Sunday, August 15, 2010

Paying the Fiddler

"This would be a great world to dance in if we didn't have to pay the fiddler."

Will Rogers

It was three–quarters of a century ago today that America lost one of its most beloved humorists, Will Rogers.

Deaths are often described as tragic. That seems like a bit of an exaggeration to me. Most deaths are regrettable. And some rise to the level of tragic.

Rogers' death really was tragic. He and pilot Wiley Post died when their plane crashed in Alaska. Rogers was 55 years old.

(I guess it is both ironic and tragic that former Sen. Ted Stevens perished in a plane crash in Alaska earlier this week. Stevens was in his 80s — and, while it is seldom a shock when someone in that age group dies, the circumstances must be seen as tragic. The ironic part, I suppose, is the fact that a well–known person died in a plane crash in Alaska only a few days before the 75th anniversary of Rogers' death.

(It is of little or no consolation to those who lost loved ones on Tuesday, but this is a reminder that technological advancements have not conquered all things.

(To put this into perspective, I suppose, Stevens would have been 11 years old when Rogers' plane went down. But he wasn't living in Alaska at that time in his life. He was born in Indiana, where he lived until sometime in his teens. He did not come to Alaska until he was an adult.)

Along with Mark Twain, I guess Rogers is my favorite humorist of all time.

And let me be clear about something here. I differentiate between humorists and comedians.

When I think of a humorist, I think of a writer, first and foremost — and it ought to be clear to anyone who reads my blogs that I have a special reverence for writers. Twain was a writer, noted for his newspaper and novel writing. Rogers was a writer, too. He did other things, among them entertaining people in vaudeville and in the movies, but he was a writer. In fact, he wrote his newspaper column while he and Post were flying across Alaska in the summer of 1935.

I like a good comedian, too, but I think of comedians as people who tell jokes on a stage. They can be more than that — my absolute favorite comedian of all time, George Carlin, was more than just a joke teller. He was also an author in his later years.

But Carlin made his reputation with his stage comedy. His "Seven Words You Can't Say on Television" shtick will still be a classic decades from now — even if, as seems likely, it becomes routine for all seven words to be uttered on television (which, undoubtedly, will render that once–scandalous routine quaint, and wouldn't that amuse Carlin?).

In the summer of 1994, the year before my mother died,
my parents paid a visit to the Will Rogers Memorial
in Claremore, Okla., where the humorist is entombed.

Will Rogers was a humorist, perhaps the last true humorist this country has had (well, maybe that's an exaggeration in a country that has produced the likes of Mike Royko and Erma Bombeck since Rogers' death). And, no matter which side of the political fence his readers occupied, they all loved him. Maybe that is why he said, "I never met a man I didn't like."

(To give you an idea of just how open–minded Rogers was, he said that about Leon Trotsky.)

Maybe it was a mutual admiration thing. Everyone liked him so he liked everybody.

I can't help feeling that there is a certain amount of harmony at work here on the 75th anniversary of Rogers' untimely death. It kind of appeals to my sense of order.

In my hometown tomorrow, a memorial service will be held for my friend Phyllis, who died on August 5 (which happens to be the anniversary of Marilyn Monroe's death — an ironic note, given that Phyllis was an old movie buff). I've been writing a lot about Phyllis at my Freedom Writing blog since she died, and I expect to write about her from time to time in the future. She had that kind of influence on me.

She brought a lot of love and a lot of laughter into the lives of everyone who knew her. I think just about all her friends would agree that she, like Rogers, never met anyone she didn't like.

And just about everyone liked her, too.

She was human, of course, and, therefore, must have rubbed a few people the wrong way in her life, but their number must be few.

As I think about my friendship with Phyllis, I remember many laughs, and I recall that we spoke about many things. But I don't remember talking much about humorists and comedians.

Oh, we talked about funny performers we both enjoyed watching in movies, like Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon and Peter Sellers, and we talked about the TV sitcoms we liked. But I don't remember talking about Will Rogers, and I do regret that.

Especially now that she, like Rogers, has paid the fiddler.

My time for that will come as well. And, if the afterlife exists, I am sure I will see her again.

But I will always be sorry that we never discussed Rogers and Twain in this life.

I really doubt the subject will come up in the next world.