Down East 2013 ©
A couple of yuppies walk into a bar in Jackman. . . .
We don’t have a punch line here. We don’t need one. The typical Maine joke follows such a familiar path that you already know how to get there from here. “It’s the old idea of city mouse versus country mouse,” says John McDonald, a syndicated columnist, radio host, and author. “We love that. And Maine, from the turn of the last century, has been a [magnet for] urban sophisticates.” [For the rest of this story, see the November 2008 issue of Down East.]
Those highbrow visitors often bring a suitcase full of preconceptions. “The setup in Maine humor that is almost universal is the out-of-state person coming in and condescending to the local person, who then presents a zinger,” says Tim Sample, Maine’s best-known homegrown humorist. “It carries the message: You’ll do fine around here as long as you don’t think that being from New York or L.A. or somewhere else makes you better than the local people.”
Example: “A fella from Texas shows up at a little country store,” Sample says. “He’s got a great big Cadillac, and he comes in all full of himself. He asks a local Maine guy how much land he owns. The Maine guy is, typically, a man of few words: ‘Enough for us.’ So the other guy says, ‘Where I come from in Texas, I got a spread so big, I get up in the morning and start out driving, and I can drive all day and not even leave my own property.’ And the Maine guy says, ‘I had a car like that once myself.’
“Marshall Dodge used to tell that story a lot. He put it beautifully: he said that Maine humor punctures pomposity.”
In 1958 Dodge, along with fellow Yale student Bob Bryan, created the first Bert and I album. Says Sample, “That became the benchmark New England dialect recording.” And it helped put Maine humor on the national map, making it as familiar in Wisconsin as in Wiscasset, even though it was recorded by two non-Mainers.
But even that act of appropriation was appropriate. By capturing the flavor of Down East storytelling and distributing it nationwide, Dodge and Bryan were simply doing on a large scale what others had been doing in dribs and drabs for ages. “There’s a huge root system to the storytelling tradition in New England that goes back to old England and the British Isles,” Sample says. “Basically the storytelling that Marshall and Bobby first encountered came from Bostonians and more urban and urbane folks who had been hunting and fishing and sailing along the coast of Maine and had encountered these phenomenal storytellers. And [the urbanites] would basically sort of rip off these great tales and tell them at gentlemen’s clubs in Boston.”
McDonald explains the storyteller’s creed: “The only requirement when you take a story is that you improve it.”
Often those improvements lie in colorful turns of phrase. Such as: “My throat is tighter than a bull’s ass in fly season.” (McDonald, whose fascination with local dialect led him to write The Maine Dictionary, picked that one up from his grandfather.)
Sample also had an influential relative. His uncle, Steve Graham, had a barbershop, and “we always joked in the family that he wasn’t much of a barber, but he was a fantastic storyteller,” Sample says. “Folks would come and listen to all the old characters tell stories and only occasionally get a haircut.”
After some Mainers reacted negatively to the first Bert and I album, Dodge and Bryan paid Graham a visit. “Partially in response to this somewhat valid critique of their work, a very little known recording was made at my uncle’s barbershop in Brooklin, Maine,” Sample says. “It was entitled Bert and Us, and it featured these wonderful storytellers, including my uncle Steve and a fellow by the name of Horace Stevens, who did the famous Maine stories ‘Frost, You Say?’ and ‘Cutler Harbor.’ ”
Sample says that Bert and Us “got lost in the mists of time.” But he remembers the regulars at his uncle’s barbershop, not to mention the storytellers he encountered at his family’s shipyard in Boothbay Harbor. “I was exposed to the root source of all this humor — these characters who populate the coast of Maine.”
But there’s more to Maine than a coastline, of course. And as a writer/performer who was born in Jackman, Susan Poulin noticed a void in her home state’s nationally famous humor. “I wanted to show that Maine humor exists all over the state, not just on the coast,” says Poulin, who now lives in South Berwick with her husband and collaborator, Gordon Carlisle. “And that women have a funny perspective, too.”
Inspiration came to her one day when she was sitting at her computer trying to create a character that “would pay homage to the women I grew up with. And I just heard this voice in my head: ‘Hi, my name’s Ida and I’m a Home Shopping Network-aholic.’ Honest to God, I heard that voice in my head. And I wrote the first piece for [the play] Ida: Woman Who Runs with the Moose in a straight shot.”
