal favorite comes from “Million Dollar Baby,” Hollywood’s revenge for the 2004 elections. The protagonist’s white-trash relations are greasy, overweight, and so callous that they take an extended tour of Disney World before dropping by the hospital to try to hoodwink their newly paralyzed daughter out of her boxing earnings. That’s what rednecks are supposed to be. The much-maligned Honey Boo-Boo series gave hillbillies a somewhat more human face, but still largely portrayed the featured family as disgusting and dysfunctional. We’re meant to laugh at them and their backwards, ridiculous lifestyle.

Enter Duck Dynasty. A&E thought it would be Honey Boo-Boo with a Beverly Hillbilly twist. In the Robertsons, however, we see a redneck family that viewers actually admire. They cover the genre by serving up plenty of over-the-top high jinks. But they aren’t buffoons, just a nice family who knows how to laugh at themselves and have a little fun. It doesn’t hurt that they’re also rich and famous with a successful business and a close-knit community of extended relations who actually seem to like each other.

How can it be surprising that Americans love the Robertsons? They show us a world in which men can be manly and women womanly, while children are happy and numerous. Where most reality shows revel in petty sin and vice, Duck Dynasty depicts a side of America that its 12 million viewers actually like. A&E tried to rein in the red state love-fest by asking the family to tone down their Christian references. They declined. They attempted to edge the show down-market by inserting bleeps where no cursing had actually occurred. Phil Robertson went to the press and complained.

Robertson is the show’s dominant personality, and it’s his comic genius that really sticks it to a liberal media whose anti-redneck prejudices he completely understands. Knowing precisely what is expected of him, he seizes the redneck stereotype and gives it a wicked, ironic twist. Robertson’s appeal lies partly in the fact that he’s the sort of tough-skinned paterfamilias who inspires even a GQ reporter to try to impress him by lamely boasting he has, in fact, fired a gun. Modern television has given us a plethora of bumbling, teddy bear father figures who are providers, first and foremost, of comic relief. Robertson represents another kind of father. Literally and figuratively, he sits at the head of the table.

This would be appealing under any circumstances, but as it happens he is also hilariously funny, quite obviously by design. His practiced deadpan style is perfect for his crusty-old-man persona. He has trademark phrases (“happy happy happy”) that he employs to comic effect. He deftly employs irony, as when we see him denigrating cooking as an unmanly activity while skinning frogs’ legs with an obviously practiced hand. Most importantly, though, he knows how to use his comedic cover to say what is otherwise forbidden. Viewers love the way his over-the-top style allows him to make shrewd observations about men and women, the prissiness of city folk, the trials of family life and a whole range of other very human topics. The crude passage in which he explains his own, err, sexual preferences, is vintage Robertson humor, and exactly the kind of comment that is genuinely deserving of a “comedian’s pass.”

There is a difference, of course, between Robertson and the professional comedians who have provided so much ha-ha advocacy on behalf of the left. Both incorporate serious points into their humor, but Jon Stewart skillfully uses his clown nose to deflect the worst criticisms that might arise from his controversial views and abusive journalistic practices. By contrast, the Robertsons can stand up and admit when they aren’t just kidding. Read over this fabulous statement that the family issued a few days after A&E announced their decision. Would it even be possible for a member of the politically correct left to show this kind of courage? Integrity like this is what made Duck Dynasty so beloved in the first place.

In the midst of the controversy a number of people have asked: do liberals even watch Duck Dynasty? Isn’t it a little ridiculous to put rednecks on the air and then censor them for saying redneck things? Why doesn’t GLAAD just use this to “start a conversation” about backwoods bigotry and what we should do about it?

The answer to these questions reveals how outrageous this entire controversy really is. If Robertson were the hapless hick he was intended to be, he probably could quote controversial Bible passages without getting the boot. But viewers like him, and GLAAD can’t allow Americans to like a homophobe. He is in the rare position of being an entertainer who was fired for being too popular.

It’s more than that, though. Phil Robertson was fired because the overlords of liberal media can’t handle the idea that a professional funny man might come out of the back woods of Louisiana with a long, unkempt beard and a shotgun. It’s ridiculous to them to suppose that he could be deserving of the same license that they extend to the much-ballyhooed “creative class.” In dozens of denunciations on Robertson’s “coarse, offensive” remarks on sexuality, almost nobody notes the obviously relevant fact that Robertson is a humorist.

This controversy is as much about anti-redneck prejudice as it is about anti-Christian prejudice. America shouldn’t stand for an entertainment industry that permits and perpetuates this kind of bigotry.