Book review: Try to keep from laughing

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I Could Hardly Keep from Laughing, an Illustrated Collection of Vermont Humor, by Don Hooper and Bill Mares.  Paperback.  188 pages.  Published by Rootstock Publishing.  $24.95.

Reviewed by Tena Starr

I doubt many are mourning the passage of 2021, and though it’s too soon to know what 2022 will bring, so far it’s 2021 on steroids.

But here come former legislators Bill Mares and Don Hooper — the first a writer, the latter a cartoonist — who have arrived at a brief antidote for what’s come to be called “languishing” during COVID, that odd state of not being exactly depressed, but not up to giggling either.  Their new book is a kind of goofy attempt to explain Vermont humor, and it offers plentiful examples.  I’m not sure there is such a thing as Vermont humor, but we all know the laconic standards, many of them jokes on tourists or farming:

“Does it matter which road I take to Goshen?

“Not to me, it don’t.”

Or, “How do you like Vermont?” asked the neighborly Hard.

“Oh, I think it’s a great place,” the visitor said.  “Beautiful and quiet.  But you’ve got to admit, there’s a lot of strange people up here.

“Yes, that’s right,” said Hard, “but they all go home come September.”

Another:  “A Vermont farmer, after years of trying, wins $50,000 in the lottery.  A neighbor asks him what he’ll do with his winnings.  ‘Oh, I guess I’ll keep farming until the money runs out.’”

The title of the book comes from a great story involving Mark Twain, who was invited to Brattleboro in the late 1800s for an evening of humor and readings.  For nearly two hours he “strained to raise more than a few smiles and a snicker,” Mr. Mares writes.  “Baffled and a little annoyed, he finished early, left by the stage door, and sneaked around to the front entrance to listen to the departing audience.  One elderly couple was getting into their buggy as the man said to his wife, ‘Warn’t he funny!  Why, he was so funny, I could hardly keep from laughing.”’

Mr. Mares and Mr. Hooper say they are trying to “keep up the tradition of taciturnity.”  The two met 35 years ago when they were both first-term legislators, who “shared an affection for the Capitol’s denizens and ghosts.”

Mr. Mares went on to write other Vermont books, including Real Vermonters Don’t Milk Goats (that certainly isn’t true anymore), which he co-authored with Frank Bryan, Vermont’s champion of Town Meeting.  Mr. Hooper is honing his cartooning skills.  They teamed up for this book, which is largely a collection, with context, of what they view as Vermont’s iconic humor.  However, they let cartoonist Jeff Danziger lead off with saying what it primarily is not.

“An institutional humor, such as is found in Vermont, has to depend on widely, at least statewide, recognized straight lines,” Mr. Danziger writes in the book’s forward.  “I once met Walter (Peanut) Kennedy standing in front of his car dealership in Chelsea.  I pulled up, lost as usual, and asked him, ‘Where does this road go?’ He looked at me a few seconds and then grinned.  ‘You don’t really want a serious answer to that, do you?’

“Asking for directions is one of the enduring straight lines in Vermont,” Mr. Danziger continues.  “The approved answer to my question was something like ‘It stays right here,’ or some variation.  ‘Can I take this road to New York?’ ‘Might as well, you’ve taken everything else.’

“What Vermont humor is best defined by is what it is not.  It is not cruel.  It is not transient.  It is not self-amused.  It is not loud or slapstick.  If all those possibilities are removed, either intentionally or inadvertently, you wind up with a kind of pleasant observational strain, like the farmers who is told that with the Lord’s help he has made a successful farm out of his rocky land.  ‘Yes,’ he says, ‘but you should have seen this place when the Lord was running it by himself.’”

West Glover’s Loudon Young, who, before his death, long wrote a popular column in the Chronicle, has a star turn, writing in his wry style about the “virtues” of summer people. One of those columns is included in the book.

“Way back here in the backwoods region of the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, we have a strange seasonal phenomenon known as ‘Summer Folk’,” Mr. Young wrote.  “They are sometimes referred to by other names, but not all of them are printable.  But anyhow, when the sidewalks of New York or New Jersey become hot enough to fry eggs, they tend to blow out of there, and that’s when they begin to arrive here.  These people are difficult to describe.  They come in all shapes and sizes, of most nationalities, and are of all ages.  They all have a few things in common though, mainly gaudy shorts, sunglasses, time off, and more money than a lot of us.”

The rest of the story is a good one, involving a pig and an all too gullible flatlander, but I’m not giving away Loudon’s punchline.  You’ll have to read, or re-read, it yourself.

The book wanders all over the place – from the 1986 seat belt debate where one legislator said:  “Mr. Speaker, my proposal is to exempt all legislators, who are already equipped with airbags!” to Fred Tuttle’s famous run for Senate.  Mr. Tuttle, a poorly educated, tottering, retired dairy farmer (the book’s description, not mine) was the star of a hilarious film called Man With a Plan. He was also a real-life candidate in the 1998 Republican Primary race for Patrick Leahy’s U.S. Senate seat.  His opponent was a wealthy and sophisticated Jim McMullen, recently from Massachusetts.

Mr. McMullen’s campaign eventually, reluctantly, agreed to a debate with the old man.  When Mr. Tuttle quizzed him about how to pronounce Calais, Mr. McMullen failed miserably.  He didn’t do any better when Mr. Tuttle asked him how many teats there are on a cow.

“When farmer Tuttle deadpanned, in his trademark Tunbridge accent, What’s a teddah?’ McMullen was toast,” the book says.  (The word is tedder and refers to a machine that helps hay dry in the field.)

Mr. Tuttle won the Primary with 54 percent of the vote.

This book isn’t just about humor; it’s also about oddities.  For instance, contributing writer Peter Gilbert writes that, before railroads, the only way to get turkeys from Vermont to market in Boston was to walk them there.  “And that, throughout much of the nineteenth century, is exactly what Vermonters did .…

“Townspeople put their birds together and accompanied by wagons with camp supplies and tons of feed grain, they escorted as many as seven thousand birds at a time, all the way to Boston.”

The book also takes note of “real” Vermont humorists — Danny Gore (known as Norm Lewis in real life), who developed quite a humor routine around his perpetual run for Governor from Avery’s Gore in Essex County.  A Danny Gore saying:  “At least when they had spittoons in the Vermont House, members displayed some coordination between brain and mouth.”

And there’s Rusty DeWees and Vermont Vaudeville out of Hardwick, both working to make us laugh today.  Mr. DeWees, in this book, offers advice on how to improve one’s joke telling skills.  “Remember, effective joke telling is serious business,” he writes.

This is an eclectic and quirky book.  You’ll find odd historical information, memoir, astute observation, considerable irreverence, scant political correctness — and a lot of funny stories.

But, of course, if you’re a Vermonter, you’ll have to try not to laugh.



538 recommended
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