PORTLAND, Maine — Some of the classic lines that define Maine humor emerged 50 years ago on a record made by two Yale University students in a dormitory room.
Uttered in exaggerated Down East accents, the exchanges between Marshall Dodge and Robert Bryan on the “Bert and I” album inspired generations of storytellers both in-state and beyond, including the likes of Garrison Keillor of Lake Wobegon fame.
Some of Dodge and Bryan’s bone-dry punch lines remain familiar even today.
Summer tourist to Mainer: “Which way to Millinocket?” After considering and then rejecting a few possible routes, the native concludes, “Come to think of it, you can’t get there from here.”
Then there’s the day 85-year-old Arnold Bunker “from Bailey Island way” appears in court. Asked if he’d lived there all his life, he replies: “Not yet.”
Maine’s Islandport Press has marked the 50th anniversary of “Bert and I” by putting out a CD that features 34 stories compiled from Dodge and Bryan’s four albums, a concert appearance by Dodge and a public television special.
Islandport owner Dean Lunt said the humorists represent an important piece of Maine’s cultural history.
“Their genius was in taking existing stories, some of which were often off-color, and popularizing them and bringing them before a mass audience,” Lunt said.
Though neither was from Maine, Dodge and Bryan were familiar with the state and its people and had a keen ear for dialect, along with a knack for low-tech sound effects. Their first recording, made in their dorm room at Yale University, featured a wastebasket as an echo chamber.
They made 50 copies for friends and family members, then pressed 50 more. Later in 1958 they made an expanded 12-inch version that grew in popularity across New England and eventually nationwide. Over the past half-century, according to Bryan, it sold about 1 million copies.
The album, with a minimalist white-and-black cover, remains available to this day.
Comedian-magician Penn Jillette of the comedy duo Penn and Teller recently included “Bert and I” on his list of the top 12 comedy albums of all time, placing it with the likes of those by George Carlin, Lenny Bruce and the Smothers Brothers.
Keillor, the storyteller, humorist and host of “A Prairie Home Companion,” remembered playing cuts from the “Bert and I” albums decades ago during his stints as a morning disc jockey.
“Marshall Dodge came and performed on ‘A Prairie Home Companion’ back in its early days, wearing a slicker and rain hat, and he was the sweetest man and also a big hit,” Keillor said.
The “Bert and I” stories, which often juxtapose the glib city slicker and the laconic Mainer, help to puncture pomposity, albeit in a gentle manner, said Tim Sample, a Maine humorist who was 7 when the album came out. He later worked with Dodge before Dodge’s death in 1982 in a hit-and-run crash while bicycling in Hawaii.
“The enduring message is, ‘Don’t come into this rural state with an attitude, thinking you can push the local people around.’ You have to show a little bit of respect,” Sample said.
Bryan, a divinity student who went on to be ordained as an Episcopal priest, remains active at age 77 with the Quebec Labrador Foundation, a nonprofit he founded nearly 50 years ago. A bush pilot, he still flies into fishing villages as part of his work.
Album royalties enabled him to send his three children to school and buy his first plane that made his far-flung ministry possible.
Bryan will join Sample, fellow Maine humorists John McDonald and Kendall Morse, and Dodge’s brother Fred on Dec. 13 at a free concert at the L.L. Bean retail store in Freeport that will include classic “Bert and I” stories and a discussion about the album’s influence.
“It’s difficult for me to believe it has carried on 50 years,” Bryan said. “On the other hand I realize that the stories that are on the record are timeless and many of them have been told for ages. And we picked up on that, and just went with it.”
Click here to listen to Which Way to Millinocket.
Click here to listen Arnold Bunker Testifies.