Before there was Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, even before Lennie Bruce, there was Will Rogers, America’s first political comic. “There was a real gentleness to his form of satire that was truly admirable,” says Lewis Black, “It gave the same sting, but did not need to be done in the harsh fashion that I and a number of other comics practice.”
In the 1920s and 30s, the folksy Oklahoma Cherokee was a superstar: a newspaper columnist, a radio personality, an author, and a trick-riding Western movie star who was “the number one box office attraction next to Shirley Temple,” says biographer Richard White, Jr. “No one has ever taken over the media like Will Rogers.”
That’s why Herbert Hoover sought Rogers out to appear with him on October 18, 1931, when Hoover gave a major speech on the economic crises of the Depression. “I expect you won’t hear any more of Amos and Andy,” Rogers quipped. “It’ll just be Hoover and Rogers from now on.” Rogers’ talk was later given the title “Bacon, Beans, and Limousines,” and a recording was entered into the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry this year.
“Bacon, Beans, and Limousines” was peppered with dark irony — “We’ll have the distinction of being the only nation to go to the poor house in an automobile,” he remarked famously — but Rogers was quite serious about unemployment. He blamed the Depression on the limousine riders who had “over-merged, over-capitalized, over-everything-else.” And he proposed that we “arrange some way of getting a more equal distribution of the wealth in country.” That’s the heart of the speech, according to Black. “If we took away everything else he said and just had him say ‘equal distribution of wealth,’” Black says, we could preserve it for “our great-grandchildren, so they can look it up and say, “‘Wow, that was an interesting idea.’”
Voices: Lewis Black, Steve Gragert, Richard D. White Jr.
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