By Jimmy Tomlin

from Our State magazine, September 2004

 

If laughter is, indeed, the best medicine, then North Carolina has some of the finest physicians around. Whether you make an appointment with professional humorist Jeanne Swanner Robertson, or syndicated humor columnist and author Celia Rivenbark, or storyteller Kelly Swanson, you’re bound to come away feeling better.

     So just sit back and have a dose of these three Tar Heel funny girls, and we promise they’ll be good for what ails you.

 

Jeanne Swanner Robertson

Professional humorist — and former Miss North Carolina — Jeanne Swanner Robertson laughingly tells the story of a group that invited her back to speak some 20
years after her initial appearance.

     To her surprise, a poster outside the banquet room featured a 20-year-old photo
of herself, rather than the current publicity shot she had mailed ahead, and she
couldn’t help staring at the dated photo. Presently, a man walked up and began
staring, too. “Is that you?” he asked.

     “Well, I guess so,” Robertson mumbled, still stunned.

     They continued staring in awkward silence, until the man finally turned to
Robertson and said, “What happened?”

     What happened is that Robertson has aged — a phenomenon not even beauty
queens can avoid. Gray hairs and subtle wrinkles have arrived, and she has added a
few pounds onto her 6-foot-2 frame; she can still fit into her pageant gown, “but I
can’t breathe,” she says.

     The years have not been unkind to Robertson, though. Even at 60, the Graham native (she now lives in
Burlington) remains slender and still possesses the same striking face and friendly smile that caught judges’ eyes when she won the Miss North Carolina Pageant in 1963 — as well as the same charm and engaging personality
that earned her the Miss Congeniality title in the Miss America Pageant.

     Best of all, she still has that wonderful, endearing sense of humor that she first showcased during her reign
as Miss North Carolina, when she began turning boring ribbon-cuttings into lively comedy bits. Forty-one years
and who-knows-how-many professional speeches later, the tall lady with the tall tales still knows how to bring
down the house.

     “I am 60 years old,” she says when introducing herself to audiences, usually triggering little or no reaction.
“You are supposed to gasp in disbelief at that and say, ‘No way!’ Now, let’s try that again.’”

     And, of course, her audiences play along the second time and feign total shock that the woman on stage is
a sexagenarian. Robertson then dives into a side-splitting presentation about the perils, pitfalls, and palpitations
of growing old.

     In a sense, Robertson has reinvented herself. She still tells funny, sometimes slightly embellished stories
based on experiences in her own life — such tales have always been her signature — but her subject matter has evolved from beauty pageants to old age. Whatever her topic, however, Robertson makes it work. In four decades
of professional speaking, she has won numerous state and national honors, and she remains one of the
country’s most popular, in-demand humorists.

     A year ago this month, Robertson’s career came full circle, when she returned to the Miss North Carolina
Pageant to crown the 2003 queen. After a topless-photo scandal forced the 2002 title-holder to relinquish her
crown, pageant officials invited Robertson — who is probably the state’s best-known Miss North Carolina — to
do the honors. Having been distressed by the scandal and the black eye it gave the pageant — and eager to
do something about it — Robertson jumped at the opportunity.

     As a humorist, she wasn’t about to do so without poking at least a little bit of fun at the notion of a 60-year-old woman crowning a beauty queen. “I can’t help but see all of the humor in this,” she told a newspaper reporter at
the time. “I’ve been dieting, and I’ve put Vaseline on my teeth. If I could only remember where I put them.”

     She even incorporated the experience into her speaking presentations, concocting a conversation in which
her best friend warns her not to embarrass herself by taking the stage. “Tell me,” Robertson says, affecting her friend’s deep Southern drawl, “that you’re not gonna go out on stage in front of the state of North Carolina and
raise those arms with those two hammocks hanging down. She’ll be the first Miss North Carolina that’s ever
been slapped in the face with arm flab.”

     Therein is a key to Robertson’s success — the art of self-deprecation. “I poke fun at myself first,” she
explains. “You can’t ever poke fun at somebody else unless you’ve poked fun at yourself.”

