As lighthearted as Will Rogers was, Doug Watson takes his role as the great cowboy philosopher seriously. In his program Conversations With Will Rogers, he plays the humorist to the hilt. Dressed in a double-breasted suit and Stetson, he delivers wisecracks about the politics and culture of the '20s and '30s, pulling quotes from Rogers' hundreds of speeches and newspaper columns.
For example, in a slightly twangy drawl that approximates Rogers' Oklahoma dialect, Watson relates a joke written during a massive Midwest drought: "Farmers are learning that the relief they get from the sky beats what they get from Washington."
After government, Rogers' favorite subjects for satire were human nature ("There ain't but one thing wrong with every one of us in the world, and that's selfishness") and pretense ("There's nothing as stupid as an educated man if you get him off the subject he's educated in").
Rogers was called America's apostle of common sense, and his observations still ring true today. But Watson, age 51, keeps audiences steeped in the first third of the century throughout his show, which he'll perform May 14 and 15 as part of the Literature of Laughter Series. Following his dramatization he answers, in character, some of the audience's questions. He then breaks from character to give an English professor's views.
Watson teaches American literature at Oklahoma Baptist University near his home in Shawnee. In 1991 he began doing historical characterizations as part of a humanities education outreach series presented to the public. He portrayed Nathaniel Hawthorne and Stephen Crane in programs on great American writers and chose Rogers for a series on humorists.
After more than a year of performing as Rogers, Watson says, "I've learned to appreciate the dry sort of gentleness of [his humor]. His gags set up a way to laugh at yourself and maybe at the institutions you depend on, but you get the feeling he's not really out to destroy anybody."
"I joked about all of the prominent men of my time," Rogers himself once said. "But I never met a man I didn't like. I'm real proud of that."
Rogers was born in 1879 on a ranch on the Cherokee Nation in what would become the state of Oklahoma. A freed slave taught him to lasso cattle, and Rogers' rope prowess earned him roles in Wild West shows and with the Ziegfeld Follies. He started telling a few jokes while doing rope tricks and was soon delivering his humorous commentary in syndicated newspaper columns and on radio broadcasts. He rubbed elbows with the political and business elite, acted in movies, and continued to write and run cattle until his death in an Alaska plane crash in 1935.
Watson researched the Rogers role by visiting the Will Rogers Memorial near Tulsa and reading reams of Rogers' columns. He watched Rogers' movies to pick up mannerisms. "It's the 'aw shucks,' hands-in-your-pockets, kicking-the-ground kind of business most of the time," he says.
He didn't have to work on the accent. "I've become sort of the Okie over the 20 years I've lived here," notes Watson. He actually resembles Rogers, but, he says, "my ears don't stick out as much."
"Doing Rogers has enabled me to look at things with a more gentle sort of humorous wisdom," says Watson. "If there is anything I could wish for the audience, it is that they could take some of that away from the performance."
Conversations With Will Rogers will be performed at 7 p.m. Friday, May 14, at the Republic Cafe, 200 E. Las Olas Blvd., Fort Lauderdale. Tickets cost $18 and include dinner. A second performance begins at 2 p.m. Saturday, May 15, at Nova Southeastern University, Terry Building, 3200 S. University Dr., Davie. Admission to that performance is $10. Call 954-262-4627.