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Old-Time New England Humor: Is It Still Funny?

Old-Time New England Humor: Is It Still Funny?
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Welcome to the July 2009 edition of “Jud’s New England Journal,” the rather curious monthly musings of Judson Hale, editor-in-chief of Yankee Magazine, published since 1935 in Dublin, New Hampshire.

Old-Time New England Humor: Is It Still Funny?

Here’s an example from the famous19th-century humorist known as Artemus Ward. You decide …

The use of dialect isn’t an essential ingredient of New England humor. It used to be, however. Today it’s more often misused. After all, the word “ayuh” isn’t particularly funny to someone who often says “ayuh.” And unless you do say “ayuh” as part of your natural way of speaking, there’s no possible way you can say “ayuh” and have it sound authentic. No possible way in the world.

However, dialect can be written. Many of the 19th-century New England humorists — such as Josh Billings and Charles Farrar Browne, otherwise known as Artemus Ward — wrote in heavy dialect. And although I believe that the dialect used in even the written New England stories of today more often than not seriously obstructs the humor, the likes of Billings and Artemus Ward made dialect work for them.

For example, in 1860 Artemus Ward, who once referred to Ralph Waldo Emerson as “a perpendicular coffin,” describes his experience as a census taker in characteristic fashion, even to his jumbled orthography.

The Senses taker in our town being taken sick he deppertised me to go out for him one day, and as he was too ill to giv me infomashun how to perceed, I was consekently compelled to go it blind. I drawd up the follerin list of questions which I proposed to ax the people I visited:

“Wat’s your age? Whar was you born? Air you marrid, and if so, how do you like it? How many children have you …? Did you ever have the measles, and if so how many? Wat’s your fitin wate? Air you trubeld with biles? Do you use boughten tobacker? Is Beans a regler article of diet in your family? Was you ever at Niagry Falls? How many chickens hav you, on foot and in the shell? Was you ever in the Penitentiary?”

But it didn’t work. I got into a row at the fust house I stopt to, with some old maids. Disbelieven the ansers they giv in regard to their ages I endevered to look at their teeth, same as they do with hosses, but they floo into a violent rage and tackled me with brooms and sich. Takin the senses requires experiunse, like any other bizniss.

That was 150 years ago, but even today the line between successful and unsuccessful New England humor is, of course, infinitesimally narrow, depending on timing, voice inflection (if spoken), surprise, and the precise choice of words utilized. The latter is probably the most important. I remember a party my wife and I attended some years ago at which an elderly New Hampshire friend of mine had perhaps one more drink than he should have had. As we were leaving, he and his wife were just ahead of us, and I could hear her gently admonishing him for being “drunk,” although he seemed to be walking along all right. I really didn’t mean to be eavesdropping, but on the other hand, I’m glad I caught his answer.

“Betsey,” he said slowly, “a man ain’t drunk so long as he can lay down, hang on to the grass, and keep himself from rolling over.”

Strangely enough, the humor here is, I believe, enhanced by my overhearing it rather than having had it spoken to me directly. Successful humor is often puzzlingly subtle, especially the New England variety.

More on this subject in the months to come …

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Old-Time New England Humor: Is It Still Funny?

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