How do you make a 225-year-old document feel relevant in today’s world of pixels and gigabytes? You ask Peter Sagal to take the reigns. At least that’s what Twin Cities Public Television and Insignia Films did with Constitution USA, a four-part PBS series that premieres tonight.
To find out how the man behind Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me went about tackling this project, we asked Sagal to fill us in on how he got the gig, where he falls on the political spectrum, and the story behind the red, white, and blue Harley.
MINNESOTA MONTHLY: How does a radio news-quiz host go from making jokes about women stealing fur coats by stuffing them down their pants to hosting a national television series about the Constitution?
PETER SAGAL: Well, even though I make fun of politics for my job, when I was first hired for Wait, Wait, I was introduced as a guy who’s deeply interested in history and civics. I read the papers, listen to the radio, watch the news—I love that stuff.
MM: So Constitution USA won’t include any cracks about how “duty of tonnage” sounds like a bathroom joke?
PS: There will be jokes, don’t worry—and also Monty Python-esque cartoons. One of the reasons I was hired was because I’m able to bring humor to things that would otherwise be boring or seem irrelevant. It’s a mix of fun and fact.
MM: What’s the deal with the Harley?
PS: When they were thinking up a way to link everything together in the series, they came up with the idea of a road trip. Then they saw in my bio from forever ago that I rode motorcycles and thought, perfect! I hadn’t ridden a bike in probably 20 years. It was a lot of fun.
MM: Did you make it to every state?
PS: No, I think the final count was 26. But my personal count is every state minus North Dakota, New Mexico, and Idaho. I define visiting a state as eating a meal there.
MM: Tell me about a surprising moment you had while filming.
PS: A personal, emotional surprise happened for me when I talked to Al Snyder. He’s the Snyder in the 2011 court case Snyder v. Phelps. His son was killed in Iraq, and the funeral was picketed by Westboro Baptist Church (of which Fred Phelps is the founder). He sued for emotional distress and won the first round. But the Fourth Circuit reversed the ruling on appeal and concluded that Westboro’s statements were protected by the First Amendment.
So I’m sitting there in the kitchen with this grieving father and he’s arguing with me that the church’s speech was so offensive it should have been banned. And in my mind I’m like, actually no, that’s not how it works. No matter how offensive something is, that’s not the point of the First Amendment.
MM: If you could sit down with the founding fathers, what would you ask them to clarify?
PS: I’d ask them why they basically built slavery into this nation, and then happily point out that doing so was a mistake. I’d ask them what exactly they meant by the second amendment. I’d ask them to clarify what they meant by “high crimes and misdemeanors;” to explain the whole Electoral College thing.
But one thing I realized through all this is they wrote the Constitution like they did because it was meant to be vague. Other constitutions around the world have been much less successful because they are really specific. The most important thing those men did was to leave things vague so we can make up our own minds. I think it was intentional. If you ask them to be more specific you’re taking away democracy from us.
MM: Where do you fall on the political spectrum?
PS: I’d say I’m fairly moderate. I believe in democracy and good government—that it needs to be responsible and do what’s necessary. I believe in the possibility of self-governance; that we as a society are actually capable of making things work.
MM: That’s a pretty optimistic point of view.
PS: I’m one of the few survivors in the “hopeful middle.” Most people think the Constitution exists to validate their rights and freedom, to provide the answers. It doesn’t. It’s just a piece of paper (well, technically four pieces of parchment) that describes how we can get together and decide the answers together. I believe in that process—that the best way to solve the issues facing us is to deal with them democratically, as described. It’s like Tinkerbell.
PS: Yep. The Constitution by itself is just paper. It isn’t a magical totem. It only works and has succeeded in America because everyone from the most powerful figures to least of these believes in it, more or less. We agree to vote, to pay a parking ticket—everyone makes a collective, conscious decision to obey the law. And when the law is broken, we prosecute. The Constitution only works if we believe in it. Tinkerbell only lives if everyone believes in fairies. If we decided not to believe in it, it would vanish and fail, too. It’s just a piece of paper.
Constitution USA premieres tonight on Channel 2 at 8 p.m.