Rev. Robert Bryan, half of the influential Maine humor duo “Bert and I,” died in Sherbrooke, Quebec, on Wednesday. He was 87.
Bryan’s comedy partner, Marshall Dodge, died in 1982.
The first “Bert and I” record came out in 1958. Filled with exaggerated Down East accents and bone-dry stories, it birthed a droll comedy renaissance. Bryan’s recordings with Dodge inspired a whole string of home-grown comedians, including Tim Sample, Joe Perham and Kendall Morse. The “Bert and I” records also elevated Maine folk storytelling to a legitimate, and commercial, art form.
“Bobby was a wonderful friend and mentor to me for nearly four decades,” said Sample in a Facebook post on Wednesday.
Sample made several records with Bryan after Dodge was killed by a hit-and-run driver while bicycling in Hawaii.
Some of the most classic, and oft-repeated, lines defining Maine humor come from the first “Bert and I” record. Dodge and Bryan made it in their Yale University dormitory room.
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 now publishes the “Bert and I” line of books and records — all of which are still in print.
Islandport owner Dean Lunt told the Associated Press in 2008 that Dodge and Bryan 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.
Neither Dodge or Bryan was actually from Maine but each had a deep love for the state and its people. They also had keen ears for dialect and a knack for low-tech sound effects.
“Spiritually, my home from as early as I can remember has been Maine,” Bryan told Yankee Magazine in 1976. “Though I loved Oyster Bay, New York, I could not wait to get away to Tunk Lake, Maine, in the summer. … We’d go right to Simon Bunker’s house because he had the key to our camp. He would detain us with a story and then another. We would spend half the night listening. These storytellers were very important to me. Though I knew their stories, I wanted to hear them again and again. During the winter, I would retell the stories to friends.”
Dodge and Bryan made 50 copies of their first record for friends and family. Then, they 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 at least 1 million copies.
Comedian-magician Penn Jillette of the comedy duo Penn and Teller once 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.
Garrison Keillor, storyteller, humorist and former 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.
Bryan later became a pilot and Episcopal priest. Using money from album sales, he founded the nonprofit Quebec Labrador Foundation. As a bush pilot with the foundation, he combined his spiritual duties and love of flying, ministering to remote parts of Quebec and Labrador.
“It’s difficult for me to believe it has carried on 50 years,” Bryan told the Associated Press in 2008. “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.”
The Associated Press contributed to this story