This note accompanies the follow episode(s):
The Writer’s Almanac for November 4, 2017: Bird Song, Cannon River Bottoms

November 4, 2017: birthday: Will Rogers

It’s the birthday of Will Rogers (1879) (books by this author), also known as “America’s Cowboy Philosopher.” He got his start as a circus performer and cowboy, and became one of the most famous humorists in the world. He once said, “Even if you’re on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there.”

He was raised in Oklahoma, started a cattle ranch, sold it for $7,000, and took up with a friend for New Orleans, hoping to head to for Argentina because he’d read dime novels about the country and it seemed exciting. There weren’t any boats, though, so they went to New York and ended up sailing to England, where they finally boarded a ship for Argentina. By the time he got there, he was flat broke and decided to take a job on a ranch, where he learned to lasso over his head from 20 feet behind, a useful skill that landed him a job in a traveling circus. He was so good at rope tricks that later in life, he made the Guinness Book of World Records for throwing three lassos at once: one went around the horse’s neck, one circled the rider, and the third slipped under the horse and looped all four legs together.

Rogers traveled with the circus through Australia, Japan, China, and San Francisco. He once said a friend told his father that Rogers hadn’t done so well financially because “I came home wearing overalls for underdrawers.”

It was while he was in New York, working for the Ziegfeld Follies, that Rogers found his footing, crafting an act that was part cowboy performance and part social commentary. He would twirl his rope and do tricks and entertain the customers with a steady stream of comments about politics and everyday life. Before each show, he scoured the papers for interesting stories and tidbits. He liked to tell the audience, “All I know is what I read in the papers.”

Rogers was a staunch Democrat, but once joked about Roosevelt’s New Deal: “Lord, the money we do spend on Government and it’s not one bit better than the government we got for one-third the money twenty years ago.”

Will Rogers loved air travel so much that it was once estimated that he logged more than 700,000 miles by air in just seven years. He traveled around the world three times, made 71 movies, like Doubting Thomas, Judge Priest, and State Fair, and wrote more than 4,000 newspaper columns in his lifetime. He was even the highest-paid Hollywood film star for a time. He was so popular that he served as mayor of Beverly Hills, acting mayor of New Orleans, and “Ambassador to the World.” His name was even bandied about for the governorship of Oklahoma and for the presidency of the United States.

When he was asked what it takes to be funny, Will Rogers answered: “A gag to be any good has to be fashioned about some truth. The rest you get by your slant on it and perhaps by a wee bit of exaggeration, so’s people won’t miss the point.”

Will Rogers died in 1935 in a plane crash in Alaska. On the value of life experience, he joked: “There are three kinds of men. The one that learns by reading. The few who learn by observation. The rest of them have to pee on the electric fence for themselves.”

And, “I’m not a member of any organized political party … I’m a Democrat.”

And, “Congress is so strange; a man gets up to speak and says nothing, nobody listens, and then everybody disagrees.”