Tim Sample

Last Raconteur Standing?

Among the few remaining torchbearers of a storytelling tradition made famous by the Bert and I records of the ’50s and ’60s, 68-year-old Tim Sample is shepherding that old Maine humor into a new age. Can it get there from here?

By Brian Kevin
Illustration by Elara Mari

From the January 2020 issue.

I. Maine Humor Is Meta-Humor

E. B. White — who was a Mainer, of a sort, and who was a humorist, but who was not a “Maine humorist” — once famously 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 mind.” Tim Sample — who is a Mainer and a humorist and arguably the only living “Maine humorist” with widespread name recognition — has never had much use for White’s take on humor dissection.

Consider that, in the early ’80s, when he was just beginning to sell out theaters throughout Maine as a solo act, Sample often opened his shows with a bit that, on his live albums, he simply called “About Maine Humor” — slicing right into that frog, flinging the innards around like confetti. “This ain’t the kind of humor where the fellow tells a joke and then they laugh, then a joke and then they laugh,” he would explain, affecting a Down East accent of the sort this magazine usually avoids imitating in print. “You see, a lot of this is going to go right over your head.”

Sample cut a weird figure onstage in those days, somewhere between an old Yankee farmer and a Reagan-era yippie: suspenders, often a newsboy cap, a horseshoe mustache with a philtrum gap so wide, you could drive a truck through it. Maine humor, he’d continue, is less about what is said than what is left out — and what’s more, it is subtle. “At the time of the program, you might find that you don’t laugh all that much,” went Sample’s bit, “but you’ve got to be awful careful driving home.”

In its broadest definition, meta-humor is any kind of joke or witty tale that, in the telling, somehow acknowledges its own jokiness and gets a laugh by messing with our notions of what’s funny. It is a trope of Maine humor, in the tradition that Sample upholds, for a teller to frame his or her jokes or stories as examples or explanations of what a Mainer does or doesn’t find amusing. So the late Joe Perham, a mentor of Sample’s, tells the one about the Maine farmer who found the comedian so hilarious, it was all he could do to keep from laughing. John McDonald, one of Sample’s contemporaries, begins his greatest hits CD with the bone-dry advisory that a Maine storyteller “takes as much time as needed” and doesn’t particularly care how an audience reacts. And Sample himself opens his first and most popular book, Saturday Night at Moody’s Diner, with not one but two chapters — one by him and one by Stephen King — drolly anatomizing what King calls the “region’s unique way of saying and seeing.”

The Maine humor genre is so relentlessly self-analytical, one can even write a magazine profile about its veteran champion and frame the whole thing as an explainer.

II. Maine Humor Is Not About the Accent

Last fall, I watched Sample perform for about 75 people on a Wednesday night in a school gymnasium in Carmel, west of Bangor. It was, to be sure, a more intimate gig than Sample might have played 20 years ago, when he was performing more regularly, including at theater and festival venues across the Northeast, and filing monthly-ish “Postcards from Maine” on CBS Sunday Morning. (His first nationally televised segment was, naturally, an analysis of Maine humor.)

Sample did two sets, holing up between them in a boys’ lavatory pressed into service as a dressing room. During his first set, he remained in full dialect, inhaling his ayuhs, abandoning his r’s, muttering in a nasal slur about muthah goin’ down cellah, and so forth. When he emerged from the bathroom for his second set, he dropped the accent (the exaggerated one — he has a natural trace) and started describing the historical roots of Maine humor, the people he knew who influenced his stories, and his history with the godfathers of feigned-accent storytelling, Robert Bryan and Marshall Dodge, the creators of Bert and I.

You can’t understand Tim Sample or Maine humor without understanding that 1958 record. Bert and I was the dorm-room goof of two Yale undergrads with a casual fondness for Maine folk life. Divinity student Bryan had spent summers in Maine and admired its stories and wit. Philosophy student Dodge had spent no more than a week but was a fan of Holman Day, an early-20th-century Maine poet and humorist who often wrote in dialect. The two put on their best Maine accents and recorded themselves telling their adaptations of stories they’d heard — including the one about the local who tells the tourist seeking directions, “Come to think of it, you can’t get there from here.”

