Judson Hale and Steve Taylor
Two Needlers in a haystack
On the trail of the funniest people in New Hampshire, I turned to a couple of droll yankees, Judson Hale, editor of “Yankee,” and Steve Taylor, commissioner of agriculture. Jud keeps 33 chickens in his office. For decoration. They amuse him. On “The Today Show,” he once tried to convince Katie Couric that a very quiet chicken was hypnotized, not stuffed. She didn’t buy it.
Serious subjects, he says, are opportunities for humor, like when his doctor suggested a living will. Doc says, “Jud, if you were comatose, didn’t know anybody, were real bad off, wouldn’t you rather just die?”
Jud says: “Well, you’re lying in a warm bed, propped up on pillows. Maybe somebody turns on the game.” That’s not so bad, considering the alternative. “A lot of people believe in heaven and hell, so maybe you end up upside-down, naked, in boiling oil for all eternity.”
“Well,” the doctor concedes, with that attitude, “you may not need a living will.”
Steve Taylor, who does a lot of public speaking for his job, says, “People look at a guy like me, striped tie, button-down shirt, they have a kind of expectation. They find out I’ve been commissioner for 23 years, and they think, ‘This guy’s really been around.’ Sometimes I break the ice by telling them how I went to the Cornish Fair and a fella asked: ‘Was it you or your brother that died in the war?’”
When he’s not all dressed up and giving speeches, he’s working on the farm. This Commissioner of Agriculture practices what he preaches. I asked Jim Taylor about his dad’s reputation as our funniest public servant. “I know his humor from around the farm,” Jim says. “Quite often he milks the cows early in the morning. You can tell the ones in heat because they’re kind of jumping each other. Later on he’ll say, ‘There’s a cow needs to be bred.’ We say, ‘Which one?’ ‘Well,’ he says, ‘it was kind of dark. I think it was the black-and-white one.” They’re all black and white. You can’t tell if he’s serious or pulling your leg.”
Dry humor, I call it. Dry as a hayfield in August.
Gordon “Buddy” MacDougall and Howard Oedel
Local Jokers who spin some colorful yarns
When I tell stories, I invite my audience to do the same. In Hebron, years ago, Buddy MacDougall’s yarns had us rolling in the Meeting House aisles.
I tracked him down in Laconia where he’s wintering with his daughter, Edna. Seems Buddy, 93, had an attack of the gall requiring surgery. “I thought I was going to die,” he says cheerfully. “But I didn’t!” When I visited, he and Howard Oedel got talking and I got listening. Howard’s a retired history professor; Buddy, a retired carpenter, descends from Scottish boat builders, “one of the oldest clansmen in the world.”
Howard and Buddy were married the same year to Carolyn and Vera, respectively. Each year, at anniversary time, Howard would announce at historical society, “Buddy and I’ve been married 50 years” or 55, 60, whatever applied. “You know,” Howard says, “Nobody ever laughed. These people over in Hebron don’t laugh very easy.”
But they are comical. Buddy tells how Manson Smith bought a Model A Ford, drove it to Bristol, “got to gawking and went off the road.” Not long after, his wife “run it off the road, too. So Wilson Adams says to Manson, ‘You know, Manson, a Ford is a good car. Only trouble — you can’t keep ’em in the road.’”
“I was there when he said it!” Buddy says. “Tickled me half to death.”
In the days of the party lines, according to Howard and Buddy, people listened in on other people’s conversations for entertainment. Harriet was notorious for it.
One woman, who suspected she was being listened in on, stopped in mid-conversation to yell: “Hattie, get off that phone.”
“I’m not listening,” Hattie hollered back. “I’m over by the sink.”
Albert Fogg lived across the lake from the village. When he showed up at town meeting, Buddy says, people were shocked to learn he’d crossed on thin ice.
“How’d you dare?” they asked.
“Well,” Albert said, “I made myself light as I could and walked right along fast.”
The Fearless Funster
At the Bedford Women’s Club, where I was guest speaker, I mentioned my assignment to Josephine Fearon.
“Will you be talking with everyone in New Hampshire?” Jo says primly.
“Well, then you won’t know if you’ve found the funniest, will you?”
