(c) Rev. Doug Slagle, Minister to the Gathering at Northern Hills, All Rights Reserved
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In the 2000 and 2004 election years, a loose assembly of people, who called themselves The Billionaires, began attending large public events dressed in Tuxedoes with top hats or ball gowns with fake pearls and diamonds. They held signs stating things like “Corporations are People too”, “Still loyal to Big Oil”, “Billionaires for Wealth-care” and “Warning: Universal Healthcare May Be Harmful to Profits.” They also appeared at post offices on April 15th, dressed the same way, holding signs thanking everyday folks for paying their share of taxes since they did not. These mock Billionaires adopted names like Phil T. Rich, Tex Shelter, and Meg A. Bucks
The group used satire to make social statements about wealth in our country. Instead of shouting angry words of protest, they poked fun at elites while making their point very clear. They weren’t ignored by onlookers but instead were widely applauded and sought after for photographs. For me, it was a highly effective, creative and playful way to make an important point.
This month, I plan to look at different humorists and how they used their wit to not only make people laugh, but also to slyly make political and social statements. Clowns, court jesters and comedians have historically been taken for granted as simply funny people. But they are much more than that. Great political humorists, beginning in Ancient Greece, have used satire, irony and parody to cause both laughter and thought provoking introspection. Indeed, today’s political and social comics like John Stewart, Steven Colbert and Michelle Wolf continue a tradition of speaking truth to power. As one commentator puts it, political and social humorists hold a mirror up to us and to society – but in funny and empathetic ways.
Today I’ll look at the comedy of Will Rogers – considered one of the great and most beloved political and social humorists of the 20th century. At his premature death in an airplane crash in 1935, there was widespread national grief that had not been seen since Lincoln’s passing. Rogers had been named a best friend by millions of Americans and, for many elections, he’d received millions of write-in votes for President. Franklin Roosevelt eulogized him by saying, “I doubt there is among us a more useful citizen than the one who holds the secret of banishing gloom with hope and courage.”
In my mind, Roosevelt owed Rogers even greater praise. Rogers’ homespun, common man, often ungrammatical humor frequently satirized politicians and the wealthy. His popularity soared during the Great Depression as his wit and concern for the so-called little guy helped build popular support for many of Roosevelt’s programs like Social Security and the National Relief Act.
Rogers was simply himself – someone who was part native-American, born in Oklahoma, and entirely self-made. He spoke and wrote in common people’s language with made up words, slang, and misspellings. He was asked by one reporter why he ignored proper syntax. His reply, “What’s syntax? Sounds like bad news.”
“You use bad grammar,” replied the reporter.
“Shucks,” declared Rogers. “I didn’t know people was buyin’ grammar. I’m just so dumb I had a notion it was thoughts and ideas. I write just like I talk.”
His political humor was the hallmark of his comedy. “A fool and his money are soon elected,” he once said. “Everything is changing,” he also noted. “People are taking their comedians seriously – and the politicians as a joke.”
“If stupidity got us into this mess, then why can’t it get us out?” was another observation.
“The trouble with political jokes is they often get elected to office,” was another. And, “Congress is deadlocked and can’t act. I think that is the greatest blessing that could befall this country.”
One of his best lines was, “I bet after seeing us today, George Washington would sue us for calling him ‘father.’”
The greatness of Rogers’ political humor was that it spoke to the conditions of his time while also being timeless. His jokes resonate as much today as they did 90 years ago – something which makes him unique when compared with many contemporary humorists.
In that regard, his comedy also keenly made fun of general human nature. “Everything is funny, as long as it’s happening to somebody else,” he once said. “Too many people spend money they haven’t earned, to buy things they don’t want, to impress people they don’t like,” is still very true. “Never miss a good chance to shut up” is one of his quips I particularly appreciate. “When you find yourself in a hole, quit digging,” is another. “It is better for someone to think you’re a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt,” is a line still quoted today. “When you’re through learning, you’re through” was a great piece of wisdom. A funny line I empathize with was, “Long ago when people cursed and beat the ground with sticks, it was called witchcraft; today it’s called golf.” Finally, he observed, “The older we get, the fewer things seem worth waiting in line for.”
Many people have said Rogers’ political and populist humor was in a uniquely American style – one that followed in the humorist footsteps of Washington Irving and Mark Twain. Rogers championed ethics of hard work, frugality and plain common sense. In doing so, he also promoted with his comedy a strong American skepticism of elites, the super-rich and all politicians. Like many Americans of the past, his attitudes toward them were not animated by vitriol or hate, but rather with a bit of understanding and gentleness. He rarely made fun of a politician by name but chose to joke about politicians in general. His jokes and observations were a warning, of sorts, about the seductive ability of greed and power to diminish otherwise good people. Two observations he made about wealth and money made everyone a target. “The income tax,” he said, “has made more liars out of Americans than golf.” He equally observed, “Money won’t make you happy, but everybody sure wants to find that out for themselves.”