Sample in his studio in 1980, is also a prolific illustrator who has worked on books (his own and others’), calendars, commercial animation projects, and more; a promo photo from the 1980s.

A 1978 New Yorker profile of Dodge describes the Bert and I bits as “stories told about the Down East farmer or lobsterman who finds modern life a bit too complicated but somehow manages to sound wiser than those who do not.” Bryan and Dodge had 50 copies pressed, to give to family and friends. Within months, they couldn’t press more fast enough.

The record was a sensation on a scale that would turn heads even in this era of overnight YouTube stars. On its 50th anniversary, in 2008, Bryan told the Boston Globe it had sold a million copies. Funny people from Garrison Keillor to Penn Jillette have hailed it as an influence. And while Bryan and Dodge faced some early backlash for what we would now call appropriation — a couple of Yalies cashing in on a Yankee rube act — the pair proved hard to impeach. They founded a Bert and I label that put out records by actual salty old Mainers. Dodge moved to Maine and organized a beloved arts festival. Bryan bought a floatplane to set up a ministry and nonprofit serving remote villages in Atlantic Canada.

After his Carmel show, Sample invited me back to his place in Calais, some two hours up the road, to crash in his spare room. The next morning, in the living room of the 1820 stone house that he owns with his wife, Kevin (they have a place in Portland too — and yes, that’s her first name), Sample told me how he heard Bert and I when he was a kid in the ’60s, in Boothbay Harbor, and it basically set him on a course for life.

“That was the era when the stereo had just been invented, and when everybody had cocktail parties, they played comedy records,” he said. This was news to me, a child of the ’80s. “So my parents would play these records, and I became besotted. I would memorize comedy albums, and I would regurgitate these as a little kid.”

As he got older, he worked summers in his stepfather’s shipyard, noticing the mannerisms of the other workers and their laconic repartee with their well-heeled clients. He hit a rough patch as a teen and dropped out of high school — he’s since been diagnosed with nonverbal learning disorder — but eventually found his way into art school and rock bands in Portland. As a guitar-toting front man and a solo act, he played various opening gigs, including for Noel Paul Stookey, who had just split with Peter, Paul and Mary and moved to Blue Hill. It was Stookey who nudged Sample into comedy.

As the opening act of a singer-songwriter revue that included Stookey, his protégé David Mallett, and a few others, Sample was doing “some Dylan songs and some I’d written, but a lot of flapping my gums.” Stookey took him aside, Sample recalled, and said, “‘You know, we’ve got an awful lot of white males singing songs. You do this thing where you can get people laughing, you’ve got this storytelling thing — just think about it.’”

So Sample started taking the stage without a guitar (these days, ironically, he often brings one up). His act consisted largely of improvised stories and character work, inspired in part by his former shipyard colleagues and in part by the culture of the day. A visiting hippie in regalia asks an old Maine salt whether there’s any entertainment in town. The old-timer deadpans, “Looks like there is now.” That sort of thing, but drawn out across several minutes.

Tim Sample and Stephen King
Tim Sample has recorded multiple audiobooks written by his friend Stephen King. Photograph by Tabitha King.

Marshall Dodge, then living in Maine, caught Sample’s act and suggested they book a few gigs as a duo. They tried it in 1980 and were wowed by their chemistry — Dodge the dry-witted straight man, Sample the garrulous wild card. The next year, they toured Maine as Sample and Dodge — bars, theaters, festivals — and crowds ate it up. Then, in 1982, the 45-year-old Dodge was killed by a hit-and-run driver while vacationing in Hawaii.

Sample was devastated, but he pushed on as a solo act, working in dialect, and the crowds kept coming. Stookey produced his first LP, which led to a local TV special. Sample met Bryan at Dodge’s funeral, and the two of them made a record for the Bert and I label, How to Talk Yankee, which sold briskly. Soon, it was clear that Sample was an heir to the Bert and I brand — a mantle he considers “a great honor,” even if he inherited it from a pair of blue bloods from away.

“The success of the Bert and I label put this kind of dialect storytelling on the map,” Sample told me. “I compare it to when all the Brit bands discovered the Delta blues guys, all these black artists, then they sent it back to America and said, ‘Look what you have! You have this thing!’ And then here, it really blew up.”

