"Hey, is it boiling in here or is it just me?"
However you classify Maine humor, it's become a trademark for the rugged state.
The only reason a lot of people drive through Palmyra, Maine, is to get to someplace else. Palmyra has a few houses and farms, and a store with an astounding collection of indoor and outdoor American kitsch.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Yet this tiny central Maine town has gained a measure of fame at the hands of humorist Tim Sample. Mr. Sample likes to talk about Palmyra - and about locals like Wilbur Pinkam, who are not too sympathetic with impatient out-of-state people who are lost.
"Wilbur was sittin' in front of Joe's General Store in Palmyra, and he seen this car go by - it was a silver Volvo with Connecticut plates," Sample says. "He [the driver] came charging by, hits the lights up to Newport, cuts around, and takes the back way down to Pittsfield. About the 12th time he passed the store he was getting rather peeved. He'd resorted to the posture of driving that these folks from away will, where they have the road map unfolded onto the steering wheel in front of them.
"He pulled up in front of the store and he yells to Wilbur: 'How in the devil do you get to Bangor?' Wilbur says, 'Most generally, my brother-in-law takes me.' "
For many years, Sample's business has been creating stories about the likes of Wilbur, small-town Maine, and tourists; about crusty fishermen, and Black Fly Festivals.
Sample today is arguably Maine's premier humorist, speaking at scores of events each year. Almost once a month he appears on CBS's "Sunday Morning." He's also recorded a small library of CDs, tapes, and videos, and has written two books he's illustrated himself.
So what is Maine humor?
In the book "Charles Kuralt's America," the acclaimed CBS newsman remarks that "The whole drift of Maine humor ... is toward succinct replies to dense questions from outsiders."
Indeed, much of the humor shared by Sample and other Maine humorists does involve encounters between tourists and real Down East Mainers. But that's not the entire story.
Maine humor "goes back to the earliest days of people living in Maine," says the legendary John Gould, who lives in Friendship, Maine. "You had to laugh at something."
Mr. Gould, who has been writing Maine humor for 55 years, including a weekly essay for the Monitor, refrains from defining or describing it.
"It's too subtle," he says. Instead, he recommends the writings of his literary ancestors, people like Artemus Ward and Edgar Wilson "Bill" Nye, as places to find the essence of Maine humor.
"I draw from the oral tradition," says Sample, who adapts old tales to contemporary situations. He adds that "humor in Maine is a necessary, vital survival tool" in a state where winters are long and where spring is referred to as "mud season."
But Robert Skoglund, a Maine humorist who has adopted stories from Sweden and other places, argues that "humor is humor." Mr. Skoglund, who at one point was working on a doctorate in linguistics, and who for many years has broadcast his humor on Maine Public Radio, says, "I write down what I hear, what makes me laugh."
His own humor is rich in stories based on the experiences of friends and neighbors.