It’s the Guy You Give Something To That You Can’t Please

Will Rogers? Apocryphal?
rogers08Dear Quote Investigator: We live in an age of free apps, free ebooks, and free online services, but that does not restrain criticism. The popular humorist Will Rogers once spoke about the inability to please some individuals who receive material for free. I haven’t been able to precisely locate this quotation. Would you please help?

Quote Investigator: In 1926 Will Rogers wrote in his syndicated newspaper column about his experiences while touring the United States. His reception had been wonderful during his 75 nights on the road, and he had recently performed in Massachusetts: 1

Can you imagine me appearing at Symphony hall in Boston? From the Stock yards at Claremore, Oklahoma to Symphony hall, Boston. Me, with my repertoire of 150 words (most of them wrong), trying to enlighten the descendants of the Cod. But they were fine.

However, in Boston a hostile music critic named Parker reviewed the comedian’s performance, and Rogers presented a summary of his negative analysis:

Just one old boy there that thought we were “desecrating” their temple of art by causing laughter in it.

Rogers addressed the critic and then employed the quotation under examination which he labelled an “old gag”. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 2

Your seat was about the only free one. It’s the old gag; people that pay for things never complain. It’s the guy you give something to that you can’t please.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1963 a newspaper supplement called “Video Viewer” discussed a television program about Rogers which included the line: 3

Of President Coolidge, he commented, “He is the first President to discover that what the American people want is to be left alone.”

His wit took many turns. He asserted, “People that pay for things never complain. It’s the guy that you give something to that you can’t please.”

In 1973 the “Stilwell Democrat-Journal” of Stilwell, Oklahoma described “The Will Rogers Book” which had recently been published by a niece of the cowboy, columnist, and actor. The volume included the quip together with many other remarks: 4

Work: More people should work for their dinner instead of dressing for it.

Values: People that pay for things never complain. It’s the guy you give something to that you can’t please.

In conclusion, Will Rogers did write the saying in a column in 1926 although he referred to it as an “old gag”. Rogers may have been observing that the phenomenon of generosity being greeted with ungratefulness was comical and all too common. Alternatively, he was asserting that the expression itself was an “old gag”. In any case, Rogers popularized the statement, and it has regularly been attributed to him.

Image Notes: Will Rogers in Filmplay Journal circa January 1922 via Wikimedia Commons. Neon-style FREE sign from bykst on Pixabay. Images have been cropped and resized.

(Great thanks to author Ernie J. Zelinski whose comment mentioning the Will Rogers quotation made on the Teleread website led QI to explore this topic.)

Notes:

  1. 1926 January 3, The Lincoln Sunday Star (The Lincoln Star), Will Rogers Is Prying Into Dictionaries Now by Will Rogers (McNaught Syndicate), Quote Page 4, Column 3 to 5, Lincoln, Nebraska. (Newspapers_com)
  2. 1926 January 3, The Lincoln Sunday Star (The Lincoln Star), Will Rogers Is Prying Into Dictionaries Now by Will Rogers (McNaught Syndicate), Quote Page 4, Column 3 to 5, Lincoln, Nebraska. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1963 August 24, The Morning Herald, Section: Video Viewer, Special Explores Wit Of Will Rogers, Quote Page 1, Column 5, Hagerstown, Maryland. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1973 April 5, Stilwell Democrat-Journal, Humorist Had Many Titles, Quote Page 7, Column 5, Stilwell, Oklahoma. (Newspapers_com)