Talented as they were with accents, he said, Bryan and Dodge were committed raconteurs who knew their act was about more than mimicry. 

“The most common fault of amateur storytellers is to rely too heavily on the dialect,” Sample said. “It does a lot of things: it establishes a character, it establishes a place in time, it can make an audience pay closer attention. But the dialect is the spice, and the story is the meat.” 

III. Maine Humor Is Not About the Punch Line

One of my favorite explanations of Maine humor comes from humorist (but not Maine humorist) John Hodgman. The writer, character actor, and podcast host spends summers in Brooklin, and in his funny and poignant 2017 book Vacationland, he writes of learning to appreciate the genre after years of purchases from the well-stocked Maine humor shelf at Perry’s Nut House, the nearly century-old confectionery and souvenir shop on Route 1 in Belfast. At first, Hodgman writes, he didn’t grasp the appeal of a tradition that seemed to consist “mostly of men with flinty Down East accents giving bad directions to people from away.” 

Over time, though — and particularly upon repeat listening to Bert and I — he came to find the stories “funny in a way that is very quiet and very occasional,” he writes. “But they are always hypnotic, the storyteller’s twisty, alien accent devolving into white noise. . . . You hear the cadence of story in the stream of nonsense mouth sounds, and the dead pauses that intimate where jokes should be. . . . It’s a kind of genius, akin to the anticomedy of Andy Kaufman.”

Sure, Sample said, there are gags and laugh lines, but that’s not where the funny lives.

Sitting in Calais, I brought up this passage with Sample and asked if I could read it to him. Then we got sidetracked by another story and never got around to it. He’s a bit of a tough interview that way. Sample often starts answering a question with great enthusiasm, then interrupts himself to offer an analogy or example of the concept he hasn’t finished articulating, then segues into a related thought, and so on, drifting into new, if interesting territory, like a boat nudged diagonal by the current. 

It may be an occupational hazard, that discursiveness, as many of the best Maine humor bits are “shaggy-dog stories,” long-winded narratives where the payoff isn’t at the end but in the snowballing little gags along the way — or even in the long-windedness itself. So when Bert’s mother-in-law joins him on the lobsterboat, then falls overboard, drowns, and washes ashore with lobsters clinging to her corpse, we laugh at the narrator’s urging to “set ’er again!” — but not as much as we laughed during the five or ten minutes it took to spin the tale.

“This kind of storytelling is like improvisational jazz,” Sample told me, “and one of the ways that improvisational jazz deeply impacts people is that it’s compelling, but you can’t keep track of it. The musicians know what they’re doing, but you don’t know where it’s going — the message is just to relax and listen.”

Sure, Sample said, there are gags and laugh lines, but that’s not where the funny lives.

With Bert and I‘s Robert Bryan in the 1990s; on a CBS set with Sunday Morning’s Charles Osgood.

“Down East storytelling relies for its humor on perspective, it relies for its punch on juxtaposition,” Sample said. “Classically, that’s between the person from away and the local. And when you unpack that, it’s about things like presumption, arrogance, humility, pride of place, intuitive intelligence versus book learning. All these things are part of the architecture.”

I asked Sample something I’ve wanted to ask a Maine humorist for a long time. If a core building block of Maine humor is the idea of the authentic, relatable Us encountering some spurious Them who deserves to be taken down a peg — well, isn’t there something kind of unsavory about that? Doesn’t a lot of what’s terrible about the world heading into 2020 derive from just that attitude? Sample answered me thoughtfully.

“Evil, in my worldview, is good or normalcy maladapted,” he said. “It’s like how a cancer cell is a regular cell doing what regular cells do only more so.” Sample, it happens, is a leukemia survivor. “I try to be a voice for the healthy expression of that quality,” he said, “where you have a sense of pride of place, but it’s not jingoism or xenophobia. You have a sense of value of yourself, but not to the extent of devaluing others. I think the healthy expression of these things is an antidote to the unhealthy expressions.”

In other words, if you identify smugly with either side of the Maine humor dynamic, you are missing the point, chummy. “What I think is valuable about this tradition,” Sample said, “is that everybody is a tourist and everybody is a native at some point in the proceedings. So do yourself a favor and don’t take yourself so seriously.”

