Will Rogers Helped Popularize Radio With Pointed Humor NPR's Scott Simon remembers the folksy cowboy comic Will Rogers on the 80th anniversary of his death.
NPR logo

Will Rogers Helped Popularize Radio With Pointed Humor

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/432297620/432356536" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Will Rogers Helped Popularize Radio With Pointed Humor

Will Rogers Helped Popularize Radio With Pointed Humor

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/432297620/432356536" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Eighty years ago today, the most famous man in America besides Franklin D. Roosevelt died. And in 1935, I'm not sure you needed to add a besides. Will Rogers was 55. He was flying to Alaska with his friend, the pilot Wiley Post, to mine some material for his newspaper column and radio show when they crashed near Point Barrow. Will Rogers was a real Oklahoma cowboy, part Cherokee, who could rope and ride but found he could make more by roping and talking. He put wry asides and funny observations into his lariat tricks, went into the circus, vaudeville, then Broadway, shuffling on stage to say, all I know is what I read in the papers, then talk about news, politics and the human comedy. The American people will vote dry as long as they're able to stagger to the polls, he said of prohibition. The truth can hurt you worse in an election than about anything that could happen to you, he liked to say. And once, you wire the stage of the federal government that your cow or hog is sick, and they will send out experts from Washington and appropriate money. You wire them your baby has the diphtheria and see what they do. Will Rogers' son, Fred, died at the age of 2 from diphtheria. He became famous onstage and in movies, books, and a new medium called radio, which could reach millions of people at the same time. And what drives the spread of a new communications technology? Jokes. I don't belong to any organized political party, Will Rogers liked to say. I'm a Democrat. Everybody is ignorant, he reminded audiences, only on different subjects. He told a joint session of Congress, when you make a joke, it's a law. I would keep them in session the year-round for my business, Will Rogers told his radio audience, but I have some consideration for people. Mort Sahl, late night monologues, Jon Stewart, Amy Schumer, the real-time satire of The Onion, they all owe something to Will Rogers. He was never profane and rarely partisan, but Will Rogers could sure be pointed. I have a scheme for stopping more, he once said, no nation is allowed to enter war until they've paid for the last one. He had a sharp mind and an open heart. The line for which Will Rogers is best remembered is still worth hearing in full. When I die, my epitaph, or whatever you call those signs on gravestones, is going to read, I joked about every prominent man of my time, but I never met a man I didn't like.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "WILL ROGERS FOLLIES")

KEITH CARRADINE: (As Will Rogers, singing) Give a man enough rope. Give a man enough rope, and he can hang himself or not. That is the choice that he has got. He could wind up hanging down from a tree, or he could spend himself alive. That's what happened to me. Give a man enough rope.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Give the man enough rope.

CARRADINE: (As Will Rogers, singing) Give a man enough rope.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) Give the man enough rope.

CARRADINE: (As Will Rogers, singing) You hand two guys a pile of dough. One spends it fast.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) One saves it slow.

CARRADINE: (As Will Rogers, singing) You make the choice.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) You make that choice.

SIMON: Keith Carridine as Will Rogers from the musical, "Will Rogers Follies." You're listening to NPR News.

Copyright © 2015 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.