I Could Hardly Keep from Laughing

Stephen Morris, published originally in The Herald: Serving the Communities of the White River Valley Since 1874, February 24, 2022

New Book of Humor Features Artwork of Brookfield’s Hooper

The story goes … Mark Twain appeared in Brattleboro for an evening of storytelling and mirth-making. He spoke for over two hours without provoking so much as a snicker from the audience. Frustrated, he finished abruptly, then snuck around to evesdrop on the departing crowd. “Warn’t he funny?” said one old gent, “Why, he was so funny I could hardly keep from laughing.”

And that gives us the title of I Could Hardly Keep from Laughing: An Illustrated Collection of Vermont Humor a new book from veteran author Bill Mares and Brookfield’s Don Hooper, two Harvard-educated Flatlanders now passing as bedrock Vermonters. In addition to their literary collaborations they are public figures by virtue of their public service as legislators beneath Montpelier’s golden dome.

Mares does a yeoman’s job of crafting a seamless narrative that takes us from the taciturn farmer who wins the Lottery then vows to keep farming until the money is all gone to the gender-blended sketch comedy artists doing stand-up in hip venues in Chittenden County. Along the way we meet many of the state’s comic icons, including Danny Gore, The Logger (Rusty Dewees), and dairyman Fred Tuttle, who once humiliated a political opponent during a televised debate by asking him how many teats there are on a milk cow.

The evolution in humor reflects broader changes happening in the state. In the 1970s the deadpan observation of the dirt road savant collides with the humorously incompetent Flatlander as the back-to-the land hippies migrate northward. By the 1980s the newcomers are taking over both in the redefinition of humor and the chambers of government. Mares scores big when he teams up with UVM political science professor, and native Vermonter, Frank Bryan with Real Vermonters Don’t Milk Goats, a parody of a parody (Real Men Don’t Eat Quiche) contrasting the cultures of entrenched natives and the Saab-driving newcomers.

At the time of its publication in 1983, ironically, Don Hooper was milking goats with his wife Alison on their hillside farm in the outer reaches of Brookfield. Alison goes on to co-found the Vermont Creamery … but that’s another story. Coincidentally, both Mares and Don Hooper turn their eyes towards Montpelier and are elected to the state legislature. You might expect that to be the end of the funny business, but it’s just beginning. The pair collaborate to create Out of Order! The Very Unofficial State House Archives finding no shortage of chortles within the hallowed chambers.

Comedy is once again reflecting culture, as Bernie Sanders, Howard Dean, and Madeleine Kunin, Flatlanders all, become prominent. Even Republicans Richard Snelling and Jim Douglas come from the lands of flat, but all are united in valuing the Vermont identities above their place of origin. They are first and foremost colleagues, and unlike politicians elsewhere, they don’t mind sharing the occasional chuckle.

State senator Mark MacDonald (D-Orange) is Connecticut-born, but is now working as a dairy farmer when he is not politickin’. He punches his ticket to a collection of humor when he advises: “Never murder an adversary who is busy trying to hang himself.” Once, on the senate floor, MacDonald tells a colleague ” When you find yourself deep in a hole … the first thing to do is STOP DIGGING.” This is classic Vermont understatement, and Mares and Hooper are quick to recognize it.

Mares and Hooper have an interesting chemistry. The former is a native Texan who found his way to Vermont via the Marines whereas Hooper is a New Englander whose route to Vermont includes a stint as a Peace Corps in Botswana, Africa. Mares is a city boy, but one who keeps bees and brews beer. Hooper still lives in the boondocks, but characterizes himself as an ardent environmentalist and tree-hugger who spent much of his professional life working with the Vermont Natural Resources Council and the National Wildlife Federation.

While the narrative thread of this book as woven by Mares shows the range and diversity of Vermont humor, Hooper’s illustrations provide the visual coherence. Seen in isolation, his images are slightly bizarre. Faces are drawn on trees, eyeballs rarely point in the same direction, hair sprouts from nostrils, and everything appears slightly askew. Collectively, however, the art takes on the aura of a plaid-clad Picasso. “His artwork is really sweet,” says fellow Brookfieldian Edward Koren, an artist of some local repute, “and there’s always a Vermont flavor to it.” Maple syrup comes to mind, maybe as an ingredient in a designer cocktail.

Says Mares of Hooper, “Ever since he was in kindergarten, others have encouraged Don never to grow up, never to draw like others. His style is like something you would find in the caves of Lascaux or Carlsbad. He refines his style by sending out scores of cards to lots of friends and then gobbles up both praise and advice. It’s always a delight to work with him.”

Don Hooper

Other Vermonters describing this collection include Anne Galloway, founder of Vermont Digger, who says “Mares has combed the archives, Hooper has scribbled up some characters. Slathered in irreverence, and aided by a score of other wit-sters, their book gives you the real deal of Vermont’s rich history of humor.” US Representative Peter Welch says the book is a “quirky treasury of Vermont humor,” while noting that Hooper’s cartoons “will bring chuckles to all but the grouchiest.” Writer and commentator Bill Schubart adds “”Having lived here for 75 years, I’m a great fan of Vermont story and humor. I could Hardly Keep from Laughing as I read through this book of Vermont story and humor. Don’s terrific characters were the icing on this evocative mix of image and story. A Vermont classic.” 

This book had to be the perfect pandemic project for its creators. The fine lines that separate humor and cruelty and wry observation from sarcasm are never crossed, and the reader emerges with the strongest sense that these are two men who, above all else, deeply love their adopted state.

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