Hominy & Hash
WILL HAD A WAY
by Constance Daley
American Reporter Correspondent
St. Simons Island, Ga.
ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. -- In simpler times, when The New York Times first printed the words, "All the news that's fit to print," it, and newspapers all over the country, was the source we turned to to learn what was happening in the world.
I can visualize Will Rogers now - lying on the couch, reading the paper from front to back, then just dropping it to the floor beside him for a well-deserved nap. He's the one who said, "All I know is what I read in the papers."
These are no longer those simpler times; today we are constantly overloading our senses with what we see, hear, read and try to comprehend. Will Rogers was a political satirist. Much of his work holds up today: "Take diplomacy out of the war and the thing would fall flat in a week." Or, "You can be killed just as dead in an unjustified war as you can in one protecting your own home."
One of his lines, spoken as he twirled a lariat, is "People talk peace. But, men give their life's work to war. It won't stop 'til there is as much brains and scientific study put to aid peace as there is to promote war."
Will Rogers was part Cherokee, fond of saying: "My ancestors didn't come over on the Mayflower, but they met the boat." He was loved, invited to perform on the world's stage and for more than a dozen years entertained from the Broadway stage of the Ziegfield Follies.
Audiences couldn't get enough of his poking fun at politicians. "We elect our Presidents, be they Republican or Democrat, then start daring 'em to make good." The appreciation only proved his other line: "People don't change under governments. Governments change. People remain the same."
After Will Rogers was killed in a plane crash in 1935, political satire took a back seat to editorial cartoonists or the occasional one-liners by Bob Hope. Not until the fifties did someone make a name for himself reading the papers and giving the audience his slant on what was going on in the Presidential offices -- from President Eisenhower through President Clinton.
Mort Sahl hit New York broke but on his way. At the time, I was working with gag writers and one night he ambled into the rehearsal studio/classroom where we made up gags and improvised - for each other. It was his first day in the city. He was wearing a navy blazer, tan slacks and a sheepish grin.
He had received a warm reception at the "Hungry I" -- a club in San Francisco. He told the 10 or 15 of us he had gone to Southern Cal, did standup around Los Angeles, was roommate to Richard Crenna. Ooooh, we were impressed.
Richard Crenna was first known as Oogie Pringle, the teenage love interest on "A Date with Judy" and later, as Walter Denton, the squeaky-voiced student in the popular "Our Miss Brooks." It was no surprise that Richard's busy schedule prompted him to ask Mort to "help" him with his school papers.
While Mort's career didn't exactly take off, he did develop a following in California before he arrived in New York. He said his name was known before he could change it to Cal Southern. Remember, he attended Southern Cal - get it? His sheepish grin turned into a chuckle.
With so many years between Will Rogers and Mort, it was quite a revolutionary change in standup entertainment. Mort explained it this way:
"Will Rogers used to come out with a newspaper and pretend he was a yokel criticizing the intellectuals who ran the government. I come out with a newspaper and pretend I'm an intellectual making fun of the yokels running the government."
He was quite good at it, even writing gags for John F. Kennedy speeches. However, after Kennedy was elected, Mort Sahl went back to doing what he always did ... and that didn't sit to well with the President's father.
Mort stuck to his beliefs and refused to play favorites in his criticism of American politics and politicians. He may be listed as a comedian but his one-liners are not funny stories; they are the truth as he sees it. And when we see it ourselves, we have to laugh.
Another political satirist who makes us laugh at ourselves is Mark Russell. Not only does he work from newspapers of the day but also the Congressional Record. He accompanies himself on the piano, puts the satirical words to music, and has been doing this almost nightly for about 30 years.
A week or so ago, Mark Russell commented: "Seven of the eight Democratic candidates auditioned at the winter meeting of the Democratic National Committee. Six of them have nothing to fear but Al Sharpton himself."
Late night talk show hosts send jabs toward the politicians and over other news of the day. Yet, it's not satire. It's more often dirty pool than lampoonery. A satirical barb is supposed to tickle the subject, not rankle him. Well, not really.
Mark Russell said: "The candidates are fiercely divided over Iraq. Not wanting for the war to start over there, they have started their own war over here."
I find that too close to the truth not to be seriously concerned -- but, you've got to laugh.