Those jokes are funny because they’re universally true – and they’re true for me. I’ve experienced the pleasures money can buy and, while I know they are false forms of happiness, I can still be seduced by the fake security of money and materialism. Indeed, Rogers noted that his humor was not the kind that evoked deep belly laughs but instead some chuckles followed by a nod of agreement. One often has to stop and think just a bit about what he observed. One joke of his that makes me chuckle, think and squirm a bit was: “Good judgment comes from experience, and a lot of that comes from bad judgment.”
How many of us can relate to that observation? I know I can. And that gets at what was so wise and particularly good about Will Rogers. When we have a point to make, or a particularly strong opinion, how we share that is crucial. Do we come across as an angry scold, as a self-righteous preacher, or even as a hypocrite? Or, are we able to remain true to ideals of humility, kindness and empathy?
In other words, can we inject a bit of self-deprecation in what we opine to others – something that Rogers regularly did – proclaiming in an “aw shucks” way that he had no great intelligence since all he knew came from reading newspapers? He also often said that he had no skill as a funnyman by saying, “There’s no trick to being a humorist when you have the whole government working for you.”
Those are humorous truths but they also make fun of him – even though we all know that to find humor in things takes great skill. Rogers made insightful points about greed and sticking up for regular people with humility and gentleness – virtues which I fear the current culture is rapidly losing. For me or you, if we have a point to make or a criticism of what someone has done or said, might we try to gently laugh and find some ironic humor in the offense – and then state our case in ways that does no harm? People who do that are often deeply loved and appreciated – as it is clear Will Rogers was.
Making fun of oneself is an endearing quality in particularly decent and humble people. Like Rogers, Abraham Lincoln did so with jokes about himself. He told a story about a man who once came up to him with a gun. “I promised myself if I ever saw a man uglier than me, I’d shoot him,” the man told Lincoln. “Well,” said Lincoln very dryly, “If I’m uglier than you, then shoot me now – because I don’t want to live any longer!”
This practice of funny self-deprecation is one that does not shy away from stating opinions and criticisms, but it implicitly says that when we criticize others, we should do so with a healthy awareness that we too are imperfect. Jesus showed that with his humorous teaching that before we point out a small speck in someone’s eye, we should first remove the log in our own. If we think about it, that’s funny! Who can have a log in their eye? Nobody. We can share gentle criticism, Jesus taught with the story, but we should be humble enough to know we have significant faults too. And if we’re truly humble, we might – as many lovable humorists do – make fun of, and laugh at ourselves too.
And that speaks to my advocacy for self-awareness – one that Will Rogers had about both himself and about Americans in general. Self-awareness is one fo the most important qualities I believe one should have. Do we truly know and admit to both our strengths and our weaknesses?
It is said that satire humor points out the imperfections of things as they are – with the contrasting desire for things as they should be. The group of Billionaires that I earlier mentioned gently satirized wealthy people by making fun of things they support – like the Supreme Court opinion that corporations are like people, or that the rich push for laws that enhance their considerable wealth. Instead of welfare for the poor – something all societies should have, the Billionaires held signs advocating wealthcare – which is in fact what they seek, but won’t admit. That’s funny satire!
Will Rogers had the ability to be aware about himself and all America in such funny ways. “Advertising is the art of convincing people to spend money they don’t have for something they don’t need,” he once said. He thus joked about both the mercenary tactics of advertising AND the materialistic tendencies we all have. That is being keenly and humorously aware. “Congress is kids who never grew up – is all.” That’s a gentle observation he made that is both critical and slightly funny. Adult men and women, our leaders! – who think they’re big stuff but who are nevertheless like little boys and girls.
When he was asked if voters can be fooled, he replied, “Darn tootin’. Of all the bunk handed out during a campaign, the biggest one of all is to try and compliment the knowledge of the voter.” That one has a bite to it but many of us know it has basis in fact when many voters – me included – have no solid idea of what makes a good candidate to be a judge, or the intricacies of macroeconomics that Congress must implement.
“No man is great if he thinks he is,” he wisely said. That’s an especially humorous and true statement. It especially points out the humility that’s admirable in great people while it bursts the arrogance bubble of most politicians and, if we think about it, of ourselves too. If I get a lot of praise for one of my messages, I of course appreciate it but I can also start to think I’m really good! And then the next Sunday comes along, I deliver a stinker of a message, and all my delusions of being good seem ridiculous.
I’ll leave us with a final wise joke from Will Rogers that speaks to his abilities as a humorist – while it teaches a lesson as well. “Common sense,” he said, “ain’t common.” That, to me, is brilliant. Many of us think we have common sense but to truly display it and practice it is often rare. We know we should be more humble, less materialistic, and kinder to friend and stranger. All of that is common sense. But to live those ideals out, to really be them, well, let’s say I still have a lot to learn. The humor and wisdom of Will Rogers teaches me to laugh at all of the flaws in the world, and more importantly, in myself!
To follow a frequent practice here, I now invite your thoughts and comments. I’m particularly interested in the ideas of self-awareness and comedy – how humor can be effectively used to shine a light on ourselves whether as individuals or as a nation. And that humorous shining light might then help us reflect and change for the better….