Picture this: A big-boned Jesus-looking figure with flowing hair, a folded up blue bandana across his forehead, and a long beard reminiscent of a 30-something Santa walks into a gas station. In many parts of the country, that might be when you start eyeballing the exits. But in the town of West Monroe, Louisiana, that just means at least one of the Robertson brothers has pulled up – and it’s about to get good.
The latter reaction is also the one seen wherever there are fans of the A&E hit series “Duck Dynasty” – the show (premiering its third season on Wednesday at 10/9c) that follows the Robertson clan as they camp, shoot, and pray their way through life while trying to run their successful Duck Commander duck call business. And there are definitely plenty of fans.
Take Melbourne, Florida, for example. On Friday, Duck Commander CEO and the show’s main character, Willie Robertson, called this reporter to talk about the show’s success and what it’s like having a family reality show. Seven minutes into the interview, we got an answer.
“Hang on,” he says to me, interrupting himself. “Hey brother. Hey man, appreciate it. Thank you, thank you.”
“Good to see you!” someone yells in the background.
‘Good to see you,” he responds in his slow, Southern drawl that almost tastes like a tall glass of sweet tea.
Then he explains. He’s heading to Melbourne to visit his friend -- Washington Nationals first baseman Adam LaRoche – who also happens to be his partner in another show called “Buck Commander” on the Outdoor Channel. LaRoche is there for spring training and Willie is hoping to hit some baseballs with him before heading to the Daytona 500. But an impromptu stop at a gas station means a little delay.
“As we speak, I’m taking a picture right now – right here in Melbourne, Florida,” he explains, talking and posing simultaneously.” [The fans] are really all over.”
And in some ways, that’s a little surprising for Willie.
“I didn’t really know if we would translate into TV, even hunting TV,” he admits. That’s despite the family having made countless videos and DVDs since the 80s.
“You know, we would spit, we would do these things that most people wouldn’t do on TV … . Also, I didn’t even know if a hunting show-- I didn’t know if the American public could take a family about hunting, you know, because it might seem a little too taboo.”
The numbers say America not only can “take” it, but America loves it. The show’s season two finale in December was the “most watched series telecast in network history” according to information provided to TheBlaze by A&E. And just as important in this age of social media, it “was also the top trending TV show on Facebook in 2012.”
That might just explain why Willie can’t even stop at a gas station without taking a picture.
How Real is Duck Dynasty’s “Reality” TV?
With the shows addicting qualities (a funny twist on scenarios faced by everyday people, a mother obsessed with cooking finger-licking southern dishes, and even a crazy uncle named Si) comes the obvious question: Is the reality show really “real?”
Yes, says Willie. But he explains how the finished product comes together.
“When you’re doing TV, it has to be shaped to some extent or it would never have a beginning and an end. It’s not just random hidden cameras,” he says, having pulled over to the side of the road after his gas-station photo session.
“So we’ll get put in a situation and then, you know, most everything that happens is what happens in there.”
That doesn’t mean the production company won’t make suggestions about certain scenarios or that every interaction goes off without a hitch.
“Sometimes you get there and somebody just doesn’t know -- they just sit there and say nothing. So you gotta, kind of, you know, figure [it] out. You’re trying to tell a story in 22 minutes, so it needs to begin, needs to end.”
“And you also have to let people know the little things that you have to say to let people know what the heck is going on because they don’t know,” he says, a reference to the post-production interviews that are sprinkled throughout each episode. Those interviews – especially those with the sometimes-hard-to-understand Uncle Si – are many times the highlight of the show.
“But it’s real,” he emphasizes. “Somebody says, ‘Oh I don’t know if you guys are just putting it all on.’ Well, you know, I don’t remember going to acting school, so if we’re all great actors, none of us studied how to be actors. We’re all just being ourselves and doing what we’re doing and the situations just come up.”
And while each situation is rich in comedy, sometimes there is Robertson history baked in that might be lost to those unfamiliar with the now-millionaire family’s humble roots – roots that aren’t ignored in the show.
Four of the Robertson women. From left: Korie (Willie's wife), Jessica (Jep's wife), Miss Kay (Phil's wife), and Missy (Jase's wife). In the back, from left, are Jep, Duck Commander employee Justin Martin, and Uncle Si. (Photo: A&E)
Take one of season three’s premiere episodes, which features the clan’s tradition of camping out before the duck hunting season’s opening day. While Willie’s brother Jase, Uncle Si, and a few other Duck Commander employees try hard to stick to the traditional, outdoor, tent-and-camp-fire method, Willie decides to use the company’s extravagant RV. Hilarity ensues. But for Willie talking about it after-the-fact, it’s also a reminder about where the family has come from and how they haven’t abandoned their humble beginnings.
“I figured, ‘well, y’all can sleep outside if you want, I want the bed and the toilet and all that,’” he says. “My wife always wants to go camping, and I say, ‘Hey, I grew up camping. My whole growing-up was a camp-out, so now that I have enough money, I want to go to a nice hotel.’"
He adds later: “Our house was like a camp-out growing up and I certainly slept outside and all that. … There’s no doubt in real life that’s exactly what I would do. You know, that’s the kind of stuff that I’d do and then Jace, that’s the kind of guy he is. He just wants to go out and sleep on the ground and, you know, that’s just him.”
“I lived that life,” he says. “If you grow up rich, you want to try to go out and try to live like poor people, so it’s funny how that kind of changes in life.”
