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Something About New England Humor

Something About New England Humor
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Welcome to the November 2013 edition of “Jud’s New England Journal,” the rather curious monthly musings of Judson Hale, the Editor-in-Chief of Yankee Magazine, published since 1935 in Dublin, NH.


Something About New England Humor

Some say there’s no such thing as pure regional humor. Possibly…except in New England, that is.


E. B. White once wrote that “humor can be dissected as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific minds.” My feeling is that the humor that occurs unconsciously may well be the best insight into the nature of a region’s humor. If a person isn’t intending to be funny then there are no perceived notions influencing that person’s ability to be funny. Like most all spoken humor, unconscious humor requires the participation of at least two people—one to be funny; the other to think it’s funny.

For example, an undertaker friend and neighbor of my sister told her of the time he was summoned by a farmer living up in the hills of Albany, Vermont (which, incidentally, is where my sister and her husband live). He told the undertaker to please come and pick up the body of his wife. When the undertaker arrived at the farm after a rough drive up a winding dirt road, he was met by the farmer outside the front door of the house. “She ain’t dead yet,” he said, “but you can come in and wait if you want to.”

The farmer was simply being practical, so practical as to be funny to at least the undertaker and my sister. Oh, and me.

As another example of raw, unconscious New England humor, consider this story that the late Bill Conklin, a writer for Yankee, of Walpole, New Hampshire, swore to me occurred precisely as follows…

“At an old barn on a back road in New Hampshire, my wife and I came upon an ‘Antiques & Collectibles’ sign that led us into the barn and the presence of one of those Yankee proprietors right out of ‘Bert and I’.

“I at once spotted a curious contraption, a rectangular pine platform mounted on four short legs. One end of it held a wooden upright with a hole cut out of the middle, exactly resembling a miniature stock for punishing, say, a midget of old New England days.

“On inquiring about its purpose, and waiting a long minute while apparently the proprietor decided if he was going to tell me or not, there finally came a muttered, ‘That’s a goat milking stand.’

“To me, then newly transplanted from the so-called flatlands, it seemed like a marvelous piece of folk art.

“Look at that,’ I exclaimed to my wife. ‘You could use this for a planter, or a coffee table, or simply to display things.’

“The silence was palpable. Then the flat, nasal voice came from behind us, where the proprietor stood.

“‘You could use it,’ he said, ‘to milk a goat.’”

Professor Edward Ives of the University of Maine, who studied New England humor for many years, once said it is difficult to specifically define New England humor as something that is found only in New England. Well, I’ll admit you might find something similar to the goat-milking-stand story somewhere else but I truly doubt it could have happened anywhere else in the country but here in New England.

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Updated Friday, November 1st, 2013

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4 Responses to Something About New England Humor

  1. Harvey Brickley November 3, 2013 at 12:12 pm #

    What distinguishes New England humor? The listener’s response is usually a groan, not a laugh.

  2. Dick Yerg November 26, 2013 at 12:45 pm #

    When I was a student at Bates in 1960 or so, three of us were going skiing at Sugarloaf. We didn’t have a ski rack so we put the ends of the six skis under the spare tire and figured that would hold them. Somewhere along the way we stopped to ask an old Mainer for directions. He looked back forth at us and the car and finally asked, “Any of you fellas one-legged?” We said, “No, why?”
    He replied, “Well you only got five skis back here.”

  3. Linda Dean November 26, 2013 at 3:09 pm #

    I love to tell the story of my uncle, a Vermont farmer with a typical New England sense of humor. My husband and I stopped in to visit one Sunday after attending our college reunion in Vermont. My uncle’s family gathered to greet us. During our visit the phone rang. My uncle went to the next room to answer it. He soon returned and my aunt asked who called. My uncle’s response was “Some woman. She wanted directions to our house. I gave them to her and she asked if I didn’t want to know who she was. I told her I expected I’d know who she was when she got here (said with a chuckle). I wasn’t going to give her the satisfaction of thinking I was curious who she was!”

  4. Barbara Bovée November 27, 2013 at 9:08 am #

    In the mid-70’s, ~peasant blouses~ paired with jeans were popular fashion; especially with my friend with whom I rode to and from college in her little black ‘bug’.
    As she pulled into the my driveway to drop me off, we noticed my Dad tending to the garden at the side of the house. I saw my Dad turn and glance as we exited the car and then turn back to his garden. My friend, who hardly ever saw him, wanted to extend the courtesy of acknowledgement and a brief chat.
    She said hello, Dad returned the greeting, then turned towards her, and with a look of slight surprise and puzzlement asked, “Was there a fire in your house this morning?”. Obviously bewildered by the question, she hesitantly replied, “No” with a lilt of question in her voice. With an ever so slight smile Dad responded; “I thought you must have been forced to leave your home in a hurry this morning otherwise you wouldn’t be wearing your pajamas.”

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