     Hers is a gentle humor, not unlike that found on her favorite television program, “The Andy Griffith Show.”
She even wrote a book that pays homage to Andy, Barney, and the gang, titled Mayberry Humor Across the
USA.  Humor, Robertson says, is essential to navigating life, and those who have forgotten that would do well
to heed her advice.

     “The country needs to lighten up a little,” she says. “Get over it, and stop taking everything so seriously.

You  just have to learn to laugh at yourself. We need to get our sense of humor back.”

 

Kelly Swanson

Ironically, professional storyteller Kelly Swanson has never lived in a small town. She does, however,

have a small town living in her — even if it is a fictitious small town.

Swanson, who lives in High Point, is the creator of Cedar Grove, a tiny Southern community, and the cast of colorful characters who reside there.

There’s Aunt Vyrnetta, a self-absorbed woman taken to beehive wigs, heavy makeup, and any and all types of plastic surgery. “Daddy said it was a wonder God even recognized that woman anymore at all,” Swanson tells audiences in a lilting, slightly-over-the-top Southern drawl.

There’s Aunt Bitsy, who paraded through the town in a bikini and pumps. “She heard this highfalutin head doctor give a talk on conquering your fears, and one of Aunt Bitsy’s fears was wearing a bikini,” Swanson says. “So she decided the way to conquer her fear would be to walk directly down Main Street wearing nothing but a bright yellow string bikini and white pumps.”

There’s juvenile delinquent John Henry Junior, whose mischievous exploits include — among many others — putting soap bubbles in the fountain in front of Town Hall and putting Super Glue on Old Widow Jenkins’ bicycle seat.

There’s Tater, so named by his inebriated daddy who took one look at his newborn son’s bald head, belched loudly, and proclaimed, “Honey, looks like you done give birth to a tater.”

Don’t confuse Swanson’s Cedar Grove — which she says is “a mile and a hair past nowhere” — with North Carolina’s Cedar Grove, a real community in Orange County that Swanson says she’d never even heard of when she created her fictitious town. “There is no real Cedar Grove as I write about it,” Swanson insists. “It is completely made up.”

And those colorful, comical characters? “They’re not based on

my family, which is what people think,” she says. “It’s not my own grandmother with the name changed or anything like that. But everything that shows up in characters comes from people that I’ve known.”

If you’ve never heard of Swanson, chalk that up to the relative obscurity in which storytellers typically toil. They don’t exactly command talk-show appearances and soft-drink endorsements.

But in the closely knit storytelling community, the 35-year-old Swanson is garnering the respect and admiration of her peers. Terry Rollins, former president of the North Carolina Storytelling Guild, of which Swanson is a member, describes her as being “reminiscent of a female Mark Twain.”

She’s also turning heads outside of North Carolina. Next month, for example, she has been invited to  perform at the prestigious National Storytelling Festival in Jonesborough, Tennessee. She won’t be a featured teller, which she characterizes as “the best of the best,” but she’ll be in the next highest tier of performers.

“It’s a big honor,” Swanson says. “People try their whole storytelling lives to get to Jonesborough.”

Not too shabby for someone who more or less stumbled into storytelling by accident. After receiving a degree in English from Appalachian State University, Swanson — who had always enjoyed creative writing — began to play around with different styles of writing. About the time she began to discover her niche — “this small-town Southern world and the humor of small-town life,” she calls it — she found herself in a creative-writing class where students were required to read their stories aloud. “In the course of doing that,” Swanson recalls, “some of the people in the class felt like there was something to be said more for the way I performed my story than for the writing. They were more engaged by how I brought the story to life than for the story itself.”

And thus were the humble beginnings of what looks to be a promising career in storytelling. Swanson already has released a book, Aunt Vyrnetta and Other Stories From Cedar Grove, and a CD of the same title. And her performance schedule has her extremely busy, highlighted by the upcoming performance at the National Storytelling Festival.

“That festival will put me in front of the whole audience — they get 12,000 or 13,000 people every year — who are there to view the big names in storytelling and to hire those big names,” Swanson says. “So it’s a huge step for me. You don’t get any higher than that in the United States in prestige for storytelling.”

 

Celia Rivenbark

After more than two decades in the newspaper business, Celia Rivenbark was certainly familiar with one of readers’ favorite insults — that of referring to the newspaper as fish wrap, as in The Daily Fish Wrap.

