September 30, 2013

“Well, all I know is what I read in the papers.”

The most famous line used by American humorist Will Rogers when he poked fun at the latest antics of politicians or commented on other recent news stories was “Well, all I know is what I read in the papers.” 

Many books and websites cite the September 30, 1923 edition of The New York Times as the source of this quip. It did appear on that date in a newspaper column Rogers wrote and it is certainly his most famous use in print.

However, Rogers actually began using the quip years earlier in his live stage performances.

It gained initial fame when he used line — and variations of it — during his appearances in Florenz Ziegfeld’s Midnight Frolic shows in the fall of 1915.

In those live stage performances, Rogers would stand on the stage dressed in his cowboy outfit, leisurely twirling a lariat, while he talked about stories he’d seen in the news.

He typically started his Midnight Frolic monologues by saying something like:

       “Well, what shall I talk about? I ain’t got anything funny to say. All I know is what I read in the papers.”

Of course, just about everything he said after that was funny.

In December of 1922, Rogers began writing a weekly column for the McNuaght Syndicate titled “Slipping the Lariat Over.”

It was published in The New York Times and eventually in 600 other daily and weekly newspapers.

Rogers’ column was like a written version of his stage show monologues. He would note recent items in the news, then make slyly witty remarks about them.
His first use of the “all I know...” catchphrase in “Slipping the Lariat Over” was in his  September 30, 1923 column — which is why that date is cited by so many books and websites.

In that week’s column, Rogers commented on news stories which had speculated that a recent earthquake in Japan was the cause of an accidental grounding of U.S. Navy ships near New York City and various other unusual events.

Rogers wrote in his usual dry, folksy manner:

     “Well, all I know is what I read in the Papers. That Japanese Earthquake, in addition to being the greatest calamity in the history of the World, even at the time that it happened, has, according to Newspapers and Experts, not reaped half of its destruction yet. Every day something happens and we don’t know exactly just what it is, and it will turn out in the Morning Paper to be the Earthquake in Japan that caused it.
       We lost 7 Self Destroyers on the rocks just above here the other day. People thought at first that it might have been a Fog, but it wasn’t; it was the earthquake in Japan.”

Later in that column Rogers humorously praised fighter Luis Firpo for not blaming his defeat in a recent boxing match on the earthquake in Japan.

He added:

     “I read where Will Hays went to Europe with Ambassador Harvey [the US ambassador to Great Britain]. Now I don’t know if that was Politics or the Earthquake — either one is equally destructive.”

Rogers went on to use “all I know is what I read in the papers,” with minor variations, in many following “Slipping the Lariat Over” columns.

His column was hugely popular and he continued writing it until his tragic death in a plane crash in 1935.

Rogers once said about the success of his newspaper column:

     “When I first started out to write and misspelled a few words, people said I was plain ignorant. But when I got all the words wrong, they declared I was a humorist.”

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Related reading, listening and viewing: by and about Will Rogers…


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