Ida would be Ida LeClair, an amalgam of rural Maine women of Franco-American descent. “I don’t identify with the Yankee sensibility,” Poulin says. “I was raised in a totally different way, a bicultural way. There was much more joie de vivre. It was not so frugal, both monetarily and emotionally.” Ida’s world is one of double-wides and Wal-Marts, Barcaloungers and Bonnevilles. “In-state humor,” Poulin calls it.
Still, as with Sample and McDonald, the bedrock for Poulin’s perspective was “great storytellers who had a facility for language. Or a lack of facility, because they’d go back and forth between two languages. I know the sound of that. So for me, that kitchen culture of sitting around in big family groups telling stories — that was really influential. And then, of course, there’s the Catholic church, which is forever funny.”
For all the differences between Poulin’s humor or those of a stand-up comic like Bob Marley, Maine’s most famous contemporary comedian, and the traditional Maine variety, all share certain characteristics, such as a lack of mean-spiritedness and an underlying message of tolerance. “There’s such a clash of differences in Maine,” Poulin says. “You have the coast and you have the lakes. You have the County and then you have York County, which a lot of Mainers don’t even consider part of Maine — it’s just northern Massachusetts. And then you also have the native Mainers and the people from away. And in order to live together, you have to have a sense of humor.”
Call it Bert and Ida — finding a way to coexist. “New England in general and Maine in particular has a reputation for being cold, and people are not open to new ideas,” Sample says. “Couldn’t be farther from the truth. There are few places in the world as tolerant of eccentricity and individualism. It’s an entrepreneur’s heaven. You can come to Maine and set up any kind of workshop in your garage and do anything you want and you’ll be fully accepted.”
What you can’t do, Sample says, is “come in and tell people who have been doing things a certain way for two hundred years that they’re a bunch of rubes and they don’t know anything and you’ve gota better idea. That will get you zero.
“You want to start a new religion out of whole cloth, like L. Ron Hubbard did? California — fertile ground. You can get five hundred converts in the first two weeks. If you tried to get that going in Maine, it would be five years before anybody would even come to your church supper — and then only if you have good food. We’re skeptical of the big, new, sweeping deal because we live a hard life.
“What our ancestors discovered and passed along to us via the oral tradition is a very important piece of wisdom, which is that one of the most dangerous things you can do in a difficult situation is to take yourself too seriously,” Sample says. “If you don’t laugh about the frost heaves and the potholes and the blackflies and the obnoxious tourists and the plunging economy and the long hard winter, it’ll just about kill you.”
Poulin agrees. “People in Maine have the ability to laugh at themselves,” she says. “Or laugh at their neighbors. That’s more like it. Nobody comes up to me and says, ‘I’m Ida.’ They’ll say, ‘I live next to Ida.’ ”
A Stand-up Guy
No joke: The world’s first stage comedian was a Mainer.
Stand-up comedy was born in Oxford County, Maine, on April 26, 1834. More precisely, the world’s first stand-up comedian was. His name was Charles Farrar Brown, who wrote and performed under the name Artemus Ward. Brown lived in his native Waterford until age thirteen, when his father died. He left home to become a printer’s apprentice, which led to a job as a columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, where he invented his Ward persona in 1858. But it was a few years later, when he graduated to the stage, that he discovered his true calling.
At the time, before movies, radio, or television, public performances ran the gamut from temperance lectures to plays to magic acts. The one common denominator was that they were all about something. But more than a century before Seinfeld, Brown decided to do a show about nothing. As the late Maine author John J. Pullen wrote in the 1983 biography Comic Relief, “No one had ever ventured to appear before an audience for an hour with no narrative, information, or instruction — with nothing but the antics of his mind; and this was what Brown seems to have been aiming at from the very beginning.”
Brown’s act was not a rudimentary template for modern humor — it was modern humor, fully formed. From his first performance in 1861, Brown left audiences astounded. Typically, he would begin by doing . . . well, nothing. He would simply stand there in silence, a la Andy Kauffman. When the audience’s discomfited murmurs grew loud enough, he would announce: “Ladies and gentlemen. When you have finished with this unseemly interruption, I shall be glad to continue.” The audience invariably erupted in laughter, which reverberated for the rest of the hour.
“He was like the rock star of his day,” says Tim Sample, a keen student of Maine humor as well as its best-known practitioner. “To this day, in certain circles in England, Sam Clemens is considered to be a poor substitute for Artemus Ward.” Brown’s material contained few autobiographical references, beyond a note that Artemus Ward “was born in the state of Maine, of parents.” Comic Relief suggests that leaving Maine was an act of self-preservation. As Pullen put it: “The impression grew that he was a likable but shiftless fellow who, for some unaccountable reason, had become famous ‘outside.’ ”