By David M. Fitzpatrick
OF THE WEEKLY STAFF
What — you’re a Mainer, and you’ve never seen humorist Tim Sample perform? If that’s the case, don’t waste any time getting tickets to his show at 2 p.m. Sunday, March 24, the Brewer Performing Arts Center. And if you have seen him perform — well, you’ll probably want to see him again.
It won’t be Sample’s first show in Brewer; in fact, he was at the Next Generation Theatre on Jan. 26 to tape an episode of The Nite Show with Danny Cashman. But there are very few places in Maine he hasn’t been, and certainly very few roads he hasn’t traveled.
“If you knew how many times I drove from Portland to Caribou to do a show, then back to Portland that night,” he said. “At the peak of my career, I was driving sixty and seventy thousand miles a year, every year, all over Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, plus flying other places. I love to drive.”
It’s a good thing, because Maine is full of long drives. And contrary to Sample’s own observations, you really can get “theah from heah.”
“It’s hard to find a place that I haven’t performed in,” he said. “Other than a professional politician, it’s hard to find somebody who’s traveled as much around and been to as many towns and to as many places as I have over the years.”
The Maine native’s deep appreciation for everything about his home state brings out the larger-than-life character who has made us laugh for 35 years.
“I love Maine, I love Maine people, I love Maine communities,” he said.
But — if you can imagine this — Sample’s career didn’t start with comedy.
The Stookey Connection
Sample was a musician who formed his first band at age 14 in the excitement of the British Invasion. He was quick to memorize songs, and had reasonable talent as a singer and songwriter, but he kept losing members in band after band through the mid-1970s.
“I realized that I was the only one serious about having a career in show business,” he said. “It was like I was running an employment agency for bass players and guitar players and drummers, and then they’d find a nice girl and settle down, and then I’d have to go looking for another bass player or guitar player.”
And it didn’t pay well. In 1976, his band would play five nights a week for $500.
“There were five guys in the band — you do the math,” he said. “It was like twenty bucks a night. You’re not getting rich that way, and nobody’s discovering you in these bars.”
When a friend said he was playing solo with an acoustic guitar for as much as $75 a night, Sample was floored.
“I said, ‘Are you kidding me?’” he said. “’That’s like rock-star wages.’”
He started doing a solo act, and it paid off when he caught the attention of folk legend and Maine resident Noel Paul Stookey of Peter, Paul and Mary fame — and found himself Stookey’s opening act at age 25.
“I was a big fan of his,” Sample said. “Then I got this chance to open for him, and we just hit it off, like bang.”
It was a golden opportunity for a young musician. But what was it about Sample that attracted someone of Stookey’s musical stature?
“Folk music historically values authenticity above presentation skills, honesty of intent above passion of performance,” Stookey told me in an email. “Tim’s lyrics were honest and revealing of his personal and spiritual journey.”
The partnership lasted about three years before Stookey made a command decision. At the time, Stookey was touring with Sample, Dave Mallett and a pair known as Two Guys From Boston. Stookey felt there were too many white male acoustic-guitar-playing singer-songwriters in a row, and asked Sample to instead come out between sets, do some storytelling and get people laughing.
“That was a watershed in my career,” Sample said. “I realized I could either take offense and say, ‘He doesn’t like my music,’ or I could say, ‘This guy literally has platinum albums, gold albums, number-one hits; maybe he knows something about the entertainment business.’”
It was definitely the latter. “His ability to connect with an audience through his comedy and storytelling was markedly superior to anybody else on stage with us,” Stookey said.
Making Them Laugh
Sample was such a hit that Stookey, a fan of his work, financed the production of Sample’s first comedy album.
“We were just buddies,” Stookey recalled. “I don’t remember having any designs or any prophesy regarding Tim’s future; we just worked at a great comfort level and with coincidental talents that we would lend each other whenever circumstance called.”
The following year, Sample, Stookey and legendary Maine humorist Marshall Dodge traveled to Portland together for a fundraiser. The producer announced they had both Marshall Dodge and Tim Sample in the house, and asked if they’d hit the stage together and give the crowd some laughs. The two had never performed together, and suddenly did improv comedy before a crowd.
“And it was magic,” Sample said. “We just hit the crowd like a bomb. We had no idea that we had this chemistry.”
Dodge, who was tiring of doing his old material — everyone wanted to hear his famous “Bert and I” routine — wanted to do something new. That night began a Maine comedy duo that hasn’t been duplicated since. Dodge’s star power had Sample playing new venues, or venues Sample had only half filled. The lines went around the block everywhere they played.
“We were just hot as a pistol in ‘81, and we were in the process of getting ready to make our first record, and selling out all kinds of venues,” Sample said.
But it didn’t last, ending with Dodge’s fateful trip to Hawaii to visit an uncle. Sample recalled driving Dodge to Portland in a snowstorm so Dodge could fly out. It was the last time Sample saw him. In January 1982, while Dodge was bicycling in Waimea, he was struck and killed by a drunk driver.
In the aftermath, Sample teamed up with Bob Bryan, the other voice on the original “Bert and I” with Dodge, and ended up recording the album that Sample and Dodge probably would have recorded. “How To Talk Yankee” was a hit that became a staple of New England humor.
Sample recorded several albums and a video for the Bert and I Company in the 1980s, and eventually his reputation preceded him. Famed newsman Charles Kuralt called him one day, interested in interviewing him for a book. After the August 1993 interview at Sample’s home was over, Kuralt asked if he’d consider working for him at CBS News Sunday Morning.
So began 11 years of about 100 of Sample’s “Postcards from Maine” segments. Meanwhile, he befriended author Stephen King, which later resulted in Sample narrating one of King’s books on tape, and King writing the introduction to Sample’s book, “The New Saturday Night at Moody’s Diner.”
“The new revised expanded version of Tim’s regional bestseller,” says the book’s promo on Sample’s website. “With an introduction by struggling Maine writer Stephen King (struggling to drag the bags of money to the bank).”
It’s all in good humor, but King certainly wasn’t kidding when he compared Sample’s work to that of Mark Twain.
“He’s funny if you come from Augusta, Maine,” King once wrote. “He’s just as funny if you come from Augusta, Georgia.”
Sample has sold about a million albums and books, and he’s played across North America. Of course, he’s ubiquitous throughout Maine and much of New England. It wasn’t the career the young musician foresaw, but he’s pleased when he looks back.
“What I always say is I thought I would become a household name,” Sample said. “I actually became a nagging, persistent national rumor.”
He’s looking forward to appearing at the new 487-seat Brewer Performing Arts Center at the Brewer Community School.
“I’m excited to play there; I have heard this is a great venue,” he said, noting that he’s impressed such a dedicated theater was included in the new school. “What I love is that people are beginning to recognize the value in every sense of the term — the cultural value, the financial value, the community identity value — of the arts.”
And people love Tim Sample. The evening he taped his Nite Show appearance, he told the audience it was his 62nd birthday; after the taping, they serenaded him with “Happy Birthday.”
“I couldn’t ask for a better job,” he said. “I love it. I’ve been very, very, very fortunate.”
For tickets to Tim Sample’s appearance on Sunday, March 24, visit www.BrewerPerformingArts.com.