“You may be one of them,” I say.
“If I knew you better, I’d say you were brighter than you look.”
Josephine Fearon, who turns 95 in August, keeps a straight face when she delivers such lines. Then, her friend Madonna Lovett Repeta says, “She gives you the look.”
“A twinkle?” I say.
“No — more of a challenge. To see if you get it.”
Known as Mrs. Fearon to thousands, Jo enjoyed a long career in the Bedford and Manchester schools as a teacher and counselor. Humor sustains her. When she fell in her garage and broke her femur, it was autumn, sleeting and cold. She dragged herself to a sitting position and there she sat. Immobilized. The garage doors were open. In six and a half hours, five cars passed. She waved. People waved back. “I think I went into shock,” she says. “I couldn’t have lasted much longer.”
Finally, a man driving a garbage truck noticed her plight and pulled over. “I always wanted to be picked up by a handsome young man in uniform,” she says. “I guess I should have been more specific!”
From Russia with jokes
The funniest professor of engineering — specializing in micromechanics and fracture of composite materials, open ocean aquaculture, computational solid mechanics and finite element method — may be Igor Tsukrov of Lee. He cracks his students up. Quite an accomplishment at, say, an 8 a.m. class in Finite Element Analysis.
But Professor Tsukrov is well trained — and I don’t mean the Ph.D. from Tufts. While at Dnepropetrovsk University in Ukraine, his home, he competed on a comedy team — something like “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” — and made it to the nationally-televised finals twice, becoming a bit of a celebrity. He gave it all up to move here to study and, eventually, teach at UNH, though he still judges Russian language comedy competitions in the U.S.
In class, he says, humor makes him more approachable. “With my accent, I am not always sure they understand everything.” Humor also gives students a break from a blackboard covered with formulas.
“The safest object of a joke,” he says, “is yourself.”
So the professor says to the student: “Wake up your friend. He is sleeping in my class.” The student replies: “You put him to sleep. You wake him up!” Delivered in a Russian accent with perfect comic timing.
From Maine to New Hampshire
Don Brown put a bug in my ear about Travis Wallace, whose stories, Don says, remind us “of the typical village characters we have all known growing up in small town New England.”
Don runs the Corner House Inn in Sandwich, which has been hosting storytelling dinners on Thursday nights for 19 years, so he knows a good story when he hears one. Part standup comic, storyteller and actor, Travis is a professional humorist from Madison, “playground of the stars,” specializing in stories of Maine and New Hampshire. He also sells cars, specializing in Buicks.
Just 36 years old, he was “blessed with a father who was in his mid-50s” when Travis was born. Having an older dad gave him a “whole appreciation for people of an older generation” and their stories. “Both Maine and New Hampshire are very different now than they were 50 years ago,” he says. It was a different life, a different time, “but it all took place right here.”
“Let me tell you a little bit about myself,” he says in the opening to one of his acts. “I was born in Maine on Friday the 13th, which explains a lot about me, because as you know, it’s bad luck to be born . . . in Maine.”
Check out his Web site, northcountryhumor.com.
Stephanie Piro and John Nolan
Drawn From Life
Stephanie Piro and John Nolan live with cats in Farmington. He’s president of W.O.O.O.F. (Wilson Out of Obscurity Forthwith), promoting Henry Wilson, Farmington native and vice president under Ulysses Grant. She’s the nationally syndicated cartoonist who wrote ‘My Cat Loves Me Naked.” He’s a Scotsman, whose charrrrming burrrr makes “Paeple loov a pissin’ contest” sound refined. “Funny trumps everything,” John says. “I can express a lot of stuff humorously without invoking complaint. The same stuff without humor would create a maelstrom.”
As editor of The Rochester Times and author of the column “Farmington Corner: A Continuing Tale of Life in the Boonies,” he has ample opportunity to create maelstroms. He blamed global warming and “hot air from city hall” for “outbreaks of nude bathing” in the overheated Cocheco. Piranha fish, he reported, had been introduced to curb the trend. It was an April Fool’s joke, but the story, picked up on Chinese radio, created international controversy: “How dare you lecture about human rights,” wrote one irate Chinese national, “when you do these things to your own people?”
