We love our Bawlamer accents. Especially when other people try to imitate it.
Boston and Brooklyn may boast more distinctive dialects (to say nothing of New Orleans), and Pittsburgh may have “won” a 2014 contest on gawker.com to determine America’s Ugliest Accent. But Bawlamerese, as distinguished by its dropped T’s, flattened and elongated O’s and omnipresence of the word “hon,” takes a backseat to no one.
When it comes to TV and the movies, the best examples of the Baltimore accent, not surprisingly, can be found in the work of Barry Levinson (“Diner”), John Waters “Polyester”) and David Simon (“The Wire”); trust native sons to get the local patois right, especially when they hire local actors to do the talking. But popular culture’s attempts to capture Baltimoreans’ distinctive way of saying things doesn’t stop there.
Here are some times when Bawlamerese, as spoken (or imagined) by non-Baltimoreans, has shown up on America’s pop-culture radar.
John Travolta as Edna Turnblad in ‘Hairspray’
The original 1988 “Hairspray,” written and directed by native son John Waters, was replete with Baltimore accents — that’s what happens when you film here and have a cast chock full of Baltimoreans. That wasn’t the case when the Tony-winning musical version was brought to the big screen in 2007, filled with Hollywood stars. But as matriarch Edna Turnblad, John Travolta did his best to honor the character’s Baltimore roots, giving her a Bawlamer accent that — much like the accent itself — drives some people insane, while others can’t get enough. While promoting the film, he even tried explaining to Oprah Winfrey where the accent came from (Oprah knows how we speak around here; she lived and worked in B-more in the late 1970s and early 1980s). We think Travolta sounds just fine. (Listen here and here)
Kathy Bates as Ethel Darling in ‘American Horror Story’
Kathy Bates isn’t from Baltimore, but you wouldn’t know that to listen to her play Ethel Darling, the Bearded Lady at the center of Season 4 of “American Horror Story.” The character’s Charm City bona fides are clear — at one point, she explains, “I was the biggest thing to come out of Baltimore since Wallis Simpson.” And her accent, which Bates has said she worked extraordinarily hard to perfect, is spot-on. She even went on Conan O’Brien’s show later and sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” in her Baltimore accent (as O’Brien gamely tried to keep up). (Listen here and here)
Elizabeth Banks as Avery Jessup in ’30 Rock'
As CNBC financial reporter and wife to Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) Avery Jessup, Elizabeth Banks got to show off a Baltimore accent while remembering one of her character’s earlier (and less noble) gigs, doing a commercial for overshoppe.com — done, Jessup explains, “before I got rid of my Maryland accent.” Too bad she didn’t keep it! (Listen here)
Tracey Ullman as Jo-Jo in ‘The Tracey Ullman Show’
In a 1989 skit called “The Baltimore Stoops,” Ullman was joined by Baltimore native Michael Tucker for a conversation that name-dropped Johnny Unitas, crab cakes and Sparrows Point — all delivered with impeccable Baltimore accents. Tucker said he helped Ullman with the accent by telling her to “take a Liverpool accent and Americanize it." The skit even opens with Ullman’s character scrubbing her marble front steps, and you don’t get any more Baltimore than that. Ullman was able to talk Bawlamerese again when she starred in John Waters’ 2004 movie “A Dirty Shame.” (Listen here)
Scott Van Pelt on ESPN
A native Marylander, though not from Baltimore (he grew up outside of Washington, D.C., and graduated from the University of Maryland), sportscaster Van Pelt delighted audiences — and mercilessly cracked-up baseball analyst and fellow Marylander Tim Kurkjian — with his mastery of the Bawlamer dialect, especially its distinctive "O" sound. Whenever he talked about the Ravens’ former quarterback Joe Flacco, it was a treat. (Listen here)
A trio of Maryland and Minnesota gals in ‘Family Guy’
Nobody tries to do a Baltimore accent, but the geniuses behind “Family Guy” manage to get a dig in at both Maryland and the Midwest, suggesting it’s nothing short of a miracle that people from those two regions can understand each other at all. A point well-taken. (Listen here)
Nobody in ‘The Shape of Water’
Writer-director Guillermo del Toro set his 2017 Oscar-winner “The Shape of Water” in Baltimore (at a secret government facility) as a tribute to the movies of Barry Levinson, but Bawlamer accents were noticeably absent. “I know we screwed up with the accents,” del Toro admitted. “I’m very very very aware with that.” (Listen here)