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Ayup: In Maine, they still chortle

Old standbys get some new laughs

PORTLAND, Maine -- Almost 50 years have passed since two Yale students created ''Bert and I" and ushered in a golden age of Maine humor, but the ''set-her-again" story that they helped popularize still resonates.

It is often told with variations and embellishments that extend its length to 10 or 15 minutes, but the gist of the tale is simple:

A lobsterman's wife -- in some versions his mother-in-law -- falls overboard from his boat in rough seas, and her body washes up on shore weeks later, with a dozen lobsters attached. In discussing disposition of the remains, a fellow fisherman says that in view of the high price of lobster and the poor state of the economy, he would ''set her again."

The story no doubt originated along the Maine coast, but where, when, and by whom is anyone's guess. To Tim Sample, the Maine humorist who gained a national audience through the ''Postcards from Maine" segment of CBS' ''Sunday Morning," it is part of the region's oral tradition.

Incorporating the requisite colloquialisms and dialect, Sample has made good use of the story in a 30-year career.

So, too, has John McDonald, a Maine storyteller who includes it in his book, ''A Moose and a Lobster Walk Into a Bar," now in its sixth printing.

As increased mobility and the influence of television whittle away at America's regional distinctions, Maine is among a handful of places with a critical mass of humorists and storytellers to carry on the comic tradition and style.

A historic moment came in 1957 when Marshall Dodge and Robert Bryan recorded the Maine stories that they practiced in their dormitory in New Haven, Conn. Neither was from Maine, but they had a keen ear for dialect and Dodge had a knack for making sound effects that enhanced their stories.

''They made this on a lark, just for fun," said Sample, who performed with Dodge before his death in a hit-and-run accident while bicycling in Hawaii in 1982.

Dodge and Bryan, who later became an Episcopal priest, made 50 copies of their ''Bert and I" record for friends, then made another 50, and then 100 more.

Its phenomenal success spawned follow-up records by Dodge and Bryan, with records by a handful of imitators.

Sample, who grew up in Boothbay Harbor, went on to develop a hybrid of yarn-spinning and comedy that he terms ''Down East standup."

''It's more topical and more reactive to current events but it never digresses tremendously from the cadence, structure, and basic orientation of the classic storytelling," he said.

Born in Providence, McDonald was exposed to storytellers in Tenants Harbor, where his family spent summers, and in Cherryfield, where he lived after moving to Maine to pursue journalism.

The roots of Maine's brand of dry humor are the fishing villages along the coast and the lumber camps in the state's northern forest. Tales passed from one generation to the next offered a distraction from what Sample calls ''some of the most dangerous, difficult, back-breaking work imaginable."

A recurrent theme is the country bumpkin who always seems to get the best of the sophisticated urbanite, usually from Massachusetts, deflating his ego and puncturing his pomposity.

Take the visitor who pulls up in his shiny BMW and shouts to the fellow in front of the general store, ''How do you get to Bangor?" His reply: ''My father takes me."

Or this: ''Have you lived here all your life?" Answer: ''Not yet."

''What they're saying is, 'You didn't ask me the right question,' " said McDonald, who views the jokes as poking gentle fun at tourists. And he does propose a view of the summer visitors:

They ''come here during the best time of the year, gum up the roads, fill up the restaurants, and expect people to work for them for next to nothing, mowing their grass and painting their boats."

Sample, 55, puts on about 75 shows a year. Like others in the profession, he supplements his performances with books, audio, video, CDs, and DVDs.

McDonald, 61, has worked at newspapers and radio stations and now hosts a weekend talk show on WGAN radio in Portland.

Among older humorists, Kendall Morse worked as a boat captain and harbormaster. Joe Perham, known for his outhouse jokes, was a high school English teacher. And Robert Skoglund, also known as ''The Humble Farmer," wrote newspaper columns.

Their routines are far different from those of Bob Marley, a comedian born in Maine who hit it big nationally with appearances on Letterman and Leno, movie roles, and a schedule of shows around the country. He sprinkles a few Maine references when he performs in his home state, as he did in six sold-out shows in Portland over the Christmas holiday, but he drops that material before out-of-state audiences.

His brand of comedy, he said, comes at a different pace. ''On the 'Tonight' show, they want a laugh every 20 seconds. A Maine humorist might take four minutes to get the first laugh," he said.

Humorists steer clear of off-color language and say they avoid performing in venues where liquor flows because their material demands an audience's close attention.

''You have to have more than a teaspoonful of brains to understand Maine humor," said Morse, 71, who has given up performing because of poor health.

But Perham, 71, and Skoglund, 70, still take the stage, addressing audiences that range from farmers to pharmacists.

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