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Speaker: Humorist Bill Nye’s Legacy Continues in Modern Newspapers

June 18, 2015
man standing in front of bookshelves
Charles Rankin was among speakers at the recent UW conference celebrating 125 years of Wyoming statehood. (University of Oklahoma Press)

Newspaper humorists in the 19th century laid the foundation for Will Rogers and others who became quite famous in the 20th century, according to a speaker at a recent University of Wyoming conference celebrating 125 years of Wyoming statehood.

Charles Rankin, associate director and editor-in-chief for the University of Oklahoma Press, was among speakers at the conference “Our Place in the West … and Beyond: Wyoming at 125.” He discussed the legacy of Laramie Boomerang founder and editor Bill Nye, who would later become one of the nation’s most popular humorists. He said Nye had failed the bar examination in Wisconsin, but later passed the Wyoming bar exam and served as a justice of the peace and in a variety of other jobs before achieving success as a newspaper humorist.

“He was only in Laramie for about seven years, but he drew much of his humor from his time there,” Rankin said. “Humor was one way to attract newspaper readers, and Nye was one of the most successful of that era. A lot of humorists had their start with newspapers, with Mark Twain being one of the most successful.”

For the most part, Rankin said Nye avoided politics, but instead relied on self-deprecating humor -- he made jokes about himself because readers got a kick out of it and found it to be inoffensive.

“He essentially drew his humor from the human condition, and people very much identified with that,” he said.

While some of the 19th century humorists are all but forgotten, Nye and some others have a lot more staying power, and their influence is still felt today.

“Will Rogers and others really built upon that foundation in newspaper humor, where the readers in the mass daily papers wanted humor and local color. It became part of the American tradition,” Rankin said.

Rankin taught journalism at the University of New Mexico and Colorado State University following a career as a newspaper editor and radio news director. He was director of publications for the Montana Historical Society and was an associate editor of the New Mexico Historical Review.

More than 200 people attended the UW conference that featured programs presented by historians, writers, educators, researchers and others who discussed subjects and events that have shaped the Cowboy State. Speakers analyzed topics including art, women’s influences, homesteaders, crime, cultural geology, historic taverns, early bicycling and religion. The conference also covered tourism, UW and railroad history, the Heart Mountain Japanese-American relocation camp, agricultural history, Basque culture and an assortment of other subjects.

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