What’s So Funny?

by Mark Blackwell

It was my great privilege and honor to be in the company of a bunch of talented individuals and all-round good sports for the first live broadcast of a Brown County radio show a few weeks back. There was a passel of local music groups representing Celtic, Folk, Bluegrass, and some other genres. And we had a radio theater group consisting of both local and imported thespians, a sound effects feller, and a live audience.

We spent most of the Saturday afternoon and a fair chunk of the early evening on the script, schedule, and sound checks. Then we rehearsed until the troupe was as slick as Ogle Lake goose poop. We commenced at eight o’clock with a musical number and then launched into a skit. There was some more music and then there was a skit about some music—then another skit. Poetry recitations and quotes from Abe Martin interspersed through the whole thing added a little garnishing. That’s the way all the big shows are put together—according to the director.

All that mixing of music and skits is what you do to keep the audience from nodding off or changing the station to something more stimulating like a Presidential Primary Debate. But there is another ingredient in a successful broadcast—and that is humor. Humor is like ketchup—if you’re afraid that your meal just ain’t up to par all you have to do is pour on the ketchup. It’s the same with any kind of performance, if it seems a little bland or tasteless all you have to do is slather on some humor and folks can choke it down. (I’m often surprised that more preachers don’t know about this.)

Well, our show was liberally seasoned. And the humor was as predictable as Heinz 57 in that it employed the time-worn stereotypical Brown County rube (me) who turns out to be slyer than the city slicker. It was also not as predictable when the image of twenty naked Pentecostals was conjured up in both skit and song. And it was these elements of the script that I thought about after the show.

The rustic rube is an ancient archetype in humor. I was reminded of that when the program presented a slightly updated version of the “Arkansas Traveler.” The “Arkansas Traveler” is a fiddle and spoken work piece that concerns a city feller who is lost and asks a farmer for directions. It dates back at least to the early nineteenth century. For those of you who didn’t see or hear the show and aren’t from the early nineteenth century, it goes something like this:
City Slicker—”Hey there, old-timer, can you tell me where this road goes?”
Farmer—”Well, I been here forty years and it ain’t gone any place yet.”
Slicker—”Have you lived here all your life?”
Farmer—”Not yet.”

And it goes on from there, interspersed with some fancy fiddle music.
The skit can be as long as the actors want to keep going because there is infinite dialog. I have looked back over scripts for the skit but haven’t found the definitive earliest version yet. I suspect the earliest version may be written in ancient Greek. But Brown County can lay claim to its own rendering of the wily rustic in Kin Hubbard’s creation of Abe Martin.

Abe Martin was a comic character who inhabited a one-panel comic on the back page of the Indianapolis News starting on December 17, 1904. The comic was called “From down in the hills of Brown County” and ran six days a week for over twenty-five years. Abe’s observations and witticisms put Brown County on the map for folks in Indiana. In1911 “Abe” was syndicated in newspapers across the country. Abe Martin was funny looking and decidedly rural, but rarely a fool.

He had a way of looking at his environment and summing up a situation in a sentence or two. Some of Abe’s sayings are not very understandable removed from their context of a hundred years ago. But many of them are still pertinent today, such as: “Nobuddy kin talk as interestin’ as th’ feller that’s not hampered by facts er information.” It sounds like he was describing a whole class of modern politicians and pundits. Or, “If th’ gover’ment wuz as afraid o’ disturbin’ th’ consumer as it is o’ disturbin’ business, this would be some democracy.” It just goes to show ya things don’t change very much…even when they need to.

Abe didn’t specialize on politics either, almost nothing escaped his notice. I find Abe’s sociological observations to be thoroughly thought provoking—”Some fellers are like a hen, fer ther allus gittin’ credit fer somethin’ they couldn’t help doin’.” And, “It often happens that a feller’s usefulness ends when his salary is raised.” Occasionally, Abe would come out with somethin’ like—”To dream of rhubarb denotes that you are of a jovial nature and will stand for almost anything. To dream of eating it means that you are failing mentally.” That kinda makes me wonder if Mr. Martin didn’t partake of a little wildwood weed from time to time.

If you have been to the Brown County Library or the Nashville House you may have noticed portraits of some of our own gone but not forgotten Abe-like characters—rustics, tricksters, and rubes. We should be proud of all the folks from the old families to the newcomers who live in Brown County and make it a place to fell free enough to be yourself. And, as Abe sez, “You’re never successful till you’re happy.”