How 21st century America is this: A hirsute reality-show star who makes bird noises for a living — and quacks polarizing remarks in his spare time — has been suspended for being too real, setting off a social-media-driven brouhaha about free speech and sexual orientation.
And somehow giving his No. 1 show even more big buzz.
Phil Robertson, the patriarch of Duck Dynasty, A&E's cable reality smash about a Louisiana crew of millionaire duck-callers — a program that generates $400 million in revenue, half from Walmart sales — said in GQ that homosexuality is an illogical "sin." Addressing race, he also intimated that the days of Jim Crow were one big happy party.
A&E put Robertson, 67, on an indefinite hiatus, but the rest of his bearded brood isn't backing down, late Thursday announcing: "We have had a successful working relationship with A&E but, as a family, we cannot imagine the show going forward without our patriarch at the helm."
The hullabaloo from the GQ piece has been immediate and intense, a tug-of-war of support and shame-on-him, all driven to fevered heights by our 24-7 news cycle and Internet circus. Everyone can sound off these days, so everyone does. A&E says it's upset, but are they really that surprised that Phil Robertson isn't clicking his swamp boots over same-sex marriage laws?
You can sort out villains and heroes, rights and wrongs. The truth is that Phil Robertson, portrayed on the show as out-of-touch but genial, gets paid to be Phil Robertson — except when he's a little too Phil Robertson.
Open-minded, Phil is not. Bible-quoting, you betcha. And yet, that's exactly why as many as 12 million viewers tune in to each Duck Dynasty, to hear a bandanna-wearing man speak his mind about what's important: church, hunting and a tight-knit family that loves and bickers with equal vigor. Off camera, he has routinely fought producers who try to edit his references to "Jesus." All told, that's why A&E pays the cast $200,000 total per show. And why you can buy Duck Dynasty Chia Pets, Duck Dynasty air fresheners, a Duck Dynasty Christmas album.
Phil Robertson is stuck in his ways, more so than ever.
And that's why more viewers than ever will watch Duck Dynasty when it returns in January.
• • •
Let's be honest: Robertson's "hiatus" probably won't hold. There's just too much money involved. There's a lot of support, too. At least two Facebook pages supporting him have culled more than 3 million total "likes": "Stand With Phil Robertson" and "Boycott A&E Until Phil Robertson Is Put Back on Duck Dynasty." On Twitter, #StandWithPhil and #IStandWithPhilRobertson are getting support from a largely pro-free-speech fan base. People may be digging Phil for his societal cluelessness, but they're also defending his right to be clueless.
With a major national election right around the corner, Duckgate has also turned into a political cha-cha. Does the road to the White House go through Duck Dynasty? Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican and possible presidential contender, ripped A&E: "The politically correct crowd is tolerant of all viewpoints, except those they disagree with." Sarah Palin defended Robertson, as well.
Gay rights organization GLAAD, a powerful group, ripped right back: "Phil and his family claim to be Christian, but Phil's lies about an entire community fly in the face of what true Christians believe. He clearly knows nothing about gay people or the majority of Louisianans — and Americans — who support legal recognition for loving and committed gay and lesbian couples."
So where does all of this leave A&E? In good shape actually.
The twist in all of this is that Duck Dynasty has just been given tremendous free publicity. Christmas album Duck the Halls has seen its sales increase since the comments; it's expected to move another 125,000 copies this week, putting its total around 575,000.
Season five of the TV show, which has already been filmed, is scheduled to premiere Jan. 15.
A&E has yet to alter their profitable plans to let the bird boys fly. That allows plenty of time for future negotiation and, even more crucial, for everyone, as the public is often wont to do, to forget the fuss and just be "happy, happy, happy."
Times staff writer Sharon Kennedy Wynne contributed to this report. Sean Daly can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @seandalypoplife.