Why you should care
Few funny men have played a bigger role in shaping U.S. public opinion and government policy than Jon Stewart and Will Rogers. And one of them also made some pretty good movies.
Craig Kilborn may have worked The Daily Show desk first, but Will Rogers is Jon Stewart’s true predecessor. Like Stewart, Rogers was a popular humorist and social commentator, but he was also a cowboy, vaudeville performer and true Hollywood film star.
Unlike Stewart, who was born in New York City and raised in New Jersey, Rogers was a country boy, born in what is now Oklahoma in 1879 and raised to be a cowboy on his father’s cattle ranch in the Cherokee Nation. And his skill with a rope — learned on that ranch — would be what first made him famous, after failing as a rancher in Argentina in his early 20s. An adventuresome lad, Rogers set out to South Africa, where he joined “Texas Jack’s Wild West Circus” as a performer.
I don’t make jokes … I just watch the government and report the facts.
Billed as the “Cherokee Kid,” Rogers’s trick roping, including reining in a galloping horse and rider with two lassos at once, quickly attracted attention, and he took his act to circuses and vaudeville shows in the U.S., eventually joining Ziegfeld’s Follies on Broadway. Rogers, a 10th-grade dropout, soon began to incorporate his trenchant sense of humor into his act, interspersing physical demonstrations with jokes about current events and jabs at political figures and celebrities.
During the 1920s, Rogers moved from the stage to print, writing a weekly newspaper column, “Slipping the Lariat Over,” in which he mercilessly lampooned newsmakers, reserving his best zingers for politicians. Describing a meeting between the nation’s governors and President Harding in 1922, for example, Rogers wrote, “The president gave a luncheon for the visiting governors, where they discussed but didn’t try Prohibition.” And of course there are the classic Rogers lines — still relevant today — like “I don’t belong to any organized political faith. I am a Democrat.”
If you thought that Stephen Colbert was the first comedian to launch a mock presidential campaign, think again.
And if you thought that Stewart’s protégé, Stephen Colbert, was the first comedian to launch a mock presidential campaign, think again. Rogers ran in 1928 and was supported by Henry Ford and Babe Ruth among others. He even got 22 votes at the Democratic convention in 1932.
Finally, like Jon Stewart, Rogers made repeated sojourns into film. Stewart took a break from The Daily Show this summer to direct his first feature film, Rosewater, but he has never pretended to be an actor. As Stewart remarked when hosting the Oscars in 2006, “Tonight is the night we celebrate excellence in film — with me, the fourth male lead from Death to Smoochy.”
Rogers, on the other hand, was both a silent and feature film star, with 71 movies to his credit. Often playing himself in the form of a plainspoken farmer or a down-home politician, he made a slew of successful films, including three directed by the legendary John Ford. Rogers was the biggest star in America when he died in an Alaska plane crash in 1935 at age 55.
A comedian through and through, Rogers once joked about his own epitaph in front of a church congregation, observing:
“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.” I am so proud of that, I can hardly wait to die so it can be carved. And when you come to my grave, you will find me sitting there, proudly reading it.”