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Bill Mares and Don Hooper Chronicle Vermont Humor in 'I Could Hardly Keep From Laughing'

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Don Hooper - COURTESY OF DON HOOPER
  • Courtesy Of Don Hooper
  • Don Hooper

Ask a friend from away to describe Vermont, and the word "funny" is not likely to be part of their answer, unless they mean "funny strange" instead of "funny ha ha." "Earnest," "hippie," "liberal" and "rural" are more likely responses, concepts not generally associated with belly laughs.

Vermont is ... different, and so is its comedy. But how is it different? In their new book, I Could Hardly Keep From Laughing: An Illustrated Collection of Vermont Humor, writer Bill Mares and cartoonist Don Hooper aim to demonstrate by example. Take this chestnut, for instance:

Q: Can I get to Bethel from here?
A: Dunno.
Q: Well, is this the road to Randolph?
A: Dunno.
Q: Well, you don't know much.
A: I ain't lost.

Mares and Hooper show rather than tell, mixing their own wry take on what makes Green Mountain culture unique, with contributions from a baker's dozen of funny Vermonters. These include political cartoonist Jeff Danziger, writer Bob Stannard, comedian Josie Leavitt and people's poet David Budbill — a "back to the land" intellectual who compared Vermont to ancient China.

The book is not a history of Vermont comedy or an analysis of the state, though it offers bits of both. Pete Gilbert's history of 19th-century turkey drives, where farmers literally walked thousands of birds to Boston in the days before railroads, is amazing.

Mares covers classic subjects of Yankee satire, from farmers and flatlanders to the rivalry with New Hampshire. He rounds this all out with profiles of local goofballs such as Al Boright and George Woodard of the Ground Hog Opry, Vermont Comedy Club owners Natalie Miller and Nathan Hartswick, comedian Tina Friml, and Rusty "the Logger" DeWees.

Mares highlights the significant contributions of funny women in Vermont, particularly in the standup comedy scene. Leavitt, a regular at top New York City comedy clubs, moved to Charlotte with her then-partner, Elizabeth Bluemle, in 1996; together they opened the Flying Pig Bookstore (now in Shelburne). In 2005, Leavitt started a regular local comedy series, and a year later she formed an all-female group, the Vermont Comedy Divas. Meanwhile, she has taught the craft to countless Vermonters in prisons, homeless centers and cancer survivor groups, as well as at the Flynn in Burlington.

To this observer, it appears that more than half of the performing comedians in Burlington are women. Among the most successful is expat Tina Friml, who is now based in New York City and has cerebral palsy. Mares quotes one of her sets, including this bit:

Being born disabled turned out to be the best decision that I ever made. Everything that I do is "an inspiration." Like, why do you think I can get up here in front of you and do this so confidently? I know that even if I bomb and no one laughs, it's still, like, a Ted Talk.

This is a breezy book, with lots of white space and wild-ass drawings, that arguably paints a more accurate sketch of the Green Mountain State than any sociology textbook. Vermont humor is "dry, wry, understated," as Chapter 1 tells us, reflecting a rural state that is still in many ways "off the grid" compared with the rest of the United States.

Farms and farmers loom large in these jokes and stories, and there is a distinct sense of place. As Hooper told Seven Days, "You kind of have to be here" to understand Vermont humor. He added, "It's not for everyone."

Bill Mares - COURTESY OF DON HOOPER
  • Courtesy Of Don Hooper
  • Bill Mares

Some stereotypical woodchuck traits factor in, as well: earnestness, simplicity, hard work, intelligence, a rural patience and relaxed confidence. Where New York City comics might enjoy insults, "dunking" and verbal battles, Danziger suggests in his introduction that local humor "is best defined by what it is not. It is not cruel. It is not transient. It is not self-amused. It is not loud or slapstick."

Consider this joke:

Grandmother is asked if it will rain.
"Well," she says, "be a mighty long dry spell if it don't."

Hooper noted that, instead of mocking her grandson for an imprecise question, Grandmother accepts his premise and runs with it, taking it to the absurd conclusion. He still learns to add a time frame to his next question, but the lesson is gentle and thoughtful.

