A beloved humorist who helped put Maine on the storytelling map has passed away. Bob Bryan of the quirky “Bert and I” duo died on Wednesday at age 87.
Bryan and his friend, the late Marshall Dodge, first recorded “Bert and I” stories on a lark, as Christmas gifts for friends and family. Their dry wit, inspired in part by Bryan’s childhood summers in Ellsworth, was a hit.
Demand for their Down East humor grew outside of their circle of friends and the pair released their first commercial album in 1958.
“‘I was standing outside Sutherland’s IGA store one morning when I heard a flivver approachin’ down the street toward me.’ ‘Which way to Millinocket?’” goes one of their well-known routines.
A flivver, by the way, is a car in need of repair. It was the duo’s use of words like these and their popularization of Mainers’ expressions that helped them become a cultural sensation.
“Come to think of it, you can’t get there from here,” goes the punchline.
“The stories that Bobby and Marshall, and in many ways I think the ‘Bert and I’ legacy, is almost — they were almost like anthropologists,” says Maine humorist Tim Sample, who recorded “Bert and I…Rebooted” a decade ago with Bryan to mark the 50th anniversary of the original album.
Dodge had died in 1982 after being struck by a drunk driver. Sample says Bryan and Dodge’s humor, which generated several albums that still sell today, is timeless because it’s not about current events. It’s about the human condition.
“The old stories. The ones from the first couple of ‘Bert and I’ records involve, oh — tragic circumstances,” Sample says.
“We were clamming along the beach one Sunday when we come upon a body in the kelp. We thought it might have been old John who tended the lighthouse on the point. We went directly out and knocked on John’s door. ‘You there, John?’ ‘Damn right I’m here. What can I do for ya?’ ‘We found a body down in the kelp, thought it mighta been you.’ ‘Wearing a red shirt?’ ‘Yessah, red shirt,’” goes one skit.
“There’s this thread that runs through Maine storytelling which I call ‘celebrating adversity.’ Where it’s all about frost season, and potholes, and long winters, and difficulty and problems the humor is found in the difficulty,” Sample says.
“‘They was low boots.’ ‘You sure?’ ‘Well, come think of it, they were high boots turned down low.’ ‘Oh, well then, t’weren’t me,’” the skit ends.
Beyond his legacy as a storyteller, Sample says Bryan also leaves a legacy of public service. He was an Anglican minister for remote communities in Quebec and used some of his earnings from “Bert and I” to create the Quebec-Labrador Foundation, which supports rural communities and the environment.
“Really caring for the culture, the community, the environment, wherever he was. And that was a really big part of Bobby Bryan’s life,” he says.
Bryan once told an interviewer that one of his favorite “Bert and I” stories was the one about two Mainers attending the Skowhegan Fair. They win a ride in a hot air balloon that later blows off course.
“When the wind veered north, and took us back over land. So we let some of the gas out, and come down to see where we were. Saw a farmer plowing in the field. I leaned over and cried out, ‘Where are we?’ ‘You’re on a balloon, you damn fool,’” the story goes.
Bryan died in Quebec on Wednesday. He was 87.
Originally published Dec. 13, 2018 at 11:59 a.m. ET.