Review: Bert & I

Originally for Elder Gods' Rave 20

Most of you are probably aware that I am a Californian only by circumstance. I’d rather be a New Englander, where I was born and raised. I miss weather. In Northern California, it turns kinda chilly but all the snow falls in Donner Pass; it’s too warm in the Bay Area to get anything but rain, and we don’t get a lot of that, either. Mark Twain put it best in Roughing It.

I miss understated New England humor. Admittedly, I miss just about anything understated, but I very much miss Yankee humor.

People from New Hampshire, Maine, and Vermont, the three states generally acknowledged to be the most New England-y, are generally assumed to be a taciturn, humorless lot, but that’s a misapprehension. It’s just they that have a dry, understated humor that is very unlike New York’s Jerry Seinfeld-style neuroticism and Los Angeles’ Carrey-esque manic energy. It’s something that takes a little while to appreciate if you haven’t grown up with it. It doesn’t translate well to television because there’s a subtlety about it, and successful TV has to be broad to be successful.

Some of the best Yankee humor to be found is the work of Marshall Dodge and Bob Bryan, in a series of recordings about a pair of characters; Bert and the unnamed narrator. The first of these, Bert and I, was recorded in 1958, and effectively captures the nature of good Yankee humor. Of course, these days, it’s difficult to find much in the way of rural New England, and even harder to find a lobster fisherman who is actually breaking even. But the essence of Bert and I is the straight delivery of funny material, and the New England tale-swapping tradition.

The point of a long story joke is that it leads you towards a certain conclusion and then substitutes another, unexpected ending onto it. Some of my favorite story jokes are from Bert and I, simply because they are well-told, and the ending is funny every time. And enduring appeal is something that much humor lacks (where now former king of "comedy" Andrew Dice Clay?).

But the albums aren’t just stories. There are also short exchanges, such as The Long Hill:

"I don’t know about your farm in Maine, mister, I have a ranch in Texas that is so large that it takes me five days to drive around my entire spread."

"I have a car just like that myself."

Not terribly funny on paper, but Marshall Dodge’s delivery is nothing short of elegant. From the long Gagnon, World Champeen Moose Caller and The Body in the Kelp to all thirty-one hilarious seconds of The Silent Chainsaw, Bert and I records are full of refreshingly original laughter, even years after they were recorded.

Later albums became more topical: Bert and I Stem Inflation lacks some of the timeless quality of the earlier two records, but they are worth listening to even still.

And the icing on the cake is that the Bert and I company is real old-fashioned in some of the more pleasant ways. I ordered their two CDs which have the four essential Bert and I records on them, but their shipping rates had changed from the brochure I got. So what did they do? Well, they sent me the CDs anyway, along with a note saying I owed them a dollar. How many multimillion dollar conglomerates would have done the same? So I made sure I added an extra dollar the next time I made an order. Old-fashioned, and I have to admit, charming.