Up The Road: Will Rogers And The Great American Comedy

Dec 25, 2019

Little known fact: Historic U.S. Route 66 is also known as the Will Rogers Highway, as this plaque in Palisades Park explains.
Credit Kai Schreiber / Flickr

You’ve probably already heard my Santa request. Maybe you even asked for the same thing. But: All want for Christmas is sanity in the public arena. Doesn’t look like Santa’s going to deliver, at least not right away. The next best thing is embracing a spokesperson for sanity—which is why, this week, we visit the state historic park that honors political humorist Will Rogers, member of the Cherokee Nation, born in Oklahoma—still Indian Territory when he was born there in 1879.

Famous for his one-liners, the guy is uncannily current. A sample:

“A fool and his money are soon elected” as well as “The trouble with practical jokes is that very often they get elected.”

As for Will Rogers’ overall take on American politics: “On account of being a democracy and run by the people, we are the only nation in the world that has to keep a government four years, no matter what it does.” Still true, apparently.

He offered moral insight, too, such as: “Live in such a way that you would not be ashamed to sell your parrot to the town gossip.”

Will Rogers succeeded by poking fun at everyone but somehow never offending anyone—some talent.

Rogers was born into the Cherokee Nation at his parents’ Dog Iron Ranch. His ancestors didn’t come over on the Mayflower, though they “met the boat,” he often quipped. A one-time vaudeville performer, Rogers got his start in show business as a trick roper in Texas Jack's Wild West Circus. In South Africa.

His comic talent evolved along with his development as a writer and a performer. He was the highest paid actor in Hollywood at the time of his death. Which almost explains the stuffed calf in the family’s Pacific Palisades ranch house—given to him by friends, the story goes, so he would practice rope tricks on the calf and not them.

America’s favorite cowboy philosopher was still making a name for himself in 1928 when he and his family settled at this ranch in then-rural Pacific Palisades, just north of Santa Monica. The unassuming 31-room home, still looking much as it did then, includes 11 bathrooms and seven fireplaces. Be sure to appreciate the wraparound shower on the second floor.

The mission-style furniture, eclectic Western décor, Native American rugs and baskets, and museum exhibits tell the Will Rogers story, up to and including his tragic death in 1935, when he and aviation pioneer Wiley Post died in an Alaska plane crash.

If Will Rogers managed to get himself reincarnated, just think what might happen if he ran for president again, as he did in 1928—the sole known member of the Anti-Bunk Party. His bunkless campaign, artful political mockery, started and ended in the pages of a national humor magazine. As promised, when Rogers declared himself the winner he promptly resigned.

If he’d actually won—and then stayed on—would the U.S. have avoided the Great Depression, the following year?

Will Rogers was a very smart man—too smart to be president. As he would surely say:

“There are three kinds of men. The ones that learn by readin’. The few who learn by observation. The rest of them have to pee on the electric fence for themselves.”