Rogers, Will (1879-1935)
Rogers, Will (1879-1935)
Humorist Will Rogers' impact upon American culture was great and lasting. He made himself into the archetypal American Everyman, apparently baffled and out-smarted by the machinations of politicians and tycoons, but in reality always managing to get the better of them through the shrewd and timely use of common sense and self-effacing humor. Some 35 years before Mort Sahl based his nightclub act on satirical observations of government officials, writer-actor-humorist Rogers told a joint session of Congress, "It's a pleasure to be here in Washington with all these other comedians. The only thing is, when you make a joke, it's a law! And when you make a law, it's a joke." But Rogers was not so much a pioneer in the realm of political humor as he was an utterly unique character, whose wry and seemingly naive comments on U.S. politics and society were so integral a part of his public persona that no entertainer could have modeled his act on Rogers' without being dismissed as a mere imitator. When Rogers, a lifelong Democrat ("No, I'm not a member of an organized political party—I'm a Democrat") was introduced to Republican President Calvin Coolidge, he held out his hand and cocked his head to one side. "Pardon," he said, "Didn't catch the name." It was the only occasion during Coolidge's presidency when he was observed to smile.
Born William Penn Adair Rogers on November 4, 1879, on a ranch between Claremore and Oologah, in Oklahoma (then known as the Indian Nation), he became an expert rider and roper at a very early age. Both of Rogers' parents were part Cherokee, and when a reporter asked him if any of his ancestors had come over on the Mayflower, he replied, "No, my ancestors met the boat." He received a very light formal education, admitting only to two years at Kemper Military Academy in Booneville, Missouri ("One year in the guardhouse and one in the fourth grade"). He left school for good in 1898 to become a cowboy in the Texas Panhandle, from there drifted to Argentina, and eventually joined Texas Jack's Wild West Circus with a rope-trick act, making his first public appearance in Johannesburg, South Africa, during the Boer War (1899-1902).
When Rogers returned to the United States, he continued with his roping act, playing at county fairs and in vaudeville. Twirling his lariat, making fantastic shapes in the air, he would tell stories and jokes and began to introduce topical humor into his act. As his popularity increased, the humor became more and more important, and by the time his act reached the New York stage in 1905, the rope tricks had become props and punctuation for the jokes. Branching into musical comedy, he had his first taste of real fame: a starring role in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1916. His standard lead-in line, "All I know is what I read in the papers," became something of a signature and a ubiquitous watchword in the 1920s. The zenith of his New York stage career came in 1934 when he appeared in Eugene O'Neill's only comedy, Ah, Wilderness!, and he made his film debut in 1918. It wasn't until the advent of sound, however, that he became a popular box-office attraction, starring in such memorable John Ford features as Judge Priest (1934) and Steamboat 'round the Bend (1935). Meanwhile, he had begun a successful parallel career as a writer, at first of humorous books (The Cowboy Philosopher on Prohibition, The Illiterate Digest) and, from 1926 onwards, as a syndicated columnist. He also conquered the new medium of radio as a commentator, and had all of America laughing when he announced, "I don't know jokes; I just watch the government and report the facts." All of his brilliant gifts were tragically silenced in 1935 when, flying in Alaska with the noted aviator Wiley Post, the plane crashed and both men were killed.
Will Rogers left other political humorists with very little to do, and the field lay mostly fallow until the late 1950s when Mort Sahl revived political humor. Sahl did so from a very different point of view, commenting that "Will Rogers's act was that he was a country bumpkin up against clever sophisticates, whereas my situation is just the reverse."
Alworth, E. Paul. Will Rogers. New York, Twayne Publishers, 1974.
Axtell, Margaret S. Will Rogers Rode the Range. Phoenix, Allied Printing, 1972.
Brown, William R. Imagemaker: Will Rogers and the American Dream. Columbia, University of Missouri Press, 1970.
Carter, Joseph H. I Never Met a Man I Didn't Like: The Life and Writings of Will Rogers. New York, Avon Books, 1991.
Robinson, Ray. American Original: A Life of Will Rogers. New York, Oxford University Press, 1996.
Rogers, Will. Autobiography. Selected and edited by Donald Day.Boston, Houghton Mifflin Co., 1949.
Rogers, Will. The Papers of Will Rogers. Edited by Arthur Frank Wertheim and Barbara Bair. Norman, University of Oklahoma Press, 1996.