It’s no secret that the Robertsons’ livelihood is entwined with the gun industry. Hunting, despite what theories some might come up with, is a gun sport – especially duck hunting. As long as there are guns, there will be duck hunters. And as long as there are duck hunters, there will be the need for a duck call company.
So what does Willie think about renewed calls for gun control?
“We’re certainly pro-second amendment and pro-guns,” he says. But it’s not a business-driven stance. “It’s not just our livelihood, but that’s what we like to do, you know: we hunt.”
And in his opinion, guns aren't the problem -- "evil" people are.
“I think it’s the person behind it, and you know, who’s doing these crazy, evil things. I just think it’s evil and I think that certain people are evil, and whether they do it with a gun or a car or airplane or bottle of poison, you know, evil people are gonna do evil things whether they have a weapon or not."
“Gun owners and non-gun owners, you know, everyone hates that stuff," he adds. "But, you know, when things happen, I think it’s best to discuss and have a debate and not overreact too soon.”
Given his affinity for firearms, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that he has a favorite one. But what might be surprising is what that gun is.
“I’d say I’m a rifle guy, ‘cause I do a lot of deer hunting,” says the man whose current fame has a lot to do with ducks and thus shotguns.
“I’d say my 7mm magnum Savage … with an accu-trigger,” he explains. “I actually built mine. I went to the company. I went to the facility and built it myself. … Those Savages, man, I’ll tell you what: They say out of the box they’re the most accurate rifles there are. … Great workers up there, pretty cool deal. I like them as a company, and it performs very well.”
Ever Wonder About the Story Behind His Stars and Stripes Bandana?
Most stars can hide behind dark sunglasses and a hat. But when you have as distinct a look as the Robertsons, that’s not as easy. Willie’s signature stars and stripes bandana makes him even easier to spot. So what’s the story behind it?
“I always wear a bandana, and it wasn’t to be cool,” he says, chuckling a little. It was to keep my hair [out of my face], because when your hair’s this long-- I don’t know how women do it ‘cause it was constantly in my face and all of that, so I would just wear a bandana to keep my hair back.”
When it came time to start filming “Duck Dynasty,” the network said it was having a hard time telling all the Robertson brothers apart. So producers brought Willie a slew of bandanas and told him to pick one. Naturally, he went with the U.S.A. theme.
“It’s not the American flag,” he stresses, “it’s a version of it ‘cause if you tie an American flag [to your head], it doesn’t look right and people didn’t like wearing a flag anyway.”
In the name of consistency, the show has him wear it during nearly every episode. Now it’s become an identifying marker, and something he’s likely not to change. He says he’s joked with producers, asking them,“Am I ever gonna get to wear a different bandana?”
Maybe not on the show. But he does try to limit wearing it when the cameras aren’t rolling, like in gas stations across the South.
“If I’m out in public, I try, I really try, not to wear that one ‘cause that’s a dead giveaway.”
Faith, Family, and Flirting
If you want to know what type of people the Robertsons are, just ask about religion.
“Faith is the number one thing in our lives, and so everything revolves around it: our marriages, our families, our business,” Willie says unashamedly.
And each episode is a reminder: the show always ends with the family saying a prayer before a meal. And in an age when one’s Christian faith is increasingly a closet belief, the Robertsons aren’t ducking out (pun intended). The family’s patriarch, Phil, regularly is shown reading his Bible – and scripture even makes an appearance in the season three premiere (but not in the way you might think).
“That’s how we can be so successful, that’s how you can work with your family, that’s how we can stay married, you know, because it’s a higher calling than just that. If you stick with God’s plan, it makes a lot of things a lot easier.”
“To put all the time and everything that it takes to make a show like this and have a bigger platform to get the message out and this particular vehicle of doing it, it’s not a lot, but you know, it’ll help us do the baby steps. … In today’s world of mainstream TV, it’s a pretty positive view to actually show prayer and all that on TV. It used to be that was more common, and now you really stand out in the crowd.”
And the success of the show has shown that there is a large segment of America that appreciates the faith aspect of “Ducky Dynasty’s” brand of reality TV.
“I mean if nobody watches it then who cares?”
Still, that’s not to say that each episode is modern-day “Andy Griffith Show.”
“I mean, dad [Phil] is pretty crude and some of the stuff he says, I’m like ‘holy cow.’ [Still], I heard the same speech when I was 15. He’s just like that, I mean, he just lays it out there the way it is. And I think a lot of guys see that in their dads too: just kind of a little bit different attitude, different generation. And he’s certainly open with it and lays it out there.”
In fact, on Wednesday viewers will see how Phil, after all these years of marriage, is still trying to woo his wife, referred to as “Miss Kay.” That’s where the scripture comes in – and a lot of flirting.
When asked about sexual banter between Phil and Kay – which is regularly featured – makes him feel, Willie takes an approach that might surprise some.
“I’m going to take a different spin and say it actually makes me feel proud,” he explains. “I’m glad that they still do, and that they’re happily married. I’m proud that they are, you know, I’m glad that they’re so open with themselves. Hopefully I will be too at that age.”
For now, Willie and the Robertsons have turned flirting with hit TV into a marriage between great television and hot ratings. And as Phil regularly says on the show, that makes both the family and the audience “Happy, happy, happy.”
For pictures and episodes of "Duck Dynasty" visit the show's page on A&E.
Editor's note: We discussed this story and all the day's news during our Monday, February 25, live BlazeCast. You can hear author Jon Seidl's comments on what didn't make the final piece and what it was like interviewing Willie in the archived version, below (make sure to see how Seidl dressed up in honor of the show):