History Channel Says Evel Knievel, Bruce Lee 'Built' America

The History Channel is giving credit for “building” America to some pretty unlikely candidates.

See if you agree with these America-builders, all subjects of “The Icons That Built America,” a new History Channel documentary series starting Sunday: Evel Knievel, Bruce Lee, Richard Pryor, Howard Stern and the late-’80s rap group N.W.A.

When I think of builders, I think of the physical things people actually build -- the Hoover Dam, the Empire State Building, the transcontinental railroad, the New York City subway system, more than 14,000 McDonald’s across the nation -- you know, stuff people love (with the possible exception of the subway).

Thus, one could ask: What did Evel Knievel build? The only thing I can think of are the ramps he needed to fly his motorcycles over parked cars.



Bruce Lee? I have no argument for or against the ferocity of his fists of fury, but what did he actually build? 

Howard Stern, Richard Pryor and N.W.A. are interesting choices. In a way, Howard Stern did build something -- namely, huge radio audiences. But many others had done that too.

By now, the point is made: The people on this list did not really “build” anything. They seem to have been chosen for this series because of the way they influenced popular culture and, in the case of Stern, Pryor and N.W.A., upended it. 

Stern was the leading light of what came to be known as “shock radio.” Pryor was an incendiary, anything-goes, stand-up comedian whose influence is cited by a generation of stand-ups. N.W.A. was a progenitor of what came to be known as gangsta rap. 

If these contributions to the world are responsible for “building” America, then it is the first time I’m hearing about it.

But on History Channel, a great many things and people are responsible for “building” America. 

Two previous docuseries told tales of “The Toys That Built America” (Lego, perhaps?) and “The Food That Built America” (let me guess: Cheeseburgers!).

Like those others, “The Icons That Built America” relies heavily on reenacted scenes featuring actors in the starring roles of the icons of America-building. That’s the faux Evel Knievel in the photo above.

Maybe one way of testing the validity of crediting Evel Knievel and the rest with the “building” of America is to ask ourselves: If there had been no Evel Knievel, Bruce Lee, Richard Pryor, Howard Stern or N.W.A., would America have been built at all?

“The Icons That Built America” premieres Sunday, June 23, at 10 p.m. Eastern on History Channel.

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