Editor’s note: This is part three of a three-part series, looking at the meaning, origin and future of Maine’s Down East storytelling tradition in the wake of Robert Bryan’s death earlier this month. Bryan was the surviving partner from the influential “Bert and I” records. You can read the first part of the series here. You can read the second part of the series here.
Carrying Maine’s Down East storytelling tradition into the 21st century are a couple of unlikely Mainers: a hip hop rapper and a Taiwan-born animator.
Spose — real name Ryan Peters — is Maine’s weed-smoking, hip-hopping, f-bomb-dropping king of rap. Peters has two arms’ worth of tattoos and once made national news with lyrics relating U.S. Sen. Susan Collins to oral sex. He’s a long way from the gentle humor of “Bert and I” but he’s part of the Down East storytelling tradition, just the same.
Peters raps specifically as Mainer, splashing Renys and Moxie references into his rhymes. He’s firmly in the lyrical tradition of Holman Day and is a comedy descendent of Bert and I. He’s even got a tune called “Can’t get there From Here” with lyrics like:
From the state where they think we all mate with our cousins
With no indoor plumbing, moose by the baker’s dozen
We got lakes, ponds, deer on lawns
Puff upon chron’, rockin’ long johns
“I’ve never listened to a ‘Bert and I’ record. I have listened to Tim Sample,” said Peters, in his office above an Aroma Joe’s coffee shop in Sanford. “But I’ll take it as a compliment.”
Though he’s a little puzzled by the assertion that he’s got at least partial Down East humor origins, Peters admits he sees some similarities.
“I do come from a line of communicators that don’t see Maine as a disadvantage or a detriment to success but rather an attribute and something to take advantage of,” he said.
Peters often uses Maine vernacular, just like his humorous ancestors. In a song called “Good and You?” he raps:
How you doing Bob?
This is the same kind of ear for local language that makes Sample and other yankee storytellers ring true. Peters said finding that local voice and using it in his music was a turning point.
“Once I started doing Maine — unashamedly taking ownership of being from Maine and not rounding down to Boston — I think that is when my music got stronger,” said Peters, “because it had an identity and I’ve never looked back.”
“Bert and I” bumped Maine humor into the 20th century when they enshrined it in vinyl record grooves. Likewise, Temp Tales cartoons have nudged it into the 21st via the internet.
The animated web series revolves around a foul-mouthed, weed-obsessed, monster truck-driving everyman named “Green” Bud Kelly. Living on a fictional Maine island called Fantasyhaven, Kelly is a handyman for the summer folks. Like Ward and Dowling before him, he’s simple and quirky but always gets the last laugh on folks from away.
The series is the creative child of husband and wife team Andy O’Brien and Hanji Chang. O’Brien writes the scripts and records most of the voices. Chang is the animator.
“We don’t call [what we do] Maine humor,” said O’Brien. “I call it animated documentaries. I’ve never listened to a ‘Bert and I’ record all the way through. I listened to Tim Sample as a kid and he was really great but I never thought of us falling into that genre.”
Temp Tales originally grew from O’Brien’s diaries kept while working construction and remodeling jobs on islands like Islesboro. Much of the early Temp Tales scripts came directly from things uttered by his co-workers and boss — as well as interactions they had with summer residents.
Though he doesn’t have much of a Maine drawl himself, O’Brien has no trouble slipping into the native dialect spoken around his home in Rockland. Growing up nearby, working in blueberry fields, he and his friends would do impressions of the more colorful characters they knew in the midcoast.
The liberal application of swear words is something that sets Temp Tales apart from other Down East humor. Kelley and his Fantasyhaven cohorts have a real talent for coming up with innovative, new vulgarities that somehow sound completely authentic.
“That’s just the way people talk here. We don’t sugarcoat the language,” said O’Brien. “We say what people really say on the worksites.”
It’s sometimes said that Marshall Dodge and Robert Bryan, of Bert and I, had to clean up some of their traditional yankee tales for 1950s family consumption. Bryan went on to be an Episcopal priest, afterall. Temp Tales may be tapping into a vulgar vein of expression that brings Maine humor full circle.
Chang grew up in Taiwan and sometimes shakes her head at the specifically Maine and ultra-local comedy her husband cooks up.
“Honestly, some of the stuff, I’m like, I’ll animate it but I don’t know what’s so funny about it,” Chang said. “But most of it, I get.”
Judging by the millions of hits on YouTube, the public gets it, too. O’Brien and Chang’s characters are so popular, they show up in television commercials and public service announcements on a regular basis. They also have a line of T-shirts that sell well.
Though he’s out of original diary material at this point, O’Brien isn’t worried about running out of Maine things to write about.
“In Maine there are so many naturally funny people,” said O’Brien. “They’re not in the comedy profession. They’re just funny.”
GETING THERE FROM HERE
From Seba Smith’s Jack Dowling, to Chang and O’Brien’s “Green” Bud Kelly, we’ve always known how to laugh at ourselves while always having the last laugh on people from away. That’s not to say we’re mean and unwelcoming.
“I always say, you can be from anywhere and come to Maine and have a pretty decent chance of getting along and finding your way here — as long as you don’t commit the cardinal sin: Somehow thinking that wherever you’re from, whatever your background is, somehow you’re superior to the local people,” said Sample. “You can’t do that. These stories bring that out, but in a gentle way.”
Stalwarts like Sample and The Wicked Good Band are still out there, plying their Down East trade. Sanders’ Maine-based, hilarious plays are filling theater seats. Temp Tales is a comedy juggernaut online. The future of this state’s particular, homegrown take on what’s funny, seems to be secure.
Not long before he died, Bryan told an interviewer: “I’m often asked about the future of Maine storytelling, and I believe that the generations to come will carry on with the oral tradition, which we developed — though the stories go back not a hundred years, but a thousand.”
Correction: A previous version of this article included a misspelled version of Hanji Chang's name.