Will Rogers? Apocryphal?
I don’t make jokes. I just watch the government and report the facts.
But the supporting citation was dated 1962, and Rogers died in 1935. Would you please determine if better citations exist?
Quote Investigator: The earliest pertinent evidence known to QI was contained in an anecdote published in multiple newspapers in June and July 1925 from a columnist named Frederic J. Haskin. Calvin Coolidge was the U.S. President at that time. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1 2
It seems that Rogers recently had an interview with President Coolidge, in the course of which the president is said to have remarked that he didn’t see how Rogers thought up all his funny stories. “I don’t, Mr. President,” Rogers replied. “I watch the government and report the facts.”
A reviewer named Jud Evans saw a performance by Rogers on November 30, 1925 and wrote about it the next day in the “Richmond Times-Dispatch” of Richmond, Virginia. Rogers spoke a version of the joke during his show: 3
Because the crowd wasn’t exactly bulging out the doors, Will called all those in the balcony and in the rear rows down into the closer seats with the remark “Of course, you paid more down here, but you’ll know better next time.”
Nobody but Will Rogers can pull his gags any more than they can whirl his lariats. He gave the usual explanations for his comedy saying “I just watch the government and report the facts.”
There are many variants of this line and some are more elaborate than others. Rogers used the joke repeatedly during his performances and in his writings, and he varied the phrasing.
Thanks to top researcher Barry Popik who located valuable citations on this topic and shared them on his website here.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1926 and 1927 When Rogers visited a city the local newspaper sometimes published an advertisement that looked like an article, i.e., an advertorial. The text began with effusive praise:
Will Rogers, considered the greatest humorist since Mark Twain, will appear at the…
“To get my jokes,” the comedian said, “I have only to watch the government and report facts.”
On January 10, 1929 Rogers spoke at the annual dinner of the Society of Automotive Engineers at the Waldorf-Astoria ballroom in New York. Some of his laugh lines were reported in a newspaper story. This instance of the joke used “Congress” instead of “government”: 6
“The United States never lost a war or won a conference.”
“People ask me where I get my jokes. I just watch Congress and report the facts.”
In April 1929 Rogers was the star of a musical extravaganza in Boston that included two 20-minute monologues by the humorist: 7
He told stories and made comments right up to the minute, mostly about personages of political prominence. He said it wasn’t at all hard to be funny in discussing politics. All one had to do was watch the Government and report the facts.
In May 1933 Rogers conducted a radio broadcast from the Mayflower Hotel Ballroom in Washington, D.C. The Vice President attended together with many members of the Senate and House of Representatives along with other notables. Rogers coupled his jest with an atypical statement of praise for lawmakers: 8
Explaining his humor, Rogers declared, “I just watch the Government and report the facts.” However, he asserted that in this session, the Senate had “acted so decent” that it could go home and be proud.
In 1935 the biographical work “Will Rogers: Ambassador of Good Will, Prince of Wit and Wisdom” by P. J. O’Brien was published. A longer instance of the joke was included: 9
But of Congress, Will said: “There is no credit to being a comedian, when you have the whole Government working for you. All you have to do is report the facts. I don’t even have to exaggerate.”
Will Rogers died in August 1935, and in September a Sunday newspaper supplement called “The American Weekly” printed an article titled “Will Roger’s Funniest Wise-Cracks” which included an extended version of the quip: 10
People often ask me, “Will, where do you get your jokes?” I just tell them, “Well, I just watch the Government and report the facts, that is all I do, and I don’t even find it necessary to exaggerate.”
In January 1936 The Salt Lake Tribune in Utah printed a collection of short excerpts titled “Will Rogers Said – Unpublished Humor and the Pick of His Newspaper Writings”. One excerpt was from an address given while congressmen were in the audience: 11
With all kidding aside, I always feel kind of funny when I come here to Washington and talk to congressmen, because we are both in the same line of business.
Generally, people ask me, “Will, where do you get your jokes?” I tell them I just watch the government and report the facts. That is what I do. But, you fellows have almost knocked me out of a job. This is really serious.
You have been so decent and square during this administration, people say, “Will, what are you going to do when the senate goes decent?” I don’t believe I am going to be able to live off you any more. And I do, I really want to compliment you, because you have been fine.