IV. Maine Humor Is Niche

A few months ago, I drove to Perry’s Nut House, the venerable Route 1 tourist trap where Hodgman had extolled the Maine humor shelf, thinking I ought to bone up before I hung out with Sample. I wandered amid the fudge cases, the snow globe display, the off-kilter taxidermy, and, yes, the nuts, but I couldn’t find any books or CDs. When I asked the kid at the register, he made an aw shucks face and told me they no longer stocked Maine humor materials. They just didn’t sell anymore, he said.

Turns out I didn’t need the Maine humor shelf, because after our interview in Calais, Sample sent me packing with a 6-inch stack of vinyl for my home listening pleasure — not his own stuff, but old Bert and I records and other LPs that poured out after Bryan and Dodge primed the pump. We made plans to reconvene and listen to them together once I’d had a chance to familiarize myself. 

So a few weeks later, I was in Sample’s living room in Portland, setting a record called A Maine Pot-Hellion on my turntable. The Bert and I label put out several more albums starring Bryan and Dodge, including More Bert and I and The Return of Bert and I (not to mention Bert and I . . . Rebooted, starring Bryan and Sample, in 2013). But the pair also used their platform to record and distribute other old-school New England storytellers, and A Maine Pot-Hellion is a compilation of field recordings. We put the needle on a track called “Frost, You Say?” a classic shaggy-dog bit where a rambling old-timer digresses on everything from his favorite wood for burning to the comfort of his privy during a five-minute answer to the question of whether he’d seen any frost that morning. It was a stone-cold riot.

YouTube and that stuff, it exists in a different strata — it’s like grabbing some fast food at the convenience store.

It also required more focused patience than I tend to give most media in this era of the endless scroll, the background playlist, the 60-second viral video. I thought about Perry’s Nut House, and I asked Sample whether he worried that the audience for his brand of storytelling humor might be dwindling.

“I don’t know, in terms of numbers,” he said. “I do think it appeals to a certain bandwidth. YouTube and that stuff, it exists in a different strata — it’s like grabbing some fast food at the convenience store, not something you sit down and participate in, like a meal.”

But I don’t know anyone who consumes humor so intentionally, I told him. I sure don’t know anyone listening to comedy albums at cocktail parties. More than ever, it feels like everyone is laughing at more or less the same stuff, mostly on our phones and monitors, and I wonder where that leaves slow, quasi-cerebral regional humor?

“I think the national thirst for something new and exciting is sort of replacing the curiosity about regional culture,” Sample’s friend Noel Paul Stookey told me recently. He sees it with folk music, he said, where a once-broad audience has retreated into pockets. “I mean, Tim can come into Stonington and blow us all away, but he has to be in a place that supports it culturally — because times move on.” 

“I would call it a niche market, not exactly mainstream,” Stephen King told me over the phone. Sample and King hit it off on the set of a telethon decades ago, and they’ve stayed friends. Sample recently narrated the audiobook of King’s humor novella, Drunken Fireworks, playing a boozy Down Easter in an incendiary arms race with his from-away neighbor. “But what’s important to me is that people like Tim are preserving a Maine that’s rapidly becoming homogenized.”

Sample has done less niche-y work, of course. Host Charles Kuralt recruited him for an 11-year stint on CBS Sunday Morning, for instance, where his field reports from midcoast town meetings and Aroostook potato fields were folksy but not performed in character. In the late ’90s, slogging through a hard divorce and a few years sober after decades of drinking and drugs, Sample did a series of Portland shows he called “Resting Comfortably on the Razor’s Edge,” where he focused on personal material and forbid himself anything in dialect. 

But however insular it may be, or may yet become, it’s the niche where he feels he belongs.

“I don’t think this will ever have a huge mainstream audience,” Sample said, “but it’s like Kuralt told me when I first went to work on Sunday Morning. He said, ‘Tim, you’ll find that this isn’t the biggest or flashiest show. But the people who love this show, really love this show.’”

