Will Rogers and the Late Night Monologue
FDR laughing as Will Rogers roast him on the campaign trail in October 1932
“Everything is changing. People are taking their comedians seriously, and the politicians as a joke, when it used to be vice versa.”
Jimmy Kimmel received a lot of criticism this month for dedicating time on his show to the healthcare debate. The criticism was not the expected counter arguments to Kimmel’s views on the healthcare plan, but rather that a comedian shouldn’t be involved in politics. The idea comedians, artists, and actors should stay out of political debate is nothing new, but nowadays it’s become one of the most popular dissents from those with opposing viewpoints.
I don’t subscribe to the idea a person has to be in a certain profession to make political statements. However, the belief the traditional late night monologue should be apolitical is ludicrous; the inspiration for it was politic pundit and humorist. I’m not talking Allen, Paar, Carson, Leno, etc. I am talking about the man that inspired them, Will Rogers.
Will Rogers was by far the leading political wit of the Progressive Era, but he has proved easily forgotten outside of some popular quotes. Rogers died in 1935, the middle of that short window between the Great Depression and World War II. The generation that grew up with Rogers was lost to war and our history books need as many pages as possible to explain why.
He wasn’t just an Indian, Cowboy, Raconteur, Vaudevillian, Political Humorist, Radio Pundit, and Philosopher. He was also the top-paid Hollywood movie star of the day with 71 movies (50 silent films and 21 “talkies”), the host of the 6th Annual Academy Awards, and a prolific newspaper columnist with more than 4,000 nationally syndicated newspaper columns.
Rogers popularity was hard earned, he went broke trying to finance his own silent films, afterwards he took the only job offered to him as a speaker for an after dinner lecture tour. He would fly all across the country to speak at political dinners and county fairs. On the lecture circuit, he found himself running out of material so he started a specialty that he called “fresh laid” jokes, off the cuff commentaries that covered the day’s news. This sort of daily wit would be the precursor to the present late night monologues. So no one should be surprised those late night talk shows hosts are going to talk about politics, their inspiration’s inspiration was a political pundit.
The lecture circuit gave Rogers the material needed to publish a book, and shortly thereafter, he accepted an offer to write the first of his daily syndicated newspaper columns. His columns the “Daily Telegrams” and “Will Rogers Says” showcased the pointed criticisms aimed at government, big business, and the events happening during the week. Though broadcast television wouldn’t come around until 13 years after his death, his radio shows, movies, and newspaper columns would give him the influence and reach comparable to that of a late night comedian with no competition.
Rogers used short pieces to debunk the idiocracy of government without rancor or use of excessive rhetoric. Clear, concise, and pointed, but never barbed. Humor was his tool.
Rogers might not have favored hyperbole but he did on occasion use theatre to prove a point. In fact, Rogers mounted a mock campaign in 1928 for the presidency, something Steven Colbert would do 85 years later. Rogers’ only medium was the pages of Life, a weekly humor magazine — not the photo magazine. Rogers ran as the Bunkless Candidate of the Anti-Bunk Party and his only campaign promise was that, if elected, he would resign. On Election Day, he declared victory and resigned.
Will Rogers spent time and column inches to bring awareness to national disasters and world events that needed money or attention but 1929 dealt a severe blow to the American frame of mind. The stock market crashed and the country was plunged into a deep economic depression, putting millions out of work. That same year Rogers started a radio broadcast for the weekly Sunday evening show “The Gulf Headliners,” one of the top radio programs in the country. Will Rogers became the most trusted of voices in America, so when President Herbert Hoover needed help he asked Rogers to deliver that message, which is considered one of the best radio addresses ever — known simply as “Bacon, Beans and Limousines.”
It’s easy to feel a personal connection with a late night talk show host when they’re on every night, but especially when they take on a serious moment. When comedy pauses for the concerning it adds levity. Rogers had thousands of speeches but the one he is most known for is the “Bacon, Beans and Limousines.” For me personally I will always remember David Letterman’s return after 9–11.
However, being the inspiration doesn’t mean success, Will Rogers would not be as influential in the political field today. Though he spoke about being a Democrat, he was evenhanded. He roasted Republicans, Democrats, Government, and Politicians to their face and they were honored to be there for it. His vulgarity would be fairness. Recent events with Jimmy Fallon and Stephen Colbert are prime examples of this today.
September of 2016, during the campaign, Jimmy Fallon had Presidential Candidate Donald Trump on “The Tonight Show” and that ensuing interview brought out a lot of anger towards Fallon for humanizing Trump. Jimmy Fallon running his hands through Trump's hair has become an infamous moment from the interview. When the New York Times’ Dave Itzkoff talked with Jimmy Fallon six months later about the affects the September appearance had on him showed it remains a bitter moment for people.
Fallon stated, “I didn’t do it to humanize him, … I almost did it to minimize him. I didn’t think that would be a compliment.”
Within five months of Trump’s appearance, “Late Night with Stephen Colbert” surprisingly surpassed “The Tonight Show” in overall nightly audience. The audience doesn’t want Trump humanized or minimized, Fallon was just too neutral, so they changed the channel to the host who is more politically involved and tends to use more salacious rhetoric.
Even writing an article based on the affects Trump’s visit had on Jimmy Fallon and “The Tonight Show” puts you in the crosshairs. Newsbusters, a popular online blog that claims it exposes liberal media bias went after Dave Itzkoff, the author of the piece. This month, Stephen Colbert had his own encounter with some small backlash when former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer did a bit on The Emmy's with Colbert ,who was hosting.
The left has always identified more with the comedian tag for political messaging, but now in our hyper-politicalized society its became more political punditry. However, in the Trump era Late Night talk shows have become more of a response to the substantial hold the right has on the radio talk show medium — Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Herman Caine, Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck, Alex Jones and dozens more.
The late night hosts are not to blame for the political climate, but there currently seems no hope for someone like Will Rogers to come around. We moved from roasting both sides to only having one sided jokes. Where did all the politician jokes go? The old joke “ what do you call 5,000 politicians at the bottom of the sea?” is too bipartisan for these days.
America deserves to have a voice we can trust. Someone who doesn’t play into the divide, but uses the divide to bring us together.
Steve Allen, the original host of The Tonight Show, and humorist/radio personality Fred Allen (no relation) talk about Will Rogers' jokes at a 1932 campaign event for FDR and how things had changed 20 years after his death.
"Ancient Rome declined because it had a Senate, now what's going to happen to us with both a House and a Senate."