Also in 1936 the writer and political activist Max Eastman released a book analyzing humor called “Enjoyment of Laughter” which included another version of the remark: 12
Charlie Chaplin modern times described his art of making people laugh as “telling them the plain truth of things.” Will Rogers, commenting on his own “rustic” humor, said: “I guess I wouldn’t be very humorous if it wasn’t for the government. I don’t make jokes, I just watch the government and report the facts.”
In 1944 the powerful syndicated columnist Walter Winchell printed a concise instance in an article section called “Quotation Marksmanship”: 13
Will Rogers: I don’t make jokes. I just watch the government and report the facts.
In 1979 a syndicated columnist presented another version of the comment: 14
WILL ROGERS RIBBONS: To those political cartoonists who time and again have demonstrated that Will was right when he said, “It’s no trick to be humorous when you have the whole government working for you.”
In conclusion, Will Rogers did make this remark on multiple occasions. The surrounding text and precise wording were variable, and several choices are possible The January 1936 version was interesting and apparently was written directly by Rogers.
Image Notes: Will Rogers in Filmplay Journal in January 1922 via Wikimedia Commons. Image with the caption “Montana State Capitol Building” from WikiImages at Pixabay.
(Great thanks to K whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Also, thanks to Barry Popik for his excellent work.)
- 1925 June 19, The Helena Daily Independent, The Haskin Letter: Watching the Government by Frederic J. Haskin, Quote Page 4, Column 3, Helena, Montana. (NewspaperArchive) ↩
- 1925 July 7, Los Angeles Times, Seeking Facts of Government: Civil Service League to Watch and Report, Will Rogers Anecdote Basis of New Slogan by Frederic J. Haskin, Quote Page 5, Column 1, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1925 December 1, Richmond Times Dispatch, Will Rogers Gives Ideas on Current Problems Here by Jud Evans, Quote Page 2, Column 3, Richmond, Virginia. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1926 December 6, The Scranton Republican, At the Theater: The Footlights (Advertisement in the form of an article), Start Page 13, Quote Page 20, Column 2, Scranton, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1927 February 6, Sarasota Herald (Sarasota Herald-Tribune), Humorist To Appear Here On Wednesday, Quote Page 8, Column 1, Sarasota, Florida. (Google News Archive) ↩
- 1929 January 11, Daily Boston Globe, Will Rogers Throws Spotlight on “Oscar of the Waldorf” (Special Dispatch to the Globe), Quote Page 23, Column 6, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1929 April 16, Daily Boston Globe, Will Rogers in a Musical Show–Pictures and Plays: Will Rogers Wins in “Three Cheers”, Homespun Humorist Jests and Dorothy Stone Dances to Delight of Capacity Crowd, Quote Page 36, Column 1, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1933 May 22, The Washington Post, Will Rogers’ Capital Jokes Amuse Crowd of Notables: Vice President, Senators and Representatives Hear Humorist Poke Fun at Them in Radio Broadcast Originating in Mayflower Hotel Ballroom, Quote Page 2, Column 3, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1935 Copyright, Will Rogers: Ambassador of Good Will, Prince of Wit and Wisdom by P. J. O’Brien (Patrick Joseph O’Brien), Chapter IX: Rogers and Politics, Quote Page 157, Published by The John C. Winston Company, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Internet Archive at archive.org) ↩
- 1935 September 8, The Milwaukee Sentinel, Sunday Supplement: The American Weekly, Will Roger’s Funniest Wise-Cracks, Quote Page 5, Column 2, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Google News Archive) ↩
- 1936 January 12, The Salt Lake Tribune, Will Rogers Said – Unpublished Humor and the Pick of His Newspaper Writings, Quote Page 3C, Column 1 and 2, Salt Lake City, Utah. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1936, Enjoyment of Laughter by Max Eastman, Chapter 10: Why Truth Is Humorous, Quote Page 270, Simon and Schuster, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1944 October 30, The Spartanburg Herald-Journal, Notes of an Innocent Bystander by Walter Winchell, Quote Page 4, Column 3, Spartanburg, South Carolina. (Google News Archive) ↩
- 1979 January 06, State Times Advocate, Unheralded Awards by J. F. terHorst (Jerald Franklin terHorst), Quote Page 2, Column 5, Baton Rouge, Louisiana. (GenealogyBank) ↩