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Beyond Bert & I

By Scott Sell

Author photo by Kevin Bennett

John McDonald Continues to Hone Maine Storytelling Tradition

There’s a story John McDonald likes to tell about Mark Twain coming to Maine to do an evening of humor. Although he’s been told that Maine audiences are the toughest in the world, Twain is unswayed and, confident in his storytelling abilities, he books a grange hall near Bangor. Soon news spreads like wildfire and on the night of the performance, the place is packed. Twain starts off with what he thinks is his funniest story, but when he reaches the punchline, there’s utter silence. Not even a chortle from the crowd. He presses on, telling one great story after another, but still, nothing. After he exhausts all of his good material, he walks off stage to barely any applause. Distraught, he decides to exit out the back, run to the front of the hall, and eavesdrop as people are leaving, if only to better understand where he went wrong.

The first people to come out are a farmer and his wife. The farmer lights his pipe, thinks for a minute while puffing, and says to his wife, “That fella was some funny, wasn’t he, mother?” She says, “I think he might have been the funniest person I’ve heard in my life.” And the farmer says, “I’ll tell ya, he was so funny, it was all I could do to keep from laughing.”

Author John McDonald.

That’s the essence of the type of Maine humor John McDonald specializes in—understated, dry, and clever as hell. In his hands, a story is developed and made better with time and detail.

And they’re not jokes.

“I don’t like to call them jokes,” said McDonald. “The way to drive a spike through the joke’s heart is to say, ‘This is the funniest joke you’ve ever heard.’ I prefer to call them stories.”

Marshall Dodge Lends a Helping Hand

McDonald got his start as a professional storyteller playing local Down East Maine events in the 1970s before catching his first big break when he was asked to perform on stage with the legendary Marshall Dodge of “Bert and I” fame and folksinger and humorist Kendall Morse at Ellsworth’s Grand Theater in 1980.

“I thought it was going to be the sort of thing where each storyteller was going to have their own set and I was going to open for these two titans of Maine humor,” McDonald says. “But Marshall said, ‘Nope, we’re going to have one microphone and three chairs.’ And we passed the microphone back and forth telling stories and I started to run out of material! I learned a lot from Kendall and Marshall that night, but mostly that you can never have too many stories in your back pocket.”

McDonald started writing at Providence College, not far from where he was born in Rhode Island. An English major, he had a professor who told him that one thousand words a week was a book a year and he began keeping notebooks and writing essays. His love of journalism and the Pine Tree State brought him to Cherryfield in 1971 where he began working as a general assignment reporter for Maine newspapers, including nine years at the Portland Press Herald throughout much of the 1980s.

“I wasn’t much of a reporter,” McDonald admits. “I wanted to write what I wanted to write and I started to feel penned in by the formula of newspaper articles.”

He felt the pull to tell quintessentially Maine stories, funny stories—not merely report the news of the day.

He felt the pull to tell quintessentially Maine stories, funny stories—not merely report the news of the day. Spending summers in Tenants Harbor when he was growing up, he learned classic yarns from the fishermen and studied their mannerisms, and the cadence of their speech.

Learning From the Old-Timers

“I would listen to the old-timers on the wharves and they were so funny in their observations, the way they’d describe something,” he said. “The first thing I wanted to do when I moved to Maine full time was to learn and perfect the accent. People assume I’m a native and I don’t discourage them from thinking as much. It’s easier that way.”

That contrast between natives and people “from away” is a regular theme in McDonald’s storytelling, a dynamic that isn’t unique to Maine but is certainly a long-standing part of how we interact, especially as tourism in the state has continued to boom.

“You have farmers and fishermen who are funny on their own,” McDonald said. “Then you have these people from the big cities who operate at a different speed and don’t get our sense of timing. I have fun with that idea of a clash.”

McDonald began writing a weekly humor column for the Lewiston Sun-Journal in 1995 in which he ruminated on such regionally important topics as yard sales and black flies. It has since been syndicated and featured in more than fifteen weekly papers. In 2002, the columns were collected and made into a wildly popular book called A Moose and a Lobster Walk into a Bar, which topped bestseller lists at bookstores throughout Maine. Since then, he’s written other Maine humor books, including Down the Road A Piece and Maine Trivia, released a CD of stories, Ain’t He Some Funny! been a longtime radio talk show host on WGAN, and appeared at countless storytelling events around New England. This year, for its fifteenth anniversary, a new edition of his classic A Moose and a Lobster Walk into a Bar will be published by Islandport Press with new foreword from McDonald. A Moose and a Lobster Walk into a Bar is one of the most popular books of Maine humor ever published.

“I always try hard come up with new material or to tweak old favorites and, above all, make it all funny. I like to think of my books being on people’s shelves at their vacation houses and fishing camps. Many people have told me that my books live in their bathrooms, which is a great honor. Some of my best reading is done in the bathroom.”

Scott Sell is a writer and filmmaker living in Rockland. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Island Journal.