Welcome to the November 2013 edition of “Jud’s New England Journal,” the rather curious monthly musings of Judson Hale, the Editor-in-Chief of Yankee Magazine, published since 1935 in Dublin, NH. Something About New England Humor Some say there’s no such thing as pure regional humor. Possibly…except in New England, that is. E. B. […]
By Rachel Kipka
Nov 01 2013
Welcome to the November 2013 edition of “Jud’s New England Journal,” the rather curious monthly musings of Judson Hale, the Editor-in-Chief of Yankee Magazine, published since 1935 in Dublin, NH.
Something About New England Humor
Some say there’s no such thing as pure regional humor. Possibly…except in New England, that is.
E. B. White once 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 minds.” My feeling is that the humor that occurs unconsciously may well be the best insight into the nature of a region’s humor. If a person isn’t intending to be funny then there are no perceived notions influencing that person’s ability to be funny. Like most all spoken humor, unconscious humor requires the participation of at least two people—one to be funny; the other to think it’s funny.
For example, an undertaker friend and neighbor of my sister told her of the time he was summoned by a farmer living up in the hills of Albany, Vermont (which, incidentally, is where my sister and her husband live). He told the undertaker to please come and pick up the body of his wife. When the undertaker arrived at the farm after a rough drive up a winding dirt road, he was met by the farmer outside the front door of the house. “She ain’t dead yet,” he said, “but you can come in and wait if you want to.”
The farmer was simply being practical, so practical as to be funny to at least the undertaker and my sister. Oh, and me.
As another example of raw, unconscious New England humor, consider this story that the late Bill Conklin, a writer for Yankee, of Walpole, New Hampshire, swore to me occurred precisely as follows…
“At an old barn on a back road in New Hampshire, my wife and I came upon an ‘Antiques & Collectibles’ sign that led us into the barn and the presence of one of those Yankee proprietors right out of ‘Bert and I’.
“I at once spotted a curious contraption, a rectangular pine platform mounted on four short legs. One end of it held a wooden upright with a hole cut out of the middle, exactly resembling a miniature stock for punishing, say, a midget of old New England days.
“On inquiring about its purpose, and waiting a long minute while apparently the proprietor decided if he was going to tell me or not, there finally came a muttered, ‘That’s a goat milking stand.’
“To me, then newly transplanted from the so-called flatlands, it seemed like a marvelous piece of folk art.
“Look at that,’ I exclaimed to my wife. ‘You could use this for a planter, or a coffee table, or simply to display things.’
“The silence was palpable. Then the flat, nasal voice came from behind us, where the proprietor stood.
“‘You could use it,’ he said, ‘to milk a goat.’”
Professor Edward Ives of the University of Maine, who studied New England humor for many years, once said it is difficult to specifically define New England humor as something that is found only in New England. Well, I’ll admit you might find something similar to the goat-milking-stand story somewhere else but I truly doubt it could have happened anywhere else in the country but here in New England.