The Rope-Throwin’ Political Comedy of Will Rogers

There has never been a comedian with as much political influence and esteem as Will Rogers. If Jon Stewart was one of the most popular movie stars in the country you’d be getting close, but only kinda — and you’d still need to add a bunch of rope tricks. Remember Stephen Colbert’s campaign? Will got there first, and he was drafted into his campaign. Plus he actually received a few votes at the convention. Twice.

Rogers was as full of contradictions as America itself. He was a Cowboy and an Indian. He had a country voice loaded with urban slang. He rose to stardom telling jokes with a chorus of nearly naked women, yet he was the embodiment of decency. He was a member of a denigrated racial minority who never saw any problem with Jim Crow.

“My ancestors didn’t come over on the Mayflower, but they met the boat.”

Rogers was born in what was still Indian Territory in 1879. His father was a successful rancher and politician in the Cherokee Nation who fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War. Will grew up a bonafide cowboy, often working to drive the family’s cattle to market in St. Louis. But his long-term prospects as a cowboy were dim;  the range was dying and the Federal government was once again changing the rules for the Cherokee. Nevertheless, it was his skill with a rope that would make him a star.

After bouncing around the world a bit, he was hired in South Africa by Texas Jack’s Wild West show, whose name I think says something about how fast history becomes cliché. He sang “coon” songs and did a little blackface, because Americans did those things for a century or so, but his real talent was roping. Boy could he throw a rope. He was billed as the Cherokee Kid and posters credited him with “The Most Wonderful Feat Known” which turned out to be catching a galloping horse and rider with two lassos thrown at the same time. He was a quick success and he began to work his way up from circus, to vaudeville, to Broadway and the movies.

He was good at roping but these tricks were hard, and sometimes, he missed. As a defense against rowdy vaudeville crowds he worked up a few jokes.

“If I don’t put one on soon I will have to give out rain checks…There is hope, well we are all chock full of hope — if there was a little better roping and less hoping we would get out of here early tonight…I got it good the other night, you should have been here then.”

He started missing on purpose just so he could lay out a few zingers. Over his years in vaudeville he relied more and more on the jokes to put his act over. Monologists, which is what they called standup comics back when they didn’t know any better, tended to use a rapid patter thick with puns and double entendres. But Rogers was different — his style was easy and subtler. Sometimes people weren’t even sure he was joking. Already politics were creeping into the act.

“I used to tell a joke about Roosevelt, but I don’t tell it any more. I wonder what become of him.”

Politics, and stardom, didn’t arrive full force until he appeared in Zigfield’s Midnight Frolic. There he performed for the rich and powerful of New York. However, his fifteen-minute vaudeville act didn’t cut it with the repeat customers. When the producers threatened to fire him he countered with a better offer: he read the paper everyday, maybe he should use some of that in his act.

“I see where they have captured Villa. Yes they caught him in the morning editions and then the afternoon ones let him get away.”

He also started calling out the famous and powerful in the audience for a little ribbing. Soon enough you weren’t anybody until Will Rogers made fun of you. Even President Wilson wanted in and he traveled to a show just to get the business in person. Rogers could do impressions, too. He played the Secretary of State in a few sketches and once did a radio impression of Coolidge so convincing he telegrammed an apology afterwards.

“I feel pretty proud over that last little gag, as I used it before Pres Wilson in Washington and he repeated it in his Boston speech, Saying ‘as one of our AMERICAN HUMORISTS says,’ Up to then I had only been an ordinary rope thrower.”

He reported on his first political conventions in 1920, and immediately became a fixture of the political scene. His dispatches led directly to weekly and daily columns that were syndicated around the country. His output was enormous. He was also writing for his movie roles, his public speeches and his act in the Follies.

“I have been asked to cover the Republican Convention, to write something funny. All you have to do to write something funny about a Republican Convention, is just tell what happened.”

“The Democrats have already started arguing over who will be the Speaker at the next convention. What they had better worry about is who is going to listen.”

“There is only one redeeming thing about this election. It will be over at sundown, and everybody pray that it is not a tie, for we couldn’t go through with this thing again.”

The Will Rogers persona was a real-life Major Jack Downing. He was a family friend of the Roosevelts. When he returned from a tour of Europe where he met with kings and dictators as a “Self-Made Diplomat” he had an audience with the real President. In fact, he met with lots of Presidents and Secretaries and Senators. He got two votes at the 1924 Democratic Convention. After being drafted into LIFE’s Anti-Bunk Party in 1928 he was able to get 22 votes the next time around at the 1932 Democratic convention. Those votes came courtesy of Oklahoma’s Alfalfa Bill Murray who released the delegates to vote for the local boy. Alfalfa Bill has a great nickname, but here are a few more fun facts that you can use to confuse the hell out of people: Bill Murray was born in Toadsuck, TX. Bill Murray haunts the third step of the main staircase of the governor’s mansion. Bill Murray was elected governor of Oklahoma on a platform that promised to fight “the Three C’s: Corporations, Carpetbaggers, and Coons.” So, there’s that.

Will Rogers wrote so much stuff you can make him look like a wise sage or your practical uncle if you only pick out the good stuff. That’s the trick Reagan used.

“If war was declared with some Pacific nation, we would lose the Philippines before lunch”

“We’ll show the world we’re prosperous, even if we have to go broke to do it.”

“The country is not where it is today on account of any one man. It is here on account of the real common sense of the big normal majority”

But he said some other stuff too.

“Some people over home say a dictator is no good; yet every successful line of business is run by a dictator. Just look at industry or your political parties, how many men run them?’

And he got angry.

“This is Thanksgiving. It was started by the Pilgrims, who would give thanks every time they killed an Indian and took more of his land. As years went by and they had all his land, they changed it into a day to give thanks for the bountiful harvest.”

His real outlook was probably that of a cynic who didn’t really believe that politics even mattered, and an outsider who was always trying to figure out the culture that treated his people so poorly. But he was also sentimental, and he apologized whenever a joke hurt somebody’s feelings. The result was a comic who embodied what Americans thought best about themselves, and who carried their flaws and contradictions too.

Will Rogers died in 1935 in an Alaskan plane crash. The country knew all about his adventure and they were stunned by his death. Politicians choked back tears, theaters were closed. People named schools after him. He was one of the most famous people in the world — he was a movie star, an author, a radio personality and an author who influenced every newspaper columnist I ever read growing up in the Midwest, all while pushing comedy to an even greater role in political life.

Micah Hofferth makes things in Chicago. He tweets here.

The Rope-Throwin’ Political Comedy of Will Rogers