John likes Stephanie’s surreal cartoons, like the woman in a swamp, captioned: “She liked it out here in the bayou … where women were women, and men had regressed back to the state of tadpoles. She often collected them in jars.”
Sometimes he inspires her cartoons. Man reading newspaper; woman looking grumpy. Caption: “I’m not ignoring you! You’ve got my full peripheral attention!”
You can find John’s columns and Stephanie’s cartoons, many available on T-shirts, at stephaniepiro.com.
People claimed they heard me telling stories in the bathrooms at the Common Man Restaurant, so I decided to check it out. Sure enough, a melodious voice with a thick New Hampshire accent wafted from hidden speakers to entertain folks as they freshened up. But it wasn’t me telling those country-fried jokes. It was Mary Vittum of Ashland, a.k.a., Auntie Henrietta.
Besides entertaining folks in bathrooms, Mary roasts people. She dons a fancy hat, plastic pearls, red lipstick and, armed with juicy personal details, becomes the roastee’s long-lost Auntie Henrietta — loud, irrepressible and buxom. She can adjust her act from a G rating to “naughty and bawdy,” and often picks one (unsmiling) audience member as a barometer. To get that “toughest nut to crack,” she says, “I’ll try anything, except hula hoop.”
Her rollicking laughter carries her message: “Humor is all about generosity of spirit.”
Auntie Henrietta says: “I’ve got enough rings of fat, I could screw on my underwear.”
She and I have a lot in common.
Andrew and Bonnie Periale
Silly String Pullers
Andrew and Bonnie Periale of Strafford play with puppets and audiences. Their Perry Alley Theatre has presented shows to children and adults for more than 20 years. Maybe you’ve seen them on NH Public Television retelling the story of Snow White using a bag of groceries. In “Chinese Take-Out Theatre,” the audience chooses the menu for the evening — appetizer, entrée, dessert — all performance pieces. An order of Bolo Gai (pineapple chicken) serves up shadow puppets, cowboy-style:
From out of the East and into the West
Came a big strong man with a star on his chest
He wore a 10-gallon hat and an old string tie
And that’s why they called him Bolo Gai.
Often, Bonnie plays straight man. “I ask the questions so Andrew can deliver the line,” she says. “I’m certain that’s why he married me.”
One of Andrew’s most popular characters, Woody-Boy Johnson, recorded a CD of Country-Eastern music called “Woody-Boy Johnson: Three easy chords (and a hard one).” “Subtle like a hammer,” Bonnie says. But funny! “Listening to Woody Boy Johnson,” one reviewer observed, “is like going to Carnegie Hall and watching a rodeo clown juggle live weasels. You’ll laugh so hard your chocolate milk will shoot right out of your nose.”
On Stage and Page
David Emerson of Albany has a couple of impressive titles — Executive Director of the Conway Historical Society and Special Collections Librarian at the Conway Public Library. But I know him as a storyteller. I’ve shared the stage with him several times. His tales of the sister cities of Chatham, N.H., and Stow, Maine, slay me — especially the one about the dog that slept in the middle of the road. Locals knew to swerve around him, even in thick fog or a blizzard. The dog is long dead, but folks still swerve.
Funny on stage and on the page, David’s historical society announcements are hysterical. Here’s a taste:
After our alfresco repast, the Swift River Jazz Band will perform with wild abandon, the members displaying no concern for their own safety. It is highly recommended that you sit well back from the band. We don’t want a repeat of the episode with Ernie Mill’s trombone and the Vicar’s niece.
This is not a potluck night. Control your urge to do creative things with green beans and maple syrup. You will be issued refreshments after the evening’s program. Don’t forget to wear your good teeth.
The Bowling with Armadillos competition has been postponed until July. Please keep your armadillo oiled and ready. Those participating in the 14th Annual Strudel Toss are cautioned to wear proper support garments.
And: We will begin by paying homage to middle-aged spread with that wholesome, all American tradition, The Pot Luck. Far be it for me to tell you what to bring, but I feel it only fair to mention that Adolph, the tofu-sniffing dog, has recently had his fangs sharpened. NH
This article appears in the April 2007 issue of New Hampshire Magazine