V. Maine Humor Is a Tradition Handed Down

We listened to a few more of Sample’s golden oldies: the Vermont humorist (and University of Vermont art professor) Francis Colburn, whose record A Graduation Address unfurls as a hilariously rambling 35-minute commencement speech; a few tracks by the Maine storyteller (and MIT professor) Alan Bemis, who founded a record label called Droll Yankees; an album entirely about outhouses, recorded by Joe Perham, a folklorist and educator from West Paris with 17 humor records to his name. 

All rode a wave of interest that swept in on the high tide of Bert and I. All were mentors or sources from whom Sample learned stories and techniques. And all have passed away — as has Bob Bryan, the bush-pilot–minister half of Bert and I, who died just over a year ago, at 87. Sample attended his funeral in Massachusetts.

“I’m the only living person who has recorded multiple albums for the Bert and I label,” Sample said. “I’m the only one who has performed extensively and recorded with both Marshall Dodge and Bob Bryan. I’m the last guy standing.”

This kind of storytelling is like improvisational jazz . . . compelling, but you can’t keep track of it.

There are, of course, other living Maine storytellers, including a few of Sample’s elders. Robert Skoglund, known as “the humble Farmer,” still writes a long-running syndicated humor column, but he’s 83, and health issues keep him from performing. Kendall Morse, who hosted a turn-of-the-’80s storytelling program on Maine Public Television, is 85 and struggles with vocal fallout from throat cancer. A scatter of others put out small runs of books or CDs but have never had the draw that Sample has enjoyed.

In June 1985, a short profile in Down East asked whether Sample might be “Maine’s new humorist laureate.” In the decades since, Kuralt, Bryan, and others have bestowed on him just that honorific. At the end of the story, Sample imagined a Mainer in 2050 looking back at a storytelling lineage that ran through Holman Day, Marshall Dodge, and himself. “I want to feel I did well in stewarding this heritage,” he told Down East then. “Somebody’s got to do it. Somebody always has.”

So as I took the needle off the scuffed old vinyl, I asked Sample who he’s teaching his stories to, who it is that will steward that heritage into Maine’s third century.

“The answer to that is I don’t know. I don’t really see anybody,” Sample said, and he paused before going on. “As long as young people are still coming up to me after shows, people who weren’t around while I was recording these albums, that tells me the tradition is alive.” He seemed remarkably sanguine about not having a protégé. Only later did I wonder if this was because he was sitting with a 39-year-old who had just howled at a 100-year-old joke about frost.

We said our goodbyes as I packed up my turntable, and I left the stack of LPs in Sample’s living room, except for two Bert and I records I’d swiped from the Down East library. As of this writing, they’re still sitting atop my turntable at home. I’m going to play them during my next cocktail party. 

Desert Island Drollery

We asked Sample a version of the classic music-lover’s hypothetical: you’re a castaway with a turntable and only three old LPs of Down East humor. Which three are the keepers?

Bert and I . . . And Other Stories from Down East (1958). “When Marshall and Bobby recorded the first Bert and I record, it hit big, but they got quite a bit of pushback from some people because they weren’t from Maine. Fortunately, they outlived that. I think of their work like Margaret Mead or something — Marshall Dodge had an encylopedic knowledge of American humor. People, even today, when you talk about this kind of storytelling, will say, ‘Oh, like Bert and I? Like ‘You Can’t Get There From Here?'”

A Graduation Address (1962). “There are stories that exist in the canon of rural American storytelling that are just variations on a theme, like folk songs. This is Francis Colburn, who was from Vermont, mashing up a bunch of these great old stories, and the idea of giving advice to graduates is just this great old trope to hang the stories from. It’s a potpourri, and it’s a snapshot of the oral tradition in northern New Engalnd at a certain chunk of time.”

Father Fell Down the Well (1958). “Steve Merrill was a great storyteller. This is a favorite largely because of the title story, which is a complete shaggy dog story, a long story. Father falls down the well, and it’s too far down to retrieve him, so they just fill in the well. Then a preacher comes and realizes they never gave the father a Christian burial and confronts the family about it. It’s a great story in this genre where the tragedy and the comedy coexist.”

As broadcast on “Happy Hour with DJ Chuckee” on Rockland’s WRFR on June 11, 2019.

All photos courtesy of Tim Sample.