Will Rogers made Jon Stewart. We’ll look at the cowboy comedian who kicked it off.
Before Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert and Mort Sahl and Lewis Black, Americans fell in love with a cowboy comedian who told it like it was, plain and simple.
Will Rogers was famous for his lariat and rope tricks, his aw-shucks way, his common touch. Everything he knew he read in the newspapers, he said.
But in his day, Will Rogers, homespun comic, was a much bigger draw than Oprah, and a political powerhouse. His humor moved the nation.
This hour On Point: Will Rogers, the cowboy comedian who cleared the way for Comedy Central.
- Tom Ashbrook
Richard D. White, professor of public administration at Louisiana State University and author of “Will Rogers: A Political Life.” He’s also written biographies of Theodore Roosevelt and Huey Long.
- Listen to our previous hour with Richard D. White on “All the King’s Men” and Huey Long
- Learn more about the cowboy comedian at the Will Rogers Memorial Museum.
Will Rogers: A Political Life
When Will Rogers arrived in Manchuria during the winter of 1931, he was one of America’s best-known public figures and the nation’s foremost political commentator and social critic. From just before World War I, through the Jazz Age, Prohibition, the great Depression, and up until his tragic death in 1935, his humor captivated the nation and the world. Millions of Americans looked upon him as one of their most loved and trusted friends, and to many he was regarded as family. His popularity was unbounded. During the last two years of his life he was the top male box-office attraction at the movies, one of the most widely read newspaper columnists, and a radio commentator with an audience of over sixty million. For over a decade, he produced a remarkable outpouring of commentary—666 weekly newspaper columns, 2,817 daily newspaper articles, 69 radio broadcasts, 71 movies, and six books.4 (His grammar and spelling are reproduced in this book’s quotations.) every morning in drugstores and barbershops across the nation, men reading their papers glanced up at their friends and asked, “Did you read what Will had to say today?”
Rogers had an amazing entertainment career, but he was much more than just a talented humorist. He was the most incisive political commentator of his era who, beneath his humor, provided his countrymen a critically honest appraisal of American politics and world affairs. Few men touched the American moral and political conscience more deeply than Rogers. His astute observations, his ability to go straight to the heart of the matter and then put that into words that resonated with his listeners, propelled him to a level of influence unequaled in American history. When the witty one-liners are stripped away from Rogers’s message, a sobering and powerful view of his political clout appears. A closer look at whom he met, where he traveled, and the subjects of his writings and speeches reveals not so much a comedian but a true political insider with the power to shape public opinion and ultimately influence public policy.
Unfortunately, history has done a disservice to Will Rogers by frequently painting him in caricature as a hayseed cowboy comedian. Scholars and biographers rarely recognize his impact upon the political scene, discounting his influence because of his humorous routine, bucolic and innocent demeanor, lack of formal education, and Native American heritage. But some truly exceptional men such as Will Durant, George Bernard Shaw, H. L. Mencken, Bernard Baruch, and Carl Sandburg saw through Rogers’s homespun façade, each recognizing his true brilliance and power to influence public opinion and policy, each recognizing Rogers as a savvy commentator, well read, and the possessor of a keen knowledge of human nature. Like others who knew him well, they saw a streak of genius behind his beguiling grin.
Excerpt courtesy of the Texas Tech University Press