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Humor With an Accent : Regional Jokers Thrive, Stay as Distinctive as Baked Beans and Steaming Bayous

November 27, 1987|BILL LOHMANN | United Press International

Ol' Pierre, a Louisiana Cajun, was sitting in a roadside diner bragging about his home on the bayou.

"Man, I got me t'ree full acres dat takes care of all my needs. I got plenty game--deer, rabbit, ducks, anyt'ing I want. I got crawfish, alligator, turtles and all the fishing I can handle. I live like a king, me."

The inevitably boastful Texan happened to overhear Pierre and burst out laughing.

"Three acres?" the Texan guffawed. "Lemme tell you something, son. Before I start out in the morning to check on my ranch, I have to pack a lunch so I don't go hungry while I'm out. After driving all day, even if I climb on the cab of my pickup, I still can't see the fence line."

Pierre offered a sympathetic nod.

"Yeah," he said, "I had me a truck like that once, too."

No matter where you wander in America, someone always has a funny story to tell.

Whether it's a subtle New England gag about some city slicker "from away," a Southern yarn poking fun at living room funeral parlors or a tall Texas tale, humor connects the people of this nation better than any eight-lane interstate highway.

'Southern humorist'

"I think humor is a little more universal than we think it is," said Lewis Grizzard, an Atlanta newspaper columnist and storyteller who has penned a shelf of witty books on the South and its often peculiar past. Proud as he is of his Southern heritage, Grizzard winces at being pigeonholed as a "Southern humorist."

"We're probably less provincial than we think we are," he said. "I just think what's funny in Spokane, Washington, is funny in Auburn, Alabama."

But, Grizzard admits and others agree, every region chuckles a little differently.

"In essence, I think humor is very much like what they say about philosophy," said Tim Sample, Maine's premier humorist who tells the driest tales on this side of the Atlantic. "They say there are only three original ideas in philosophy, and everything else is just a variation of those ideas. I think there's an aspect of that in humor.

"On the other hand, I think there is a regional bent. Even if it's the same joke or the same essential situation, the way it's set up and characterized can give it a different flavor."

Regional humor has kept the locals laughing for as long as there have been boundaries, borders and rivers to separate us. Rich in dialect and hand-me-down folklore, regional humor is the home folks delighting in their own peculiarities and taking swipes at strangers who might not exhibit the same appreciation. In simplest terms, regional humor is Americana, and, even in this fast-paced age of mass media and instant mobility, it still makes us laugh.

"Because I wasn't born in New England, I realize I'll never be considered a native," the transplanted Vermont resident said to an old-time New Englander. "But, since my three children were all born in Putney, Vermont, aren't they natives?"

Replied the unmoved New Englander, "Well, if your cat happened to have kittens in the oven, would you call 'em biscuits?"

--From a story in Yankee magazine, "In Search of New England's Humor."

Alan Dundes, an anthropology professor at the University of California, Berkeley who is known as "the joke professor" for his humor research, said a national humor has pervaded the domains once entertained exclusively by regional humor.

"At one time, there probably was more regional humor because you didn't have TV or national newspapers," Dundes said. "You had the humor of where you lived, and that was it.

"Even today with people moving in and out, these regions have remained. There is still a certain kind of humor that you'll find only in Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. Jokes or stories that are quite a bit different than stories in the South or in the Ozarks or along the Northwest Coast.

"There also are ethnic enclaves within these regions," Dundes said. "Mormons certainly have their own humor, as do Cajuns. In the Southwest, you find Tex-Mex humor. Now some of these jokes are transferable, just like Polish jokes or Aggie jokes in Texas. But some people have the impression that all humor is transferable, and it certainly is not."

A traveler on his way to Maine stops to ask directions of an old New Englander.

"Does it matter which road I take to Bangor?" asked the traveler.

Replied the New Englander, "Not to me, it don't."

No region mirrors the economical understatement of British humor like New England, where the best stories are bone-dry and dripping with irony.

"I think New England humor is the most rarefied of the regional humors," Sample said. "There's no closer image in the New World to the old English pubs than the Yankee country stores, where the old guys will sit back, sip a pint and spin yarns."

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