Yes, the Constitution is the country’s founding document. It’s the basis of our laws and the wellspring of our democracy.
But to be realistic, it’s hard to read. The vocabulary is odd, the grammar often seems off, and the capitalization is random.
Ben Sheehan knows that.
As an entertainer and a onetime executive at Funny or Die, he knows about making people laugh. As the son of parents who have held high-level government jobs, he knows how important it is for citizens to understand how our government works if it is to keep working. So as a comic writer with a strong earnest streak, he’s written a book to explain the Constitution.
On Thursday, May 13, Mr. Sheehan will talk about his book, “OMG WTF Does the Constitution Actually Say?” for the JCC U at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly.
(And for readers with tender ears, OMG WTF can mean Ohio, Michigan, Georgia, Wisconsin, Texas and Florida, if you want it to.)
“The book is a kind of owners’ manual, a plain English guide to the U.S. Constitution,” Mr. Sheehan said. “It annotates it from beginning to end, and puts it in more understandable language, alongside the original text.”
Each section begins with a section of the Constitution, and then Mr. Sheehan provides background, definitions, and, occasionally, in clearly marked paragraphs, his own opinion. “I do that for two reasons — to show that I am a human being, and to serve as a jumping-off point for conversation,” he said. He also points out passages that no longer apply. It provides clarity admirably. And it’s funny.
Mr. Sheehan is 35 years old, so his book is written in his generation’s voice, with enough four-letter words to remind readers of that truth as well.
His background has prepared him for the task he has undertaken — to explain the Constitution straightforwardly and with wit. “I was born in 1984,” he said. “I grew up in Washington D.C. and just outside it. Both my parents have worked both within the government and as contractors with the government” — his mother, Riki Sheehan, “was a senior policy aide to Mark Hatfield, the liberal Republican senator from Oregon who chaired the Appropriations Committee, and my dad, Michael, has coached every Democratic presidential candidate or sitting president since 1988. So I got a civic education over the dinner table.”
After high school — where he was given the pocket Constitution that he still carries — “I went to Emory to study politics, and then to graduate school at NYU, where I studied music, partly at Tisch but mostly at the Steinhardt School. And then, about 10 years ago, I moved to L.A. I was working in the music industry and made the transition to comedy, and then to Funny or Die.
“That’s where I found my passion for merging simple explanations of governmental information with comedy.”
Is it hard, right now, to make politics funny? No, Mr. Sheehan said. “It’s doing it for us. But now we are moving back to a more bureaucratic, less chaotic administration, but there still is a lot of stuff that people didn’t focus on.
“My book tries to get people to focus on legislation, on the federal and particularly at the state level. It’s like civics education, but in the way that you’d talk about it with a friend over drinks, rather than a lecture from a didactic professor.”
To that end, his book is nonpartisan. It’s neutral and fact-based, except in the sections clearly labeled as opinion.
Mr. Sheehan’s passion for explaining how the government works come from his very unfunny understanding that “civics education really has been decimated in our schools in the last few decades. Part of our problems today are because we’ve drastically cut civics education in almost every way, so we have been graduating people who have absolutely no idea of how the government works, and at almost every level. That makes us susceptible to problems, and it leads people to tune out what they don’t understand.”
A lack of knowledge also makes people vulnerable to misinformation, “whether it is watching a YouTube video or reading an article and not being able to tell the difference between truth and untruth. Lack of information — of even basic fundamental information — makes us susceptible to bad actors,” Mr. Sheehan said. “If everyone had a civics education, it would be obvious to them that Mike Pence could not throw out votes. But people who believed that he could, that he had that power, showed up on January 6.
“It is not partisan to say that the vice president does not have the power not to certify votes. That power does not exist.”
This is important stuff, but it’s not particularly funny, at least not yet. That’s where the other part of Mr. Sheehan’s mission comes in.
“How do I make it funny? The comedy, for me, involves calling out the unusual things. There are some strange things buried in the Constitution, like the rules for becoming a Supreme Court justice, the speaker pro tempore of the Congress, and many other positions.” That’s because there are no rules; the Constitution demands no job qualifications. So “a lot of the book really comes down to having new ways of presenting things that are slightly askew.”
And the point of that, Mr. Sheehan said, is to take away the embarrassment people feel at exposing how much they don’t know about things they feel, in some abstract kind of way, that they should know about. “It’s not your fault!” Mr. Sheehan said. Schools didn’t teach it to you, so you don’t know it, and it might seem to you that the only way to learn it is to admit that you don’t know something that you should have known all along. (It’s sort of like waiting too long to ask an acquaintance’s name. If you’ve seen the same person at shul, say, every week for a few years, at some point it’s just too late to ask.)
“But making it casual and unintimidating is telling people that it’s okay that you don’t know.” And that’s how people can learn.
The book Mr. Sheehan will be talking about, “OMG WTF Does the Constitution Actually Say?” is for adults, but he’s about to release a children’s version. “What Does the Constitution Say?: A Kid’s Guide to How Our Democracy Works” is an illustrated, expletive-free version of his first book. “Obviously the tone is different but the content is very similar,” Mr. Sheehan said. “I write about the Constitution section by section for adults, and in small pieces, almost clause by clause, for the kids book. It’s a little more intimate and smaller; it doesn’t quite cover everything. In the adult book, I try to cover every piece of information in the Constitution.”
One last question — is there anything Jewish in the book? Mr. Sheehan is Jewish, so the question isn’t entirely ridiculous, but the Constitution deals with religion as an abstraction, and ethnicity as a non-issue.
The answer, however, is yes.
“I don’t discuss Judaism in the book, but the whole idea of being a civic participant and improving the world around you is tikkun olam,” Mr. Sheehan said. “The whole idea of the book is to create more people who can go out and do that repair.
“The underlying reason for the book’s existence is very Jewish.”
Who: Ben Sheehan
What: Will talk about his book, “OMG WTF Does the Constitution Actually Say?”
When: On Thursday, May 11, from 11 a.m. to noon
Where: On Zoom
For whom: The JCC U at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly
How much: $10 for JCC members; $12 for non-members
To register: Go to jccotp.org, click on adults, then adult programming, and then JCC U, or email the program’s director, Kathy Graff, at firstname.lastname@example.org