Professional standup comedians consider it uncool to laugh at your own jokes. Vermonters take it a step further and apply this rule to listeners, which can be confusing to a flatlander who tells a joke.

Hence the book's title, which comes from an apocryphal story about Mark Twain giving a humorous lecture in Brattleboro and being puzzled by the lack of guffaws. Leaving the hall, he overhears an old farmer say to his wife, "Warn't he funny! Why, he was so funny, I could hardly keep from laughing!"

This attitude implies a quiet confidence, a comfort with your place in the world and not needing external approval to know you're right. The Vermonter knows they're funny, and if the listener doesn't laugh, that's no reason to change their opinion on the matter.

Mares and Hooper met when they were both first-time state legislators in 1985. Three years later, they pushed through a bill legalizing a then-unknown type of watering hole called a "brewpub." Mares' friend Greg Noonan, who had convinced him that this was a practical idea, would later open Vermont Pub & Brewery in Burlington, the state's longest-running craft brew establishment.

Before that could happen, though, Mares needed to convince the rest of the legislature, so he called his friend Hooper, who sat on the important House Ways and Means Committee.

Hooper asked, "What do you need me to do?" He recalls Mares saying, "Just don't laugh at the idea."

"But we drink Old Milwaukee and Budweiser!" Hooper replied. Not for long.

One of the biggest surprises of this book steeped in Vermont's culture and character is that so many of these funny people are "from away" (the polite way to call someone a flatlander). That includes both Mares and Hooper, though they've lived here 45 years now. Even DeWees, who is practically a Vermont institution from his many appearances at schools around the state as "the Logger," is not a native.

Asked in an interview what makes a Vermonter, Mares quoted contributor Alec Hastings: "I don't care where you were born. What is your essence? Where do you plan to die?"

Maybe it's harder to see this culture for what it is when it's the ocean in which you always swam. DeWees hails from Philadelphia, though he grew up in Stowe and studied acting in New York at the Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute. He developed his show from a character in David Budbill's play The Chain Saw Dance.

I Could Hardly Keep From Laughing: An Illustrated Collection of Vermont Humor by Don Hooper and Bill Mares, Rootstock Publishing, 202 pages. $24.95. - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • I Could Hardly Keep From Laughing: An Illustrated Collection of Vermont Humor by Don Hooper and Bill Mares, Rootstock Publishing, 202 pages. $24.95.

Mares is from Texas and, like Hooper, was educated at Harvard University. Besides his government work, he has been a high school teacher, journalist and Vermont Public Radio commentator. He's also a beekeeper, a brewer and the author of 18 books.

Hooper hails from far-off Connecticut. After serving in the Peace Corps, he was studying for his master's degree in education in the early 1970s when he heard about an innovative program at the Community College of Vermont. The school was recruiting unpaid teachers to teach practical skills to students at night.

Hooper's reaction? "Sounds like a bunch of dopey do-gooders." But he was convinced to come up for a look and ended up taking a job recruiting teachers for the program. This led, naturally, to 30 years of raising goats for milk and cheese, to the legislature, and to his work as an illustrator and as Vermont's secretary of state.

"None of us knew what we were getting into" when they moved to the state, Hooper admitted.

Mares swears that the title of his 1983 humor book with Bryan, Real Vermonters Don't Milk Goats, was not aimed at his illustrator friend.

"Oh, God, no! We didn't even know each other when that book was written," he said. "It would make for a delicious frenemies story, were it only true."

Vermonters' resentment toward flatlanders is no secret. The book quotes an old aphorism used to argue that natives should shun even the Vermont-born children of people from other states, at least for a few generations: "If your cat had kittens in the oven, would you call them biscuits?"

At the end of the book, though, Hastings — a Vermonter of several generations — turns around the adage and finds its deeper meaning:

The point is this: being born in Vermont doesn't make you a Vermonter any more than being born in the oven makes you a biscuit. Being a Vermonter isn't just about where you were born; it's about what kind of person you are.

What kind of person do you need to be, then, to qualify? Well, you might just need to read this book to figure that out.

Bill Mares speaks on Wednesday, March 23, 7 p.m., at the Pierson Community Library in Shelburne. Free.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Seriously Funny"