More on New England Humor
I love to recall in my mind some of the old stories and jokes I’ve known for years. To me, it’s like humming a favorite tune over and over. Maybe one of the reasons these old stories live on in my mind-and in the minds of others-is that they each seem to reflect one or more of the traits we’ve come to accept as sort of representing old-time New Englanders. I’m referring to such traits as frugality, shrewdness, contrariness, a sense of independence, a natural reluctance to feel beholden to anyone, and so forth.
For example, here’s one I’ve always liked. It brings out our contrariness to such an extreme that, well, it’s funny.
“Good morning, Mr. Spence, and how are you this lovely morning?”
Answer: ” ‘Tain’t none of your business. And I wouldn’t tell you that much if you wasn’t my neighbah.” (You have to pronounce “neighbah” without the “r.”)
Movie producer Frank Pierson, in a YANKEE Magazine story a few years ago, said that New England jokes are also told with little morals “masquerading behind the laughter.” He went on to tell about two Maine fisherman who lose contact with their mother ship and drift for days and weeks in their dory. For food, they grab seabirds that land on their heads, and they drink the blood. Finally, far off on the horizon, they see the smoke from a passing steamship. One of the fishermen tears off his shirt and is waving it in the air while screaming and crying. The other one says, “Jed, don’t do nothing to make you beholden to them.”
Then there’s the proverbial New England put-down. I love ’em. For instance, writer Edwin Valentine Mitchell, in his book It’s an Old State of Maine Custom, recalls the story of the tourist being shown around town who remarks to his guide how extraordinarily old the townspeople seem to be.
“Seems as if everybody we meet is old,” says the tourist.
“Yes,” the guide (a native) admits, “the town does have a lot of old folks.”
“I see you have a beautiful cemetery over there,” remarks the tourist a bit later.
“Yup,” is the laconic answer. “We had to kill a man to start it.”
You know, I think that’s the best New England put-down story I’ve ever heard. (I “sing” that one to myself quite often.)