Still, that didn’t quite prepare the popular syndicated humor columnist, who lives in Wilmington, for the slap in the face she experienced one day a few months ago at a local fish market. Rivenbark’s shad, which she intended to fry for supper that night, was wrapped, as always, in newspaper. Only this time, when she glanced down at the newspaper, she saw not an obituary, not a boring editorial nor a sports feature, but — law, have mercy — she saw a picture of Celia Rivenbark!

Bless her heart, the poor woman’s precious column, “From the Belle Tower” — over which she had no doubt sweated for untold hours — had been unceremoniously wrapped around a dead, smelly fish.

So much for refrigerator columns — you know, the pieces so funny they inspire readers to clip them out and put them on the fridge with a magnet advertising, say, Joe’s Fish Market.

“It was,” Rivenbark recalls dryly, “a rather humbling experience.”

Fortunately, after 20-plus years as a journalist, the 47-year-old writer has developed a skin thicker than, well, thicker than a full-grown shad, and she was able to recover nicely from her fish-inspired trauma.

Rivenbark, one of North Carolina’s — no, one of the South’s — funniest writers, hasn’t suffered very much column-related humiliation lately. “From the Belle Tower,” Rivenbark’s sassy, sarcastic, sometimes even salty take on life from a Southern woman’s perspective, strikes a chord with readers, whether she’s tackling professional wrestling, true grits, bridal mothers from you-know-where, or Barbie and Ken. The column runs weekly in the Sun News of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and is also syndicated.

She’s also released two books — Bless Your Heart, Tramp and We’re Just Like You, Only Prettier: Confessions of a Tarnished Southern Belle — and a third book is under contract. Bless Your Heart, Tramp (Coastal Carolina Press) was a Southeast Book Sellers Association best seller and was nominated for the James Thurber Prize in 2001. With a national distributor, We’re Just Like You (St. Martin’s Press) has allowed Rivenbark to attract a national following.

The third book, to be released in 2006, has no working title yet. “(The late) Lewis Grizzard had all these wonderful book titles, so I’m trying to channel him and see what we can come up with,” she deadpans.

For Southern readers, the Grizzard reference may come closest to pigeonholing Rivenbark’s distinctive Southern style. “He was not double-over-in-laughter funny,” she says, “but I loved that he embraced his Southernness so wonderfully.”

Rivenbark doesn’t try to emulate Grizzard, however. She doesn’t have

to — she’s been honing her sense of humor since her school days, when she was a class clown and a first-class smart-aleck. “I got six straight Fs on conduct,” she says. “I was always into something, always looking for the humor in something. Of course, the teachers didn’t always think it was funny.”

That’s OK — it’s clear who’s laughing now. Rivenbark is getting paid handsomely to write about, say, her latest swimsuit shopping excursion:

“Once you’ve selected a few swimsuit possibilities, you can go to the dressing room where you will, no doubt, find that the only available cubicle is right beside two giggling 15-year-old Brit-nees who weigh approximately 97 pounds apiece. Sooner or later, they will take off their little Barbie clothes and squeal things like, ‘Ohmigod! Can you believe these thunder thighs?’ to each other. I’d like to kill ’em in their sleep.”

That’s vintage Celia Rivenbark — funny and irreverent. She may, in fact, be the funniest, most irreverent children’s Sunday School teacher you’ll ever find. She’s also a wife and mother, and her husband, Scott Whisnant, and 7-year-old daughter, Sophie, frequently turn up in her columns. “People have accused me — and it’s not entirely untrue — of having a child at 40 just to get new material,” she jokes. “The well was running a little dry at 39.”

Rivenbark knows, though, that her days of writing about Sophie are numbered. “She’s gonna hate my guts when she’s about 12,” she says.

And who knows? Maybe Sophie will someday exact her revenge.

By taking a job at the fish market.

 

Award-winning writer Jimmy Tomlin lives in High Point.

(This story is reprinted with permission by the author and Our State magazine.)

 

Note: Jeanne Swanner Robertson and Kelly Swanson will be performing at The Best of Our State at the Grove Park Inn, January 7-9, 2005. To know more, call the Grove Park Inn at (800) 438-5800.