Will Rogers, U.S.A.

on Channel 5 tonight, 8 P.M.

WILL ROGERS held a special place in the hearts of Americans in the 1920's and 30's. He was a phenomenally popular American entertainer: humorist, cowboy, actor, lecturer of sorts, radio broadcaster, and syndicated columnist. Now James Whitmore brings Will back to life in a delightful performance of his jokes and stories, Will Rogers' U.S.A.

Will Rogers' act is hard to duplicate, because it was never prepared. He spun his jokes and anecdotes as he went along, rambling freely from one subject to another. But Whitmore pulls off a convincing transformation. He drops into Rogers' loose slouch and takes up his labored, bow-legged walk. He alternately fiddles with a lariat or stuffs his hands into his pockets. Whitmore even picks up Rogers' twant and grin. Most all all, he exudes an infectious warmth and enthusiasm. If the act sometimes seems planned or forced, there moments are mere exceptions. You rarely question who's up there talking--it's Will Rogers.

Paul Shyre selected Whitmore's lines from Rogers' own amazing variety of comments and stories. We get a good taste of his range: Whitmore talks of doctors, war, newspapers, friends, politicians. Politicians most of all. Rogers spoke directly about the people and issues of his day, from World War I to Mussolini to the Dust Bowl. Many of his jokes still hit home. When Whitmore says, "You all know the best place for a political convention--Chicago, of course," Rogers' words are not just an echo from 1920. Even more apt are his statements on American gunboat diplomacy: "So, we set out helping the world. We will send Marines to any nation that can get ten people to ask us. We're in the humanity business. Look folks, if we had any morals we'd use them ourselves... What would we say if the Chinese sent a gunboat up the Mississippi, you know, with their Marines on it? What if they said they were just protecting their laundries in Memphis?"

Shyre's adaptation and Whitmore's performance evoke Will Rogers clearly. Will was a child who exposed the exalted emperors of his time in all their embarrassing nakedness. His humor derived from his innocent exaggeration of the discrepancies between the grandiose pretentions of people and institutions and their imperfect realities. Rogers questioned the value of a college education: "Will college pay? Of course college will pay--it you're a halfback or a basketball player. College athletes sometimes ask me when they should turn pro. I tell them, 'Not until you make as much as you can in college.'"

American politics and government are particularly vulnerable to Rogers' kind of humor. Politicians who parade as national leaders look silly when you notice their common imperfections. Rogers described Calvin Coolidge's stiff-lipped way of talking: "Coolidge is what we call at home a close chewer and a tight spitter." But he did not limit his jokes to personal failings; he also knocked irresponsible government policies and actions. The moral self-righteousness with which we infuse our policies seems absurd against the hard truths of government inefficiency and immorality. Rogers used this contrast as a major source of his biting political humor. He noted the defeat of a bill to provide food for the poor and the passage of a bill for highway construction funds: "Pretty soon there won't be a poor farm in America without a paved road leading to it." In his parody of Coolidge's State of the Union Message, Rogers had Coolidge say. "I'm going to appoint a committee to stop all that small graft. It's grown to such proportions that it's getting in the way of large graft."

WILL ROGERS lashed out comically at careless and deliberate political irresponsibility. He was most critical, though, of politicians' basic ambitions to manipulate people. He said, "When you gotta go 7,000 miles to find a war, you must really be looking... That's what we do worst in this country--minding other people's business." Rogers deplored a lack of respect for the ways and rights of individuals. "You many not see things my way, but why should you? I may not see things the same way you do--why should I?" this was Will Rogers' dream of American community.

Rogers had a genuine respect for people as well as a comical appreciation of their shortcomings. His faith in the capacity of people to run their own lives may seem naive and shortsighted in a complex America which today cries out for extensive coordinated overhaul. Rogers was skeptical about the potential of government to reform society. He didn't give answers. But he raised important questions about it.

James Whitmore and Paul Shyre recreate Will Rogers through his own words and give us an engaging, sharp, and incredibly funny man. If some of the jokes are corny, most are dead-on, and Rogers's spirit overrides any flaws.